By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
In answer to the question I’ve most been asked since viewing Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman,” only insofar as the lunatical idea itself is it true to the original. Even the spelling of the titles is different, “The Wolf Man” (1941) being constructed as three words. Fielding the second most posed inquiry, it is more gruesome than shocking.
In other words, though the remake takes place in an English hamlet, circa 1891, Lawrence Talbot’s fiend is a werewolf for his time, a product of 21st century horror film sensibilities. The tip-off comes early, when the protagonist, who originally travels from America to help find his missing brother, is brought to a butcher shop to view the body.
From there, it’s just some expository notions and a few plot details before we’re into a steady diet of disembowelments and decapitations. To what end, we are again not sure. Indeed, the townspeople are a dumb, intolerant and superstitious bunch. But then that doesn’t mean they deserve to be tormented and turned into body parts, does it?
Which is why the lycanthropy thing is so upsetting. There are no morals. We are dealing with the Wolfman. Like his namesake, he doesn’t assess or philosophize when it comes to his prey. As the legend reads, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
Nonetheless, just as Lon Chaney, Jr. before him, Benicio Del Toro’s Lawrence Talbot tries to do the right thing after being nibbled by whatever it is that haunts the woods near Talbot Manor. But alas, like his distant cousin(s) “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941) at MGM have found, fighting the inherent duality of man’s nature is a daunting occupation.
And creepy dear old dad isn’t really much help. Prone to eerie stares and ominous pontification, Anthony Hopkins’s Sir John Talbot gives off a tad of eau de Dr. Hannibal Lecter. As the mysterious variable in this newest permutation, he introduces an Oedipal angle to the ensuing murder and mayhem. Guilty thrills abound. And it gets pretty nutty.
Even the Gypsies, initially blamed for the series of unexplained brutalizations, can’t fathom the baffling powers that terrorize the night. Here, Geraldine Chaplin does a nice variation on Maria Ouspenskaya’s Maleva. Of course the title beast’s main ally comes in the form of beauty.
Betrothed to Lawrence’s deceased brother, she is Gwen Conliffe.
Still hanging about the manse as a measure of good form, Emily Blunt’s Gwen is stirred by Larry’s zeal to solve his brother’s murder. We can guess where this is going. While Miss Blunt emits a good screech or two, she wisely doesn’t try to outdo Evelyn Ankers, the original Gwen and Universal horror staple feted as “The Queen of the Screamers.”
But then tastes have changed. Incongruous accents, skewed geographies and inconsistent time periods were part and parcel of what is now revered as the classic age of horror. Big deal if Chaney couldn’t act. The flaws provided both charm and an escape valve that assured all but the youngest viewers that this is, after all, just a lot of spooky nonsense.
Hence, just as Bela Lugosi came to be synonymous with Dracula and Boris Karloff became readily interchangeable with Frankenstein, Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man rounded out the unholy trinity. But so much for respectful dispensation. After bearing the brunt of several real life demons during WW II, we take our film monsters a bit more seriously.
While it is doubtful Mr. Del Toro will be celebrated for his intuitive interpretation of how the genre’s metaphor has changed, the understatement he assumes in the midst of such wildly hairy doings is a testament to his thespic skill. The bedlam all around him imparts just the right dramatic antithesis. The FX folks pull out all the stops and more.
The synthesis of CGI magic and standard movie trickery, while not nearly as innovative for its time as the painstaking stop-action work that turned Chaney into the Wolf Man, provides virtually seamless transitions. Likewise, the art direction and costume design etch a brooding, premonitory contrast to the vaunted optimism of late Victorian England.
But skipping the film critic gibberish and getting down to cases, this stuff is killer-diller grisly. We witness one vile act after another as if shuttling through a depraved funhouse. Still, though keeping intact the lore, the cinematically superior “Wolfman,” bloodthirsty chills and all, can’t match the enduring marks left by its bitingly camp predecessor.
“The Wolfman,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Joe Johnston and stars Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt and Anthony Hopkins. Running time: 125 minutes
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