Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman is neither as bad as you’ve probably heard, nor is it anywhere near as good as I might have hoped. It has a lot going for it. It’s good-looking, and it’s atmospheric. The cast is good. The makeup is excellent, managing to retain the charms of the source film’s Wolf Man, while making him more horrific for our modern sensibilities. The screenplay manages to flesh out the undeniably thin story line of the original 1941 film. Danny Elfman’s score is effective and something of a departure, with traces of a Philip Glass influence in it. The truth is that the individual components of the film are easily four-star—maybe four-and-a-half-star—material. But somehow, when they’re put together, they add up to less.
Let me get the classic horror geek stuff out of the way first. I was hoping that the film would have had the wit to use the old Universal Lucite globe for a logo, but it didn’t. (If James Wan’s Dead Silence (2007) could use the even older airplane logo, there’s no reason this couldn’t have been done.) The film then shoehorns in that famous bit of lycanthropic poetry: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” Fine, except that the poem and wolfsbane have nothing whatsoever to do with this story—and they get it wrong in the bargain, turning it into “pure of heart.” Yes, it’s a small thing, but it’s sloppy in an $85-$115 million movie that they had to know people would be waiting to pounce on for errors.
Most of the film’s changes are reasonable enough, and a couple are cleverly related to other classic horrors like Werewolf of London (1935) (the location of the werewolf encounter that started it all) and House of Frankenstein (1944) (the extra caveat about who has to fire the silver bullet). And there’s nothing really wrong with turning the film into a period piece, except that it makes the film feel more like a Hammer Film—or Hammer by way of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999)—than a Universal horror. Except for Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) with its 19th-century setting and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) with its very unspecific period, all the Universals were set in more or less contemporary times. Still, none of these things make or break The Wolfman.
Two—or maybe two-and-a-half—things are at the center of the film’s problems. First of all, there’s not much in the way of nuance here. The story is more involved than that of the source film, but it’s ultimately just as perfunctory as the old movie—and it lacks the subtext of the original The Wolf Man. Where it was possible to read the original as both an allegory for puberty and as a commentary on well-intentioned Americans barging into things they don’t understand, there’s not much here beyond a straightforward gothic-horror story.
It’s not a good trade-off, but it’s less troubling than the difference between Lon Chaney Jr.‘s Lawrence Talbot and that of Benicio Del Toro. Chaney was a limited actor, but his limitations fit the role. His awkward oafishness imbued the character with an innate degree of sympathy that’s missing from Del Toro’s character. Del Toro is by far a better actor, but his Talbot just isn’t sympathetic. The “brilliance”—even if it was probably somewhat accidental—of Chaney’s character lay in the fact that you were as much afraid for him as of him. That’s missing here—at least till the very end of the film when we see the man inside the beast, but it’s not quite enough. On the plus side, Del Toro’s monster is considerably more frightening. That’s at least true when he stands on two legs. The more “modern” notion of a quadruped werewolf that keeps overtaking the proceedings is awkward, and all the CGI jiggery-pokery in the world won’t change that.
These are serious flaws, but they don’t keep the film from having a good deal of merit and entertainment value. Many of the set pieces—especially the transformation in the insane asylum—are wonderfully accomplished. The mood is beautifully established. Anthony Hopkins—decked out in a variety of dressing gowns with animal-print lapels—is over-the-top in the grand manner of the great horror stars (“You’ve done terrible things, Lawrence. Terrible things”). And it’s worth noting that Emily Blunt’s Gwen Conliffe is given a much better break than Evelyn Ankers’ stock damsel-in-distress in the original. For that matter, Del Toro is good within the confines of the concept. On balance, there’s more right here than wrong, but it can’t get out from beneath the sense of being less than it might have been. Rated R for bloody horror violence and gore.