Joe Johnston dodges silver bullet with “The Wolfman”
Eerie, fog-shrouded moors. Decaying country estates. Mysterious gypsies. Men brandishing shotguns and torches leading barking hounds through woods under a full moon in search of a mad killer.
Director Joe Johnston hasn’t made a great film with Universal Pictures “The Wolfman,” but he’s certainly done justice to the traditional gothic horror genre by hitting all the right cinematic buttons in resurrecting the classic lycanthrope tale of an American who revisits his ancestral home in Victorian England only to be bitten by a werewolf and becoming one himself.
The film, which screened Monday night at the Arclight for the press, stars Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot, whose destiny is sealed when he visits a gypsy encampment one moonlit night in search of the man “or beast” who has savagely killed his brother, only to encounter a werewolf and suffer the bite that seals his fate.
The film also stars Anthony Hopkins as Talbot’s estranged father whose past is far darker than his prodigal son’s, and Emily Blunt as the dead brother’s fiancée.
I was prepared not to like “The Wolfman” simply because most studio remakes of films in their vaults are abysmal and since one of my favorite horror movies of all time remains Lon Chaney, Jr., in 1941’s “The Wolf Man.” (Maria Ouspenskaya as the Gypsy Maleva delivers a memorable performance).
But ten minutes into the new film I was enthralled by Johnston’s tapestry of production values, the brooding English country estate, the shifting evening skies, the thunderous clip-clop of horses galloping along country lanes, and later in the film the director would deliver marvelous Tim Burtonesque scenes of Victorian London with the werewolf hopping from roof to roof like Spider-Man as a Scotland Yard detective gives chase.
Then I had to admit to myself that this werewolf tale is sort of a letdown, not because the monster isn’t brutal in the extreme (rampaging through a a gypsy encampment, a mental asylum, London’s cobblestone streets) and quite capable of severing heads and limbs with one swipe of its claws while disemboweling everyone in its path, his only worry, silver bullets, but because we’ve seen so many incarnations of werewolves on the big screen over the years that they’ve lost their power to shock us when we finally see them under the moonlight or in front of a flickering fireplace. Their roar may be deafening, their fangs nasty and dripping with the blood of their victims, but once you’ve seen one werewolf, you’ve seen them all.
Another thing that annoys me about this particular film is its struggle to weave a love story into the mix. I walked away wondering: why would a woman of a certain education and class fall in love with a werewolf? You begin to question the sanity of Blunt’s character, who not long after losing her love to an insane killer on the moors falls for his brother, although he is an actor, so that explains some of his allure. She sees what no one else is capable of seeing: that inside that gruff, hairy, brutish exterior beats the heart of a cuddly puppy dog ready to be tamed by her charms.
Still, the creature effects are exceptional, and all three actors deliver earnest (too earnest?) performances, and at least no one at the screening muffled a laugh when the Wolfman reared his head and howled at the moon time and time again.
Believe me, it could have been worse.
There’s a funny sliver of dialogue in the classic 1948 horror/comedy “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” when Lon Chaney, Jr., playing Larry Talbot (a.k.a. the Wolf Man) says to Lou (playing Wilbur): “You don’t understand. Every night when the moon is full, I turn into a wolf.”
Wilbur quips: “You and twenty million other guys.”
At least “The Wolfman” doesn’t have audiences howling and, for that singular accomplishment, Johnston has dodged a silver bullet.