The Wolfman: A Howling Good Flick
He's a man. He turns into a wolf. He likes to rip people down to juicy, throbbing red cutlets. What more do you require in a movie?
The latest "Wolfman" movie, starring Benicio Del Toro as the four-footed terror of the forest, comes to us amid howls of bad buzz. Mid-February has become the official dumping ground for movies, originally envisioned as summer blockbusters, that didn't quite pan out -- movies like Ghost Rider, The Pink Panther, and He's Just Not That Into You.
The Wolfman was supposed to come bounding and roaring into theaters back in 2008 but was sent back to the movie veterinarian to nurse its reported wounds.
What wounds? The movie being released in theaters is fast, vicious, scary fun. It doesn't waste our time with a lot of psychological exploration of Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro), the son of a British nobleman who moved to America to work as an actor and get away from his father (Anthony Hopkins). Called home to England when his brother's girl Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt, who has lately made a specialty of playing Victorian ladies, including Victoria herself in The Young Victoria) informs him that his brother has gone missing in the woods, Lawrence learns that his brother has in fact been mauled to death by a toothy beast of no known species.
The local gypsies, who have seen this sort of thing before, insist it wasn't their pet bear that did it, while the muttering villagers swear that there's a curse in the air -- one that can only be cured by the brisk introduction of silver bullets.
Resolving to see for himself, Lawrence steps out into the bleary night -- and is himself attacked by the wolfman. His father realizes that Lawrence is going to turn into a wolf by the light of the next full moon.
Universal, which pretty much wrote the book on monster movies, has selected no single template for its ongoing series of revivals. The Mummy and its sequels were comic adventures filled with not-always-sharp one-liners and played along the lines of Indiana Jones, but King Kong was a mournful epic and even a love story. The Wolfman stakes out a middle ground that is closest to the original spirit of these movies, which were meant to shock and disturb.
The Wolfman isn't cuddly. He's a demon spirit who leaps out at you in the night, never asking you to consider him a victim. With that in mind, the director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) keeps to a minimum the amount of screen time between wolf attacks. This movie spends almost as much time tramping through the cursed woods as The Blair Witch Project.
The big added element that was much less prominent in The Wolf Man of 1941 by Lon Chaney, Jr. (which was not the first "Wolfman" picture but is still the best) is the daddy issues Lawrence Talbot has been carrying with him since he was a boy. As the dad, Anthony Hopkins doesn't much look like Del Toro but has the creepy authority of a man who demands to be obeyed. Yet Hopkins doesn't overplay his hand, maintaining an aura of solemn mystery about just what haunts this fellow in his crumbling wreck of a country pile.
I could have done without the now-obligatory-in-every-blockbuster scene of political allegory -- Lawrence gets committed to a mental hospital in London where he undergoes a kind of waterboarding, as though we're supposed to think that al-Qaeda's animals should be treated a little more humanely -- but the transformation sequences are fully convincing, and shot through with agony as Lawrence's bones grow and creak. Okay, so there is something a little silly about a familiar actor's eyes being visible in a face that becomes thickly covered with shag carpeting, but the way the wolfman flings himself in every direction with no objective except ripping into everything in sight is pretty cool.
The Wolfman has some subplots, such as one about a zealous Christian minister who preaches that the creature has been sent from hell, and a love story develops between Lawrence and Gwen. But the movie doesn't seriously make the case that the religious types are wackjobs for being threatened by the marauding animal, or that a love affair between a he-beast and the local lovely has much of a chance to work out.
It's a monster movie done the old-fashioned way -- with no apologies.