BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Shakespearean actor Lawrence Talbot returns to England after his brother’s death, and becomes bitten by a werewolf.
PROS: Rick Baker’s transformation effects, and some clever screenplay touches.
CONS: The screenplay is disjointed erratic, and director Joe Johnston isn’t up to handling the material.
Since 1992, filmmakers of varying degrees of talent and ability have attempted to revive, if not truly remake, the monster movies produced by Universal Pictures during the 1930s. Francis Ford Coppola did it well by pulling out all the cinematic stops with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Kenneth Branagh did it badly with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Stephen Somers did it really badly by attempting to reinvigorate the monster mashups of the 1940s with Van Helsing. (I’m leaving out The Mummy, of course, but since there’s so little of the original in Somers’s remake I can hardly compare the two. It would be like comparing apples to chum.) Now Joe Johnston, director of such cinematic trifles as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer and Jumanji, has decided to have a go at The Wolfman, with results that are as ephemeral as his previous work.
It starts promisingly enough, with the gypsy Maleva’s famous quatrain from the original: “Even a man who is pure in heart/And says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms/And the autumn moon is bright.” The second it opens with Ben Talbot being murdered in Blackmoor woods by a werewolf, however, we’re in all too familiar territory. His brother Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) returns to England to attend Ben’s funeral. Here he meets Gwen Confille (Emily Blunt, her attractive body hidden from us by layers of petticoats), Ben’s fiancé, for the first time, and is allowed by his distant father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) to see Ben’s body, which appears to have been ripped apart by an enormous creature. When he finds a medallion among Ben’s possessions, Talbot learns that it came from a gypsy woman named Maleva and travels to her camp on the night of the full moon. As she warns him of danger, a werewolf attacks the camp and kills a number of people, many of them villagers. (I never understood why villagers would visit a gypsy camp at night, but I suppose the filmmakers had a reason.) Talbot chases it off, but not before it attacks him and bites him on the neck.
The gypsies tend to Talbot and leave him in his father’s care. As he heals, he has flashbacks (and pretentious flashbacks at that) of his period in a mental asylum, and remembers the night in which he found his father cradling his dead mother in a courtyard, her hand clasping a razor. After an unspecified period of weeks, Talbot finally finds that his wound is nothing more than a scar, and that he has aroused Inspector Abberline of Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving, who looks like he’d rather be hunting Keanu Reaves or smoking pipeweed) and has summoned the ire of villagers.
On the night of the full moon, Talbot sees his father walking to his mother’s crypt and follow him to find Sir John in a cell and a shrine to his mother. He leaves, and begins to change…
The screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self strives for greatness, proffering elements of Greek tragedy and madcap lunacy (especially as Inspector Abberline chases lycanthrope Talbot through the streets of London), and even manages a clever touch or two (as when Talbot transforms in front of a group of psychiatrists in as asylum). Their decision to move the action from the present (or even the 1940s) to nineteenth century England would also appear to work in the movie’s favor, allowing them to ride the Steampunk zeitgeist. Unfortunately, too often whole scenes feel underwritten and erratic. Walker and Self have an opportunity to comment on the savage within us (as most werewolf works do), yet their decision to do so seems perfunctory. Moreover, their decision to present the material in a respectful, even reverent manner stands at odds with their director, making their efforts to avoid falling into clichéd traps all the more obvious. (As a vigilante group from a nearby village hunts Talbot through the woods outside his mansion, it’s hard to wonder why they’re not carrying pitchforks.) Either their screenplay needed to play up the camp elements, or it needed a director who had the skill to strengthen the tragedy. A director who can envision the period to make it convincing.
Alas, what they have is Joe Johnston, who lacks the skill to bring life, or even much fun, to the material. He films the transformation sequences well (though with Rick Baker handling most of the effects, it would be hard to see anybody going wrong there), but doesn’t grasp the nature of pacing to pull off the thrills or the understanding of character needed to make the audience care. He offers his actors, fine thespians all, and folks with far more talent than he, no guidance, as if he was afraid of offending them. As a result, Del Toro by turns broods and howls across the moors like Heathcliff but slips into parody, Hopkins leaves teeth marks on the scenery, Weaving hunts werewolves as single-mindedly as he did when he hunted Neo in The Matrix, and Blunt stares vacantly through every scene like a wax dummy at Madame Tussauds. Worse, he views Victorian England with even more superficiality than a made-for-television movie. A viewer cannot help but compare it to the London of Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes and find Johnston’s to be flat and barren.
Even Rick Baker’s makeup effects don’t save the movie. Though the transformation effects are, of course, excellent, the results don’t add much to the werewolf pantheon. Worse still, the makeup effects begin to look ridiculous.
The biggest problem with The Wolfman is not that it is bad (though that is part of it), just unnecessary. The Universal monster movies were of their time, made before the genre trappings were firmly in place. They benefited from filmmakers who understood the power of images and could inspire awe, and continue to withstand the test of time. The screenwriters and director obviously love the 1941 original; it’s a pity they didn’t have the ability to do it justice, or to leave it alone.