By C. Michael Forsyth
“The Wolfman” could not possibly find a more receptive audience than yours truly. As a child I was scared out of my wits by the 1941 original. (I was even terrified by Lon Chaney Jr.’s straight-faced reprise of the role in “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein”). The movie gave me werewolf nightmares for decades. I’ve always found the flesh-ripping, rampaging man-beasts more frightening than those urbane vampires, with whom one could conceivably reason. While I’m not a big believer in remakes, when I learned that a “Wolfman” update was in the works, I eagerly anticipated it. The prospect of what modern special effects could add to the story intrigued me. And when I saw the trailer, with its grade A set design and period costumes, along with gorgeous cinematography, I immediately put the film on the top of my must-see list.
To boot, the picture stars two of my favorite actors. I’ve been a fan of Anthony Hopkins since his chilling performance as a crazed ventriloquist in 1978’s “Magic.” (Just watch his face contort as a psychiatrist makes him try to keep his evil dummy silent for one minute). I’ve been following Benicio del Toro’s career with interest since his riveting turn as a brooding, switchblade-wielding henchman in the 1989 James Bond movie “License to Kill.” He even made my list of the top five Bond henchman.
Unfortunately, this man-wolf movie turns out to be a dog.
PROBLEM NUMBER 1: THE FILM ISN’T SCARY. The monster shows up way too early and appears on screen way too long. As is usually the case with movie monsters, this diminishes its ability to menace. I must admit, though, that the werewolf makeup — an update of the classic Universal version of the ‘40s — is pretty good, and a nice change from the usual “Howling”-type lycanthrope.
While the body count is impressive (I guarantee you’ll lose count) virtually all of the killings are of anonymous characters we’ve never seen before; monster fodder we couldn’t care less about.
PROBLEM NUMBER 2: THE FILM’S MAJOR PLOT TWIST IS INTERESTING, BUT IT’S TELEGRAPHED EARLY ON. Actually, “telegraphed” is far too generous. After all, to understand a telegraph machine, you need to know Morse code. This twist is displayed in bright red letters so big that unless you have trouble seeing the “E” on an eye chart, you’ll spot it a mile away.
PROBLEM NUMBER 3: THE PERFORMANCES ARE DREADFUL. Hopkins, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” phones in this performance as the title character’s dad. Perhaps Sir Anthony has become too high and mighty to give a “mere” horror movie his all. Or maybe the veteran actor’s experienced nose recognized the movie as a turkey and he decided to just take the money and run. Or perhaps he was just having a bad few weeks. Hopkins is one of those actors (like fellow Welshman Richard Burton) who is really good when he’s good, and REALLY bad when he’s bad).
But it’s del Toro’s wooden performance as the doomed, werewolf-bitten protagonist Larry Talbot that really sinks the film. He wears only one expression throughout the 103-minute movie: brooding. Come to think if it, he was at his best as the BROODING cop in “Traffic.” Maybe as an actor the guy is just a one-trick pony.
It’s interesting that in the remake, the screenwriters chose to make Talbot an actor. But it’s a stretch to believe del Toro’s character has the risibility to emote on stage (especially during the 19th century, an era of extreme theatrical flamboyance).
In this story, the monster is also the hero, so if we can’t empathize with him, the drama falls flat. Lon Chaney Jr. was no Laurence Olivier (nor even a Lon Chaney Sr.). But he killed as Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” and he killed as Larry Talbot (no pun intended). We rooted for him to somehow escape his tragic predicament, just as we would later feel we were in the trenches with “that Doctor Pepper guy” in “An American Werewolf in London.” We don’t give two cents about del Toro’s lackluster Larry.
PROBLEM NUMBER 4: THE MOVIE’S CLIMAX FEATURES THE MOST ANNOYING HORROR CLICHÉ: TWO MONSTERS FIGHTING. My apologies to those of you who salivated at the prospect of Jason taking on Freddy Krueger, or Alien going toe-to-toe with Predator, but I usually find such clashes more comical than gripping. And most of the time, I find myself asking, “Who are we supposed to root for?”
SO TO RECAP, we’re talking about a horror movie that isn’t scary, a plot twist that doesn’t surprise us, a leading man who can’t act and a climax that’s laughable. Does at least the romantic SUBPLOT work? Nope.
PROBLEM NUMBER 5: THE ROMANCE BETWEEN TALBOT AND HIS SISTER-IN-LAW GWEN (EMILY BLUNT) IS UNCONVINCING. The love angle is called for by the movie’s structure, but it comes out of nowhere and feels forced. Plus del Toro and Blunt have little onscreen chemistry.
This hurts because the film’s denouement hinges on our belief that Gwen would risk her life for Larry. When Gwen vows to rescue Larry from the curse and seeks the counsel of the old Gypsy woman, the screenwriters had an opportunity to inject an interesting new element into the “Wolfman” mythology: a possible cure. Instead, the meeting is a bust. So Gwen rushes to the dangerous Talbot estate with no plan – except to run like hell. And, as we recall from the cult classic “Tremors,” “Running isn’t a plan. Running is what you do when a plan fails.”
However, in this case, I would say that if you happen to come across “The Wolfman” on the shelf in your local Blockbuster, that SHOULD be your plan: run like hell!
Speaking of werewolves, check out this story I wrote for Weekly World News, under one of my many pseudonyms: “Moon Rays Turned Apollo Astronauts into Werewolves!” http://books.google.com/books?id=0_MDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA51&ots=ltMYwUPq_S&dq=weekly%20world%20news%20astronauts%20werewolves&pg=PA51#v=onepage&q&f=false
To see the Hour of the Beast book trailer and hear Chapter One of the shocking, controversial horror, CLICK HERE.