Remember back in the 1990’s when Hollywood decided to make big budget updates for the old Universal Movie Monsters? Francis Ford Coppola gave us the reinterpretation/bad acid trip Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Kenneth Branagh gave us an epic interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Then came Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy which, despite many reviews to the contrary, was an excellent update on what was originally a boring remake of Dracula (1931). Now over ten years later, another successful update/remake gets added to the bunch: The Wolfman.
Joe Johnston’s film is better than it has any right to be, based on the controversy surrounding the film’s production. Johnston creates a dark, foreboding atmosphere with lush Victorian-era countryside and does the one thing we were all waiting for: brutally eviscerates hapless villagers! I had forgotten how vicious werewolves are supposed to be. There are some truly inspired amputations leading up to a full-on attack on a Gypsy village. The attack is shot in such a way that every time the camera whips around, someone new is suddenly on the ground-missing vital parts. And since they're all “movie Gypsies,” the audience doesn't have to feel bad. Well, no audience that's seen Drag Me to Hell. Evil, eeevile people.
Well evil and helpful, as they stitch up poor Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) after his attack and leave him to his wolfy fate. Oh dear. I should have put up a spoiler alert there. Benicio Del Toro is the titular wolfman! I’ve done gone and ruined the movie for you! Unless you saw the trailer.
The story here is essentially the same as the original 1941 film: prodigal son, Lawrence Talbot returns to his father’s home, is attacked by werewolf, becomes new werewolf, and hijinks ensue! Unfortunately, this about as far as the plot goes. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is actually a whole bonus plot that is summarily explained by Anthony Hopkins in the middle of the film. But, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Werewolf films, like the similar Jekyll and Hyde pictures, should not be too plot-obsessed. These stories are supposed to be character studies: an examination of a man trying to master his own base nature. Ideally the conflict should be entirely internal, which the original film did to an extent. This update chooses to have its cake and eat it too by creating a bad guy for the Wolfman to fight in a similar fashion to the Absorbing Man’s third act entrance in Ang Lee’s Hulk. In fairness, The Wolfman’s villain is much more organically introduced and built up throughout the movie but, nonetheless, the external conflict muddies what should have been the sole focus of the story.
However, on a superficial horror movie level, the movie does nothing but satisfy. Del Toro and Hopkins deliver wonderful performances with the always great Hugo Weaving following closely behind. I will warn horror connoisseurs that there is extensive use of computer generated imagery for the werewolf transformations and succeeding violence. I can already hear the complaints of the CGI not being realistic enough. I totally agree, CGI makes the actor transforming into a bipedal, ferocious hound from hell look less realistic, dammit!