The Wolfman

Director    Joe Johnston
Starring    Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, David Sterne, Nicholas Day
Release    12 FEB (US) 12 FEB (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


11th February 2010

The problem with werewolf movies is, by nature, they're inherently silly. Everyone believes in ghosts. The mythology of vampires is such that it can be manipulated for several audiences. But werewolves? Hairy dudes busting out of their pants and howling at the moon? A violent puberty metaphor? You can't play that straight and expect to get away with it.

The original version of The Wolf Man - the 1941 version starring Lon Chaney Jr - gets a free pass because it was made in an era where monster movies were relatively new and exciting. Rebooting the same story in the age of cynicism and CGI was never going to be easy.

So, if you can't be serious, and you're not willing to play it for laughs, what can you do? The problem with The Wolfman 2010 - the same Wolfman that was due as far back as November 2008 - is that it's neither one beast or the other. It's an admirable attempt at reviving a horror classic, but also one that's misjudged, mishandled and poorly paced.

Benicio Del Toro - who, judging by this early set picture, seemed to be the perfect candidate for the lead - plays American actor Lawrence Talbot, who returns home to his father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) after the mysterious death of his brother. Soon it becomes clear there's a beast loose on them thar moors, and before you can say 'well it's obviously -' Talbot gets a love-bite and starts practising amateur lycanthropy at night school. Not before hitting on his dead brother's fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt) that is. Dirty dog.

[gallery]The Wolfman doesn't so much race out of the blocks and stumble from the stalls, wheezing and spluttering like a knackered greyhound. The opening 40 minutes are s-l-o-w, dull and for the most part, entirely unnecessary - kinda like how zombies are now just assumed to be zombies, do we really need an explanation about the nature of werewolves? What should be a thrilling reintroduction to an iconic character turns out to be a long, drawn-out lesson in how not to open your creature feature.

It'd be understandable if this time was used for character building, but essential relationships are sketched out in mere minutes, in particular the central romance between Lawrence and Gwen. Their love is literally established in one scene, at the lake skipping stones - Del Toro even pulls off the old hands-on, 'swivel your hips' approach. Bear in mind this is just a few minutes after we learned his brother was eaten by a savage beast that's still on the loose. Talbot's relationship with his old man is also undernourished, and comes with a honking great spoiler that's so obvious, it practically comes daubed in the words 'honking great spoiler'.

Things do pick up in the movie's latter half, where Lawrence succumbs to his inner animal. In an age of cinematic pussyfooting, it's a blessing to have a monster movie that's actually monstrous, and director Joe Johnston should be applauded for adding a liberal dash of blood and guts to proceedings - it simply wouldn't be an effective frightener without it. Kudos also to make-up artist Rick Baker, whose prosthetics are perfect: crucially, Del Toro looks threatening in his costume, not ridiculous. It's a shame the same can't be said of the CG, which make the transformation stop-gaps stick out like a sore, poorly-rendered thumb. We're still no closer to topping An American Werewolf In London on this front.

Though he looks the business in his get-up, out of it, Del Toro just looks bored: you'll think he's reprised his mumbling oaf Fenster from The Usual Suspects. It's likely he had little faith in the material - the script, or rather, the amalgamation of several scripts - carries more than its fair share of clichés. Hopkins aims for detached menace but comes off as uninterested, occasionally lapsing into Welsh, but Blunt is at least a trier; she's the only one to dig in her heels and attempt to spark off the underwhelming dialogue. Meanwhile, Hugo Weaving as Inspector Abberline makes for a charismatic addition, but he's hamstrung by the fact his speech patterns are synonymous with Agent Sssmith, rendering his inclusion comical.

Aesthetically, The Wolfman can't be faulted. It has a wonderfully stark, stripped-down visual, which - combined with a muted, smoky colour palette - at least makes it a movie that's interesting to watch, if rarely fun. Johnston, a journeyman director if ever there was one, squeezes in a few iconic shots (howling at the moon, hiding behind trees etc) but only images that are already part of canon. There's one lame action scene near the end when an old-timey bus tips over in slow-motion, and we're supposed to be excited - just one example where the classic period setting is forced to adapt to modern movie sensibilities.

With all the time it's had in production, you'd hope The Wolfman would be a more cogent animal than this. The fact that most of the scares are variations on sudden, loud noises (no cats in cupboards, but there is a dog under a chair) should tell you where the director's head was at. There is a better movie in here, lost in the edit and screaming to get out, but unfortunately, this Wolfman is howling at a moon that's only half-full.

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