The metallic tang of blood is all over the elegant facade of this mysteriously disappointing, dispassionately underpowered story of a British aristocrat who dances with the devil, in the form of a werewolf curse, in the pale moonlight. Dismembered limbs and heads and scattered entrails fly with gleeful, squishy abandon, though thankfully without the pornographic leering that afflicts too much of what passes for horror today: if this remake is way gorier than the classic 1941 Universal horror flick upon which it is based, it’s still coyer than what we expect from our gore today.
Still: while the classy spooky sheen gives one such great hope as The Wolfman opens, it soon becomes clear that the film has nothing but that classy spooky sheen to offer. There are no people to care about here; there is no horror in the form of the internal, infernal psychological kind — everything onscreen is just fodder for a plot that chews through flesh and bone while ignoring all the really juicy, stuff-of-genre-greatness stuff lingering in the other direction.
That’s the most intriguing taste The Wolfman offers, and apparently without even realizing it. You’d think screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self wouldn’t be content to create merely a Victorian slasher movie, which is what The Wolfman ultimately reveals itself to be: the former invented the multifaceted nightmare of Sleepy Hollow, which had so much to say about the divide between and the connections among reason and superstition, and about the neuroses that drive us to examine what frightens us most; the latter found complex terrors in Road to Perdition, which upended expectations about a professional-killer protagonist. But this Wolfman is nothing more than what it appears on the surface: an excuse for bloodletting, if a stylish one. Adapting Curt Siodmak’s script for the 1941 original, Walker and Self have sketched out potential layers of story and character that they then utterly neglect, leaving the prospects for a really meaty tale of horror dangling before us.
Why cast, for instance, prodigal son Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro: Che, Sin City) as a Shakespearean actor returning home to England from America, where he was exiled as a child (hence accounting for Del Toro’s lack of an English accent), and then not allow the juiciness of the Bard’s themes to influence the story? The possibilities are so tantalizing! Lawrence has a contentious relationship with his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins: Beowulf, Slipstream), one already drenched in blood and horror and the kind of familial violence Shakespeare loved… and then that father-son relationship grows even more strained when Lawrence is infected with the cyclical werewolf disease. Del Toro — a passionate, feral sort of actor to begin with — seems sadly leashed here, his natural animalism oddly muted. I felt as if he were longing for an opportunity to play with the notions of a man conflicted about enjoying expressing his creature side while simultaneously horrified by it. That seems like a theme ideally suited to a character who is also an actor, when so many actors say they relish being able to express through a character what they’d never do in real life. How could Walker and Self have possibly missed that? And why does director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III), a former FX artist, appear content to let hair and fangs be the story? Isn’t this supposed to be about the heart of a man at war with his own nature? Why else is the werewolf trope so powerful? How is it that that concept is entirely absent here?
This puzzles me, too: Why bring in a Scotland Yard investigator (Hugo Weaving: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Happy Feet) to solve the mystery of the murderous beast on the foggy moors and call him Frederick Abberline — the real-life chief investigator of the Jack the Ripper case — if that one instance of name-checking is all that defines him? When I realized who Weaver’s character was meant to be, I felt a momentary thrill of geeky excitement: Could Universal be trying to create a whole new franchise in Abberline, a sort of Victorian X-Files? Would we see future movies in which Abberline hunts down the Loch Ness Monster or Dracula? Alas, not only is this not in the offing, Abberline barely figures at all here. The screenwriters might as well have introduced a character named Clark Kent, had someone else recognize him as that reporter from the Daily Planet, and then forgotten all about him. What a waste!
The Wolfman looks great, and there are moments in which Del Toro and Weaving are riveting (though Emily Blunt [The Great Buck Howard, Sunshine Cleaning] is wasted as the requisite damsel in distress). But they don’t have anywhere near enough to play with. Any movie called The Wolfman should be a lot brawnier than this, and a lot more tormented. There’s no English fog so thick that can conceal the emotional emptiness here.