[13 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s all there: the gloomy Victorian England setting; the decrepit Gothic family manor; the faux religion and ancient gypsy curse; the mark of the beast; the town filled with superstitious residents; and the bloody, vivisected corpses strewn along the countryside. Even the make-up, by veteran F/X wizard Rick Baker, is sufficiently post-modern while instantly recalling the look and feel of the classic Universal beast. Everything is in place for a throat-ripping, blood-spewing good time, and for a while at least, the 2010 version of The Wolfman delivers. But there is also a reverence here, a devotion to the past and all things retro that undermines the energy and the effectiveness of what director Joe Johnston and star Benicio del Toro want to bring to this terror update. Instead of fear, we get fanciness.
American actor Lawrence Talbot (del Toro) returns to his boyhood home in the UK when his brother Ben goes missing. There he encounters his sibling’s distraught fiancée Gwen Conliff (Emily Blunt), his aging and eccentric father (Anthony Hopkins), and a townspeople terrified over rumors of a “monster”. Blaming a local band of gypsies for their plight, Talbot heads out into the night to get some answers. He is summarily attacked by a rampaging beast. While on the mend, Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) from Scotland Yard arrives to investigate. All leads point to something unnatural and evil. Lawrence soon discovers he has been bitten by a werewolf, and when the moon is full, he is destined to turn into a marauding, vicious fiend as well.
There’s a saying in cinema that goes like this - if you’re going to remake a timeless bit of movie macabre, you better have something new to bring to the genre redux. Better CG transformations and a glossy period piece look are just not enough. Unfortunately, that is mostly what this new take on the legend of lycanthropy has to offer: good performances; great production design; skimpy scares and storyline. No one is actually thinking that any mainstream effort is going to capture the true horror of a half-man, half-creature, stalking the UK countryside and since The Wolfman Is looking backward, not fresh and forward like The Howling or Dog Soldiers, it never really intends to. But today’s audiences need that special kind of spark, that reason to become reinvested. A talented cast is just not enough.
Granted, del Toro and the rest rise to the occasion, dropping their usual performance tics to take on iconic, often ambiguous characters. Our star does indeed shine when asked to bring a sense of depressed menace to his overwhelmed lead. Hopkins too takes his often scalded lines and delivers them in a manner that makes up for their inherent dreariness. Blunt, on the other hand, does the most with her deemed damsel in distress turn. About the only name not living up to his hype is Hugo Weaving. He definitely looks the part, and plays it to the hilt, but he is still stuck in Matrix mode, letting his voice drop down in a mired “Mr. Anderson” inflection. His Abberline should be more heroic. Instead, he’s hemmed in by the lack of anything significant to do.
Indeed, most of The Wolfman suffers from such narrative ennui. It’s more than happy to trod step-by-step through a series of set-ups and set-pieces, unable to find a dimension below the obvious. Lawrence is troubled by visions of his late mother’s death. We just know that will come back later to prove some point. Similarly, an adolescent stay in an asylum gets an equal contemporary storyline link. With Blunt flitting in and out of things, meant to symbolize the innocence and affection that almost all the male characters lack, we get a mythos both superficial and stilted, incapable of real emotion and yet frantic to turn into a Shakespearean level of tragedy.
Instead of using the contrast between light and dark as some manner of symbol, Johnston simply settles back and plays journeyman here. His direction is precise, pointed, and very pretty. There are shots that seem lifted directly from an old wood carving of supernatural chaos. But there are also moments that fail to connect, like the “rock skipping as burgeoning romance” scene between del Toro and Blunt. Each offers as much meaning as they can to the thin dialogue, but without a little support from Johnston, it’s much ado about nothing. Even the action sequences are handled in obvious ways. Every time someone is shown standing, face on, toward the camera, you can count the beats until a ‘sudden shock/beast growl’ attack fills the frame - or even worse, a rapidly edited incident of something scurrying among the trees, only to see an arm fly into the air or a fan of arterial spray strike an edifice.
No one is questioning the sincerity of everyone involved. While the production history here argues a struggle between something much more powerful and ominous (original director Mark Romanek left over budget and creative differences) and clear commercial concerns, there is still enough mood and dread to give horror geeks the shivers. Besides, it’s refreshing - in a wholly antique way - to see a film that takes the notions of monsters and murder so seriously. Contemporary terror treats fear as the punchline, a porn-like pop shot to an often irreverent or irrational foundation. Here, Talbot’s conflict between man and inner beast recalls the early days of psychology and the battle between sanity and derangement. It also infers the growing industrial revolution, the rise of modern thinking, and the dismissal of folklore and fantasy.
Too bad then that The Wolfman doesn’t embrace more of its potential meaning. This is eerie eye candy of the most schizophrenic, sometimes satisfying kind. It’s clever without being cloying, but it’s also derivative without being daring. As with the recent wave of sappy vampire sagas that substitute romance for anything remotely terrifying, the need for suspense and dread has been replaced by the desire to be pretty and poetic. At its core, the werewolf is a heady combination of the old and the new, the unexplainable with the purely instinctual. Johnston and crew strive mightily to make sense of such a dichotomy. The resulting Wolfman, however, is all bark and very little bite.