I suppose it’s sort of unfair to fault a remake for being unoriginal, but the bottom line with The Wolfman is basically that it feels like every other werewolf movie that’s preceded it. Maybe this is because the original—1941’s The Wolf Man— has been frequently imitated, or maybe it’s just because there’s not much that can be done with a werewolf story. The one novel attempt I can think of is the Jack Nicholson vehicle Wolf, which didn’t really work. This newest incarnation of The Wolfman is much more traditional: it takes place in the late 19th century, in England, and centers around local legends that turn out to be true. Benicio Del Toro plays Lawrence, the estranged son of a landowning nobleman, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins). As the movie opens, Lawrence’s brother has been found maimed to death in the woods, and he’s received a letter from his brother’s finacee (Emily Blunt) beseeching him to return home to help investigate. (Lawrence, it seems, has been in America since he was a child, which works out well for Del Toro, who happens to be able to do a serviceable American accent.)
Lawrence reconnects with his father, and finds the old man to be aloof and mysterious, to say the least. His investigation leads him to a band of gypsies. There’s always gypsies in a story like this. They know all the legends, and how to interpret them. Lawrence eventually, it should go without saying, contracts the curse. Director Joe Johnston does a good job of slowly revealing Lawrence’s werewolf persona—it’s more startling to only see him in glimpses in the dark than it is to get a fully-lit view of him, but of course eventually that must happen. And when it comes down to it, any werewolf movie is going to end up with a guy in a mask jumping around and howling at the moon, and maybe that’s why it’s hard to do much of anything unusual with them. So it goes.
Gwen (the fiancee) does some digging of her own. She finds a book—there’s always a book—that gives a quick overview of how werewolves work, and what it takes to stop them. How convenient. The local constable (Hugo Weaving, in his dominant baritone) gets in on the chase. At times the werewolf is out in the open, being chased through the streets or across the rooftops. At others, he’s lurking in the forest, and the smallest rustle elicits a nervous jump—not just from Gwen, but from the audience, too. And sometimes we’re expecting a werewolf to jump out of the shadows, but it ends up only being Sir John’s dog. When we’re most poised to be scared, it’s always the dog.
It turns out there are actually two werewolves terrorizing fair Blackmoor, and The Wolfman‘s climax is the inevitable battle between them, which Megan compared—accurately, and unfavorably—to the similar point in the Wolverine movie. Guys in hairy make-up, that’s more or less all it is, no matter how accomplished the actors underneath the costumes might be (and they are), or how good the CGI transformation effects might be (and they are). And as if to compensate for this fact, a movie like this always seems to know that it needs to go a bit over the top with everything else. Here the score, by the great Danny Elfman, is even a bit overbearing, and the violent imagery is cranked up to an almost absurd level of gore. It all goes with the fun, though: The Wolfman is a movie that makes no claims to be anything other than what it is—guys in wolf suits and all.