Much like poor Lawrence Talbot, director Joe Johnston’s updating of the beloved 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man seems to have fallen under an incurable curse. Though the throwback makeup design and occasional full-moon set piece – including a horrific attack on a Gypsy camp and a thrilling rampage in the streets of London – are strikingly effective,...read more
Much like poor Lawrence Talbot, director Joe Johnston’s updating of the beloved 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man seems to have fallen under an incurable curse. Though the throwback makeup design and occasional full-moon set piece – including a horrific attack on a Gypsy camp and a thrilling rampage in the streets of London – are strikingly effective, a listless lead performance by Benecio Del Toro fails to capitalize on the tragedy of the Talbot character. Poor pacing also ensures that most viewers will be squirming in their seats for most of the running time – more out of boredom than sheer terror.
When Ben Talbot (Simon Merrels) vanishes into thin air, his brother Lawrence (Del Toro) returns to his family estate to investigate. Upon reuniting with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), however, he discovers a destiny far darker than his blackest nightmares. Ben is dead; the victim of a savage attack by a beast that keeps the superstitious locals cowering in fear each time the moon shines bright in the sky. Shortly after discovering his brother’s true fate, Lawrence swears to Ben’s wife Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) that he will bring her late husband’s killer to justice. As a young boy, the untimely death of his mother caused Lawrence to grow up before his time. Though Lawrence had previously attempted to bury his pain in the past by leaving the quiet Victorian hamlet of Blackmoor behind, he discovers he can’t outrun fate when he’s attacked by the very same nocturnal beast that claimed his brother. Not even recently arrived Scotland Yard inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving) can dream up a rational explanation for the gruesome spell cast over Blackmoor, yet legends of an ancient curse persist, legends that will soon be proven as fact when Lawrence experiences a startling transformation.
Despite his talents, Del Toro seems to have been cursed more with narcolepsy than lycanthropy in his role as Lawrence Talbot, wandering through most scenes in a dreary-eyed daze even when his character is supposed to be feeling stronger, and more invigorated, than ever before. In the original film, the character of Talbot was defined by his desperation and determination to retain his humanity, trails that gave Lon Chaney, Jr. something to chew on as an actor and helped the film withstand the test of time. Here, those traits seem to have been lost in screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self’s efforts to expand the scope of the film and slip in a few new twists, some of which yield spectacular results on their own merit, but fall flat within the context of the film. The standout performer here is Hopkins, who’s emotionally distant as Talbot’s secretive father, yet colorful in character and rewarded with a show-stopping payoff. The special effects by werewolf veteran Rick Baker (who also has a small cameo) once again raise the bar in terms of creativity and complexity, and reinforce the fact that he’s the man to call when you’re looking to create a convincing werewolf. A transformation scene set in a room full of spectators is downright horrifying, and by working together to portray the creature’s stealth and ferocity, Johnston and Baker keep our pulses racing as we’re keeping pace with the Wolfman both in the forests of Blackmoor and on the rooftops of London.
The first hints of trouble on the moors came when the film’s original director, Mark Romanek, abandoned the project following a budgetary dispute just weeks before the film was set to start shooting in early 2008. Though Romanek was quickly replaced by special effects artist-turned-director Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jurassic Park III), problems persisted when media outlets reported that Danny Elfman’s original score would be scrapped because it didn’t match the tone of the film. When Elfman’s replacement, ex-Tangerine Dream member Paul Haslinger, delivered a score that was deemed even more disconnected in tone, Universal quickly made the decision to reinstate Elfman’s original orchestration, raising suspicions that the project was being micromanaged and that no one at Universal quite knew what they wanted the film to be. One needn’t strain to hear the influence of Wojciech Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) in Elfman’s compositions. Unfortunately, Elfman’s score isn’t nearly as distinctive or bold as the one that influenced it, only offering further proof that the once inventive composer’s creative well has all but run dry.
The final product, while undeniably polished and atmospheric, lacks the coherence and creative vision needed to measure up to the original, and it feels more like the product of necessity than inspiration. Much like the bereaved Gwen Conliffe, horror fans will still want to love this monster despite its flaws, though without the necessary character motivations to latch on to, they’ll likely find themselves struggling to do so.
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