Directed by Joe Johnston and adapted from the 1941 film starring Lon Chaney Jr., The Wolfman is a film caught between the gothic beauty of old fashioned horror films and the glossy CGI favoured by so many films today. It’s captivating when it leans towards the former, but when it gives in to the latter it becomes unforgivably pedestrian. Once the bloodletting begins there’s really nothing to the film that you won’t have seen before and it isn’t done well enough to make it worth sitting through again.
Benicio Del Torro stars as Lawrence Talbot, English born but raised in the United States, returning to his native soil as the lead actor in a theatre troop. He receives a letter from Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) informing him of his brother’s mysterious death and returns home to Talbot hall, a looming mansion whose decay practically seeps out of the screen. Arriving home Lawrence is confronted with the mounted heads of various animals, dark rooms that seem not to have encountered light in ages, and floors littered with leaves; it’s almost as if the house itself as gone feral. The film has several weaknesses, but the art direction and cinematography are certainly not amongst them. This is a beautifully mounted production in those respects, creating a haunting atmosphere that unfortunately cannot be sustained under the weight of the special effects.
Lawrence is welcomed back by his father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) and by Gwen and opts to stay to discover the truth about his brother’s rather horrific end. Rumours swirl in the town that a group of recently arrived gypsies is behind it, though the injuries inflicted on the body appear to be the work of a particularly vicious animal. While investigating, Lawrence himself is attacked by this animal and treated by one of the gypsies (Geraldine Chaplin), who recognizes the particular hell Lawrence is about to enter into but feels that she must let nature take its course, no matter how dark. Lawrence’s wounds, which seemed life threatening, heal quickly, sparking the curiosity and suspicion of the townspeople and after a bloody rampage on a moonlit night, Lawrence is taken away to an insane asylum where his “affliction” will hopefully be cured.
The film begins promisingly enough, establishing an effectively dark mood and finding a way to balance it against the inherent campiness of the story (in his first appearance Sir John is wearing an animal skin robe, underscoring Hopkins’ gloriously mischievous performance). It has the crisp, lingering power of the best psychological horror stories but then gives in to what can perhaps be best described as economic necessity. When a film costs as much as this one obviously does, the people paying for it want to be able to see on screen where the money has gone and so we’re treated to a variety of money shots, both in terms of Lawrence’s multiple transformations into the wolfman and his subsequent rampaging as the beast. It’s a better movie when the audience is left to wonder, but the period in which the film is content to suggest, rather than show, is brief.
In the lead role Del Torro renders a surprisingly subdued performance. His brooding fits well with the first part of the film but as the psychological tension gives way to gory spectacle, his performance begins to feel increasingly out of place. A little fire and ferocity would have gone a long way, but Del Torro leaves that to Hopkins, whose Sir John ends up being a much more vivid character. In the rather thankless role of beauty to Del Torro’s beast, Blunt shines, bringing much more to the character than the screenplay requires of her. She brings a much needed dose of soul to the proceedings and she is definitely missed during the time she spends off screen.
In the final analysis, The Wolfman is a film that is in touch with the roots of traditional monster movies but guilty of giving in too much to more modern sensibilities. The result is a film that just can’t maintain a consistent mood and in a story like this one, mood is of the utmost importance. The film does manage to have some great moments but it ultimately falls far short of being anything special.