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Movie Review: The Wolfman

Movie Poster: The Wolfman
The Wolf Man

Directed by Joe Johnston
Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, David Self, based on the motion picture screenplay by Curt Siodmak

Lawrence Talbot – Benicio Del Toro
Sir John Talbot – Anthony Hopkins
Gwen Conliffe – Emily Blunt
Aberline – Hugo Weaving
Maleva – Geraldine Chaplin
Singh – Art Malik
Dr. Hoenegger – Antony Sher
Constable Nye – David Schofield

CLR [rating:3.5]

Movie Still: The Wolfman

Emily Blunt stars as Gwen Conliffe in The Wolfman
[Copyright © Universal Pictures]

A Smart, Scary Revitalization of Classic Horror

Werewolves in cinema have had many incarnations, but most modern lore stems from the 1941 Universal picture The Wolf Man. The unforgettable image of a monstrously deformed Lon Chaney, Jr. thrusting out his chest, baring his claws, and baying at the full moon is one of Hollywood’s most lasting. Director Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman, also a Universal production, is a pitch-perfect reboot of the classic horror movie.

After his brother Ben is brutally murdered, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns from America to his family’s home in Blackmoor, England at the request of Ben’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Any journey home means confronting the old demons, and Lawrence’s father John (Anthony Hopkins) has a great many of them to share. Blackmoor is up in arms over a nearby gypsy encampment; these heathen strangers must be responsible somehow for the recent murders plaguing the countryside. Lawrence, of course, must visit the gypsy camp to find out more about his brother’s murder, and on an unlucky, moonlit night an unseen creature attacks him. At the next full moon he transforms into a monster.

Makeup artist Rick Baker is the genius behind the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London, which is arguably the most memorable in cinematic history. Baker returns to lycanthropy for this reboot with incredible results. Lawrence’s limbs extend beyond comprehension, his fingers contort in unimaginable ways, his very bones seem to break and remold. The film’s gore leaves nothing to be desired; there’s plenty here for any horror fan. The movie has some genuinely tense scenes—even the most ardent horror aficionado might jump if the sound in the theater is working correctly. It’s been said any scary movie isn’t nearly as frightening when viewed on mute, and The Wolfman works with that concept; the juxtaposition of silence and cacophony is effective. The movie takes place in an era in which science and superstition clashed righteously, and some of its most cringe-worthy scenes take place when Lawrence ends up back in the asylum in which he spent a year as a child. The scientific methods for treating delusions were cruel and unusual punishment—enough so that when the doctors meet their end, you’ll feel like grinning. On top of this, a fictional version of Detective Frederick Abberline (Hugo Weaving), who was involved in the real Jack the Ripper case, appears to follow up on the Wolf Man, which brings an element of reality to an utterly fantastic story.

Watching The Wolfman is like taking up temporary residence in a lovely, disturbing dream. The sets, lighting, and cinematography immerse the audience completely in a bleak, lifeless nineteenth-century English countryside. The look of the movie elicits comparison to Sleepy Hollow, but it doesn’t have Tim Burton’s sense of dreamy playfulness. It’s not a world in which you’d want to live, but it makes for an extraordinary nightmare. Del Toro is great as Lawrence, a mentally and physically tortured, though perhaps one-dimensional, character. The extremely likeable Emily Blunt seems capable of bringing vulnerability to every role she plays, whether a queen or a fashionista. Even in the secondary role of Gwen, both mourning her fiancee’s death and quickly falling in love with his brother, she commands the camera. Anthony Hopkins, one of the screen’s brightest and most venerable players, virtually tiptoes through the movie. He alternates between a little off to downright silly, and never quite betrays any emotion, even when reciting lines that should be heart-wrenching. It’s understandable the filmmakers would want Hannibal Lecter aboard, but Hopkins could’ve put a little more effort into it. Unfortunately the first half of the film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, totters a bit between dramatic dialogues and incredible action scenes. The final chase scene through the streets of London is nearly worth the price of admission, though, and Blunt and Del Toro smolder in a face-off that could’ve been utterly cheesy.

Werewolves haven’t enjoyed the kind of vogue vampires have in cinema or literature, maybe because werewolves are distinctly unsexy. As far back as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the idea that the subconscious mind (or Freud’s id if you prefer) longed for murderous rampages made people a bit nervous. The Wolfman repeatedly asks, “Where does man end and beast begin?” Therein lies the appeal of lycanthropy; what if, at our darkest core, we aren’t as civilized as we’d like to think? Vampirism is a far more libidinal fantasy—who wants matted fur and gaping wounds (there are jokes to be made here) when one can have ivory skin, white fangs, and unequaled sex appeal?

The Wolfman suffers from odd pacing in its opening hour and Hopkins’s performance is off the mark, but all in all it’s a very worthy addition to the werewolf genre (which is admittedly short on the good and long on the bad). In a world where werewolves have been co-opted to such an extent that they sometimes exist solely to kill vampires (New Moon), a return to the classic, spooky lore that originally made them terrifying is a welcome departure. The last decade or two has seen so many revitalizations of old horror that it’s becoming tiresome, but director Joe Johnston hit the mark with this one. The Wolfman takes a defibrillator to the original and re-envisions a concept that should’ve been done long ago. It’s smart, classic horror with a gory, dramatic new twist and simply gorgeous cinematography.

The Wolfman Trailer

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