A colleague of ours wrote a piece last year proclaiming that horror fans are the most forgiving of all. The Wolfman seems to be a litmus test for how much the viewer will be able to forgive in lieu of tremendous set design, some decent kills, and an awesomely goofy battle towards the end. While these are some of director Joe Johnston’s finest offerings in this picture, there’s also a pretty underdeveloped romance and some goofy line delivery from the leading man. If one sees past this, they will be able to enjoy The Wolfman on a fun level. For me personally, I’m going to let the tone of this review dictate where I fall.
Speaking of tone, that’s one thing Joe Johnston nails right on the head with this film. He’s aware of the story he’s telling, and keeps the whole thing simplistic and standard (i.e. – wolf on the loose, inspector starts to suspect, chase is on) without making things overtly complicated when they don’t need to be. Johnston wants this roller coaster to be fun, without turning you over or rattling your brain, and in that regard he succeeds. He also deserves credit for respecting the older films, be it with subtle references or even with the overall demeanor of the film.
Where he unfortunately fails lies within the pacing. Partially it’s not his fault as some of it happens to be how the story is plotted, but some of his directorial choices seem off. For instance, the opening scene. Larry’s brother Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells) is being chased, the werewolf sneaks up behind him, and suddenly we cut to the opening title. Maybe Johnston wanted his audience to only see the results of the title character at first (a decision I’m more than happy with) but structure like this makes the film seem off. Don’t be mistaken, The Wolfman does move along fine for it’s hour and-a-half runtime, but the story structure can slow her down.
Many felt Benicio Del Toro already resembled The Wolfman and while he certainly has the perfect look, his performance leaves much to be desired. There’s still enjoyment to be had from him, as unintentional as some of it may be. His line delivery evoked howls from this watcher, but most of them came at the most inappropriate times. But credit must be given, where his line delivery is a hoot, he’s perfectly built for the role. He doesn’t seem out of place, even if he’s the only one with an American accent.
The rug is pulled from underneath him though by two individuals who seem to be in a war of who can be the coolest man in this movie. Anthony Hopkins absolutely chews up all of his time as Sir John Talbot and gets one of the coolest scenes in the picture. He’s a true gem here and isn’t in the sleepwalk mode he’s been in for the past couple of movies. His opponent in this battle of cool is Hugo Weaving as Inspector Aberline, who comes out the victor. Weaving remains reserved and calm throughout the movie, playing his role up as a man who’s totally in control rather than with a smug nature. The scene that wins him the Battle of Cool comes in the middle of the movie when his character enters a tavern and has a ‘friendly’ discussion with his waitress.
Emily Blunt also shows up and isn’t really bad, nor is she particularly great, but she does have this expression on her face that basically says she wants to sleep with everything and everyone. The trouble with her lies with her relationship with Larry Talbot (Benicio), or lack thereof. There’s no true build up to the two of them being together as their relationship just occurs because the script says it does. While Benicio has the slaughtering of innocents to make him interesting, Blunt’s Gwen Conliffe only has this relationship to fall on which makes her arc suffer. Not that she would require a complicated thread, but she’s given nothing else to do but fall in love with Lawrence faster than a Cleveland Browns collapse. Yet again though, that’s on the script and not her performance or tempting look.
It’d be hard to discuss this movie and not praise the make-up work Rick Baker laid out in this movie. He has the perfect mold in Benicio, and Baker builds on it by crafting a truly gruesome appearance that is nothing short of marvelous. He’s definitely not backed by the CG work (which is some of the worst I’ve seen in a film in a while, and we’re talking Razzie bad) but he doesn’t need to be. The claws are menacing, and the face on this joker is terrifying and above all, real. Certainly, if The Wolfman ever did exist, this might be as real as he would look. Thankfully, Baker’s work will get praise for being great, and not just because they didn’t CG the hell out of the werewolf.
I joked that Shelly Johnson was my cousin before the film was released because he shares the name with my female cousin, but I’d like to adopt him into the family for the work he does here. Every frame oozes of beauty, and captures the spirit of a 1891 that one can believe existed. He also is no slouch when it comes to framing his shots and creates some pretty pulse-pounding chase sequences, and does a wonderful job placing the camera in some odd yet gorgeous places. He succeeds most at capturing the true eery atmosphere this story would require. Perhaps he does go overboard with smoke, but in the big picture it’s all moot as it only adds to the greatness he’s able to accomplish. In addition, praise also must be laid on the sound design and art direction, without which we would not have the gorgeous scenery to look at and truly coming through with creating eerie sounds to play with the eardrums. A lot of care went into making sure this looked like a believable world, and all of the aforementioned should raise their glasses high and proud.
At the end of the night, this incarnation of The Wolfman is certainly problematic and sure, the pacing does dramatically hurt the movie. Yet through it all, it’s tough to hate a film that has some fun kills and exciting sequences too good to spoil here. Technically it’s something of a marvel, particularly the make-up and cinematography. As mentioned, it really does come down to how much one is able to forgive as far as the various problems are concerned. If one can do that, they’ll find a wholly enjoyable horror film that pays respects to it’s elders both in set design, tone, and kindness. That alone makes it worth it, particularly on a date night.
But there is some truth to the movie: the woman can and will shoot the man clear in the heart. I know I’ve been there.