THE WOLFMAN hearkens back with great hope and poor follow-through to Universal’s classic horror films. There is much that is improved in this retelling of the original 1941 flick, and much that suffers a surfeit of technology. The story follows the original’s arc, with Lawrence Talbot suffering the bite of a werewolf, a band of gypsies located conveniently nearby to offer their lore on the subject, and to take the blame when the simple village folk need to blame someone for the beast that is ravaging the locals. The time has been changed to 1890, and an Oedipal conflict of epic proportions added that is a dandy re-mythologizing of the phenomenon. The pitchforks are gone, but a hunt by torchlight is still in the offing because it’s good to respect tradition.
Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro spared having to affect an English accent) has returned from America to his decaying ancestral home, Talbot Hall, when his brother, Ben, goes missing. It’s a difficult homecoming, what with Ben’s fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt), being distressed, and his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) being as emotionally distant as ever. There is an unpleasant history between the two, complete with asylums, bloodletting, and the whispers of other past wrongs seeping into the present. When Ben turns up dead, Lawrence promises Gwen that he will discover the responsible party, the which he does as a werewolf savages the neighborhood, moving so quickly that even in the midst of a crowd, and even while dismembering, eviscerating, and otherwise wreaking butchery with wild abandon, it’s difficult to see exactly what is responsible. Lawrence is saved from the wounds he himself suffers by an old gypsy woman (Geraldine Chaplin looking appropriately skeletal, spectral, and sere), who frets about saving him for the life of monthly transmutation to which he is now doomed.
To everyone’s amazement, Lawrence evinces a miraculous recovery, that being one of his new supernatural powers along with heightened hearing, and being more in touch with his more animal nature. Particularly when it comes to Gwen, for whom his attraction is worrisome on many, many levels. His troubles are only beginning, though, as the viciousness of the attacks attracts the attention of Scotland Yard in the person of Inspector Abbeline (Hugo Weaving), who didn’t catch Jack the Ripper and is determined to make up for it.
The production design offers a richly imagined set on which the action plays out. Evocative fog fills the woodlands replete with ancient standing stones, wild waterways, an achingly quaint English hamlet, and the equally quaint inhabitants thereof. The horror of the medical profession of the time comes in for its own drubbing, with a proto-electric shock mechanism to rival anything Dr. Frankenstein assembled. Victorian London glows by gaslight, and there seems to have been no expense spared in filling the screen with meticulously rendered interiors that evoke a world of repressed emotions. Indeed, the repressed carnality that Lawrence feels is the best thing here, with the camera lingering voyeuristically over what catches his eye, and more, about Gwen. The passion of restraint is like a body blow. Less effective for being derivative is the amount of gore splattering hither and yon. For every clever move, a disembodied arm continuing to fire the revolver clutched in its hand, for example, there is a veritable smorgasbord of innards on display with less panache than the counter in a cut-rate butcher shop. Effects-wise, the film’s fancy runs free during Lawrence’s nightmares and hallucinations, which combine Freudian fixations with some creepy visuals that can make an audience jump out of it’s metaphorical skin and disquiet the subconscious.
During the nicely realized scenes of his painful passage from man, Del Toro suffers magnificently during, yet he is unaccountably muted in his emotional confrontations with dear old dad. Hopkins is operatic as the retired adventurer with odd sartorial choices and a demented twinkle in his eye. Blunt is determined, but never quite as swept away as her character ought to be.
THE WOLFMAN runs hot and cold throughout, making for an experience with memorable moments, but one that is disturbingly unsatisfying.