This is Universal’s third attempt to resurrect a classic monster property, again to mixed results.
Like many in my generation, I’ve been a fan of the classic ’30’s and ’40’s Universal studios horror films since childhood. Sitting in our darkened living room on a Saturday evening, bathed in the cool grey glow of my family’s Philco black and white TV, I was immersed in classic B movie “Creature Features” or “Fright Night” episodes with sweat- palmed delight… that is, when I was lucky enough to get to the TV set before my dad was able to settle onto the couch to find a good western.
Those evenings were a particular treat when they would showcase an old Universal Studios gem from the the 1930’s or 40’s featuring the Master’s of the era – Lugosi, Karloff, or Chaney Jr. Just the sight of the star-encrusted, Art Deco Universal logo, or even older, the the lone globe – spinning in space with a brightly lit aeroplane orbiting in the opposing direction with “Universal” unscrolling behind- made my heart race in anticipation of the delightfully creepy spectacle that awaited me. It was like a “Seal of Guarantee” that what awaited you was of the highest quality… the best offering possible for pre-teen horror entertainment.
Interestingly enough, at the opening of this incarnation of The Wolfman, Universal recreated the sparkly Universal globe intro that they used in that era. It looks virtually the same… sparkling stars, rotating “universal” in block deco letters. But upon closer inspection, you see that it’s actually a CGI recreation of the classic opening. My own reaction was interesting… what began as child-like glee, was met by a mild sense of disappointment. In many ways, that’s a fair summation of my feelings toward the movie that unfolds hereafter.
In The Wolfman, Benicio del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, the estranged son of Sir John Talbot (dutifully rendered on film by the always-game Sir Anthony Hopkins). Lawrence is a stage actor in a traveling company performing Hamlet in London. He’s visited in his dressing room post performance by the fiance of his older brother, Emily Blunt in the role of Gwen Conliff. Gwen has come to beg Lawrence’s assistance in searching for his missing older brother, Ben.
Though reluctant, even declining the request at first, del Toro relents and the next day boards a train en route to his ancestral home of Blackmoor. There is an interesting interchange on the train between del Toro and a mysterious gentleman, a cameo by veteran actor Max Von Sydow, who wields (and then bestows upon Lawrence after disappearing) a silver wolf-headed cane. Like other things about this film, it’s an interesting caveat that fails to make a lasting impression.
Once returning to Blackmoor, del Toro is reunited with his elusive father and his Sikh man-servant Singh, played by Art Malet. The estate is musty, cobweb draped, and dark for the most part, save for the dining room that (thankfully I suppose) is rather tidy. For some reason, that struck me as a little odd. But then, if I had to eat meals there in the mansion, I’d suppose I’d want it to be pretty clean. Wonder what the kitchen looked like?
del Toro’s portrayal of Lawrence is that of a weary soul… tired from the rigors of a traveling theater troupe, but also haunted and scarred by events of his past. del Toro even resembles Lon Chaney Jr. somewhat in his portrayal… sullen faced, haunted, and exhibiting a sense of dread in what the future holds for him. It seems the younger Talbot was traumatized as a boy by seeing his mother dead, throat slashed, in his father’s arms, and actually spent time in a mental institution (illustrated as a virtual torture venue in flashbacks as well as later in the film. Probably closer to actual historic accuracy than any of us may be comfortable realizing). Interesting aside, “lunatic” is from the Latin root “luna”, meaning “moon”. In older times, it was thought that the moon caused insanity and held sway over many human emotions. Nice bit of foreshadowing, that.
The senior Talbot as played by Hopkins (the role was held by the legendary Claude Raines in the original) is an elusive and vague persona, a man who seems to know things he’s unwilling to share. He seems mildly pleased that his younger son has returned, yet maybe not so much. He doesn’t appear particularly disturbed by his elder son’s disappearance. It’s clear from the beginning that there’s much more to the elder Talbot than is laid out in the light of day. He’s a man holding secrets. What is clear is that he’s entranced by Gwen’s uncanny resemblance to his deceased wife. This point is introduced early on, but seems to fade into the scenery as the film progresses.
This is true with much of the way the script unfolds, and is the reason the film never quite reaches its full potential. The dialogue is something more than sparse, but less than engaging. The framework of the movie is rich with opportunities to develop deeper raw material. Topics such legacy, as the duality of human nature, the rivalry that sometimes emerges in parent/sibling relationships, and ever fertile ground that is humans as sexual creatures are sort of left hanging to be plucked, yet are left to die on the vine. Ultimately this is why The Wolfman never quite reaches the level of epic, but seems satisfied to occupy the “joyride” slot on the library shelf. Whether this is the result of the mid-stream directorial change, or just a weakly executed screenplay (by Andrew Kevin Walker and David self, based loosely on the prolific Curt Siodmack’s original) … I’m not sure. But the end result is a film that’s fun while it lasts, but leaves little lasting aftertaste to savor.
Eventually, The older Talbot’s body is located, torn asunder by something that couldn’t possibly be human, of course. A strange medallion is found in his personal effects, which leads a sleuthing Lawrence to the camp of a band of gypsies that are occupying a portion of the vast Blackmoor estate. It is here where Lawrence has his titular encounter with the gypsy woman Maleva, played well but with little heavy lifting to do, by Geraldine Chapman. Shortly thereafter, Lawrence Talbot meets his fate… exposure to the werewolf’s curse.
From here, the story pulls itself from it’s somewhat leisurely, if not plodding pacing, and heads full-bore into werewolf-attack gory..er.. glory. In the film, profanity is virtually nonexistent. However, be warned if you’re squeamish – when the beast is loosed, blood hemorrhages freely, entrails are exposed vividly, and heads are relieved from their torsos with great flair. Not to say any of this is gratuitous – our subject is, after all, a feral and predatory monster. The Wolfman embraces this with great aplomb.
Given that this is a werewolf film, as you’d expect, there are several exchanges and interludes involving our nearest celestial body. There are many beautifully rendered and framed references to the moon throughout the film, which are delightful illustrations of the more than capable cinematography and shot framing expertly crafted by Shelly Johnson. As a work of visual art, The Wolfman is a pleasure to behold.
The Wolfman itself is effectively portrayed as primitive and feral both in action and in visual execution. Rick Baker and company are at the top of their game here. Most scenes of the man-wolf appear to be practically executed with mild updates to the original Lon Chaney Jr./Jack Pierce version, still a visual hybrid of man and wolf. He’s powerful in size and action, but something more than just an over-sized timber wolf as established in many modern werewolf films. This to me is a credit to the film, and a tribute to its source material. What we are asked to buy into is the image of a man transformed into a mythical, nightmare embodiment of the most destructive parts of both human and animal nature… to culminate this being into nothing more than a wild dog to me has always been a let down and a disservice to the genre.
Of course, as with all genre films these days, there are many digital effects, but none of them to me are intrusive and jarring. They serve to accentuate the analogue effects, and enable the creators to embellish the visual presentation, which is rich and tactile in hue, and atmospheric and enveloping in mood. As a period piece, The Wolfman succeeds in placing you in the mid-to-late 1800’s, whether it’s sooty and damp urban London, or the winding and fog draped moors of England’s back country.
The visual temperament is ultimately one of the great triumphs of this film. It’s become clear to me that Joe Johnston (brought in to replace Marc Romanek when the production was rumored to be troubled) has a particular flair for period settings. Go find a copy of one of his first directorial features, The Rocketeer, and you’ll see an early example of his adept ability to recreate an era on film. This, at least to me, is as clear evidence as any as to why Marvel Studios plucked him up to direct Caption America.
Once Lawrence falls victim to the werewolf curse, the other plot points start to fall into place. A romantic attachment begins to form between Blunt’s Gwen and del Toro’s Lawrence, though we are never quite sure why. We are introduced to Scotland Yard detective Abberline, ably delivered by genre veteran Hugo Weaving. Weaving is immediately suspicious of del Toro’s Lawrence, and doggedly pursues his instincts from the get-go (instincts here alludes to plot points that surface late in the film. But I don’t want to give anything away).
There are chase scenes though London, treks across the vistas of the English countryside, and the concluding confrontation back at the Blackmoor estate. Never mind sibling rivalry, paternal skirmishes can be absolutely brutal.
The ending is wrapped up dutifully, with a clear if not dynamic illusion to a possible sequel. Like much of The Wolfman, it serves it’s purpose in a workmanlike fashion, but it does little in the way of ramping up anticipation.
The Wolfman is an able tale that manages to capture more of what Universal’s classic monster romps are loved for, far more so than the train wreck that was Van Helsing. The Mummy (the first more than the second outing) accomplished action and adventure with full embrace. The Wolfman meets somewhere in the middle, yet left me longing for just a little more meat on the proverbial bone.