CAPSULE: Joe Johnston directs an expansion and sophistication of the 1941 THE WOLF MAN. In story and in style this is a cold, dark film. The script has some very nice touches but goes over the top in the final act. In many ways it is much more a work of art than the original film, but the original will be remembered when this film is forgotten. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro) left palatial Talbot Manor when his mother died and he was only six. He went to the United States and eventually became a famous actor. Playing in London in 1891, he gets a letter from his brother's fianc Gwen (Emily Blunt) that his brother has disappeared. He returns to the brooding now-cobweb-laden manor house of his early youth, ruled over by his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins). It is not clear if the manor or Sir John is deteriorating faster. He finds his brother is dead, apparently by either a very powerful animal or--don't laugh, the locals certainly don't--a werewolf. He soon discovers that there is something very powerful, very fast, and very mean in the forest; it is indeed a werewolf, and it bites Lawrence. Anyone who knows the original film knows somewhat where this story is going. The screenplay is by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self re-telling a story suggested by the 1941 script by prolific Curt Siodmak. [I am not kidding about prolific. Horror fans should look at Siodmak's filmography.]
But knowing the original film does not prepare the viewer for the dark, morbid atmosphere of director Joe Johnston's sumptuous production. Nothing in the film is ever in brighter than half- light. Where the low B-film budget of the first film did not allow for very much visual style, Johnston goes overboard on the production design. Scenes showing a normal-speed foreground against a time-lapse sky border on the pretentious. The same moon is gibbous and full in the same night. Gore and organs aplenty fall from people slashed open by werewolves and only the dark photography restrains their impact. Johnson was well aware that the usual man in hairy makeup would not cut it. Rick Baker does the werewolf effects including transformation so it is not surprising that transformation scenes would stress stretchiness of limbs, much like Baker's effects in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. This is a werewolf who can run on two legs but for speed drops on all fours, an interesting concept. And these werewolves are fast and powerful, thus providing a credible threat. Even if they were not supernatural they would be hard to kill.
The original THE WOLF MAN had a weak third act. This version of the story bends over in the other direction having a really melodramatic ending featuring two super-werewolves fighting in a burning house. That is just the sort of film this is. It is peculiar coming from Johnston who directed excellent films like THE ROCKETEER and OCTOBER SKY. He may be excessive here, but he is a good enough director to keep his tongue out of his cheek. This is material that would be easily destroyed by turning it into a joke.
Speaking of the supernatural and werewolf lore, there runs through the film a believable confusion as to how to kill a werewolf. Some try silver bullets, and they by themselves are not enough. For one werewolf the film borrows folklore from HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The other werewolf in killed in a way not generally endorsed in werewolf films, and that seems to be cheating just a bit.
Casting for this film sounded odd from the beginning. Having Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot is a little strange for people used to seeing Lon Chaney, Jr., in the role. But then to cast Anthony Hopkins as his father is bizarre. They neither look nor sound alike. Geraldine Chaplin as Maleva the Gypsy woman is a peculiar choice. Hugo Weaving as a police inspector is a familiar face from the "Matrix" movies and the rest of him is familiar from the title role of V FOR VENDETTA.
Universal Studios never showed the proper respect for their tradition of monster films. To give so many tie-in films to Stephen Sommers demonstrates that. Sommers has never shown any real appreciation for the original material. Joe Johnston was a better choice for THE WOLFMAN. He is much closer to the mark. I rate THE WOLFMAN a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0780653/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1194949-wolfman/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper