The Wolfman

Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Geraldine Chapman, Art Malik and Anthony Sher. Directed by Joe Johnston.
Rated MA15+ (Strong horror violence). 102 mins.

The Wolfman is fascinating for all the wrong reasons. Universal Pictures were no doubt excited when they secured Anthony Hopkins and ‘werewolf’ devotee Benicio Del Toro to star in a remake of the 1941 Hollywood horror classic, The Wolfman. But an $84 million budget and state-of-the-art computer graphics are no guarantee of imaginative success, especially not in the ever popular ‘werewolf’ genre, which has its roots in folklore, and relies heavily on psychological credibility and emotional resonance.

Set in a mist-shrouded hamlet not far from London in 1891, The Wolfman begins promisingly with maximum speed and chill (unearthly howls, scurrying clouds and an ominously waxing moon), as it chronicles the blighted history of the once privileged inhabitants of Talbot Hall.

Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro, Traffic, The Usual Suspects), is a famous Shakespearean actor from America, in London on a theatrical tour, who is contacted by his sister-in-law to be, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), and asked to return home immediately to help in the search for his brother Ben, who has disappeared.

On his return to Talbot Hall, Lawrence learns from his father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), that Ben has been brutally murdered and his remains found in a ditch in the Blackmore woods. Sir John is affectionate to Lawrence, but also oddly distant, and we learn that Lawrence was sent to America as a child, where he was raised by his aunt after his mother’s untimely death.

Talk in the village public house is of a lunatic killer on the loose, and a band of gypsies camped in the woods is immediately suspected, as is their bear. Lawrence draws close to Gwen in his quest to uncover the mystery of his brother’s death, and hears rumours amongst the villagers of a beast that strikes when the moon is full, and a curse that befell his family 25 years ago.

‘The past is a wilderness of horrors, never look back!’, Sir John tells his son. But after further horrendous killings, and the arrival in the village of sharp-witted Inspector Frederick Abberline (Hugo Weaving), of Scotland Yard (whose last case was Jack the Ripper), Lawrence is forced to confront both his own fate and his darkest fears.

Shot on location in England, The Wolfman is captivating to look at. The carefully chosen costumes and props look expensive and authentic, and there is a wealth of special effects, including some strikingly arresting time-lapse sequences, which go some way to mitigating the de rigeur horror of the werewolf transformations and killings (it is a horror film, after all). But as hard as the film tries, it lacks drama and is curiously unengaging.

It is tempting to think that had The Wolfman not been re-edited (more than twenty minutes have been cut from its original running time), the film might have worked better. Perhaps scenes have been cut that would offer insight (and thus empathy) into the characters, not just Lawrence (played opaquely by Del Toro), but also his all-important father (fleshed out well by Hopkins), and poor Gwen, whose role in the film is purely functional.

Very likely, The Wolfman fails because of the felt need of its producers to exploit CGI technology, and in other ways ‘update’ the elegantly simple, eternally relevant storyline of the 1941 classic upon which Joe Johnston’s remake is based.

Written by Curt Siodmak and directed by George Waggner, The Wolf Man was set in the present-time (1941), and starred Lon Chaney Jr as Lawrence, a genial, likeable man who through no fault of his own, falls prey to the dark side of himself before being released by his father (played eloquently by Claude Rains).

This film (available on DVD) is memorable because of the poignancy Chaney brings to his character, and because the film seamlessly fuses the legend of the werewolf to the perennial mystery of human nature.

Johnston’s The Wolfman, on the other hand, muddies the psychological clarity of Siodmak’s script with extraneous ideas and altered characters. This far from making the story more relevant or interesting eschews the emotional realism at the heart of the original story, leaving the viewer with much sound and fury, but little to empathise with, or think about.

Universal  Out February 11

Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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