Strongly influenced by classic 1941 monster movie Wolf Man, the new Wolfman opening in theaters tonight is the epitome of an historical hair-and-hat movie. But recreating the Victorian mood of an old-fashioned flick isn't enough.
Like the iconic Lon Chaney, Jr.'s character in the 1941 Wolf Man, Benicio Tel Toro's character Lawrence has returned to the ancestral manse to have a showdown with his father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins in high camp mode). Preserved from the original movie are Lawrence's encounter with a werewolf that leaves him with an urge to bark at the moon, gypsy magic, and a beautiful woman who (almost) tames Lawrence's savage beast. Also preserved from the original is the look of the wolfman, who is more like the Incredible Hulk than the boys of Twilight. He gets muscled, toothy, and hairy, but retains his basic human shape, including his artfully shredded Victorian outfits.
While the classic vampire story brings our ancient beasts into the city, there to tangle with the ladies, the classic werewolf tale goes the other direction. Our human returns to the country, goes monstery, and tangles with his family or parent figures. Lawrence's conflict with his father John is at the heart of this tale. The "prodigal son" has returned from America (or London? continuity issues abound here), where he's a famous stage actor, for his brother's funeral. Immediately the manly, gun-toting John reminds Lawrence about how he was always "weak" and so forth. Basically it's Victorian jock dad vs. theater nerd kid. And poor Emily Blunt, the hot widow of Lawrence's brother, is sort of wandering in the background looking milky and wearing a lot of black dresses.
Over the course of the film, we discover that John has been torturing his girly-man son for years. When Lawrence was a teenager, John sent him to an insane asylum where he was waterboarded and injected with weird drugs. As soon as he goes wolf, John sends him back to the same place - and we get a lot of gross and seemingly extraneous scenes of insane asylum torture. Again, insane asylums are a classic werewolf story trope, which Ben Templesmith evoked masterfully in his recent series Welcome to Hoxford. But unlike Templesmith's story, Wolfman approaches the material limply, giving us a rote "asylums were really awful and dirty in the Victorian era" bit and nothing more.
All this abuse has left Lawrence very broody and prone to chest-baring, which is one of the fun parts of Wolfman. Del Toro knows how to throw down with the hooded looks, and he's always fascinating to watch. But he looked awkward in his period garb, and the dialog was so stilted that no amount of acting could rescue it. And instead of creeping terror, this movie relies entirely on cheap "boo! gotcha!" shocks.
Some of these problems may be the result of what many critics have called a troubled production. Director Joe Johnston was called in after a last-minute crew switcheroo, and he continued to fire and hire key players on the production up until the very end. Plus endless reshoots resulted in significant eleventh-hour changes to the movie. As a result, you get a Wolfman that's all over the place and bland at the same time.
Admittedly there's something flat-out cool about the way Wolfman doesn't try to do a "modern twist" on the werewolf story, especially when so many urban fantasies from Buffy to Twilight have reinvented werewolves as hipsters and shirtless lovemuffins. This movie is no Wolf, with ancient wolfy battles transposed onto publishing industry infighting; nor is it trying to go the American Werewolf In London route, making werewolves into "realistic" guys. And like I said, that's a good thing: It's refreshing to see a movie whose special effects are gothic rather than realistic, and whose characters do a ton of non-ironic brooding.
But sadly, the movie winds up being unintentionally cheesy rather than an interesting homage to the past.
That said, there are few nods to our contemporary post-colonial sensibilities - unlike in the original, the werewolf who bites Lawrence is not a gypsy, so there's no hint that the beast comes from evil ethnic outsiders. And Sir John has a seriously badass Sikh manservant named Singh, played with snacky intensity by Art Malik. Plus there's a Man Of Science from Scotland Yard, played by the always-delightful Hugo Weaving. Honestly, if the filmmakers wanted to give us an original take on the classic myth, they would have done well to make Weaving and Malik our main characters - every time one of them walked on screen I wanted to howl, "More of this!"
If you're looking for a monster movie that gets under your skin and offers an original approach to an old legend, Wolfman isn't it. But if you want a fun, cheesy B-movie that's basically an excuse to watch hunky guys get feral, then Wolfman will satisfy. Just don't expect too much.