The past is a wilderness of horrors.
— Sir John (Anthony Hopkins)
Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin) makes her first appearance in The Wolfman in the dark. Her face gaunt and mascara heavy, she’s the local gypsy lady, on scene to provide helpful background information to Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro). Lawrence has returned to Blackmoor, England in 1891 in order to investigate the recent death of his brother Ben. He approaches Maleva when he hears that Ben was a “liaison” to the gypsy camp, hoping she’ll know something about the exceptionally gruesome state of his corpse.
Unsurprisingly, Maleva tends to speak in riddles. Also unsurprisingly, Lawrence tends not to listen very carefully. When he wonders how Ben came to be wandering in the misty woods on the night his flesh was apparently ripped from his bones, Maleva tells him, “There is no coincidence, only Lady Fate. And she plays with a hidden hand.”
As Lawrence ponders this flake of wisdom, you can see how it lays out the premise of The Wolfman. The movie doesn’t bother much with causes and effects (a likely effect of the reported re-edits and reshoots). Instead, it reframes the werewolf legend — so weighty with communal perversity and collective guilt — so that it’s all about a very bad dad.
When Lawrence returns to the gothic manse still inhabited by his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), he seems undaunted by its rampant disrepair. The stonewalls look craggy, rats and bats squeal as soon as he enters, and winds and dry leaves course through the shadowy hallways. Accompanied by a huge black and very vocal dog, Sir John proclaims, “The prodigal son returns.” Again, Lawrence looks unimpressed. Their conversation reveals that Sir John not only resents Lawrence’s success (he’s a celebrated stage actor, renowned for playing Shakespeare), but also his return. Now that Ben is gone, Sir John and Lawrence have no buffer between them, and so they will have to excavate their shared past.
This process begins with Lawrence’s memories of his childhood traumas, especially his discovery of his dead mother, cradled in Sir John’s arms as her neck gapes open, apparently slit with a straight razor. Instructed as a child that his mother committed suicide, little Lawrence (Mario Marin-Borquez) suffered a breakdown, at which point his father reportedly sent him to an asylum and then on to America to live with an aunt. He might have stayed away, except that he’s been summoned by Ben’s fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt). Looking at the Talbots from the outside, she thinks that discovering how and why Ben died is a worthy effort.
“This place is impossible to escape,” Gwen observes one morning while she contemplates Lawrence’s ravaged visage. She’s got it half-right, as the Talbot Estate is Ground Zero for all manner of legends, nightmares, and conventional moralisms. The other half of the problem is, of course, the men with whom she’s become entangled — so much so, apparently, that she’s ready to fall into Lawrence’s arms almost as soon as Ben is buried. It hardly matters that Gwen is unmotivated; the point is to keep Lawrence in town, against all emotional and psychological logic.
But the important logic here, as Maleva has indicated, is that ordained by fate (that is, movie-plotting). Once he becomes a werewolf, Lawrence is less transformed than he is more himself, excessively, incessantly himself. Much like Lon Chaney’s 1941 version of Lawrence Talbot, this one is morose and angry. He makes these feelings vividly visible in the werewolf attack scenes, which are — for all the talk about dad and mom — the film’s raison d’être. Following each requisite transformation scene — close-ups of fingers distending, feet bursting from shoes, teeth popping out of his jaw (have such FX really advanced so little since Thriller?), wolfman Lawrence heads out on a brutal spree. He tears off limbs and rips out intestines, slices off heads and galumphs over rooftops (these galumphing scenes are especially unconvincing, rendered alternately in heaving close-ups and 2Dish long shots). Though he feels empowered by this new role (his own wounds heal swiftly, his blood pounds), Lawrence has a lingering feeling that butchering people isn’t exactly a healthy avocation.
Even if he wants to be caught, though, Lawrence is up against a bunch of dunderheads, representing the usual institutions. He’s plainly smarter than raging Reverend Fisk (Roger Frost), who excoriates sinners and devils in dire close-ups, and slow-to-move Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving), the man, Lawrence dolefully notes, who was “in charge of the Ripper case a few years back.” And he’s ethically advantaged over the doctor who tortures him by way of treating his “delusions,” Hoenneger (Anthony Sher), a case underlined by montages of his methods: straitjackets, electric shock, ice-water dunks, beatings, penetrations. By the time the doctor meets his plainly predestined end, it’s both too late and disturbingly apposite.
Of course, Hoenneger is just a stand in for Sir John (“Where’s my father?” Lawrence wails throughout his abuses). The son’s violence is also the father’s even though neither wants quite to lay claim to the other. If Sir John acknowledges that his “young pup” is unhappy with their horrific shared past, he proposes that they both accept, together, the future made possible by Lawrence’s new form. Dad argues in favor of freeing the “cursed and the damned,” those humans he sees as superior precisely because they are monsters — extreme and essentially beyond control. “The beast will have its day, the beast will out,” Sir John declares, while Lawrence, once again, looks miserable. Much as he resists, he only keeps running into the cliché Maleva named at the start: he’s doomed by Lady Fate… and oh yes, his dad.