Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Review by Ryan Wilson

Something has gone horribly wrong with our creatures of the night. Or at least with Hollywood’s adaptation of them. Take vampires, for example. Whatever bite they once had has been bled out to make romantic heroes out of them for teenagers. And Werewolves, always the pet dog in the classic horror genre, are now but dating safety nets for our heroines, making the once proud wolf something to cuddle with until Edward returns from brooding. We now want to sympathize with our monsters, to make Hot Topic pin-ups out of them.

Which is why I was looking forward to the back-to-basics approach of the new wolfman film starring Benicio del Toro. Simply entitled The Wolfman, the movie harkens back to the original tale of a man being bitten, being turned, and being unleashed upon the world. The trouble with this basic story, however, is that it’s been told so often that it’s become as bland as Twilight. And sadly, the new film does little to revive the beast within.

At first it's refreshing to see the genre bend back toward the 1941 classic. Larry Talbot, once played by Lon Chaney Jr., is now Lawrence Talbot, a classically trained actor coming home. One of my favorite aspects of the orginal Wolfman was Chaney himself. He was just so good at being neurotic and desperate after he’d realized he’d been bitten. "Lock me up, lock me up!" he pleaded to Abbott and Costello, and I always got a big kick out of how pathetic he made his character.

Del Toro would seem to be the perfect modern day equivalent in the role. He has, after all, made his reputation as an actor for his spontaneous mumblings in films like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and most notably The Usual Suspects. His presence and body movements are magnetic, and they, in fact, remind me of Lon Chaney Jr. hamming it up and having fun in b-movie horror classics.

Sadly, Del Toro doesn't bring his game with him in The Wolfman. He plays Lawrence Talbot as a bit of a slug, even after he's been bitten. Rather than have him cut loose, the film reins him in, asking del Toro to play the noble leading man rather than the colorful character he needs to be. That was the genius of Lon Chaney Jr. He could be both noble and colorful.
The only actor here having any fun is Anthony Hopkins, as Lawrence's father. Hopkins literally chews the scenery every moment he’s on screen. He steals the movie away from Del Toro, much as he stole the movie away from Gary Oldman as Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Too bad Hopkins isn't enough to save the entire picture. Director Joe Johnston pieces the film together as poorly as a mad scientist. He wants to scare us with some obnoxious horror movie sound editing, but he also wants us to care for his characters as if they had depth. The film becomes downright boring when Johnston shifts to a subplot involving Emily Blunt as Lawrence's sympathetic love interest. Blunt looks perfect being chased through a foggy moor, but this scene comes way too late in the story, and the rest of the time she seems to be sleepwalking through her performance.

But so what? This is The Wolfman, right? For many, the true test of the film won't involve the story or the acting but the wolf itself. And here I'm torn. The film employs make-up and special effects veteran Rick Baker to conjure the beast, and this was wise. Baker won an academy award for his work on 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. He's also dabbled in screen lycanthropy in the Jack Nicolson soap opera Wolf and in the Michael Jackson video Thriller. I mention Baker's history because he should know better. This time around his creation looks almost identical to the monster in the 1941 film, complete with a pompadour hairstyle and torn clothing modestly covering anything indecent. He even walks on hind legs, something that recent film werewolves have gotten away from.

I'm torn on Baker's 2.0 wolfman not because he's scary, but because he looks so ridiculously campy that I can't help but admire the attempt to make him resemble every Halloween mask since 1941. Say what you want about this wolfman 1.0, but I challenge anyone to find a single image in our pop culture that has lasted as long in our collective consciousness.

Unfortunately, when Johnston puts Baker's retro-wolf in motion, he looks preposterous. He rips out of his clothing just enough that his white collar and black vest maintain themselves on his frame, making him look like either he's heading out disco dancing or a very hairy Jonas Brother.

All, of course, would be forgiven if Johnston and Del Toro loosened up a bit, but their wolfman takes himself too seriously. The entire exercise is unnecessary. Go back to the 1941 version or rent An American Werewolf in London if you want a durable wolfman film. I'd recommend the 2001 French film Brotherhood of the Wolf for more adult content, and finally why not just curl up on a cold night and read Angela Carter's classic The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories, many of which are among the best werewolf tales ever written. The 1984 film The Company of Wolves starring Angela Lansbury was based upon a few of these stories, though the film pales in comparison to the fiction.

In a medium so wolf-obsessed as film, there's little need to see The Wolfman. With so many other versions to choose from, audiences get the wolfman they deserve.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. Produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010