Everyone has their own personal favorite type of movie. Although I would never classify them as my favorite, I am a sucker for the classic Universal monsters – Dracula, Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and all the other creatures who appeared in those films. I'm not a fan of horror films by any stretch of the imagination, but put a Universal monster into a movie and I'm likely to be quite interested. Not being a purist, I'm very happy to see new actors take the classic roles as well as directors and screenwriters put their own personal spin on the stories. However, I don't allow my like for the creatures and my desire to see new stories involving them cloud my vision – if the movie isn't good I'm going to be disappointed whether a creature friend of mine appears in it or not.
That being said, Joe Johnston's update to 1941's The Wolf Man, 2010's The Wolfman is a major disappointment. Starring Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot and Anthony Hopkins as Talbot's father, Sir John Talbot, the film may feature excellent makeup and good use of CGI, but the story and characters certainly leave something to be desired.
The screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self takes place in Victorian England and finds Talbot having grown up in America, away from his ancestral home in England. Talbot was sent there after a trip to a mental institution following his mother's suicide. As an adult, Talbot is called back to his family's estate by his brother's fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) who is concerned that her betrothed has gone missing. It quickly becomes apparent that Talbot's brother has been killed by a beast, and upon hearing rumors of a wolfman, Talbot sets off to find the truth… only to be bitten.
That's all well and good; it is a Wolfman movie and Talbot is the lead character and consequently must be bitten – those are the rules. One can almost even forgive the silly story of having Talbot grow up in America, something that feels to have been included because Benicio Del Toro can better approximate an American accent than an English one (for the record however, the American accent is distinctly odd). What is unforgivable about the film is the fact that once Talbot gets bitten The Wolfman seems to have nothing else interesting to do and most of the movie occurs after the bite.
The story devolves into a tale of would-be love between Talbot and Conliffe and a battle between Talbot and his maker. I won't give away who bites Talbot, but it should be readily apparent from the first moment the character appears on screen. There is also a police chase aspect to the entire thing, with an inspector from Scotland Yard, Abberline (Hugo Weaving), doing his best to bring Talbot to justice.
One could argue that the film is simply trying to be an homage to the earlier incarnations of the character and that is why every single moment in the film from start to finish is obvious well before it occurs. But, do you really want to watch a movie that has little to say other than "how great was that Lon Chaney pic?" In fact, one of the selling points of the Blu-ray release is that by purchasing it one gets the ability to stream the Lon Chaney original either on a computer, a BD-Live connected Blu-ray player or via the Pocket Blu iPhone app. It certainly would have been better as a digital download instead of merely a stream (the release does come with a digital copy of the new version).
The makeup work done in the film is by Rick Baker, a master of the art, and is enhanced by CG, but when the makeup is the best part of a film, there is something seriously wrong. Actually, the look and mood Johnston and his cinematographer, Shelly Johnson, give the film really does draw the viewer in. The world the film is set in is very intriguing – the entire thing looks very good (though overly dark), but the piece is all about mood rather than story and greatly falters for it.
The Blu-ray release, as noted, is incredibly dark. Some of that is a directorial decision as there is a good deal of detail in the dark outfits worn by some characters, but all too often a scene unfolds in virtual blackness and no amount of detail or sharpness to the picture will help show what simply is not there to begin with. Though the film is not full of bright, vivid colors, the blood does have a great dark red look and the various lights in a scene (be they blue-white from the moon or yellow from a fire) do play off everything beautifully. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is good but certainly not without issues. The music, done by Danny Elfman, is full of the usual stings to accentuate when something scary is supposed to be happening and they – along with yells, growls, and various effects – play out at significantly greater volume than most of the dialogue (particularly as Del Toro and Hopkins have a tendency to speak in hushed tones). It sounds good, but as the loud moments are calculated to create a jump where the visuals and screenplay attempt to but don't, it too ends up feeling disappointing.
Aside from the aforementioned digital/streaming extras, the film does come with both an unrated and theatrical cut of the film as well as extended and deleted scenes. The unrated cut is particularly odd as early on it shows a scene where dialogue must have been rewritten so as to fit with the theatrical release's opening and not the unrated one (the same scene is present in the theatrical cut but there makes logical sense with the opening). Even so, the longer version of the film does nothing to illuminate where the endeavor may have gone wrong. The same is true of the two alternate endings included as well as the behind the scenes featurettes. These last items focus on Baker and the makeup he did for the film, how CGI was used to enhance the makeup, the stunts, and a making-of piece which discusses some nods to the 1941 film.
Whatever may occur at the end of (or throughout) this film, one has to believe that the Wolfman still has life left within him. The character is a great one, and hopefully it won't be too long before we will get his next big screen incarnation. One does hope that Rick Baker will still be the guy who gets to do the makeup.