It's almost impossible to write about 2010's 'The Wolfman' without bringing up the subject of its somewhat turbulent production history. Original director Mark Romanek ('One Hour Photo') was replaced at the last minute by Joe Johnston ('Jumanji', 'The Rocketeer'), a lengthy post-production period saw the film's release date slip by an entire year, while Danny Elfman's original score was rejected, then later re-instated. A picture of confusion and indecision emerges, leading one to fear the worst of the film. But that scarcely matters any more – a finished version of 'The Wolfman' has finally been unleashed upon the multiplex, leaving only one question remaining: is it any good?
Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns to his family home in rural England when he hears of the mysterious disappearance of his brother. Having discovered his mother's dead body as a child, he spent some time in a Lambeth mental institute before moving to America and becoming an actor. Re-uniting with his estranged father John (Anthony Hopkins), he arrives just in time to hear of the finding of his brothers hideously mutilated body. Lawrence pledges to his late brother's fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) that he will find his brothers' killer, a quest that leads him to a nearby gypsy camp and out onto the foggy night-time moors where a wild beast roams free.
Full-bloodied period Gothic horror films are somewhat out of fashion at the moment, which I personally think is something of a shame as it's probably my favourite type of horror film. Probably the last one to come out of a major Hollywood studio was 'Sleepy Hollow', a full decade ago. And at a few points, 'The Wolfman' calls the earlier film to mind, not least because it shares great work from production designer Rick Heinrichs and music from Danny Elfman. To me, this is a good thing (yes, I'm the guy who saw Burton's film 10 times in the cinema!), although 'The Wolfman' is a rather bloodier and gorier film, and its dialogue scenes are less stylised, resulting in a world slightly closer to our own.
'The Wolfman' is not a straight remake of the 1941 'The Wolf Man'. The plot of the 1941 film (which runs for around 70 minutes) is not really enough to sustain a modern feature film, so screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker ('Se7en', 'Sleepy Hollow') and David Self (um, 'The Haunting' remake) wisely play around with characters and their relationships which both fills the running time and prevents over familiarity setting in for fans of the original, also adding in some elements from Universals first attempt at the wolfman franchise, 1935's 'Werewolf of London'. Whilst such changes may risk upsetting fans of the original, unlike say Zombie's 'Halloween', the changes here almost all serve to strengthen the material rather than weaken it.
Probably the biggest change comes with relation to Sir John (Claude Rains in the original, Hopkins here), although I don't really want to give too much away, suffice to say that his relationship with Lawrence is now rather more complex and spiky. Meanwhile the damsel-in-distress character of Gwen (Evelyn Ankers in the original, Blunt here) is allowed to do slightly more this time around. Interestingly the love triangle with her and Lawrence is almost written out of this version, since the third side of the triangle is now Lawrence's already-dead brother. It's actually something of a disappointment that rather more isn't made of her being torn between the memory of Ben and her growing affection for Lawrence – maybe there's some in the deleted scenes – but the focus of the film is predominantly on the father-son relationship. Another big change here is the introduction of real-life Inspector Abberline (played by Hugo Weaving), the detective in charge of the Jack the Ripper case. Presumably the use of a real-life character is screenwriters shorthand to provide easy back-story for the character and provide motivation for his need to solve this new case. It does however, feel like something of a misstep to have the real world intrude into such blatantly fictitious surroundings, particularly given the events that unfold when the film (in another big break from the original) moves to London in its second act.
'The Wolfman' often feels like a film of two halves, although it's not quite so easy to see whether this is intentional or a by-product of its fractured production history. The dialogue and character scenes come from one film – well-acted, mysterious and compelling – it's a horror film for adults, not kids. But then when the wolf breaks loose, it's all furious action and effects and any subtlety goes out of the window – it's in these scenes that you remember the last time Universal let the wolfman out of his cage was in 'Van Helsing', and that this is after all a big budget effects film from the director of 'Jurassic Park III'. Although I wish someone would have the balls to make a 'Jurassic Park' film as violent and gory as this! These action scenes are terrific fun whilst they're on (and considerably better than the ADD CG-overload smorgasbord of the dire 'Van Helsing'), but afterwards it's hard not to feel like they're lacking in a certain dramatic weight, leaving the whole film feeling slightly less than it could have been.
The performances throughout are very strong. Del Toro was surely born to play the wolfman (heck, he even looks a bit like Lon Chaney Jr), although when he lets the beast out it is behind terrific make-up effects from Rick Baker (yes!), meaning that great though he is, his is not the most memorable turn in the film. Hugo Weaving has a great time as Abberline, never quite descending into camp, but certainly not erring onto the side of po-faced seriousness, perhaps best illustrated with the 'Pint of bitter, please.” scene halfway through. Emily Blunt is someone I've been a big fan of since I first saw her in Pawel Pawlikowski's beautiful 'My Summer of Love', and she is brilliant here, providing a strong emotional hook and creating a stronger and more compelling heroine than appeared on the page. In addition there's plenty of strong turns by character actors filling out the smaller roles, from Art Malik to David Schofield and Geraldine Chaplin. But the most memorable performance is arguably that of Hopkins. His accent may wander all over the place, but he has a way of turning otherwise clunky dialogue into something approaching poetry and seems to be really enjoying himself. About halfway through he has to turn Basil Exposition in a scene in a mental institute cell. His relaxed, almost off-hand delivery not only makes an awkward scene work, but is a joy to watch.
And of course then there's the question of how the werewolf effects are achieved. The film certainly exceeds 'Cursed' in this aspect, with great practical work by Rick Baker complimented by judicious use of CG enhancements. It's perhaps a touch disappointing that the transformation scenes are achieved by a series of cuts on close-up details, but also hard to see how Baker could have topped 'An American Werewolf in London' anyway. In addition to the wolf effects, there's also some nice disembowelments and the odd decapitation to keep gorehounds happy.
So whilst the film gets quite a bit right, what does it get wrong? Well, as I noted above, the rampaging werewolf scenes lack dramatic heft, but deliver on the carnage front with a large number of casualties. And yet somehow this almost seems to be too much, veering towards cartoony excess, with the lower bodycount of the 1941 film actually has more resonance. Like too many modern films, 'The Wolfman' does have a tendency to equate jumpiness with scariness. With its scenes of an animal/man leaping across the rooftops calling to mind everything from 'Spiderman' to 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', the film stops short of being actually scary, and falls back too often on sudden loud noises and jolts to get effect. Perhaps the weakest link is the thuddingly obvious dream/fantasy sequences, which tiresomely go for fake shocks amidst poundingly over-active sound design and superfast cutting. Danny Elfman's controversial score (completed by a handful of additional composers since Elfman was already working on 'Alice in Wonderland' when his music was re-instated) is also something of a mixed blessing. Full-on Gothic horror like this really needs big music, and his grandiose orchestral and choral effort fits the bill on that front. On the other hand, there are times when it's a touch too in thrall to Wojciech Kilar's stunning 'Bram Stokers Dracula' to be entirely effective (and I can't help but wonder why no-one thought to simply bring Kilar in), and times when it's being very loud and busy without actually doing very much. Repeated listening may reveal a more interesting work than at first appears (something of an Elfman hallmark in the last decade as it happens), but first time out it seems like a poor relation of his work on 'Sleepy Hollow'. Still, I'd rather have Elfman than replacement choice Paul Haslinger.
So whilst 'The Wolfman' 2010 does manage to make a few missteps along the way, it does manage to get quite a lot of things right, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that some scenes (such as when a London physician decides to definitively prove that Talbot's lycanthropy is purely in his head) put a ridiculously big fat grin on my face. With a brisk running time it doesn't outstay its welcome, and provides rip-roaring good fun with a clutch of cracking performances to boot. If it falls short of being genuinely great and doesn't really provide much actually new to the world of horror or werewolves, then maybe it's because I had my expectations set rather too high. This is a big budget Hollywood studio film after all, and after all it's been through to get on the screen, the fact that it's as good as it is, is something of a miracle. Now if only we don't have to wait quite so long before the next period Gothic horror film to come along...