Here is a movie that has had a long and tumultuous journey to the big screen. It was originally set for a release back in 2007 when Mark Romanek was attached to direct. Following his departure (over budget disagreements) the release was pushed back as Joe Johnston came on board. The film was then scheduled for April 2009, then it got pushed to November 2009, before finally landing in February 2010. All of these release schedule changes, talks of re-shoots and additional scenes, not to mention the removal of Danny Elfman's score followed by its reinstatement, all pointed towards a surefire flop. With this knowledge, I went in forewarned, expecting the worst.
So I'm pleased to report it is far from the failure I was expecting. This is not to say that it was all that it could be, but there certainly is a lot to like about it. The Wolfman is a film whose parts are greater than their sum. It is a film that takes cues from other eras of film and puts them together with modern production techniques to create a film that is definitely of the new school but has an almost classic feel. No, this is not likely to become a classic, but it has the atmosphere to bring the thought to mind.
The story is a simple one. Gwen (Emily Blunt) is engaged to Ben Talbot who has gone mysteriously missing. Gwen sends word to Ben's brother, Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro), an actor whose troupe happens to be touring London. And so Lawrence returns to the family estate and his father (Anthony Hopkins). It is not the friendliest of reunions as there is a shared history that has soured the relationship and Lawrence has not been to his ancestral home in many years. His arrival also marks the discovery of Ben, found mauled to death in a roadside ditch. Lawrence vows to uncover the truth behind the murder.
This reunion reveals dark family secrets, a family curse, and precipitates a great deal of bloodshed. We all know the basic werewolf lore, that the condition is caught by a bite and that they can be killed by silver bullets (or anything silver for that matter). All of this comes out of Lawrence's investigation, one that brings the curse crashing down on him. Lawrence is forced to deal with this as well as avoid the Scotland Yard Inspector Abbilene (Hugo Weaving) while he tries to find out how it all fits together. Will it lead to his undoing? Can the curse be broken? Some questions will be answered while others are left hanging as the story fails to really deliver that which I craved.
Watching the film makes it abundantly clear that elements were removed. Some of the scenes seem not to have a strong relation to each other, as if the reactions were originally to different lines. Relationships that should have more weight to them never fully develop. It is almost like the audio stepped in and cut it to keep the pace fast and diminish character development. It does not ruin the film by any stretch, but it definitely does not help its case. I have heard talk that director Joe Johnston is working on a director's cut that is more than 20 minutes longer. Perhaps this will help with the story issues.
The look of the film is pure Gothic. It is a period piece that feels like a cross between the original The Wolf Man and a Hammer Studios production. It is very British in its execution. There are stretches of spoken exposition that are a bit clunky, but work for the film's style. The acting is generally stiff and unrealistic by modern standards, but I like to think it was more of a stylistic choice to reinforce the feeling that it is an old film.
The makeup is quite fantastic. The werewolf look is straight out of the 1941 original film. While the transformation is CG, the final look consists of practical makeup applications. It's a wonderful look. It is menacing and has that tangible feel to it that the werewolves of most modern films, like the Underworld series, just cannot match. On top of the great look, The Wolfman has its share of blood and guts, and this is done primarily practically as well. The film is violent and there is plenty of blood thrown around.
What it comes down to is a film whose story has sadly been cut up, but is bolstered but the look and execution. The cast does a fine job despite the apparent, and possibly by design, stiff performances. Benicio Del Toro carries a lot of pain in his eyes while Emily Blunt is a bearer of sadness and Anthony Hopkins is, well, Anthony Hopkins. We cannot forget Hugo Weaving — he has some great scenes, and very few people can deliver a line like he can.
The film sports some beautiful cinematography, dark, gloomy, and pitch perfect for this period horror. Further helping the atmosphere is Danny Elfman's score. It evokes memories of past horror films while standing on its own two feet. It has a big feel and makes great use of repeating themes. I am glad they decided to go back to it.
Bottom line. This is a movie that is very much worth the time. If you enjoy Hammer films and classic Universal monsters you will likely enjoy this. While the elements are all good, the story falters, bringing it down somewhat. Let me close by saying the ending is terrible. Shame.