Director Joe Johnston’s (“Hidalgo,” 2004; “Jumanji,” 1995) remake of the 1941 classic monster thriller, “The Wolfman,” is entertaining and often – if unintentionally – amusing. Though certainly spooky, it does not achieve its intended goal of using the classic film figure and story to induce horror in its contemporary audience, one accustomed to the suspense of Hitchcock, the effects of “Avatar,” and the narrative of “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
It is 1891. British landed-gentry scion Lawrence Talbot (Benedicio del Toro), estranged for 18 years from his father and homeland after the violent death of his mother, responds to the plea of his brother’s fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), to help search for his missing brother, Ben. Unfortunately, Lawrence has come too late; Ben’s body has been found, ravaged by some wild animal. Lawrence decides to uncover what happened to Ben and to become reacquainted with his father.
Lawrence’s return to the house of his youth, the violence of his brother’s death, and the full moon spur visceral memories of Lawrence’s childhood that form the backdrop against which he rides out to a gypsy encampment to begin his inquiry. Chaos reigns when both the beast and the police appear, and Lawrence pursues a boy running into the forest. There he is bitten by the beast but survives. Lawrence heals rapidly; he becomes stronger, his senses more acute, and finally he is transformed and commits violent actions in the countryside. Scotland Yard detective Aberline (Hugo Weaving), the detective who has worked on the killings by Jack the Ripper, appears in Blackmoor to find out more about Ben’s murder.
The story contains much of the 1941 screenplay by Curt Siodmak. Rewritten by Andrew Kevin Walker (“Sleepy Hollow,” 1999; “Se7en,” 1995) and David Self (“Road to Perdition,” 2002), the movie is now set in Victorian England. The change was apparently made with the idea that the costumes, coaches, gas lamps, smog and fog would lay out a more perfectly eerie setting for a classic horror story.
Recognizably spooky motifs appear throughout the film: the leaf-barren branches, black before the moon, as the opening credits roll; drips of blood running down a stone wall; the exotic servant Singh, who knows more than he tells; cobwebs and dust throughout the house; suspicious, superstitious peasants, later to be found en masse carrying de rigeur torches while hunting down the monster; the beautiful virgin; the Austrian-accented asylum doctor with the chortling assistant who enjoys tormenting their victims; the juxtaposition of wolfman and stone gargoyle on the London rooftops. The profusion of motifs makes them camp, breaking down suspense and sense of horror in the viewer.
The relationship of Talbot father and son differs (melo)dramatically from that in the original film, taking on an expanded degree of importance, flails in part because Anthony Hopkins himself has become something of a spooky motif. With him as the protagonist’s father, the audience can expect a dysfunctional relationship. Another result of this emphasis is that there is just not enough wolfman action. More fight scenes, chases, interactions would have been entirely welcome.
Of the main actors, Mr. Weaving is especially a joy to watch. Ms. Blunt is good, too, if at times anachronistic. Mr. Hopkins is supercilious at times, and even if it is his character’s wink directed maliciously toward his son, the viewer recognizes that something here is a joke.
Mr. Del Toro, a fine actor, seems out of place here. He does not evince terror himself, though he does pain well enough. The character seems more displeased than horrified, though he clearly intends to do the right thing and “stop this once and for all.” But it is more a Kantian imperative than a terrible emotional regard for good versus evil that seems to motivate him – and that is not what one wants from a horror film.
Music by Danny Elfman is moody and dark, eerie and brooding, but not inspired; costumes by Milena Canonero (costume designer for “Marie Antoinette”) are wonderful. Makeup and prosthetics by Rick Baker, combined with computer-generated imagery for a “hybrid approach” are impressive and fascinating.
The film is worth seeing; for the effects, see it on the big screen; for the story, wait for the video.
102 min running time