I’ll say this for Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman”: It spares us the hyperbole and gets down to brass tacks.
There are no needless scenes of exposition informing us that a lycanthrope can only be assassinated by the use of silver bullets, that the full moon brings on its transformation, that the bite of a werewolf transfers the curse of werewolfhood.
Monster movie lore is already so pregnant with facts like these that it’s a bit of a relief to see “The Wolfman” refuse to give it one more go around.
Unfortunately, nothing it supplies is original in the slightest, or scary, or much of anything, really. We get the scene where a group of town elders sit around a tavern table and engage in a crapshoot of theories. We get the old chestnut of a gypsy curse, and many shots of the full moon rising, a lot more digitally than it did back in Lon Chaney’s day. And “The Wolfman” announces that yet another “prodigal son” has returned, a line used so often in pictures that it’s a wonder Jesus Christ isn’t back and living like a king on plagiarism compensations.
All of these clichés might be expected, but it’s the responsibility of the modern monster movie picture to treat the clichés in new and interesting ways. “The Wolfman” shows an utter lack of interest in its story, penned for the screen by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self and based on the Chaney flick. Any character analysis is traded in for gratuitous scenes of gore-flinging mayhem. Limbs are severed, heads are lopped off, intestines are chewed, scratches are inflicted deeply and Johnston has made sure that his camera gets every last detail of the medical stitching in close-up.
Benicio Del Toro is a complete waste as Lawrence Talbot, trading in every scrap of acting ability he has (and the man has a lot of scraps, a whole heap of them) for glowering looks and a deadpan delivery. When he finally does act out, it sounds forced and unintentionally funny. Anthony Hopkins plays the senior Talbot, also a werewolf. “Look into my eyes,” he instructs his son; “you’ll see I’m quite dead.” Hopkins is clearly dead to this material, barely finding the energy to raise his voice. Even character actor Hugo Weaving offers little relief as a Scotland Yard inspector whose job, it seems, is to show up too late to stop the mayhem.
Needless to say, Lawrence is bitten and begins wreaking havoc. He falls for his deceased brother’s fiancee (Emily Blunt), necessary for the scene where the woman attempts to soothe the beast out of his savage state by looking into his eyes and pleading. After Lawrence is captured, we are treated to the creepiness of early 20th century psychoanalytic science before the story goes full-on Oedipal: Father and son inevitably clash werewolf a werewolf as a portrait of mother burns passionately over the mantle.
The film is mostly noisy jump scares scattered among graphic gore scenes that grow tiresome in their attempts to wake us up, accompanied by plenty of reveals that start at the feet and make their way dramatically to eye level, even if we’ve already met the character. Yes, Del Toro’s transformation into the werewolf looks impressive. His bones snap, his teeth bleed, his hands and feet gnarl, and at the end of it all he doesn’t look much different from the werewolves seen in most monster movies. He isn’t given much of anything different to do either, other than howl at the moon, stalk maidens on the moors and jump from rooftop to rooftop in brainless action film fashion.
What more life can be drawn from the wolfman? Johnston’s film seems to be going for the tone of a b-level noir, which could have worked, but its delivery is so stilted and showy that it never feels like anything more than a lot of money thrown at a thin idea. Its locales and costumes are convincing, but none of the actors seem to care one way or the other. The story is predictable, hollow and obvious, lacking any sort of terror and leaving the monster at its centre dead on all four feet.
Follow Joel Crary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joelcrary.