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The Wolfman

starring Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, and Anthony Hopkins
written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self & directed by Joe Johnston
Rated R for bloody horror violence and gore.
67%

After many years in America, Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) returns to the family estate in rural England in response to a frantic letter about his brother’s mysterious disappearance from Gwen Conliffe (Blunt), his brother’s fiancee. Shortly after his arrival, his brother’s mutilated body is discovered, and panic sweeps through the small village as rumors circulate of a man who turns into a ravenous beast whenever the moon is full.

Top marks to the various ways in which The Wolfman pays homage to the classic 1941 The Wolf Man while trying to take the material in a new direction. For anyone who has seen the original (as I have just recently), it is fascinating to see how it has been reworked in surprising and (sometimes) clever ways. The first obvious change is the period setting; while the 1941 film was decidedly contemporary, the remake turns the clock back an additional half-century to cash in on our associations with a creepy, Victorian ambiance.

In some ways, this seems like the only smart move to make. Updating the story to the 21st-century would have been nearly impossible, and leaving it in the 1940s would appear almost as baffling. In any case, the filmmakers skillfully milk their chosen era for whatever they can; everything from making Talbot’s father, Sir John (Hopkins), an exotic big-game hunter with a mysterious Indian servant, to a brief but bizarre sequence in a 19th-century insane asylum. All of this, though almost totally reliant on cliches, works really well in building a mood around a solid aesthetic.

The Wolfman also throws in an A-list cast, which certainly isn’t common for a horror movie with somewhat disreputable (read: non-literary) origins. Del Toro is an excellent choice as the title character (which, I suppose, technically constitutes a spoiler), even though I was never remotely convinced that he was Hopkins’ son. Hopkins, of course, does very well in a role that ranges from subtle touches to over-the-top excess. Hugo Weaving (whom I can’t recall having seen in anything for some years) plays such a sympathetic antagonist that he threatens to shift audience loyalties. Meanwhile, Emily Blunt, enormously talented as she is, feels utterly wasted in her role. She is given virtually nothing to do, and (in the spirit of the period) even less to say.

Actually, the cast is so good that one almost doesn’t notice the movie wandering leisurely off the rails partway through (during the aforementioned asylum sequence), despite a sudden (though hardly unforeseen) twist in the plot. At this point, the remainder of the story unfolds with complete clarity before the viewer, and it simply becomes a question of how long it will take to play out. The answer, unfortunately, is “far too long.” I am not so easily bored that I felt that the movie had outstayed its welcome, but once the events that must transpire in the climax become obvious, it is generally time for the story to carry us there as swiftly as possible. As much as horror audiences appreciate thrilling action scenes involving buckets of stomach-churning gore, a few less guts and a few more cuts might have been in order here.

Then again, perhaps I wouldn’t have minded the longer journey as much if the ending hadn’t been so jaw-droppingly stupid, for reasons which were completely unnecessary. The writers managed to betray what had seemed like a very carefully-laid foundation of foreshadowing in a way that almost seemed as though they had forgotten about it entirely. In its place was the obligatory open-ended conclusion, brought about by the most implausible sequence of events imaginable. Actually, the most frustrating thing about the movie’s final moments is that they hit what would have been the perfect note, if only everything leading up to them hadn’t been so needlessly counter-intuitive.

The Wolfman is at its most entertaining when it is riffing on elements from the 1941 film, a pleasure that will be entirely lost on audiences that haven’t seen the original. Independent from that source, it offers very little to justify its existence. It is by no means a painful viewing experience; the worst that can be said about it is that it is quite forgettable. What it has to offer is some lightweight fun to carry audiences through the studio dumping ground of January and February, but (unsurprisingly) I do not think it will still be inspiring filmmakers and horror fans alike some 70 years after its release.

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~ by Jared on February 12, 2010.

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