“Even a man who is pure of heartand says his prayers by nightmay become a wolf when the wolfbane bloomsand the autumn moon is bright.”
I’m sorry about that but I’m pretty sure that any review of the new remake of The Wolfman is required by law to start off with that famous quote. Thankfully this version of the story only speaks it in the opening as opposed to the almost mantra status it achieves in the original. And yet there’s no question that director Joe Johnston’s interpretation is more heavy handed. Or heavy pawed as the case may be.
Benicio del Toro was cast in the role that Lon Chaney Jr became famous for in the original 1941 Universal classic presumably because there’s a definite facial resemblance between the two. He plays Lawrence Talbot a famed actor who is forced to abandon his theatrical tour in London when he hears of his brother’s disappearance. He returns home to his family estate as the prodigal son and meets with his father Sir John (a scenery chewing Anthony Hopkins). It is established to Lawrence that when he was a child he was put in a mental institution after his mother committed suicide. Pay attention this MacGuffin might come up again later.
Lawrence’s brother’s body turns up horribly mauled and when he goes to claim it he overhears accusations against a local group of gypsies along with whispers of werewolves. He visits the local gypsy camp on a full moon looking for answers along with a group of disgruntled locals. While he is there something attacks killing indiscriminately left and right both gypsies and angry townspeople disappearing into the woods with bloodcurdling screams. Lawrence sees a young boy run off into the woods and chases him down but is himself attacked by the creature and bitten before it’s run off by the townsfolk. What could possibly go wrong from here?
Emily Blunt plays the dead brother’s fiancee who returns to Talbot Hall to help the seemingly mortally wounded Lawrence return to health which he does with surprising quickness. But omens and portents loom ominously everywhere menace drips off every frame and a recently arrived police investigator (Hugo Weaving) is looking at Lawrence as his prime suspect for the local violence because of his past mental problems (see it came up again). Mysteries become revealed (to the characters anyway the audience if they’re even vaguely intelligent will have figured them out long before then) Lawrence gets the 1800’s version of psychiatric care (not a good thing) and the blood starts a’ flowing.
It’s the rare production as riddled with troubles as this one was that turns out to be a ‘happy accident’ like Apocalypse Now or Jaws. The Wolfman is merely an over-crowded mess of a film but it’s impossible to lay blame entirely at the director’s feet. Johnston was merely the last in a line of directors before him who started to work on it and then dropped off. That along with major studio meddling led to a film that has just enough good stuff in it to give one a picture of what could have been great but not enough to be very entertaining as is.
The biggest problem is that there are so many things crammed in but nothing is explored adequately. Even with the added 17 minutes into the Blu-Ray’s “Director’s Cut” it merely serves to drag more. The relationship between Lawrence and his father seems silly and overwrought there’s not a shred of chemistry between del Toro and Blunt Weaving seems only there as an afterthought and the mystery the film hides is obvious and uninteresting...the only thing added to the original story with any weight at all is the torturous psychiatric care Lawrence is put into which ends the second act with a satisfyingly bloody crescendo but it’s over way too soon.
Horror buffs might be the one demographic that attach themselves to the film as The Wolfman doesn’t exactly skimp on the gore. Folks get all-kinds of ripped apart left and right at various points and the camera doesn’t shy away from showing it. What WILL upset horror fans is that even though multiple Oscar winner Rick Baker worked on the film and built the basic Werewolf makeup time didn’t allow for him to create the transformations as he did so memorably (and still the best version of it ever done) in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. The CG that is used here certainly is passable but there’s something missing there a quality lost by using computers instead of the traditional practical effects that leaves an indelible and unmissable scar on the film.
At the very least Blu-Ray owners will be pleased by some of the bonus features. Those with their player online can watch the original Wolfman film streamed through the BD-Live function. In addition to that there are: five deleted scenes that are actually pretty good; the ‘U-Control’ function which lets you add a pop-up trivia track during the movie and PiP comparisons to the original film as well as video commentary by the production crew; Two alternate endings which aren’t really all that alternate; “The Beast Maker” - an interview with Rick Baker about his werewolf fixation; “Transformation Secrets” - examining the soulless CG effects during the man-to-wolf scenes; “The Wolfman Unleashed” - a look at the stunt work; D-box motion enabling for those who have a few thousand bucks lying around to buy their own home motion chair; and a digital copy of the movie.
If The Werewolf is good for anything it’s as an object lesson. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Glimmers of what could have been abound but it’s weighed down by it’s own sense of self-importance. If a werewolf fix is called for most times you’d be better served by renting The Howling Dog Soldiers Ginger Snaps or the aforementioned An American Werewolf in London. Johnston’s tale will likely be only of serious interest to completists and whoever tries to remake the classic movie again in ten years or so.