Monster movies have been a mainstay of American Horror films and they all owe a debt to The Universal Monsters. Many of the group had literary origins and were given their screen debut by Universal Pictures from the 1920’s until 1960; the major monsters included Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, and of course, the Wolf Man.
This re-make stars Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot, who returns to England when his brother Ben is reported missing; by the time Lawrence arrives, Ben’s mutilated body is found. Lawrence stays at home with his father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), and Ben’s brooding fiancé, Gwenn Conliffe.
And of course Lawrence wants to find the killer of his brother, who turns out not to be a lunatic or a gypsy’s bear, but something much more unnatural. Scarred by his encounter with the beast, Lawrence goes on to learn of monstrous curses.
This film wants to be Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992)…and not. The setting, costume design, lighting, all give it the mood and atmosphere of a film really reaching for something memorable. At the same time though, the pacing is too quick, too abrupt and jerky. It lacks any faith in the actors and the script, jumping from scene to scene, shot to shot, which tells me it wants to be about action at the core. Do you remember Let the Right One In? That little vampire film had faith in the material and in its actors, which shows in the camera work: doing less means there is more to be focusing on. The quiet camera movements in Let the Right One In make the violent segments that much more jarring. The Wolfman just doesn’t have the skill to do the same, going for cheap thrills that will make you jump, but won’t evoke true dread.
Why the schizophrenic interpretation? Because original director Mark Romanek was dropped from the picture (or he left of his own volition). Romanek did the amazing One Hour Photo (2002), which was all about mood and slower pacing. So the atmospheric elements to The Woflman are probably attributed to Romanek. His replacement (and current credit holder on the film), was Joe Johnston…the guy who brought you Jurassic Park III. Now you know where the action-y feel comes from.
Along with the director switch just before production, there’s also been mention of special effects issues (Rick Baker is credited, but was supposedly kept on the sidelines as CGI did most of the work), new editors, re-shoots, and on-set rewrites. This latter bit shows, as halfway through the film we find out (I’ll give the spoiler alert, but I guessed it from the outset) MINOR SPOILER, that Sir John Talbot killed Lawrence’s mother as a werewolf; she did not slit her throat cleanly as Lawrence had remembered it. After we see this flashback, Lawrence redundantly states, “You killed my mother.” SPOILER OVER This statement was funny unto itself: we see what happened, we don’t need a narrator to guide us. But Del Toro’s delivery of this line had everyone in the cinema giggling, which pushed this film into Giallo type camp (if you haven’t read my review of Giallo, trust me, that’s pretty bad).
Though the film boasts great actors like Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, there’s only one redeeming aspect to The Wolfman and that’s the ridiculous amounts of gore. Amidst other big budget fare frightened of the R rating, it was cool to see a werewolf’s true capacity for bloodshed. So kudos for being bloody, but shame on you for making a film so bloody banal (zing!). If you just spent more time building up before the gore, this could have been a great film.
A lesser film critic would quip: “Blah blah blah, but The Wolfman is nothing to howl about.” I try to do a good job here, so instead of a quip, I’ll recommend another film featuring the Wolf Man over this version: The Monster Squad. This was a film made in 1987 about a bunch of kids who have to fight the major Universal Monsters who are trying to obtain an amulet that will open a wormhole to hell.
Now, that may sound really hokey (and the trailers don’t help, do not use them to judge the film), but it was written by Shane Black, the same guy who wrote the Lethal Weapon films and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Thus, the film is clever, funny, and makes these kids feel surprisingly real. If you liked The Sandlot and Goonies, you’ll be wondering if The Monster Squad is the best of the three.
The Wolfman is okay (go only for the gore), but you’ll have a better night if you and your buddies watch The Monster Squad. At least that film has nards.