A Furry, Furrowed Brow for ‘The Wolfman’

The Wolfman (2010); viewed Feb. 15, directed by Joe Johnston. For more film reviews by Ken Coffelt, visit his massive archive at the Kennelco Film Diary

The latest Hollywood re-make in the theaters is the new Benicio Del Toro-starring re-do of the Universal “classic” The Wolf Man (1941). While it would be probably erroneous to say that the film doesn’t represent further creative bankruptcy and cynical rehashing by Hollywood of its own creative high points (since what films out there are either not re-makes, sequels, or semi-plagiarized riffs anymore?), there is a dedication to the original film, even citing Curt Siodmak, writer of the original screenplay, as the initiator of this story.

Del Toro (who started his career in cinema as a fur-face in Big Top Pee-Wee (1988) as “Duke the Dog-Faced Boy”) is the unsmiling and tortured “prodigal son” who returns to his family’s English estate after many years in America to find out about the gruesome murder of his brother. His brother’s widowed fiance, played by the attractive Emily Blunt, who is a ringer for their tragically dead mother, shows some liking toward him as well. His father, Anthony Hopkins, is the gun-toting baron of a massive estate, in deep decay (no doubt a moral reflection in this very Victorian/Gothic aesthetic given to the art direction). And Hugo Weaving is the London detective sent to investigate the series of “Ripper-like” murders.

Del Toro, in seeking out the gypsy camp to find out more about his late brother, finds himself at the center of a ravenous attack by the loose werewolf, and though he is bitten, he survives. And of course, he becomes the “Wolfman” himself.

This Wolfman racks up a much higher body count than perhaps any other ever before. Limbs are ripped off, heads are swiped from their shoulders, claws sprout through mouths and eyes, entrails are everywhere. In one night out in London, “Dozens” are killed according to the following morning newspaper. The monster will take on whole crowds, whole towns, whole caravans, whole cities. And he’s extremely muscular.

Even the design of the Wolfman is a nod to the 1941 original. He is a “wolf-man”, more man than wolf, generally walking on his hind legs, though to really get running fast and furious, he’ll use all four. He also lacks the muzzle of a true canine, so the face retains the human behind the make-up a tad.

The “change” effects are created by the master Rick Baker, who has done his share of werewolf morphing. He designed both The Howling (1981) and the most frequently cited and influential An American Werewolf in London (1981), not to mention Wolf (1994). I actually thought that the effects were one of the film’s strongest points.

As a whole, though, the film never really rises above the functional. That is to say that while it’s by no means terrible, it’s also by no means excellent. Hopkins is quite good as the tyrannical, macho father figure, clad, head to toe and home in animal pelts, deer antlers and the like. And Hugo Weaving manages to give his inspector a few good scenes (enough so that he’s probably the most interesting or potentially interesting one in the film.) But like so many re-makes, re-treads, and re-boots, because the film lacks a true reason for being, a true vision (perhaps a stronger director properly motivated could have shaped the material better), the whole thing, while not a lost cause, is also nothing spectacular either.

Now my last note here will be a rather large spoiler, so you can stop reading if you want. But I want to mention this, since it’s one of the key elements of this film that contrasts with its predecessor.

The back story isn’t about a gypsy werewolf who bites Del Toro; rather, it’s his father who is the werewolf all along, so there is this familial heritage aspect to the story, which is kind of interesting, but really what it allows for is a battle royale between two big, powerful werewolves, fighting to the death. That’s the modern twist on the story, the truly 21st century additive. More monsters, more dead people, more fighting.

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