About halfway through Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman, a Scotland Yard inspector named Aberline (the reliable Hugo Weaving) points out to a barmaid that he is not in the woods searching for a vicious killer because the majority of the townspeople are gathered in that very room and the surrounding buildings. Better to stay close to potential victims than wander off. Sadly, this is one of the few moments in the new adaptation of the Universal monster tale that has any wit or cleverness, and does not drown in the hoariest clichés. The Wolfman isn’t necessarily the Transformers of monster movies (that title is held by its close cousin, Van Helsing), but it is a howlingly* bad film that never hits an original note.
Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is summoned to his family estate in Blackmoor, England following the gruesome death of his brother Ben. His father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), is at best a prickly fellow, callous and insensitive, who harbors some pretty massive secrets about the family history. But mostly he seems concerned about staying locked indoors during a full moon, which doesn’t strike Lawrence as at all odd. After visiting a gypsy village, Lawrence is bitten by something that runs and attacks like a beast, but stands upright. His wounds heal surprisingly well, and soon the full moon brings on a horrific change, one that is not impeded by modern psychological treatments, non-silver bullets or even the calming influence of love (in the form of Emily Blunt as Ben’s fiancée).
If only the new film had something to offer other than a promising cast and classic origins. The screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and David Self (Thirteen Days, Road to Perdition) is rife with clichés. What should be solid scares are the worst kinds of cheap smash-cuts. And while the sets and costumes look good, the whole film has been shot with a grey filter that only serves to wash out every image. So maybe none of this matters with up-to-date special effects to serve the story material? Unfortunately, the cutting-edge CG effects for Lawrence’s transformations seem even clunkier than the mechanized-prop effects from An American Werewolf in London almost 20 years ago.
It would be nice to say that the film was saved by the performances of its cast, but few of the primaries shine. Benicio Del Toro goes the length of the film with only two expressions: cautious regard and terror-struck. That is, when he’s not snarling under the effective work of the sizable makeup effects crew.
More distressing is the portrayal of Sir John by the legendary Anthony Hopkins. A cold, insincere, but eternally mournful fellow, the elder Talbot is a hearty, potentially wicked role to play. But Hopkins seems to be exercising little more than his check-cashing skill here. And who can blame him, really? His directorial debut (Slipstream) went off the rails in 2007. In the last decade he has balanced a scant few powerful portrayals of complex men (Coleman Silk in The Human Stain; Burt Munro in The World’s Fastest Indian) with fantastical mythology characters (Hrothgar in Beowulf; Odin in next year’s Thor) and other mainstream fodder. If anyone should have been able to provide The Wolfman a simultaneous glimmer of ferocity and respectability, Hopkins would be the man. For all of his known intensity, the actor shuffles through the film lethargically until the Big Finish, and even then the intensity is not completely his own doing.
Nice that Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving handle their respective lesser roles well, but with so much else wrong about the film, it doesn’t amount to much. Blunt is so lovely that she manages to light up the bland color palette and shadowy corridors of Talbot Manor. And Weaving, with his unique tenor that always sounds like he’s about to add “…, Mr. Anderson“, simply doesn’t get out enough, so it’s a shame he’s chosen a rather blah blockbuster for his latest film. These two deserve projects they can take charge of; Blunt has The Young Victoria, but Weaving has yet to have a truly singular showcase for his talent.
The Wolfman arrives firmly in the mid-doldrums of February, which should have been a clue that it was at best a questionable effort. Poorly written and with little joy outside of its reverence for the original model, the film simply cannot sustain the expectations of either late-Winter blockbuster or pre-Summer horror homage.
(*For fun, see how many reviews use this awful pun.)