I managed, over the past few months, to get myself pretty excited for The Wolfman. I liked the trailers and the cast and the posters, and I'm generally starved for intense, atmospheric movies. When the bad reviews started pouring in, I figured I'd be the guy who could see its merits, accept its flaws, and give it a positive review. And here I am, able to see those merits shining through, but a good review is more than I can muster.
The Wolfman is ostensibly a remake of the 1941 Universal Pictures monster movie of (almost) the same title. Aside from the general werewolf premise, the plots of the two movies only share a few key reference points. Joe Johnston's The Wolfman begins with Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returning to his family's estate in Great Britain upon the death of his brother. After reuniting with his father (Anthony Hopkins), Lawrence agrees to investigate his brother's death at the request of his brother's fiancee, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). He starts his inquiry at a traveling gypsy caravan, and while he's there, a marauding beast attacks. Lawrence is bitten, and though he survives, he discovers that he has incurred a grim fate.
The rest of the film follows Lawrence as he transforms, ravages, is condemned, escapes, and faces the demons of a haunting past that contributed to his tragedy. I would describe the plot in more detail, but the synopsis would make it sound more complicated than it actually is. This is to the movie's credit; it builds a fairly in-depth web of relationships between its core characters, and it takes a number of sharp turns and twists before it settles into its predictable final scenes.
The film succeeds in some other ways, too. Johnston handles the atmosphere well, rendering one of the most inky, intense Gothic worlds I've seen in a while. In this respect, films like Hellboy could take a lesson from The Wolfman, which uses light and shadow to accentuate ornate sets and landscapes, baroque arrangements that also manage to seem stark and ominous. Of all the film's departures from the original, its atmosphere and tone are probably the best creative decision. Furthermore, the actors are well-chosen. Anthony Hopkins channels Hannibal Lecter, providing a uniquely sinister portrait of fatherhood. Del Toro acts well, too, though he doesn't play quite the timid second-son character that his backstory would suggest. The calculated Gothic-noir demeanor of Hugo Weaving fits the milieu, as well.
The tortured chill of the settings and the characters fit together nicely, overall, and if this was all there was to the movie, it might have been brilliant, in a very particular way. The Talbots' estate is empty and haunted, despite the general lack of ghosts, and the asylum is indulgently horrific and inhumane. These interior spaces serve well to externalize the desperate turmoil of which Lawrence Talbot's psychological state must consist. When the movie's "horror" is merely the fear of the unfamiliar, occasionally punctuated by unhinged hallucinations, it actually serves its purpose well and shows the glimmer of promise that the movie squandered.
Unfortunately, no movie can stand up if it fails its core function, and this is precisely what Johnston does in the many scenes where we see the actual monster. My guess is that he was attempting to minimze CGI, either in the interests of budget or as a service to classic monster movies. The result is a silly, awkward furry monster, no better than a carnival gorilla suit, and honestly not much better than Lon Chaney's 1941 wolfman costume, which was probably scary at the time, but seems terminally outdated now. Johnston attempts to supplement his horror cred by including as many scenes of mutilation as possible, but this just cheapens the general effect, causing us to look away but not providing any space for suspense.
This problem might have been solved in any number of ways. More CGI might have done it, allowing the monster to look a little sleeker and more lupine. Johnston could have taken cues from monster movies like Aliens 3 and put a little more effort into the movement and grace of his creature. More importantly, there should simply have been more restraint, creating some escalating tension and using the gore and costuming as a true payoff. Real horror directors know that the scariest creatures are the ones we rarely see, but can't stop thinking about; The Wolfman is an egregious offense against this tried-and-true principle of fear.
The final word: this movie may not disappear entirely. Its unique combination of legit atmosphere and totally ridiculous, gory action will probably make it a great cult Halloween movie some day. It will inspire a few jumps and cheap scares, some admiring commentary on the scenery, and a lot of laughter over the masturbatory action sequences. The film might contribute something to film culture by standing on the intersection between good historical suspense and woefully campy horror. It will probably be worth renting, when you're in the right mood.
However, if you're going to a theater showing a new release, you probably don't want something to make fun of for two hours. You probably want to see something that's effective. Though it may be good for its camp factor some day, The Wolfman fails at that basic criteria of effectiveness, so I'd recommend holding off for now.