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Uninspired Wolfman is a Howler

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2010 2 Feb
  • COMMENTS
Uninspired <i>Wolfman</i> is a Howler

DVD Release Date:  June 1, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  February 12, 2010
Rating:  R (for bloody horror violence and gore)
Genre:  Horror
Run Time:  102 min.
Director:  Joe Johnston
Actors:  Benecio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Geraldine Chaplin

"Never look back," intones a character in The Wolfman. "The past is a wilderness of horrors." This messy, ineffective update on a classic horror tale suggests that the filmmakers should have looked back to earlier, better versions of the wolfman story.

Modern-day horror rarely takes itself so seriously. Rather than embrace a sense of atmospheric dread, as the best classic horror movies did, contemporary horror films concentrate on gross-out special effects, shock moments, post-modern irony (think the Scream films), or torture-porn (the Saw franchise).

A reboot of the 1941 Universal horror movie of the same name starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi and Ralph Bellamy, this version of The Wolfman sounds promising. With Benecio Del Toro in the lead role as Lawrence Talbot, Anthony Hopkins as his father, John, and Emily Blunt as love interest Gwen Conliffe, the film has top-tier talent in front of the camera. Behind the camera, special-effects guru Rick Baker, known for his impressive, Oscar-winning werewolf transformations in An American Werewolf in London, is on board to give the transformations a modern quality that still honors the man-to-wolf transformations of an earlier era.With so much going for it, The Wolfman should offer a moody atmosphere, a few good scares and actors who set the right tone for the material. But it turns out the new film is merely "inspired by" the earlier Wolfman—but doesn't exhibit much inspiration at all.

The Wolfman begins with the appearance of the following text: "Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf," suggesting a serious exploration of religious themes in conjunction with the story of a lycanthrope—a man who changes into a wolf during a full moon. It's 1891 in Blackmoor, England, and the residents don't know how to counter the attacks of a wolfman. Many claim the beast is the devil himself, while others believe they have been cursed. A preacher uses the story of Nebuchadnezzar to suggest the possibility that God has a precedent for turning men into beasts.

The religious explanations suggest a provocative, theological drama at the core of the wolfman's story, but it's all merely dressing for the tale of tortured soul Talbot (Del Toro), who returns to England to investigate the death of his brother at the hands of a wolfman. Also investigating is Scotland Yard's Aberline (Hugo Weaving), but it's a gypsy woman (Geraldine Chaplin) who holds the key to understanding what's happening.

Talbot is estranged from his father, who quotes the Prodigal Son story to his returning offspring more than once, but again, there's nothing more to this biblical reference. The father is slightly deranged and the older brother is dead. Lawrence falls for Gwen, his deceased brother's former love. For no apparent reason, Gwen reciprocates. But then Lawrence is attacked by the wolfman and fears his own transformation at the next full moon.

That's pretty much the gist of the story. The rest consists of increasingly grisly wolfman attacks that include multiple decapitations and flesh-ripping moments, but little in the way of mounting suspense. Were there any genuine chills during the film, The Wolfman would deserve nominal credit for minimal effectiveness, but the film never rises to that baseline expectation. A couple of jump-out-of-your-seat moments are due mainly to loud, sudden sound effects, and never to any spine-tingling sense of dread that effective horror films supply. A man-into-beast transformation sequence set in an asylum comes closest to a memorable moment in The Wolfman, but the film is so lackluster for so long before that moment arrives that it fails to rouse the interest it might have merited had the earlier portion of the film worked better—or at all.

It's no surprise to learn that The Wolfman was a very troubled production. It went through a few directors during its development, with the studio ultimately bringing in Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jurassic Park III) and expert film editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) to salvage the film.

If this is the salvaged production, it's hard to imagine just how much of a mess the film was before Johnston and Murch put their stamp on it. The Wolfman is more a story of a missed opportunity than it is of a werewolf. It's a bad miss, not even close to effective at any moment during its feature-length running time. That's too bad for those who long for a return to the old-fashioned chills of Universal's classic horror films, or for those hoping for a step back from the shockfests that define modern horror cinema. Those films, while perverse and disgusting, are effective in their own way, providing what their audience wants to see. Why can't today's movie studios deliver, at minimum, a competent update on classic horror tales like The Wolfman?

The complete failure of this latest effort bodes ill for future attempts at recreating old-fashioned thrills and chills at the multiplex.


Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@verizon.net.


CAUTIONS
:

  • Language/Profanity:  "D-mn"; "holy mother of God."
  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  Cigars are offered.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Dream imagery includes a naked woman shown from behind, with the curve of a breast visible; some kissing.
  • Violence/Crime:  Man slashed in face and stomach; a corpse is shown; a dead woman has a razor in her hand and a pool of blood beneath her; wolfman attacks several men; a man's back is shown, flayed open; wolfman slices fingers off a man's hand, then pierces a man's neck, and his claws are shown coming out of the front of the man's mouth; wolfman tears flesh from a man's neck; limbs are ripped from bodies and tossed aside; attempted suicide; decapitations; Lawrence is struck with the butt of a gun; man treated in an asylum with injections, and by being dunked in ice-cold water and given electro-shock therapy; "kill me," a man pleads, right before he's killed; man is thrown out a window and is impaled on a gate below; two werewolves fight.
  • Religion:  The film opens with the saying, "Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf"; talk of "deviltry" and speculation that the wolfman is from the devil; a minister preaches on the power of Satan to change people into beasts, and uses Nebuchadnezzar as an example; Lawrence is told that "the darkest hours of hell lie before" him, just before he transforms into a werewolf; a man calls himself cursed and damned, and is said to have been forsaken by God; Lawrence crosses himself, prays, and says there is no help for him; a woman discusses the possibility of the existence of God; gypsy lore factors into the story; prodigal son story is referenced multiple times.