Universal has taken the risky gamble of remaking all of the monster films from its archives. Judging by the first, The Wolfman, they stand to lose a lot of money.
Benicio Del Toro stars as Larry Talbot, an English actor in 1890 who has gone to seek his fortune in America. When Larry’s brother is brutally murdered, Larry reluctantly returns home to be with his estranged family, including his mysterious father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother’s fiance Gwen (Emily Blunt). During his investigation into his brother’s death, he is attacked and bitten by a horrific creature in a gypsy camp, which gives him unnatural powers when the moon rises …
It seems unpleasant and wrong to discuss the turmoil in the making of a film when reviewing it, but it is unavoidable in this case. The Wolfman is a narrative mess, and many of the hackings and arguments behind the scenes show up unpleasantly onscreen. Particularly bad is the entire first act, which flops around in a vain attempt to establish a character and a romance for Larry. Rather than take a careful pace to build up to Larry’s infection and transformation, the film rushes headlong to that point without anything really making an impression. The direction by Joe Johnston is typically workmanlike, but flails in the face of massive script and performance problems.
Some of that might be the fault of Del Toro, who manages the hung-dog look of Lon Chaney Jr. without any of his pathos. I am hard-pressed to come up with a less interesting leading man in a major tentpole film. Couldn’t screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self give Larry any kind of character? Even an inappropriate character element would have been better than what ended up onscreen. What remains is a hero that we do not know, and with whom we cannot sympathize or encourage. That’s a bad, bad trait for a film like this.
Even worse is setting up for a romance that has no chemistry. In reality, the romance needs to be very strong, because that imbues the tragic aspects of the story with more pathos and conflict. Unfortunately, Blunt has zero chemistry with Del Toro. The script betrays the romance as well, forcing the two characters together unbelievably (would they really fall in love that fast??) rather than let it breather organically. The real tragedy is how so many professional moviemakers on this set managed to miss this important aspect.
I am also somewhat divided about the performance of Anthony Hopkins and Larry’s peculiar father. He overacts dreadfully, no doubt. This could have worked wonderfully, except that the rest of the film is pitched so much lower. Hopkins feels like he is in another film altogether. Aren’t actors supposed to tune their performances to those around them in order to make a script work? Hopkins’ Talbot Sr. feels like a reprisal of his Van Helsing character from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is out of place here. As always, Hopkins is mesmerizing, but he definitely unravels the tapestry of the film.
One of the huge problems with films like The Wolfman or Frankenstein is this: with whom do you sympathize?? Can you really root for Larry Talbot, who turns into a murderous werewolf and slaughters people? Do you root for Detective Abberline (Hugo Weaving) who is trying to find and kill Larry’s wolf?? The viewer is left conflicted about the point of the film, or what outcome would be dramatically pleasing. In Frankenstein, Karloff created a monster that we could love and understand, and thereby crafted an anti-hero for whom we could sympathize and encourage. We cannot do the same thing here.
With all of the dramatic fumblings, the only aspect left to enjoy on any level are the effects, and even those fly all over the quality map. Some of the CGI transformations work fairly well, while other CGI effects of the wolfman leaping and jumping look like more of the same rubber puppet nonsense that I hoped Avatar would make obsolete. Rick Baker’s makeup effects look good, and the gore is copious. But effects cannot make a movie like this.
Ultimately, I am very disappointed. For many years I wanted to see another gothic horror film set in the 19th century. I wanted to see a film draped in webbed stone hallways, and lit with the flickering fingers of candlelight. But while this film manages to do a decent imitation of these things, it often ends up feeling more like an amusement park ride at Disney. The story and setting of The Wolfman might harken back to another era, but its execution is, sadly, very much of the sloppy and phony present.
A missed opportunity.