Wolfman Review: The Howl’s Worse Than Its Bite

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You know a horror film’s in trouble when the morning-after scene is more satisfying than the “night before.” When the aftermath carries more weight than the chaos. When I spent more time marveling at the production design than getting caught up in the scares.

I love me a good monster yarn, but The Wolfman seems thoroughly confused as to why it is that monsters so fascinate and titillate our collective imagination. In the case of a werewolf, I think the allure is the dichotomy, the way a cheerful chap can double as some sort of bloodthirsty monster. How a man can possess within him the sort of unlimited strength that can not only destroy his enemies, but also harm those he loves. Strolling by day and howling by night. (Check out our interview with Wolfman director Joe Johnston)

My favorite werewolf films have not just been great visual feasts, but somewhat sophisticated psychological profiles.  And in the very last moments of Joe Johnston’s re-make of The Wolfman, as a character peers into the eyes of a ravenous Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), wondering if they are communicating with Lawrence the man or Lawrence the beast, we for the first time question that concept of what lies at the core of this creature. It’s here – and only here – where we get a sense of what The Wolfman could have been.

But, alas, it wells short of that apex. By the time we get to the film’s first juicy scene – where a father finds his son bloodied and bruised and sleeping in a field (see above) after a night of terrorizing the town, all but marveling at the horror of his son’s crimes as an angry mob descends on them both – we’ve suffered through nearly an hour of brooding, boring melodrama. The first half of The Wolfman exhibits so little passion or spark that we’re left wondering why Johnston wanted to make the movie in the first place. (More at Techland: The All-Time 10 Best Ice Worlds)

Then again, Johnston didn’t build the thing; he just showed up to clean up the mess. Mark Romanek, the MTV visual perfectionist, was originally slated to direct The Wolfman, before splitting with the studio in early 2008 over “creative differences.” And I’ll bet that part of Romanek’s frustrations involved a demand for more flash and more gore. Studios want images that will aid in the marketing campaign, and no doubt a more thoughtful and intimate Wolfman – like, oh, the original 1941 Wolf Man – would pose a more challenging sell. Of course, I don’t know any of this for certain, but as the Wolfman stands today, it seems to be sporting some excessive, haphazard gore.

The resulting mess feels a little too short on characters and long on muddled action sequences, which at times exhibit a perplexing mix of realism and surrealism. Consider a full moon attack on a band of gypsys. Johnston does his best to make the roving wolf attacker a mystery, setting the creature back in the fog of the forest as chaos erupts in the foreground. But then every time we get a glimpse of the galloping, charging Wolfman, it moves at a speed and in such a fashion that we cannot get past the special effects. Johnston’s atmosphere is great, but the special effects all but reach out through the fog to call attention to themselves.

Much has been said about the all-star cast, but here, too, we’re left wondering what might have been. Any meaningful scenes of dialogue involving Benicio Del Toro have clearly been cut from the movie; all we’re left with is a somber, solemn, expressionless Lawrence who shows up concerned about his brother’s disappearance, mourns his brother’s death, goes out to hunt the creature that killed his kin, devolves into madness upon being bitten and then confronts his father for the sins of the past. Lawrence is one hell of a depressing dude. While there’s a love interest in Gwen (Emily Blunt), she is shipped off for half the movie. And Abberline (Hugo Weaving) is introduced as The Investigator, a character  so successfully relegated to the sidelines that one genuinely wonders why he was left in the final cut of the film. Take him out, and this story wouldn’t alter a beat. (More at Techland: Apple’s All-Time Hits and Misses)

The only one who seems to get it is Anthony Hopkins. As Sir John, he says all the expected things, moves and acts in ways that we anticipate, but there’s a subtle detachment to almost everything Hopkins does. The man doesn’t really seem to give a damn. And in a sinister way, we begin to realize through Hopkins’ performance that this good sir is off his rocker. This isn’t daddy dearest, but a pathological psychotic, and Hopkins conveys that each step of the way, by playing the character at a skewed angle. He muses and mopes about the house, plays his piano and his harmonica, and shows just the faintest crack of a smile when Lawrence springs up that morning in the field, soaked in blood.

I can envision a film filled with stuff like this; actors toying with their performances and giving us something far more interesting to think about than repetitive CG action sequences. A thinking man’s Wolfman, if you will, rather than a marketing executive’s. Something that was more about that abstract place where man meets beast, than yet another flimsy horror formula that relies on things going bump in the night to keep the audience engaged.

It’s not Johnston’s fault; his lensing does justice to the genre’s look, mood and mystery. But scratch the surface and this wolf’s got no bite.

More at Techland: Check out Steven’s weekly ‘Freeze Frame’ series, where he breaks down the best sci-fi scenes