- WHAT THE HOWL: 'Wolfman' a mess.
One way to ruin a perfectly good horror film is to pour a lot of money into it. We're talking about the one genre that invariably benefits from the kind of ingenuity only financial limitations can foster. “The Wolfman,” if its lag in production time gives us any clue, turned into a real money pit at some point. (I seem to remember seeing promos for this film back before Twitter existed.) Lord knows any movie with credits like “based on a screenplay by” so-and-so suffered through a lot of micro-management and behind-the scenes strife.
Such reservations prove themselves grounded in dismal reality by a tin-eared approach to basic gothic horror that falls far short of standard, performances that are uniformly uninspired and a third act that goes so completely off the rails that it seems like an entirely different director is at the helm.
“The Wolfman” is not so much bad as it is forgettable. It'll do fine on cable networks with time to kill, sandwiched between “Van Helsing” and “The Scorpion King,” but I'm not sure many folks would see it twice out of anything but sheer boredom. Universal creature features were always crappy, churned out on limited budgets with stock players on recycled sets, but at least they could be charming and eccentric. Life on the margins provided them a kind of freedom. “The Wolfman” seems focus-grouped to death.
I wanted to admire its resistance to revision. A number of interesting films have sprouted out of the werewolf mythology, from classics like “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London” to hip diversions like “Ginger Snaps” and “Dog Soldiers.” Shakira's topping the charts with her own spin on quasi-bestial sexuality, and I'd posit that even “Teen Wolf” warrants more than ironic appreciation. Connecting adolescence to a myth that hinges on the domestication of untethered masculinity, not to mention turning weasely Alex P. Keaton into a rowr-ing sex machine/point guard, at least required a little imagination.
“The Wolfman” sets itself apart by attempting to stay relatively faithful to the general tale. Most of the original elements are intact, anyway: silver bullets, full moons, transference of the curse by wolf-bite, the strange elasticity of clothing. The period setting parts ways with the Universal original and settles into a land of gothic affectation more familiar to fans of the famed Hammer horror film franchise of Great Britain. Benicio Del Toro, who plays the cursed scion of an unrepentant lycanthrope, even looks a bit like the infamously pickled Oliver Reed, whose watery eyeballs lusted after busty British babes in his own stale version of the tale.
Those gothic affectations, with their clattering cobblestones and flamboyantly taxidermized studies and candlelit cobwebs and gypsy caravans, could have been reason enough to see the film, but they pale in comparison to the grimy period detail of the more evocative “Sherlock Holmes” and settle firmly into the yawning confines of cliche. As a result, the movie is so inept at conjuring genuine eeriness that it has to settle for the noisy wooshes for all its scares, and even those aren't terribly effective because who doesn't know that somebody's gonna yell “BOO!” just when things quiet down? The sound department, stretched to the limit by being really loud right when something jumps out of the shadows, apparently couldn't be bothered to put any raw unearthly emotion into the werewolf's campy howl.
Everybody else was clearly just cashing a paycheck. Anthony Hopkins, worst of all because he should know better, attempts to icy-stare his way through the characterization, when what his and every other role really required was some good old theatrical booming-voice Acting. Del Toro can do little more than mumble, all presence and no gravity, like his very awful CGI wolf, which bounds around like a paper tiger. Emily Blunt is never better than when she gives us a scant view of her naked back, a stray treat in an otherwise doomed performance. You really wonder why studios bother with name actors on productions like this.
The film treats the terrors of Del Toro's change into the wolf in the stalest possible way, which seems its greatest failure. It's one thing to go through the motions; it's another to miss the point entirely. If physical pain is the extent of what you can imagine accompanies such a transformation, then no wonder your lunatic howl registers as so laughably hollow.