The Wolfman (2010)

Painfully uneven, wildly silly, and occasionally interesting, this messy remake of the epochal 1941 George Waggner-Lon Chaney Jnr The Wolf Man is another object lesson in what contemporary Hollywood can and can’t do. The original film isn’t perfect, but it has a rich personality and a nuanced sense of family tragedy, with a vividness of characterisation and strong concept of antihero Larry Talbot as a victimised everyman. Waggner’s film also offered an ironic juxtaposition of the hominess of its idealised version of rural Welsh village it’s set in, with the gothic terrors that transform its surrounds into a fog-shrouded, monster-riddled hell. This new version, directed by Joe Johnston, but which can hardly be credited to any single creator considering its troubled production and signs of mercenary reshooting and reediting, takes great pains to despoil what makes the original film vital: the modest urgency of the situation, and the intricacy of the emotions apparent between Larry and his father and the woman he loves. The setting's transposed to a less defined place called Blackmoor, and everything about this locale and the home of the Talbots has been reinvented as the kind of obviously spooky place that coachmen used to refuse to stop at in older horror films.

The funny thing is there’s a consistent and engaging logic to many of the film’s developments, and what this film may have been originally intended as could have been an excellent modern spin on Waggner’s work. Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), rather than a simple man who feels best working with his hands like Chaney’s, is here a Richard Mansfield-ish thespian who, it's suggested, hides from his true self in acting, and is the offspring of his father Sir John’s (Anthony Hopkins) marriage to a gypsy woman (Cristina Contes). Her early, mysterious suicide haunts Lawrence, who left his home young and became an actor in America. His conflict with his father is then far more loaded, and darker, deeper meanings to this alienation soon become apparent. When Larry’s brother Ben (Simon Merrells) is slain by a mysterious beast’s attack, Larry is visited by Ben’s fiancĂ©e Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), and drawn home eventually to confront the mysteries of past and present. That quest soon turns all the more tragic for Larry when he tries to hunt down the beast, after it marauds its way through a gypsy encampment, and is bitten. Hated by the locals and suspected by visiting Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving) of being a mad killer, Larry soon enough transforms into a werewolf and begins adding to the carnage engulfing the countryside.

Waggner’s film generated drama by exploring the shaded space between monstrosity and the mind, and, in spite of the familiar old-school expressionist stylisation, emphasised a modern sense of incredulity about the existence of the supernatural and a low-key sense of humanity. This The Wolfman presents a rural England full of prejudiced, hysterical rednecks all too willing to believe that Larry is cursed, vicious quack scientists, and repressive, loutish patriarchs, all tossed into a stew that reduces everything to the obvious. It’s curious that like many modern films that ransack older ones, it ends up looking and sounding far less sophisticated, and the social and psychological themes are gnarled into incoherence. The central family melodrama is taken up several notches by making Gwen already a pawn in the family’s twisted psychodynamics and suggesting that all of the narrative is sourced in Sir John’s sense of masculine entitlement. Father-son battles have consistently been an aspect of many of the best werewolf tales, and The Wolfman’s makers have tried to give that a contemporary gloss by changing the dynamic that conflict usually represented: instead of the father figure being forced to rein in the son's wayward impulses, here the opposite is true, the brutishness of the son both product of and reaction to the father’s violence.

Director Joe Johnston’s ideas are occasionally suggestive, like staging Larry’s fateful mauling in a ring of standing stones, redolent of primeval forces still defining the modern world. The look of the film, especially in the first third, with its foggy forests and saturated shades of midnight blue and honeyed yellows, has a suitably haute-gothic sheen. Tips of the hat to several other werewolf movies apart from Waggner’s are evident: Larry’s costuming is based on Oliver Reed’s in The Curse of the Werewolf, a set-piece in which the werewolf-Larry rampages in Picadilly Circus quotes An American Werewolf in London in period setting, and the plotline of warring lycanthropes, one slightly worse than another, is cribbed from Wolf. But Johnston’s more ambitious visuals, like the regulation CGI London, an extended rooftop chase, and the climactic brawl of werewolves which fails to achieve any sense of clashing ferocity, look and feel interchangeable with the kinds of scenes found it most other special-effects-laden fantasy films of recent years. Johnston finally turns in a flavourlessly phoney and impersonally bland-feeling product that’s the definition of hack work. Rick Baker’s make-up, beautifully rendered to pay tribute to Jack Pierce’s classic work, is subordinated to the computer-generated cheese.

Faults quickly proliferate beyond a redeemable point. There’s no sense of menace or sustained dread in the monster attacks, and gore effects are tossed at the screen with a childish showiness that entirely lacks an unsettling quality. It’s amazingly unscary – there’s one decent, unexpected gore shock late in the affair when Larry reenters his family home, but otherwise the film seems to have fallen victim to a studio push to get the gruesome money shots inserted regardless of tone or pace. Maleva, the gypsy who becomes Larry’s mother figure in Waggner’s film, is here reduced to a minor plot mechanism, and played by a totally wasted Geraldine Chaplin. Art Malik makes a momentary impression as Singh, Sir John’s Sikh servant, but his role is equally, irritatingly brief. Continuity goofs and story gaps litter the film, with a sloppiness that’s startling for such an expensive production, and Johnston leans on tired devices. How often have you seen a variation on the scene where a couple’s bubbling attraction is communicated by the man guiding a woman from behind to show her how to hold a gun or some such malarkey? Here it’s how to skip a stone across water.

Most unforgivably, the film has no grasp at all on the essentially tragic dimension of Waggner’s original. Where Chaney’s wolf man was anguished and conscientious when human but simply savage and indiscriminately murderous when transformed, here the filmmakers can’t approximate such fascinating duality. They instead render Larry almost heroic, by making most of his victims obnoxious, like consuming a posse of hunters who have insulted his mother’s memory, or tearing his way through the asylum keepers and quack psychiatrists who have tortured him. There was room to move there, in fact, in depicting a socially-created vengeful monster, but Johnston only renders it in the most boorish of cheer-along fashions. Del Toro tackles the part with as much intensity and commitment as he can, but he’s conspired against by the reduction of proceedings to a supernatural action movie, and his Larry is so laden with Byronic darkness from the start that his lycanthropy seems just another shit thing that happens to him, and merely deepens the already omnipresent ruts in his brow a quarter-inch. Where the 1941 film’s narrative presented the sad spectacle of a father having to finally express his love for his son by beating his brains out, there’s no coherent emotion in the bearish battle of man-beasts here.

Hopkins tackles his part with some familiar but entertaining tricks, and Weaving imbues his flat role with mordant humour. But Blunt’s turn as Gwen becomes the film’s expressive focal point. She’s excellent in a way that seems weirdly at odds with the otherwise overstuffed, unsuccessful efforts, as if she was the only person who seemed exactly sure of what she was doing. In spite of all the faults, though, it’s far more interesting as a disaster and a failure than, say, a “success” like the often visually and conceptually similar Sherlock Holmes, because it least it hints throughout that it could easily have been far better. If the filmmakers hadn’t become lost in second-guessing themselves, a thoroughly enjoyable work might have come out of it.

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