The Wolfman (2010) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence and gore
Running time: 102 min.
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Andrew Kevin Walker, David Self (based on the 1941 film, written by Curt Siodmak)
After his brother is savagely slain for mysterious reasons, Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro, Sin City) returns to his family's Victorian estate in late 19th century Britain, and soon embarks on an investigation as to the hows and whys of his sibling's demise. His reclusive father, John (Hopkins, Beowulf), is of little assistance, but he soon discovers from the nearby townsfolk in Blackmoor that they believe the killing is due to an ostensibly superstitious beast, part man and part wolf, with a thirst for the kill during the fullest of moons. Lawrence makes a pledge to his sister-in-law (Blunt, Charlie Wilson's War), with whom he has a growing love for himself, to see that the culprit is dealt with once and for all. Lawrence comes face to face with the all-too-real beast soon enough, suffering an injury that should have killed him, but later alters him to exhibiting the same ill effects. Now with his own deadly affliction to contend with, it's a race against time and fate to stop the killings of the other man-beast, stop his own, protect his burgeoning lover, and keep a step ahead of the townsfolk and tenacious Scotland Yard investigator, Aberline (Weaving, Transformers: The Fallen).
Legendary special effects and makeup maestro Rick Baker, who previously lent his talents to other wolf man stories like An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson's Thriller video, returns to familiar territory, this time with plenty of CGI at his disposal. Working with director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III), a former Lucasfilm visual effects specialist, The Wolfman puts most of its eggs in the special effects and bloody gore basket, while the old-fashioned storyline goes through its predictable paces and its characters exist merely to serve the basic plot at hand.
Benicio Del Toro, a fine actor when given the right kinds of roles, seems all wrong for the part of British hero, would-be lover, and consummate everyman, as his characterization is flavorless and always exists at an emotional distance. His casting would seem an attempt to attach a known star to the role, which is curious, as his box office appeal is minimal, so the miscasting backfires all around. Not that it is his fault to a large extent, as Johnston's direction is slick but hollow, more concerned with getting the look just right, such that he fails to find focus in the story of a heavily conflicted man trapped inside the body of a beast he is trying to kill.
What the film lacks is quality characterizations, a solid build up and a genuine feeling of tragedy within the confines of its horrific story. When you don't care about the characters or their interests, no amount of superfluous and unimpressive jump-scares (which seem to occur about one every couple of minutes) or bits of bloody carnage can reel us in to the story, and consequently we lack the interest to feel genuine suspense. We don't care which characters live or die, regardless of whether they are good or arrogant, which defeats the film's tragic themes. If the main themes of the film find no footing, the movie becomes little more than a showcase for effects and imagery, which Johnston lays on thick, but it's not anything special in this era of CGI extravaganzas.
A good cast doesn't bring much sparkle to the production, about as lackluster as the rest of the mechanical production. Without much meat on the body of the script, there isn't much for the actors to work with, unable to compete with the bells and whistles of Johnston's lifeless, effects-laden delivery. The story could have easily been a psychological study of one man clinging desperately to what shreds of his own humanity he is able to retain. Instead, it is about men who turn into wolf-men and wreak havoc on the local villagers in gruesome detail while evading from those out to hunt them out in their human forms between the spells.
I wouldn't classify The Wolfman as bad so much as boring, which in the realm of horror-thrillers, might be one of the worst adjectives to attach (Bad horror beats out boring horror every time). While occasional moments are mounted well enough in spots, particularly when the beast is unleashed in a densely atmospheric setting, the uninvolving plot and pace leave us unimpressed when we have nothing to root us. Even the special effects aren't that original, as nearly every other wolf-man flick contains the very same elements of human bones, teeth and hair gruesomely contorting to canid dimensions. When you see the man-beast, it isn't fearsome, and might even be classified as unintentionally campy. And not comical in a good way, as one thing that might have made this creaky, dusty tale come to life is a sense of humor about itself. Yet, it plays it all with a somber tone throughout, and without a hint of personality or a breath of unique inspiration.
In the end, like the characters within the film itself, you'll struggle valiantly to look at this beast and try to find the humanity within it. Alas, its fate is already sealed and the beast lumbers on, uncaring about the lack of life that is left in its wake.
©2010 Vince Leo