Authors and filmmakers have come up with endless ways to inject fresh blood into the vampire, while the werewolf generally has been left out there alone on the moors, howling at the moon.
The big-screen is ripe for a new take on the hairy he-wolf legend. Yet despite a first-rate cast led by Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt, a classy re-creation of late-Victorian England and commendable respect for the 1941 original movie, “The Wolfman” is more a yawn than a scream.
The tone adopted by director Joe Johnston (“Jurassic Park III”) is oppressive to the point of suffocating. Sure, the players here are swept up in the story of a man bearing a horrible curse, so you don’t expect them to be having fun. But they don’t have to be so funereal about it.
To their credit, Johnston, Del Toro (also a producer on the movie) and their collaborators use Lon Chaney Jr.’s “The Wolf Man” as a solid starting point rather than simply a hook for a modern jumble of action, digital effects and wisecracking characters.
Like Chaney, Del Toro plays a wayward aristocrat named Lawrence Talbot who returns to his ancestral home after his brother’s death (Chaney’s guy was called Larry, though, so the formal Lawrence cues us that this remake will be WEIGHTY).
Chaney’s Larry was an amiable lunkhead who suffers from a wrong-place, wrong-time bite that turns him into a werewolf.
With Del Toro’s Lawrence, screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self hang so many millstones around the poor guy’s neck, it’s a wonder he gets out of bed in the morning, let alone thrives as the Shakespearean stage star we’re told he has become.
Clumsy flashbacks and a few references scattered throughout the forgettable dialogue tell us that as a boy, Lawrence witnessed the bloody aftermath of his mother’s supposed suicide (repressed-memory alert), then was packed off to a nuthouse by his cold and distant dad (Hopkins).
Lawrence only comes home after an appeal from Gwen Conliffe (Blunt), his brother’s fiance, who wants her future sibling-in-law to help track down her missing man.
By the time Lawrence arrives, his brother’s mutilated body has been found. Lawrence vows to find out what man or beast did the deed, leading to his own fateful encounter with the local werewolf.
Combining computer animation and makeup effects by creature maestro Rick Baker, Del Toro’s transformation into a werewolf is pretty gnarly. The metamorphosis certainly is cooler than that of last fall’s “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” where shirtless hunks turned into wolves the size of Buicks in the blink of an eye.
Yet Baker and his colleagues on “An American Werewolf in London” still did the man-to-werewolf makeover much more viscerally nearly 30 years ago.
“The Wolfman” pays tribute to the look of Chaney’s guy-in-a-hairy-mask monster, which is kind of nice yet kind of corny, since the creature doesn’t look all that frightening. In the climax, when Lawrence goes wolfmano-a-wolfmano with another beast, it sort of resembles Chewbacca in a death match with a fellow Wookiee.
The filmmakers go with the notion that the bigger the body count, the scarier the terror. As the gang behind the 1941 “Wolf Man” knew, a single death can be more effective than a hundred if you sympathize with the victim.
You have no idea who’s getting killed and maimed in Johnston’s abattoir, where anonymous gypsies and townsfolk are torn apart in bulk. The gory effects come and go so quickly, though, that even the entrails-and-decapitation crowd will feel gypped.
With an oddly cropped beard (there’s loads of facial hair in this movie, and not just on Del Toro), Hugo Weaving pops up as a Scotland inspector trying to stop the beastly killer. We learn he’s also the guy who oversaw the Jack the Ripper case, so you know how effective he’s going to be.
Except for Hopkins, who wrings some deviltry out of a pretty silly patriarch’s role, the performers are just deadly.
Blunt, fresh from her lively turn as the era’s monarch in “The Young Victoria,” is pinched and sluggish, as if somebody’s been cranking her corsets up to tourniquet tightness.
Del Toro starts on a note of bottomless gloom even before he joins the werewolf pack. There’s more emotion in the monster’s howls, which were created by a baritone opera singer, than in Del Toro’s monotone mutterings.
Yeah, Lawrence is a doomed and tortured soul. But that’s no reason to doom and torture the audience.