THE WOLFMAN —–“Sometimes monsters hunt you.” The star-powered, big-scale, blood-drenched 2010 remake of the venerated classic was originally budgeted at $85,000,000, but one impacted fang led to another and with a last-minute director change, numerous re-shoots, much tinkering with the score and special effects, and several postponements of release dates, the vet bill came to $150,000,000, enough to make nail-biting production execs howl. It didn’t fare well with yapping reviewers and the grosses lock-jawed at $139,800,000: against high expectations, too-harsh judgments and the overcooked expense it bit the fur as a major and unexpected flop. Too bad, as the good elements are strong enough to reward a view and earn applause, even if the weak characterizations paw the turf. (Q: does the Wolfman have a weak character? Was that—aside from some wanton murders—his real problem? Or are we waxing lunar?)
In this telling, ‘Lawrence Talbot’ (Benecio del Toro, saturnine) returns home to the imposing Talbot estate in Blackmoor (England replacing Wales) after years abroad in America as an actor, and also, we learn, having done some time in an asylum (the two things perhaps not mutually exclusive). His ice-prince father (Anthony Hopkins, who is Welsh) is not the happiest camper on the moor, and Larry’s late, recently mangled brother’s fiancee (Emily Blunt) is understandably distraught.
First, the coroners report. Four things trap and hobble this packed Wolf. One, the unwieldy screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self swallows more than it can chomp by over-plotting. There are no clunker lines to speak of, but there are few that rouse the beast within. Second would that be some (not all) of the direction from Joe Johnston lets the unrelieved downer tone drag things drowsy in the non-action scenes. Third, most damaging, three of the four lead players—great actors all—deliver curious and frustratingly opaque performances.
Benecio is a Wolf Man man from way back, a collector of ly-conic memorabilia, but except for a few moments when he unleashes his inner hound, he’s so reserved and subdued here he seems cursed with an inner sanctum that doesn’t let us feel enough of what he supposedly does. Blunt is—let’s say it—blunted, likewise lacking her usual spark. Dowdy, dulled down, it’s the least lively performance this normally winning actress has given. ‘Stunned’ is too strong, but I recall the surprise on first seeing this, watching Hopkins walk through the most low-wattage job in an illustrious career. The fourth pesky tick in this wolf wane (okay, you write it!) we’ll discuss below. *
Fighting tooth & nail against the flaws are top-tier production design, superior makeup, lavish art direction, a slick job from one of the actors and most of the exciting action. Rounding out the cast is ever-deft Hugo Weaving, who, unlike the top trio, doesn’t leave his mojo AWOL: as the Scotland Yard copper Inspector Aberline he enlivens each scene he’s in, giving line readings the unique sort of twist he brought to The Matrix. The superbly appointed sets, nifty CGI shots of old London, Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning makeup, the sound effects and costuming, props and cinematography all look like how the old werewolf movies felt—they nail sensate-memory of distant imaginings. Some negative opinions take snooty issue with the special effects, a blend of top-grade live action stunts and modern digital tricks; to these wolfwise eyes they look pretty darn cool.
At any rate, fans of this breed of horrific fantasy creature don’t sign on for a decaf tea party with curd cookies. They want werewolf attacks and they better be as gnarly as such a thing could be. Here director Johnston and crew earn their pay, and blood-hounds get enough neck-gouging, rib-rending, cavity-carving, head-lopping viscera to choke a woodchipper. Cool Grisly. Hey, it’s a friggin’ Wolfman movie: you think people bleed whipped cream? The faint can faint.
There’s a quartet-set of action rampage. First is in the gypsy camp where Lawrence is bite. Second is his making a red-splashed hash of a group of hunters out to trap him. Third is the biggie, a spectacular wingding beginning in a crowded lecture hall, then moving into the streets and across the rooftops of London in what looks to be a homage to the similar crowd-thinner in An American Werewolf In London. It gets an A. Last is the confrontation between the two Talbots, yet despite energetic stunts and gouts of fire it’s the least effective, partially because seeing 71-year-old Anthony Hopkins made up as a werewolf tends to make one chuckle rather than shudder.
All-in, a mixed bag, maybe not the Grand Guignol knockout planned, but hardly the whimpering puppy of its reputation.
With the already odd-looking Geraldine Chaplin, 64 here, made to look a good 20 more, as ‘Maleva’. She’s okay, but not a patch off old Maria Ouspenskaya (I admit never being a fan of Ms. Chaplin). Also in the mix are Art Malik and Antony Sher. Elder statesman/good sport Max Von Sydow has a cameo. Suitably tense music score from the dependable, tone-attuned skills of Danny Elfman. 103 minutes/ 119 in the unrated cut (the one to catch).
* Consider the steel trap verdict from Ron Meyer, bracingly honest head of Universal: “One of the worst movies we ever made. The moment I saw it I thought, “What have we all done here?” That movie was crappy. We all went wrong. That’s one we should have smelled out a long time ago. The script never got right … The director was wrong. Benicio stunk. It all stunk.” Jeez, I’d hate to disappoint the guy…
The Big Universal Cheese was no doubt irked by losing millions—had The Wolfman made more money, one wonders if he would’ve barked at the moon? Speaking of wind, above we yammered about four factors flummoxing the film. The fourth is a sticky wicket situation that hampers many modern attempts at updating/rehashing/honoring/ripping off old classics from the historical realm of deep make-believe. For every 1978 Superman, 2002 Spiderman, 2005 King Kong or 2017 Wonder Woman there are a dozen bloated reboot noisemakers that don’t relive escapist dreams and reignite imagination as much as they batter senses and bludgeon the spirit. Something as fanciful (er…insane) as a man turning into an animal can only stand so much scrutiny (hell on the wardrobe for starters) before you have to face the ugly truth that you aren’t seven years old. Some stories play best to a general age group and in a particular time frame. If the on-its-face absurd pretext is kept simple—say, Silver Bullet or The Howling—then the suspension of disbelief can hold for 100-odd minutes. Trying to make ‘A Serious Piece’ about mutants with superpowers, billionaires who dress like bats or 400-year-old Hungarians who sleep in coffins runs risk reminding that you’ve only got so much time left to live yourself. Let those cartoon heroes and demons loose. Play it big. Blow the hell out of landmarks and the space-time continuum. But, FGS, spare us the Dark Nature of Our Own Selves Revealed stuff. Let that guilt warrant the second bottle of wine on a third date with the first person in four years who seems interested in listening to your five-year plan. The Defense rests. Oh, great, now the moon’s full: make note to buy calendar….