Perhaps the most difficult movies to discuss are the ones that are almost great. You know the type. You walk out of the theater, torn between absolute love and not really sure you actually like the movie you just saw. You'll think about it for days afterward, wondering what it was you loved, and what really didn't work.
The Wolfman is that kind of movie. Director Joe Johnston has created an old style film that delivers on many fronts. He has crafted a fun b-movie that followed much closer to the 1941 film (starring Lon Chaney) than expected, while attempting to offer a new, more solid take on the original's shaky plot. It surpasses the original in many ways, including the setting and the acting, yet lacks some of the fun campiness of the original, which is both good and bad.
This film is about famed actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) and his return home following the death of his brother. It seems that he died at the claws of some vicious animal, and Lawrence decides he is going to find the creature that did his brother in for the sake of his brothers fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt). Along the way, Lawrence finds the creature and is subsequently bitten by it, and becomes the Wolfman.
The movie has a dark and brooding atmosphere that is further heightened by an equally brooding script, bordering on ponderous. The actors do a fair job with the material they are given, but their characters don't seem to enjoy any happiness at all. Horror movies have always worked best when characters are taken by surprise in happier situations, but the gloom that hovers around these characters over the death of Lawrence's brother is almost too much. A spark of happiness, a glimmer of good spirits, would have gone a long way in allowing the audience to connect with the somewhat-thin characters.
Luckily Johnston shines in the moments that really matter. After all, people do not go to a movie called The Wolfman for the witty reparte. When Talbot finally confronts and becomes a werewolf, the movie is at its best. The depiction of the werewolf is superb, as he can fall on all his limbs and propel himself forward at tremendous speed. The make-up, too, is wonderful. It was a masterstroke to not rely on CGI for all of the wolfman shots, and instead they rely on the magic of Rick Baker to convince the audience that a man can become a wolfman.
The scenes that were particularly fun were near the middle, when Lawrence is carted off to a hospital in London and is subjected to all sorts of gruesome turn-of-the-century experiments. The doctors at the hospital are maniacal, and the filmmaker revels in the dark view of medicine in the last century. These scenes are the most reminiscent of the older Universal horror films, where mad doctors wear lab coats and actually enjoy the disturbing treatments they put their patients through.
The time at the hospital culminates in a viewing room where doctors and scientists of London have gathered to view Talbot in his supposed insanity. They scoff at the idea that he is a werewolf, asserting the fact that science won't even allow that such a thing could possibly exist. It is a wonderful idea, and one that takes the movie back to an older era again. So many times have movies today relied on a pseudo-scientific idea to explain the supernatural that it now seems inconceivable that true evil exists in horror movies at all. Thankfully, The Wolfman stays above the fray and offers no explanation as to why or how a man becomes a wolf, but instead the movie lets the supernatural evil run free to reign terror onto all that get in its way. There is nary a contrived attempt at science anywhere to be seen.
Setting the film in 1891 was also a brilliant idea. This was the time that the science of psychology was beginning, and this movie brings up that age-old idea of man vs. his inner nature. The werewolf is the release of Freud's "Id", the subconscious side of man that emphasizes his prurient interests. This movie also plays on the ideas of the Oedipal complex, as Lawrence seems to dislike his father, especially after the death of his mother.
These deeper ideas are never fully explored, however, and leave the viewer wondering what motivations move these characters forward. There seems to be a lot missing from the film, perhaps in a studio attempt to placate a modern audience by getting to the werewolf sooner. As is usually the case, this does the movie no favors, as it gives the audience nothing to grasp onto, and no characters to really root for. The movie does exactly the wrong thing by ignoring character depth for simple thrills, even if the thrills are terrific.
At the end one is left wondering if this film is meant to be a b-movie homage. After all, the original is somewhat of a b-movie, or at least a grandfather of the b-moves of the 50s. Unfortunately, if it was meant to be so, then the filmmakers don't have enough camp or cheesiness for the film to really shine as a b-movie homage.
Many things work in The Wolfman, and many don't. It flirts with greatness but never rises to the occasion. It is a movie that seems to have lost its way in the editing room on the way to the theater. Hopefully, there is a full 2 hour + version out there waiting for DVD release that will fill in some of the blanks. Maybe then it will acheive some of the greatness it missed in its first go round.