What with vampires and zombies so utterly preeminent in the modern horror oeuvre nowadays, it seems that all those other classic bloodcurdling beasties seem to have been forgotten. But then, there are only so many ways you can run through the ‘vampire as sexual metaphor’ or ‘zombie as commentary on the modern world’s lack of individualism’ routines before the whole thing starts to get a little dry.
So, I don’t think I’ll be the only one enthused by the prospect of a new werewolf movie. And I don’t mean an Underworld or Van Helsing-esque mythology mash-up. No, I mean a bloodcurdling, hair’um scare’um big budget lycanthropic legend.
A remake of the iconic 1940s’ creature feature of the same name, starring Benico Del Toro as the titular shapeshifter, with Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaver in support, The Wolfman certainly talks a good game. It looks fantastic, replete with lashings of lupine howls, gruesome gore and mist-shrouded forests in the moonlight.
But this is also a film that seems somewhat cursed. With a one sacked director, a load of reshoots, a complete re-edit and several release date moves, many thought something rather monstrous was up with this film. The omens, you could say, were not looking good.
Well, the good news is it’s not a total stinker, but The Wolfman is certainly very creaky in places – more like a campy homage to the old school frightfest than respectable film in its own right. An $85 million B-movie that seems to think that pummelling the audience into submission with an unrelenting torrent of clichés and stereotypes, all of which are delivered with a canny wink and a knowing nudge-nudge of geeky in-joke cheek, will mask its faults.
Plot-wise it does exactly what it says on the proverbial tin. Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro), a Shakespearian stage actor in Victorian England, returns to his family estate after his brother is torn to pieces. At first, the blame is levelled at a troupe of wandering gypsies and their dancing bear. But after a midnight chase across the fog-drenched moorland, Talbot himself is savaged, only to be saved at the last minute. And everyone knows what happens if a werewolf bites you but you survive.
Hopkins plays Del Toro’s misanthropic recluse of a father and Blunt his brother’s grieving ex. Then there’s Weaving as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Abberline, a character bizarrely pinched from the Jack the Ripper story for no real reason other than to add to the film’s convoluted collection of Victorian references.
But all of this is secondary, because what we’re really waiting for is the glorious sight of a werewolf with the scent of blood in its nostrils. First in murky, moonlit forests, then around the cobbled streets of London’s East End, before back to the woods for the finale. Like the meerkat says, ‘simples’.
Another showstopper of the genre is the transformation scene, and The Wolfman doesn’t disappoint here. Watching Del Toro’s fingers stretch and morph into great cleaving talons while his face transforms into the muzzled maw of the beast within is a spectacular sight. The character design is directly lifted from Lon Chaney Jr’s seminal incarnation, so this wolfman retains traces of his human features, with the ripped remains of a white ruffle shirt clinging to its torso. It’s wonderfully retro and a testament to Del Toro’s love of the source material (he is an avid collector of Wolfman memorabilia).
It is rumoured that the film’s original director, Mark Romanek, left after clashing with Del Toro over his visual realisation for the wolfman – with Romanek favouring a more contemporary, feral look and Del Toro demanding a retro hark back to the classic.
Admittedly, the man drafted in to settle the ship, Joe Johnson (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III), has done a marvellous job on the film’s aesthetics. But a good facelift can’t hide The Wolfman‘s fundamental disfigurements, namely a hodgepodge script that veers from underdone to burnt-to-a-crisp in the space between plot beats.
The pacing in this film is all over the place, like the scriptwriters were just going ‘So what happens next? Umm…how about…’ and then whacking another sub plot into the oven. This is probably the result of all the reshoots and re-edits, which I also imagine included quite a few shifts in tone.
What saves the film is the acting talent. Hopkins waltzes his way through the film, seemingly unconvinced if his usual gravitas is really necessary. So instead he adds a louche, lounge lizard quirk that brightens every scene, but fails to quite illuminate the overall composition.
Blunt is little more than period piece eye candy, all heaving bosoms and chesty corsets, with characterisation so thin she’s barely even a pale shadow of the horror hereon. But she’s a great actress, and manages to inject some life into the breathy, dew-eyed Gwen.
Hugo Weaving adds a little spice as Abberline, but, and this is testament to the film’s convoluted script, for a while he’s painted out as a bad guy even though he’s a police officer who’s just trying to figure out why people keep getting eaten.
Del Toro tries his best, and brings his customary cool to proceedings, but Talbot is a very passive protagonist and gives us little reason to root for him.
Unlike vampires, who remain in complete control, and zombies, who lose all traces of humanity, the wolfman has always been stuck in the middle – tormented by what he’s done but unable to help himself.
The middle ground is always dangerous, being neither one nor the other, and The Wolfman suffers from this stylistic schizophrenia. It knows not what it is and tries so many different outfits on for size it ends up chasing its own tail. But it is kind of fun in a silly way.
The Wolfman opens in UK cinemas on February 12.