That Universal’s visually sanguine yet emotionally bloodless revival of their most ferocious and most tragic movie monster is a complete stiff is beyond debate. The real question is how anyone can direct this story, at heart about a man under a curse that transforms him from a moral being into a beastly predator and then transforms him back with the knowledge of his deeds, without even accidentally stumbling into tragedy and pathos and the terrible torment of his ordeal?
Curt Siodmak’s screenplay for the original 1941 The Wolfman is credited as the source for this Victorian-era retelling (there are elements also taken from the uncredited 1935 Werewolf of London) and, while great liberties are taken with the family history, it’s remains true to the basics and even begins by quoting directly from the source: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” This (purposely?) clumsy bit of doggerel sounds like some peasant folk legend by way of child’s rhyme but it is as much Hollywood invention as the story itself (while shapeshifters are common through folklore, the specifics of the werewolf legend—the full moon, the silver bullets, only a true love can kill it—were created whole cloth, or rather fur, by Hollywood). It’s both carved into stone and spoken aloud with a heavy gravity, ostensibly an effort to create a sense of foreboding. It merely elicited titters from the preview audience I was with and offered a preview of the pose of ominous mystery and gloomy Gothic drear that smothered any hint of personality, dramatic tension or fun.
Benicio Del Toro is Lawrence Talbot, a star of the stage and the estranged son of British Lord (Anthony Hopkins) who returns home to after being raised by distant relatives in America, only to find his brother murdered (either by beast or animalistic madman) and his father is a state of what appears to be dotty denial. While there’s some narrative explanation behind Dad’s odd behavior, the bloodless performance owes less to dramatic motivation and more to the lazy mechanics of Hopkins going through the motions of a performance. Not that Del Toro offers much more as the distant, brooding Lawrence. He’s supposed to be haunted by memories of seeing his mother’s suicide and the subsequent horrors of barbaric tortures at the asylum where he father had him placed but mostly he just looks uncomfortable under his period collars and coats and bored walking the lifeless halls and dusty rooms of a giant mausoleum of a home. His only motivation is to track down his brother’s killer and that almost ends his life when he chases the lupine monster on the moors.
There’s ostensibly a spark of interest in his brother’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt) but even that seems more like a Gothic convention than an emotional reality: he gets even more stiff and formal around this beautiful young woman so he must interested. Blunt offers the only real life in this dead manor house, offering up compassion and concern for Lawrence in his recovery from the feral animal bite along with the obligatory anxiety of a haunted Gothic heroine. And thankfully Hugo Weaving brings a snap to his smart Scotland Yard detective with a sly humor and a sense of cunning. His wit is a lonely thing in this film.
A month passes, the next full moon arrives and the inevitable transformation along with it. Yes, it’s an America Werewolf in Blackmoor (and, later, in London too) and it’s about time, for the wolf man himself is a magnificent creature. Where recent werewolf movie creations have been more beast than man and sometimes simply magnificent wolf (with the usual CGI enhancements), this is classic man-beast. Del Toro gets to act up a beastly storm of ferocious predator under a mat of fur and a full complement of canines tearing through a succession of human snacks, and only drops to all fours to gallop through the forest or leap across London rooftops like a jungle beast on the loose. Bringing Rick Baker on board (the man whose artistry made An American Werewolf in London a quantum leap in movie monster transformations) may be the only inspired decision in the entire film. In a film environment where digital creations too often stand in for the physical, Baker brings the craft of practical make-up and physical effects to the film and the mix of visual textures and human performance behind the hair and appliances creates a monstrous nightmare of a living beast. As long as the beast has control of the man, this film has some blood pumping through it.
Joe Johnson has directed some passably entertaining films in the past, better with lighthearted fare than not. He rose to director from art director and production designer and special effects and that’s what a brings to this: a design for a movie in place of a story. He fills the gloomy town with colorfully abstract peasants and hard-bitten villagers, films the Talbot Manor like a haunted house, pumps fog through every nighttime scene, silhouettes his figures in the night with carefully calibrated backlights and sweeps through every transition with striking images that look more like TV commercials than portents of horror. He works overtime making it look like what he thinks Hollywood Gothic should be without creating characters worth caring about or offering a story to invest ourselves in.
He can’t even deliver the simple mechanics of storytelling. Between the London transformation and the climactic dogfight in Blackmoor, a month has passed (or at least should have passed, as that’s the span between full moons) yet the traveling montage is abstract, with no sense of time passing. For a guy who loves his time-lapse rising moon images, he can’t even toss in a shot of the passing phases of the moon to mark the march of time.
Given that he can’t even build credible suspense in anticipation of a primal blood conflict, it’s no surprise that the paternal twist of blood curse and children sacrificed for the unholy pleasures of unleashed savagery has no resonance, let alone tragic dimensions. This battle of the beasts is just another dogfight in a wolfpack of two.
Lon Chaney Jr. lumbered through the original The Wolf Man with the effort of a limited actor trying to open himself up to the torture of a man who cannot stop himself from killing except by dying himself. In the process created a tragic everyman through a performance expressive beyond his limitations, with haunted eyes and a palpable fear in his face as he watched the full moon rise. We felt his terror. Del Toro, an infinitely superior actor, fails to elicit the slightest sense of terror, tragedy or any human feeling. He’s a blank in every way. Only when he’s howling at the moon in full on predator mode does Del Toro, and the film, come alive. The rest so stiff and bland and colorless and at time laughably directed that you want to howl at the screen.
Directed by Joe Johnson; screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, based on the script by Curt Siodmak; featuring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Antony Sher, Art Malik, Cristina Contes, Geraldine Chaplin.