Directed by Joe Johnston
The werewolf has recently torn its way back into the pop culture lexicon, though this clawless reboot of 1941 B-movie classic The Wolf Man suggests that this puppy should be put down. From the opening title—"The Wolfman" engraved on a tombstone running with CGI blood—Joe Johnston promises the kind of campy pleasures he brought us with The Rocketeer, Jumanji and Jurassic Park III, but manages to disappoint even the lowest expectations.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, the story will be discernible from start to finish within five minutes of Lawrence Talbot's (Benicio Del Toro) return to his backwards British hometown of Blackmoor in 1891. On tour from America starring in his company's production of Hamlet—a detail that could have had thematic resonances with the ensuing family dramas, but doesn't—the gloomy Lawrence visits his reclusive father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) at the Talbots' Victorian villa for the funeral of his brother Ben (Simon Merrells), whose grizzly death provides the prologue. Excessive and cheaply stylized flashbacks fill out the mysteriously wealthy family's history: young Lawrence, a more adventurous boy than his homebody brother, found his mother dead in Sir John's arms after an apparent suicide. The mother now hangs over the creaky mansion's fireplace in a portrait that evokes the one in Vertigo and, similarly, bares an eerie resemblance to the next likely woman in the death cycle: Ben's widow Gwen (Emily Blunt), a London lady whose antique shop full of poised marble busts is the cosmopolitan equivalent of Sir John's country estate full of grimacing taxidermy and safari topiaries.
While visiting a nearby Gypsy caravan where his brother was seen the night of his death (Was he killed for consorting with Roma sex workers? Does this monster punish moral lapses or enable them? Not important.), Lawrence is bitten by the werewolf, and as his beast side comes out so do the shotgun-brandishing townsfolk and Scotland Yard detectives, led by Abberline (Hugo Weaving, reprising Agent Smith with a handlebar mustache). Thereafter we're treated to some mediocre killing spree set pieces in the woods and—in an overlong homage to American Werewolf in London—in London; a few mercifully short exchanges of dialog during which the cast of capable actors are less expressive than the Gypsies' dancing bear (the townsfolk's initial suspect); slow walks around the darkened Talbot home where jump-scares lurk around every corner; and a brief interlude that lands Lawrence back at the asylum where he spent much of his youth after his mother's death. Here the werewolf's cultural currency is laid bare: examined by doctors who proclaim the power of reason, our furry friend represents all that is base, sensual, irrational and uncivilized in mankind and the world. An unwanted ambassador from the most primal recesses of our collective wilderness, the werewolf's ability to walk among men undetected for 27 of 28 days threatens the whole project of the film's nascent modern society.
Such potentially nourishing thematic meat goes untouched in this tasteless, undercooked film, whose origins aren't the murky regions between man and beast, but more likely the financial interest generated by the success of recent vampires-versus-werewolves movies like the Underworld series and Twilight: New Moon. But aside from a ludicrous werewolf-on-werewolf climax (which is essentially a remake of Johnston's Spinosaurus-on-T-Rex battle in JP3), The Wolfman has nothing over the aforementioned Werewolf in London or John Landis' other horror classic, Michael Jackson's Thriller, from which the costume and makeup departments all but stole the look of their beast. If there's anything tasty to be excised from this thrashing carcass, it's the typically lively Danny Elfman score, and evocative grayscale set and costume design. Of course that's hardly consolation when your moviegoing experience has just been brutally gutted by a brutish monster.
Opens February 12