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The Wolfman Cometh

Benicio Del Toro steps into Lon Chaney’s shoes.

12:00 AM, Feb 12, 2010 • By SONNY BUNCH
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Reportedly, the making of The Wolfman was fraught with difficulties: re-shoots were required, the score was recorded, scrapped, and recorded again entirely anew, and what seemed like a never ending team of editors were brought in to reshape the story into something that audiences would find palatable. The release date was pushed back over and over again until now, finally, it’s hitting the big screen.

The Wolfman Cometh

Without having seen the film’s previous incarnations, it’s hard to say how much the extra work helped the Joe Johnston creature feature. But if this is the reworked product, I would hate to have seen the original.

As the movie opens, Shakespearean actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) receives word that his brother has gone missing from his comely fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Upon arriving at the ancestral family estate, Lawrence’s father, Sir John Talbot (Sir Anthony Hopkins), reveals that the brother’s body was discovered on the side of the road, mutilated almost beyond recognition.

Convinced that something foul is afoot, Lawrence travels to the local Gypsy encampment to see if they can make sense of the strange talisman his brother was carrying at the time of his death. But Lawrence isn’t the only visitor to the Gypsies that eve: The full moon has brought another, lupine guest. And he’s out for blood.

After being bitten by the werewolf responsible for his brother’s death, it’s only a matter of time before Lawrence himself transforms into the beast. Questions abound: Where did the original werewolf come from? Who is he during daylight hours? How long will it be until Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) discovers Lawrence’s monstrous secret?

The problem with The Wolfman – almost certainly the problem that the previously mentioned parade of editors tried so desperately to fix – is that we’re never really given a reason to care for Lawrence or his tribulations. He is a pathetic figure, to be sure, but once his rampage begins there is no reason to sympathize with the man.

Indeed, The Wolfman more closely resembles a slasher flick with an A-list cast than the Universal horror cycle that it derives from. Upon transformation into the beast, Lawrence runs around killing people in grisly – and sometimes humorous – ways. Director Johnston’s focus is on gory disembowelments and decapitations, which is all well and good, except for the fact that such a focus lets an awfully prodigious amount of talent go to waste.

Consider this: Between Sir Anthony and Del Toro there are six Academy Award nominations and two wins (one apiece). That is to say nothing of the supremely talented supporting cast, headlined by Weaving and Blunt. This is an awful lot of firepower to bring to bear on what is essentially a classed-up version of Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street.

That firepower certainly doesn’t go to waste, per se. Hopkins realizes he’s dealing with trash and does his best to ham it up without coming across as campy, while Del Toro’s weathered face does a fine job of expressing the angst the character feels. His efforts alone almost make us care about poor Lawrence’s travails.

Unfortunately the characters are so thinly sketched and the revelations about their upbringing are introduced so ham-handedly and in such an exposition-heavy manner that it’s difficult to really get worked up over what happens to them. There’s no sense of who Lawrence really cares about – his dead brother? his dead brother’s fiancée? his lonely father? – or why he is searching for his brother’s killer after having abandoned the family decades ago. All we have to sink our teeth into are clichés about familial duty that not even the characters seem to buy.

And if they don’t buy them, then why should we? 

Sonny Bunch writes about culture and politics at Conventional Folly.

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