The Wolfman, Universal Pictures’ remake of the 1941 classic, is a taut backlot tram tour of a dour, sunless 1880s England, complete with cobweb-infested castles, fog-filled cemeteries and forests, and topped with blood-soaked werewolves that would make the phony Lycans in the Twilight Saga quiver in their own puppy piddle. Simply put, The Wolfman is a devilishly fun haunted house thrill ride, only with more severed limbs, decapitations, popped out eyes, disembowelments and torn flesh.
The movie opens, like the original, with the poem:
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.
And then we happen upon Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) writing a letter to Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), asking him to return to his childhood home of Blackmoor to aide in the search for his brother, her fiancé. Lawrence, a stage actor who, since leaving home, has been living in New York City, leaves London immediately. When he arrives at Blackmoor he is greeted by his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), and is told his brother’s body was found. But we already know this because we saw his face slashed and his stomach torn open by a werewolf. Lawrence tells Gwen he won’t rest until he figures out what happened to his brother.
Lawrence’s investigations lead him to a gypsy camp deep in the woods. He meets with a creepy old woman named Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin) who tells him he is cursed and in danger. Just then a ruckus breaks out in the camp between some villagers and the gypsies, and, probably because it looks like a human Chuck-A-Rama, a werewolf zips through the encampment, killing without regard. Lawrence watches as the beast charges after a young boy and, while trying to bring the boy to safety, is attacked and bitten by the creature. The gypsies sew him up and bring him back to his father, presumably to die.
But ol’ Lawrence doesn’t croak, in fact he heals up like Superman and in the process raises the suspicions of the townsfolk, who want to tie him up during the next full moon. His rapid recovery coupled with the murders in Blackmoor also catch the eye of Scotland Yard inspector Francis Aberline (Hugo Weaving), who is convinced the locals are nutty and that Lawrence is simply a gifted serial killer avoiding capture. Still, despite his unbelief, Aberline’s worst nightmares are realized when he happens upon the gruesome aftermath of Lawrence’s first transformation. The next morning his Sir John hands Lawrence, covered in blood and torn clothes, over to Aberline, who takes him into custody.
There’s more to the story, but to go further would be risking spoilers and I don’t want to ruin the movie for anyone planning a screening. However, Lawrence is committed to an insane asylum and given the terrible truths we learn during his stay, the last act of the film is built on the wings of Lawrence trying to again return to Blackmoor to end the curse and save Gwen, a woman he has grown to love.
Honestly, I’m quite surprised I enjoyed The Wolfman. I had a deep fear this would turn out to be a goofy CGI nightmare in the same mold as Van Helsing. I’m also not enamored with director Joe Johnston, but he meshes the campy and ridiculous with some absolutely tense moments, as well as giving a sufficient wink and nod to the Lon Cheney Jr. classic. Couple the films look and feel with the solid acting from Hopkins, Blunt and Weaving and you’ve got quite an adept modern horror movie. Notice I didn’t mention Del Toro when applauding the acting. While Del Toro is certainly a presence on-screen, his droopy eyes and monotone voice put emphasis on why we don’t see him playing in a lot of mainstream movies. Del Toro was built for movies like Things We Lost in the Fire and 21 Grams. He’s at his best when he’s crazy-eyed and down-on-his-luck. Frankly, I was more enamored with Del Toro during his cuckoo asylum scenes (“I will kill all of you!”), as well as when he donned Rick Baker’s werewolf make-up and turned into The Wolfman.
The Wolfman isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. The ending comes to quick and is a little too nice and tidy to make it interesting or fulfilling, but that doesn’t stop the movie from being a nice blend of campy old school terror, icky, bloody, gooey gore and a brooding, easy-to-solve but satisfying thriller. The Wolfman might not make you soil your pants, but it definitely is worth the full-priced admission this weekend.