by Tony Dayoub
Oh, how I wanted to like The Wolfman. I was so excited when I saw the trailer, I even ran a post suggesting it looked more exciting than Avatar (I totally deserve to get the boot for that one). Not only does it star one of my favorite actors, Benicio Del Toro. Not only does its imagery evoke the expressionistic chiaroscuro scenes of the old Universal horror flicks AND the repressed (at least some of the time) eroticism of the Hammer horror movies. It is also the return of one of my favorite cinematic monsters, the werewolf.
There is something tragic about the werewolf, a man (or even woman as in 2000's great Ginger Snaps) whose monstrous nature is a curse inflicted rather than a an inborn evil. Generally, this puts the viewer in the position of rooting for his human persona while recognizing the danger of his animalistic one. Rarely though, does it force one to actively root against the wolf monster he becomes the way one would against Jigsaw or any other inherently evil killer. Who can really hate an animal for simply acting true to their bestial nature? Some actors can deliver the conflicted nature of such a creature, from narrowly talented ones like Lon Chaney, Jr. in the legendary original 1941 iteration of this film to the far more dynamic Oliver Reed in my personal favorite, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961).
So imagine my surprise when the usually dependable Del Toro fails to pull this off. His Lawrence Talbot, haunted as he says he is, sleepwalks through the otherwise operatic Wolfman, lost in Method-inspired underplaying while his stage-inspired British supporting players steal the film out from under him. Anthony Hopkins isn't even working hard at it. His performance as Talbot's father, Sir John, is subdued enough to be nearly as somnambulistic as Del Toro's. But Hopkins can do more with an unexpected voice modulation than other actors can, even Del Toro, whose portrayal of the monster demonstrates he can release his inner beast with gusto when necessary, Rick Baker's fantastic makeup be damned. A wild romp through a Victorian London right out of the recent Sherlock Holmes allows Del Toro to chew more than the scenery.
Sherlock Holmes also serves as a key to decipher what went wrong with The Wolfman. Editor extraordinaire Walter Murch seems to have been brought on to save this movie. He seems to have been inspired by Guy Ritchie's stop-start, slow-mo-then-overcranked editing style since it enlivens the contemporaneous setting of the Holmes film. But Murch's hyper-stylized editing does nothing to erase the picture's flaws. This movie has been delayed for a year, and quite honestly it shows. Director Joe Johnston (October Sky) may be more to blame for Del Toro's failings than the actor himself. The performance of his leading actor seen in relief to that of the rest of the cast indicates Johnston leaving Del Toro to his own devices. The film is overscored by Danny Elfman (after almost being fired and having his compositions deleted in favor of someone else's), his orchestration a virtual rip-off of Wojciech Kilar's seminal music for Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). Despite being lit quite beautifully by Shelly Johnson, the movie's tendency to fall back on medium close-ups betrays his roots in the televison world, minimizing any dynamism from the disjointed shot selections. The problem is Holmes' editing style doesn't work in this Gothic horror film, where shots need to linger long enough to establish a sense of atmosphere and heighten the tension. Strangely enough, The Wolfman simply moves too fast, sacrificing mystery to make sure all of the money spent on gore, CGI, and art direction is seen on the screen.
Sadly, I'll have to wait a bit longer to get an effective movie worthy of this classic monster. The Wolfman's growl is indifferent to its bite.