Directed by Joe Johnston
Runtime: 125 min.
WITHOUT QUESTION THE loudest horror film ever made, the new The Wolfman features footsteps that land like gunfire, gunshots that resound like explosions and sudden appearances accompanied by sonic booms. It’s all part of contemporary movie coarsening where storytelling has less value for filmmakers (and filmgoers) than F/X technological excess. Expect more of this post-Avatar.
Here, the legend introduced by the 1941 movie The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr., is compressed into a one-word Darwinian grotesque, The Wolfman.This time Benicio Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, a tormented aristocrat in 1891 Blackmoor, England, whose DNA gets mixed with the cursed Lycanthropy that, during a full moon, turns him into a slathering, blood-lusting, entrailsextracting monster. (The beast in man, hidden by Victorian-era fear and repression but now—through modern technique and nihilism—unstoppably released.)
The Wolfman cleverly establishes Lawrence as an Edwin Booth-style stage actor with family issues: He’s first seen touring the world in a production of Hamlet, contemplating Yorick’s skull. Lawrence soon returns home to family tragedy: an emotionally distant father and a brother killed by a beast stalking the countryside. Only the bereaved fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt) greets him with feeling.
Screenwriter Kevin Andrew Walker exposes the killing fiend’s identity rather early (more coarsening); too soon to get resonance out of Lawrence’s psychologically exhausting role-playing.The character should be catnip for the wonderful Del Toro, a specialist in brooding depth whose delicacy and timing (memorable in Excess Baggage and Things We Lost in the Fire) are what distinguish him from the facially similar Brad Pitt.
Lawrence’s attempt to escape the past (his tormented self) gets trampled by emphasis on the rampaging, running-then-galloping man-beast who rears up in elaborate slasher movie set pieces that are gross and LOUD.
Walker’s impatient giveaway robs Del Toro of Brandoesque opportunities. His mournful histrionics are countered by too-blatant evocations of Lon Chaney grotesquerie: sunken eyes and stricken, hopeless gazing.There’s even a shot of Lawrence eluding police in a hat and cape that recalls both Mr. Hyde and Jack the Ripper.Walker’s Halloween cinephilia recalls his sideshow-like Se7en script, but the poetic Del Toro deserves more than fan boy in-jokes.
Del Toro could have elevated the horror genre—truly modernized it—with his good actor’s canniness: Lawrence’s dilemma is centered in a self-conscious approach to both family guilt and original sin.Yet, The Wolfman exploits the horror film’s “uncanny” conventions: alluding to the supernatural without conviction except to baselessly invoke dread and the occult—but not belief in redemption or salvation. More coarsening makes The Wolfman less enjoyable than a satirical exposé of the uncanny (whether genre hysteria or psychological angst) would be.
Fact is, by pandering to the Avatar market’s debased taste and indifference to storytelling details, this technically polished, emotionally crude remake sets back the advances that once had been made in horror movies. Joe Dante’s 1981 The Howling updated The Wolf Man into a witty but also scary satire—of age-old superstitions and genre conventions. Dante turned horror clichés on their head even while extending the F/X gore of makeup artist Rick Baker’s canine transformations. (Even in 1981, these made parodistic commentary on the werewolf morphing that John Landis used in An American Werewolf in London.)
The Howling evinced the ’70s American Renaissance ethic that examined cultural assumptions. Dante laughed at and defied our fears.Today’s nihilistic market indulges fears out of misplaced solipsism. Even Lawrence’s apprehension about his father (“He thinks that his father is to blame, that his father is literally a monster”) suggests Obama-era accusation about an inherited crisis rather than Vietnam-era guilty complicity.The subtle difference makes all the difference between a meaningful genre movie that scrutinizes political calamity and a merely bloody, noisy freakshow (as with the exploitative waterboarding that occurs when Lawrence is imprisoned in an Abu Ghraib-like asylum).
Here’s a puzzle for film historians: The Wolfman was conceptualized by music video director Mark Romanek, who studied under Brian De Palma on 1980’s Home Movies. Although Romanek left The Wolfman before capable Joe Johnston took over direction, this is the most complete representation of Romanek’s sensibility yet to reach the big screen. Every shot features enormous artistic detail (Romanek’s encyclopedic visual mastery). It is sumptuously art-directed with Gainsborough interiors and exquisitely photographed (by Shelly Johnson) so that moonlight, candlelight and dust motes play in a single shot. And the genuinely malevolent slaughter scenes evoke Goya’s richly tragic disasters.This isn’t sentimental cruelty like Peter Jackson’s silly King Kong remake nor Sam Raimi’s ridiculous Drag Me to Hell. But like De Palma’s grievous violence, it’s artful.
At the core of Del Toro’s performance is the same Oedipal anguish as De Palma’s Raising Cain; and though a father-son werewolf clash turns ludicrous, there’s a final flourish straight out of The Fury. Best of all is a liebestod, staged Romanek-style against a jugendstil waterfall where Lawrence grabs Gwen’s wrist—a shocking gesture of love just like the climax of Carrie.What’s missing from The Wolfman is De Palma’s sophisticated, humorous purpose, as Romanek surely intended.