Directed by Joe Johnston
Starring Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins
Rated R, Now playing
There has been a lot of hype leading up to the Universal Studios’ remake of the classic motion picture The Wolf Man. Though there have been a smattering of werewolf movies throughout the decades, the only one that’s really embedded itself in American culture was the original Wolf Man (1941) featuring horror legends Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi. The new WolfMan trailer promised an exciting new take on the old-school thriller, complete with a graphic transformation scene, an overly spooky setting reminiscent of the old film, and the acting talents of Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, and Anthony Hopkins.
Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that. The problem I have with The Wolfman is not in its plot, but rather with its reliance on the formula for a traditional horror film and falling short. Movies from the 30’s and 40’s, like The Wolf Man featuring Chaney as the werewolf, The Mummy with Boris Karloff, Frankenstein (again with Karloff), and Dracula with the haunting Lugosi, are all remembered as cinematic masterpieces for the effect they left on the audience, rather than the genius of their screenplay. I emphasize the actors in such old films because they are an essential part of what made the films so great; the chills you get when you look into Karloff’s monstrous stare and the fear you feel when Chaney played the werewolf are what keep these films relevant to modern moviegoers. These movies did not have amazing special effects, or the most interesting scripts; instead, they were frightening in their simplicity, and suspenseful for being what they were — monster movies.
Sitting in the theater of Wolfman, I felt like I was watching some contrived old werewolf movie with a load of unnecessary gore and special effects. The Wolfman centers around man who returns home to investigate his brother’s death after years without contacting his family is bitten and turned into a werewolf, resulting in a myriad of bloody full moons, rioting townspeople, and unanswered mysteries. The film was at times ridiculously cheesy, with a dramatic background score playing throughout and special emphasis placed on exaggerated close-ups of the actors. In this manner, it pleads for the audience to be scared of the theatrical world created in the film, and still expects us to feel the character’s heartaches. We are thrown headfirst into this dimension with nothing but words to tell us of the many plights afflicting the characters, with no time given to develop a sympathy for them that could have elevated the movie to a higher level. We do not get a glimpse of the happy life Gwen (Blunt) used to lead with her newly dead husband, or of the life the estranged Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) had before abruptly returning to his ancestral home after brother’s death. Unfortunately, the acting in Wolfman also did not live up to what it could have been. I would prescribe the problem partly as both fault in the acting itself and in the roles as written. Because the film focused so much on telling as opposed to showing, it was ineffective in achieving the atmospheric horror and brilliant character development so key to the success of traditional horror films.
While the film would obviously like to stand on its own, it makes sense for it to be judged with the knowledge that its many cliches and dramatic flares hark back to the style of the original film. The hyperbolic mob mentality displayed in Wolfman seems theatrical and questionable at best, while certain scenes are too laughable and obvious to actually be fearful. The heavy use of violence and gore provides an almost unnatural and forced juxtaposition to a movie that should be scary on a more fundamental level. If we had convincingly felt the sheer horror, disgust and pain of Talbot’s situation, perhaps the movie could have worked. That is not to say there was nothing good in Wolfman. The transformation scenes were great fun, as was the climactic finale. As a generalization about the horror genre, the true thrills are often not obtained in the predictable plot itself, but the manner through which the audience is drawn into the characters’ dilemmas, how convincingly they are absorbed into the world in which the characters suffer. If I had convincingly felt the sheer horror, disgust and pain of Talbot’s situation, perhaps the movie could have worked. If you’re in the mood for a violent werewolf movie, you might just get what you’re paying for; otherwise, I’d suggest you re-watch an old classic instead.