“The Wolfman” tries to excite you into howling at the moon with it. To some extent, it succeeds. Modern computer imaging technology and a solid cast make for a period fantasy thriller that is an energetic remake of one of the classic tellings of the werewolf story.
Interestingly enough, it actually takes “Wolfman” a full hour before it utters the word “werewolf,” and then he only says it twice. It comes out once a month at the full moon. It leaves its victims mutilated beyond anything a man or animal would do. It howls at the moon. People stock up on silver bullets in an attempt to kill it. And yet it takes a full 60 minutes before they actually name the creature what the audience knew it was before they even set foot in the theater. Instead, for some reason the film prefers to refer to it as the beast or creature. One wonders if director Joe Johnston thinks people don’t know what exactly a wolfman is.
“The Wolfman” tells the story of Lawrence Talbot, played by Benicio Del Toro. He returns to his ancestral home after several years when his brother goes missing. Chaos, bloodshed, clawing and howling at the moon ensue when Talbot is bitten by the werewolf and cursed to transform each full moon. Appealing to his humanity is Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt); hunting him down is Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving); somewhere in between is Talbot’s enigmatic father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) in one of his creepiest portrayals in years.
Interestingly enough, in a movie where two of the three male leads (Del Toro and Hopkins) have an Academy Award to their name, it is the least important and only non-Oscar winner of those leads who actually puts out the best performance. While Del Toro and especially Hopkins give strong performances, they and Blunt at times feel out of place. Weaving, on the other hand, seems right at home. Always a pleasure on screen, in “Wolfman” he is thoroughly convincing and entertaining as a detective in late 19th century Britain, rocking a mutton chop beard to boot.
“Wolfman” works with a pretty straightforward story with few, if any, surprises to those versed in the werewolf or even horror genre. One of the elements it seems most intent on conveying is moody fear-in-waiting. The atmosphere of the film is full of mist and moonlight and creepy candles. In fact, at times it’s nearly overdone in its moodiness to the point of being camp, although it never completely breaks the audience’s interest in the movie.
“Wolfman” also seems to have a deliberate portrayal of incompetence in its characters. This is very much a movie where you wish you could reach through the screen and cry out to the characters to look out behind them. The characters cower when they should hide and talk when they should shoot.
One of “Wolfman’s” greatest strengths is in its visuals, particularly that of the titular character. Modern CGI makes for captivating and fully realized transformation sequences that leave viewers in anticipation of the howling to come. There is a real energy to how the CGI captures the werewolf’s lightning-fast dashes through the forests as well as the streets of London.
Please note that “Wolfman” is not a horror flick — horror films are scary and “The Wolfman” is not. It works best when treated as a moody period piece with a thriller plot revolving around a fantasy creature. In that regards, the film is good but not great. The film is never painful although the near-camp nature of its atmosphere can be trying. Instead, “Wolfman” is entertaining and energetic, but rarely do the supposed scares end up achieving anything more than surprise that fades as quickly as it starts. When it howls at the moon, so do you, but when the sun rises and the blood-drenched fur disappears, so does the film.