In cinema, there’s always a fine line between the supernatural and the ridiculous, and the best horror films flirt with this boundary without crossing it. Unfortunately, director Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman was less than tactful in his approach to the werewolf genre, and the film ends up resembling more of a farce than a truly scary movie.
The movie focusses on Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) who, after hearing of his brother’s most unnatural death, returns home to his estranged family’s residence. Talbot reunites with his father (Anthony Hopkins) with whom he has serious daddy issues, and meets his brother’s widow, the incredibly attractive Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). After a violent encounter with a wolf-like creature, Talbot is bitten and, in turn, becomes the Wolfman, a hairy beast that has an uncontrollable urge to murder people and feast on their remains. As the movie unfolds he struggles with his violently conflicting identities, his haunting past, and his growing emotions for Gwen. If the plot sounds oddly familiar, it’s not only because the film is a remake of the 1941 classic The Wolf Man, but because the entire movie can be summarized as Wolverine meets Legends of the Fall.
The movie posits itself as a metaphor for man’s dark side, though it’s a long shot to claim we all have a werewolf in us waiting to be unleashed. Sure, it’s interesting to see Jekyl struggle against Hyde, but The Wolfman‘s exploration of human duality doesn’t have the same depth and sincerity that even The Hulk contained.
To be fair, the cinematography is impressive and the rendition of the Victorian Gothic is quite successful and creates an atmosphere of fear in ominous rural England. Unfortunately, that sense of fear stays on the screen, as even timid members of the audience are left unshaken.
The movie’s biggest failure is that it is unable to grasp the audience’s emotions. This may be due in part to how accustomed we’ve become to the classic monsters, but it seems mostly due to the film’s refusal to abide by any monster-film conventions. Although sometimes clichéd, these common plot devices exist for a reason, and challenging all of them is not anti-mainstream, it’s just poor directing. For example, showing the monster 30 seconds after the opening credits takes away the build up and shock value any monster movie relies on. After this, all the film had to rely on were loud noises and jump-outs as scare tactics. Although flinch-inducing, they lack the ability to grasp your psyche and instill psychological fear.
The gore component of the film is so over-the-top that it causes the film to resemble horror satires rather than horror classics. It’s a shame that Hopkins couldn’t tap into his Hannibal Lecter repertoire and instruct the director on how suggested evil can transmit much more panic than a literal bloodbath.
The one gem that shines through is the acting. Blunt and Del Toro do well with what they’ve been given. However, Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of the meticulous Scotland Yard inspector is gripping and much scarier than the wolfman itself. Hopkins effortlessly performs the perfect dark and malicious father figure, reminiscent of his previous evil geniuses.
Johnston, whose previous works include Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids should probably stick to kids films, as his attempt at adult horror creates more yawns than terrified howls.
The Wolfman plays at AMC Forum 22.