If you, like me, grew up in pre-home video days, you’ll remember staying up and watching the late-night horror movies. It was here that I had my first encounters with the classic Universal monsters – “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “The Wolf-Man.” Dripping with atmosphere, these scarefests were genuinely nightmare-inducing for a small kid!
As a result, these films hold a special place in my heart, and even though they now seem awfully quaint, they still have the ability to cause a thrill or two.
I was very enthusiastic, then, as I sat down to watch Universal’s own attempt to “re-boot” their monster franchise with “The Wolfman.” Starring Benecio Del Toro as the title creature, it seemed that the studio had the right intentions. Keeping it a period piece, relying on very little in the way of CGI, and boasting a ham-tastic supporting cast, all the elements were there.
All of the elements, that is, except the fun.
Del Toro, with his distinctive face and ability to convey a tortured inner life, was the perfect choice to play Lawrence Talbot, an actor on the American stage who is summoned home when his brother is brutally murdered on the foggy moors. Reunited with his distant father (played by Anthony Hopkins in full-on crazy-hair mode) and introduced to his brothers fiancée, Gwen (the lovely Emily Blunt), Talbot tries to determine who (or what) may have killed his brother.
As in the original film, Lawrence has a chance encounter with an old gypsy woman who foretells his doom and it isn’t long before he’s attacked by a wolf-like creature. Wounded, he is nursed back to health by Gwen, and their attraction grows.
But then that pesky full moon makes its first appearance and Lawrence finds out he’s been transformed into a howling, violent Wolfman! His initial rampage on the moors is filled with bloody slashes and decapitations, which are robustly captured in all their glory by the moody work of cinematographer Shelly Johnson.
As rousing as they are, these sequences aren’t enough to balance out the rest of this cheerless, overly dramatic film. The script, by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, contains long stretches of family angst and budding romance that go on way too long and seem out-of-character to the rest of the movie. I’m all for trying to create a serious and emotionally and psychologically-interesting story around this legend, but this just feels bloated and self-important more than anything else. It ends up feeling like you’re literally waiting an entire month for the next full moon so something will happen!
The transformation scenes are spectacular. The legendary Rick Baker brings the same sense of wonder and pain as he did in the classic “American Werewolf in London” as Talbot’s body twists, contorts and sprouts hair. Seeing Del Toro in a monster suit is a welcome treat and a nice break from the recent trend of computer-generating movie monsters. It reinforces that the human actor will always be necessary.
I just wish the film hadn’t been such a downer for most of its running time.
THE WOLFMAN; Dir: Joe Johnston; Stars: Benecio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt. Rated R.