When it comes to the golden age of cinema, I haven’t seen nearly as many films as I probably need to. If I’m being honest, I’ve probably seen ten or twenty films made prior to 1950, and Lon Chaney Jr.’s 1941 The Wolf Man is not among those. So my frame of reference as far as this remake is limited. I would like to be able to compare not only the story, but the style as well, as it seems that some of the most striking visuals found in the first few generations of film-making came in the horror genre. But alas, I’m a film buff charlatan and my top five movies were made in the last twenty years. Still, it’s not impossible to glean something from the general style of the times, and Joe Johnston‘s 2010 The Wolfman remake does seem relatively beholden to its roots. There’s a struggle here in trying to update while simultaneously trying not to, and it’s in this struggle that the film staggers. It’s like watching a graphic designer put together the Mona Lisa in Adobe Illustrator. The pieces are there, but the final product feels inexplicably wrong.
Successful American actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is forced to return home when he receives news of his brother’s death. His arrival to his old home of Talbot Manor finds the expansive estate dilapidated and his father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) in a similar mental state. His late brother’s fiancee, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) is preparing to leave the estate when Lawrence promises her he will find his brother’s killer. Upon visiting a band of gypsies his brother was in contact with, Lawrence finds himself in the midst of sudden chaos caused by a wolf creature. He is bitten, and subsequently bedridden, and on the next full moon he transforms into the wolfman. The next morning finds him captured and taken to an insane asylum where he’s tortured and eventually learns that his father is also afflicted with lycanthropy. Lawrence escapes, and makes his way home to kill his father, followed closely by a small contingent from Scotland Yard. An epic battle ensues. The violence is extraordinary, and the undertones of a father/son conflict are all present. As a wolfman dies, a legend is born.
The Wolfman is one of those unfortunate cases where you see all the best stuff in the trailer. Lawrence’s transformations into the wolfman are shockingly violent, and visually the most impressive part of the film, but they’re few and far between, and pieces of those great moments have been teased in every TV spot. Generally the visual effects are infrequent, which isn’t necessarily bad, but in this case it hurts the product. There’s so much fog and gloom and slow-moving scenery that when we finally are presented with the action it’s almost too little too late. That’s not to say that the setting is poorly established. Quite the contrary. The constant and intense foreboding instilled in every frame leaves no doubt where things will end. But if this is Johnston’s stylistic throwback, then his modern take on the action of the wolfman disjoints the listlessness in a less than positive way.
Still, the film isn’t all bad, with some nifty action sequences and a few exceptionally dark moments spent in pre-Mental Health Law asylum. While the story is battered by convolution, the performances are generally strong, with Anthony Hopkins leading the fray. His Sir John is so disconcerting it at times recalls the terror of Hannibal Lecter. From his first moment onscreen there is something indefinably sinister about the Talbot patriarch. He glides across the floor of the disfigured old mansion, a single candle casting all the light he’s willing to shed. The father vs. son conflict, though explicit at the end is still evident from the beginning, and Hopkins milks his role as the distant forebear. His constant flirtation with madness is a joy to watch, and in a better, more serious film, I’d be shocked to not hear more acclaim for the work.
There’s a curious dynamic to The Wolfman of boredom slashed with excitement. For the most part you’re waiting for something, whether it be action or plot or character development. Then suddenly a burst of action, then waiting some more. Other films have followed a similar pattern, and it hasn’t bothered me for any number of reasons, but here the boredom weighs more. There’s just not enough happening under the surface to allow for this kind of stalling. Again, I haven’t seen the original Wolf Man, but if my film history is at all accurate then I have to assume it, and not it’s 2010 clone, will remain the definitive portrayal of this fantastic and horrifying creature.