The Wolfman, 2010.
Directed by Joe Johnston.
Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Geraldine Chaplin, Art Malik and David Schofield.
Returning to his family estate following the mysterious death of his brother, an American nobleman becomes infected with lycanthropy after he is attacked by a werewolf.
“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
It’s a perfect introduction to Lycanthropy, and particularly to The Wolfman. It is, of course, whispered over images of the full moon, ghostly white and shining. What follows is a film of fantastic circumstances, full of blood and claws and shadows, all at once mystic and severe; a joy to watch with the lights off.
Since this is gothic horror, the year is 1891. The end of the Victorian era is exactly where we want to be for a werewolf story; 1891 means the birth of pyschology. It means the stubborn remnants of rural superstition. It means those country pubs that go eerily silent whenever a stranger walks in. Anywhere else – anywhen else – would be a con, and Johnston evokes the era’s unmistakable hallmarks with effortless taste.
Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is an actor, long estranged from his noble family. Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) walks into his life and brings all those memories crashing back; his brother (her fiancee) has gone missing, and they fear the worst. Soon enough, Lawrence is on his way back to his ancestral seat, the Blackmoor estate. The welcoming look he shares with Lord Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) is chilling; like two animals circling each other at the borders of their territory.
The script (based on Curt Siodmak’s original screenplay) is shot through with a subtle but irresistibly charming gallows humour, with an obvious affection for the classic trappings of gothic cinema. Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving), recently thwarted on the Ripper case, is a neat little touch of a character, but neat doesn’t always mean it fits. Psychiatrist Dr Hoenegger is one touch too many, with his cackling and his pointy beard, nearly tipping the film over into cartoonish parody but for his timely (and messy) exit.
It’s the same problem with the monster’s overexposure. Endless shots of him bounding effortlessly across London just bore us while we wait for the real horror to start again. These shots, we are told, are the only instances of CGI (apart from the transformation) used. Compared with Del Toro’s acting in his (frankly superb) Wolfman make-up, these sequences fall flat, and smack of glossy trailer-baiting.
Hang on, though. Put your crucifixes down, horror fans. There’s plenty in The Wolfman worthy of praise and attention, particularly the acting. Del Toro never looks anything short of haunted, and he’s not too handsome, which is fitting – he needs to be halfway toward being a beast already to convince himself he might become one.
Hopkins plays Lord Talbot the way few other actors would dare. He approaches his almost as Tom Baker did Doctor Who; a social outcast, treating danger and doom as trivialities and considering trivialities with the utmost caution and sincerity. He shuffles around dusty, shadowy Talbot Hall with those hungry, predatory eyes, utterly in command of his domain.
No less impressive is Emily Blunt’s performance. She kicks the horror heroine role up a notch, managing to look both terrified and brave in the face of mortal peril; instead of running around like a wet hen, falling over twigs, her Gwen Conliffe actually comes through for the hero when he needs it.
Johnston, better known for fluffier fare Jumanji and Jurassic Park III, does admirable work with his first horror, tantalising then tormenting us with Lawrence and Gwen’s dark, tangled fates. Sadly, the story loses focus when it veers away from these haunted lovers, venturing into the arena of spectacle and CGI folly. When, however, it focuses on their dread – the appalling horror of what Lawrence might have done, The Wolfman lives up to its grim, doom-laden promise.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.
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