Universal Pictures is rightfully proud of its heritage as the Hollywood studio that first popularized horror films. Most of the iconic movie monsters of yesteryear — Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man — were Universal properties, and their impact is felt every time you leap in terror at the sudden appearance of a hockey-masked slasher or a chainsaw-wielding maniac.
Pride in your past work is one thing. Rehashing it just to make more money — without any new creative or artistic elements — is something else. We tolerated the “Mummy” remake because it was big and fun (the sequels and spin-offs less so), but we dismissed the chock-full-of-monsters “Van Helsing” for being ludicrous and silly. “The Wolfman,” the latest attempt to recapture the old spooky magic, is another misfire, a drearily self-serious bloodbath that can’t decide whether to be faithful to the original or try something new.
Also, it is my understanding that werewolves nowadays have incredible abs, and this Benicio Del Toro fellow is rather doughy.
The year is 1891. The place, England. The weather, foggy. Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot (pronounced “tall butt”), an actor who left his privileged family years ago, moved to America, and adopted an American/Spanish/British accent. He has returned to Talbot Hall upon the news that his brother, Ben (Simon Merrells), has been killed in a ghastly attack by a beast of some kind. Ben’s fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt), is grief-stricken. Ben and Lawrence’s father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), is elderly, soft-spoken, and vaguely insane. He hasn’t been the same since his wife committed suicide when the boys were young. He apparently also has not employed a housekeeper since time, as Talbot Hall is now built primarily out of cobwebs.
Lawrence and Sir John never got along very well, and Ben’s death does not change this. Lawrence is committed to determining what happened to his brother. Some of the villagers think the local gypsies’ dancing bear got lose and mauled him. Others insist Talbot Hall is “cursed,” and that a monster roams the forest when the moon is full. Abberline (Hugo Weaving), the local law enforcement, thinks it’s just a regular ol’ human lunatic killing folks. (Remember, the word “lunatic” comes from the idea that the lunar cycle can cause insanity.)
Well, not to spoil anything, but there is a “wolf man” of sorts out there, and, what with one thing and another, Lawrence becomes one, too. During full moons — and the film basically omits the 28 days in between them — Lawrence sprouts fur, claws, and fangs, goes on a rampage, slaughters English people, the whole nine yards. Meanwhile, in his less lupine moments, he grows fond of Gwen, his dead brother’s fiancee, and tries to elude Abberline.
OK. So what now? Yes, that is the question. The screenplay, by Andrew Kevin Walker (“Seven,” “Sleepy Hollow”) with rewrites by David Self (“Road to Perdition”), puts itself in a tight jam. Lawrence the wolf man isn’t a misunderstood monster who only hurts people out of self-defense. He’s the other kind of monster, the kind that rips people’s heads off wantonly. That means there’s really only one way the story can end for him, and it’s just a question of how we spend our time waiting for that point to arrive.
The director, Joe Johnston (“Jumanji,” “Jurassic Park III”), has an idea. He will keep us amused by filling the picture with an almost comical amount of blood, gore, and dismemberment. Make no mistake, “The Wolfman” is gross and gruesome, a curious deviation from the tame violence of the old films, and even from most of the Universal remakes. This would seem to be a gesture toward modern realism — except that the story is still set in Victorian England and is inherently cheesy. It’s about a man who turns into a wolf during the full moon, for crying out loud. Either you can embrace the campiness of it (the way those old movies are fun to watch now), or you can go fully, terrifyingly realistic. Johnston is stuck in between. The violence is horrific, but it’s not scary. If anything, it just seems out of place.
Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving appear to be having fun as Sir John and Abberline, the two roles that actually give an actor something to sink his teeth into. But speaking of teeth, Del Toro is a monotonous disappointment as Lawrence, giving a flat, emotionless performance when he ought to be tormented, anguished, and a lot of other things. Not that the script gives him much to work with. We never get a chance to know Lawrence before the terrible things start happening, so we don’t feel much sympathy for him as a person. And his romance with Gwen takes place entirely behind our backs, between scenes, as if the screenwriters knew we were expecting those two characters to fall in love but didn’t feel like actually writing it out.
Visually, there’s little to complain about. The legendary Rick Baker, who grew up watching the black-and-white monster movies and became a makeup artist because of them, does terrific work with the creature effects. The moments of transformation are creepy and visceral. But solid technical achievements can’t compensate for a weak story and a dull central performance. OK, maybe sometimes they can (coughAvatarcough), but not this time.
P.S. Benicio Del Toro as the son of Anthony Hopkins? What, were Will Smith and Peter O’Toole unavailable?
C (1 hr., 42 min.; )