Review: “The Wolfman”

Saddled with one of the most troubled production histories in recent memory, the new incarnation of “The Wolfman” manages to salvage enough material to be a barely coherent, often inconsistent film that fails to generate any of the emotions it so desperately wants to evoke. Oddly flat despite a strong cast and evocative late 19th century setting, this attempted blending of a classic tragic romance with a very gory, modern creature feature feels short changed in all departments.

Unlike say Dracula or Frankenstein which had their births in literary form over a century ago, “The Wolfman” first came into being with the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. film and gave birth to much of the popular lore that surrounds werewolves. Thus this remake has the chance to expand or play with the original’s mythology in ways that wouldn’t be accepted in adaptations of other more established monster legends.

To their credit, those involved seem to have initially set out with an admirable desire to stick with the archetypes of true Victorian Gothic fiction – that often haunting blend of melodrama, encroaching insanity and quiet dread mixed with a mild satire of a society built on aristocracy and superstitious beliefs which were dissolving in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

Of course that style of filmmaking is too old-fashioned for many these days, requiring a deliberate pacing with slow build-ups and quietly delivered revelations (“The Others” and “The Orphanage” are strong modern examples of that style done well). It’s a genre of great subtlety that requires a steady hand and understanding of restraint – not something you get from either Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self’s undercooked screenplay, or from “Jumanji” director Joe Johnston.

To be fair to Johnston, the man was brought in at the last minute to essentially rescue the film and so employs his usual style which works fine for unremarkable but enjoyable tentpole spectacles like “Jurassic Park III” and “Hidalgo”. For gothic horror though its almost in direct opposition, and this blunter approach was likely reinforced by financiers and studios understandably nervous about a multi-million dollar horror film with limited appeal.

The inevitable result is the awkward insertion of hastily assembled action set pieces, visually graphic dismemberment and a lot (and I mean a LOT) of ‘jump scare’ hallucinations and nightmares to keep people awake and get the horror junkies on side with it. Yet in the process it fails to please both sides – the gory action is just so over the top and clunky that it only disgusts rather than thrills, while the unfolding story is far too unfocused and tedious to be of interest to even the most patient filmgoer.

There’s the distinct impression of a stronger and more focused version of the film existing somewhere (either on paper or on reels) that has been defanged by not just the production’s problems but a ruthless ‘editing by committee’ process. The rather flat characters and their interpersonal relationships are notably underdeveloped, making much of their actions in the final act simply unconvincing. Twists that should’ve been revealed with surprise are just thrown out there from early on which makes their unnecessary explanations frustrating to endure.

Production values are decidedly mixed. Visually the use of forests is well done and every now and then Johnston comes up with a inspired moment, such as one of the first glimpses of the beast’s face via an almost strobe-like muzzle flare. Rick Baker’s make-up effects in the few shots untouched by CG look superb, and the period recreation is nicely handled.

On the other hand the desaturated cinematography and overuse of fog feels amateur, as does the rather soundstage-like feel to what should be vast open moors. The computer graphics are often crude and unconvincing, especially during the key transformation scenes. The gore is used long past the point of gratuitousness, every wolf attack is designed to show off bloody makeup effects more akin to the “Saw” films than a monster movie, and as a result the impact is entirely lost.

Performances are strangely kept at arm’s length with none of the regularly reliable performers showing any real engagement with their characters. Emily Blunt comes off the best with what little time she has as the chaste sister-in-law turned love interest, while Anthony Hopkins does his usual scenery chewing albeit without good dialogue to back him up.

Hugo Weaving delivers a bland take on Inspector Abberline, the Jack the Ripper reference is crudely thrown in, but he does get the film’s only good bit of black humor when he explains his style of police work to a tavern of scared patrons. Geraldine Chaplin has a cameo as a gypsy seer but like many other things in this film, her best bits seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.

Del Toro is the oddest one here. Effectively brooding, he never imbues his character with anything beyond his petulant self-interest which makes him a rather uninteresting character. There’s no self-pity, remorse, nobility or genuine fear of his condition, thus his protestations of concern about Gwen’s welfare are about as convincing as the rest of the film’s romantic subplot (ie. not very). Other moments seem delivered in a way that you can’t believe this is the same del Toro from the likes of “Che” and “Traffic”.

Themes of sons stepping out of their father’s shadow are poorly handled, while the inevitable showdown proves awkwardly laughable. Too tedious to engage and too glum for camp value, the film simply bores – lacking any real distinct vision of its own as it aims (and fails) to both honor its predecessor and try to update the Gothic horror template for the 21st century. Next time Universal wants to update its creature library, they’d fare a lot better with a cheaper and more consistent effort that’s unafraid to take this all too familiar material to fresh, new places.