The Wolfman

Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, Emily Blunt
Review: 3 stars (of five)

If you go into The Wolfman expecting the kind of monster flick you saw on late-night TV as a kid, with a little more gore and fresher special effects, you’ll get what you came for, and it’ll be pretty. You’ll also get other old-monster hallmarks, like hammy acting and a script that sometimes drags, sometimes confuses.

The cast is generally good. Benicio Del Toro as a guy with a barely contained monster under the surface? When hasn’t he played that? Anthony Hopkins playing a dark, theatrical father figure who’s more than a little insane, and with a Shakespearean intensity in even the most mundane moments? That’s like casting my mother to worry about whether I’m eating right.

Director Joe Johnson throws some self-consciously lovely imagery up on the screen, obviously conscious of the styles of early horror classics, and the film relies on a lot of old-fashioned makeup appliances, also adding to the classic feel. But you know how old horror movies often don’t really scare a jaded modern audience? That’s one of the fatal problems in this film, which is more a monster movie than a horror flick.

Remaking the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. original, more or less, the film follows Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) as he returns in 1891 to the family’s home, where he’ll see the cruel and detached father (Hopkins) he hasn’t seen since boyhood, when his mother died. Before long, the curse of the werewolf is upon Del Toro, and the film balances a burgeoning love affair, filial tensions between Del Toro and Hopkins, and a pitchfork brigade’s pursuit of the monster, led by Inspector F. Abbeline (Hugo Weaving), the cop who led the unsuccessful Jack the Ripper investigation in 1888 (a role assayed about a decade ago by Johnny Depp in the weird From Hell).

The film probably fails most certainly in the balancing of these stories. So much side stuff is going on that Del Toro never has a chance to really contemplate his transformation. Since the curse of the werewolf works best as a metaphor for our unrestrained animal instincts, having the character wrestle with the horrors and temptations would seem mandatory. Instead, another character walks a bit of this ground for Del Toro, but it’s not satisfying.

The love affair is never believably developed, especially given that Emily Blunt’s character begins the film in an emotional crisis that should make her as unreceptive to new romance as humanly possible. Also, the relationship between father and son is a bit odd. Hopkins, hamming it up like he’ll never have another chance to overact, repeatedly makes reference—and quotes scripture—to Del Toro as the prodigal son. Except that it was the father who sent a very young, traumatized Del Toro into American exile. While people often make no sense in real life, you kinda need movie scripts to hold together a little better.

The Wolfman did not have an untroubled production. The project went through a number of directors before settling on Joe Johnston, who in the past has given us Jurassic Park III and in the future will give us Captain America. Johnston brought in his own writer to work over the existing draft, which is not uncommon, but also not inspiring of confidence. The film’s release date had been continually pushed back for at least a year, in part because late reshoots were done a year after principal photography. None of this is what you do when you’ve got a major hit on your hands.

So why the hell is this a three-star movie, the kind of thing that’s brainless fun for a date night, despite its flaws? Because there’s a certain amount of charm and craft and energy in the project as it unfolds, despite the flaws that pile up. It’s nice to look at. The violence and gore are used in service of plot, rather than the modern preference for the opposite. Because Del Toro’s accent as an American-raised Brit is amusingly unfathomable, but he and Hopkins make surprisingly good relatives. And because it’s February, and expectations are a little low.