The remake of The Wolfman isn’t so much a throwback to the classic horror icon as much as it turns the Universal movie monster into an action star. For a movie that’s been sewn together from different directors, different cuts, and even different scores, The Wolfman manages to come out as a good film despite its scattered tone, limited characterization, and over-reliance on gore. The Wolfman shouldn’t work as a movie but somehow it succeeds not only as a fun action flick, but as seductive eye candy with thoughtful subtext about sexual repression and an exploration of mercy killing as monstrous.
The year is 1891 and Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro) has returned home to Blackmoor, England after the news that his brother was killed by either a beast or a madman. Well, “killed” is a bit of an understatement. Ben Talbot suffered an extreme case of flesh-ripped-off-skeleton. Lawrence, feeling guilt over having abandoned his brother to a fate of living with their mad father (Anthony Hopkins), decides to stay and find what sent his brother’s skin and life away. He also wants to comfort Ben’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt) but in that sweet, sexually repressed Victorian England kind-of-way.
Working off a lead that Ben had been interacting with gypsies, Lawrence goes to investigate at their camp, but with it being a full moon, the creature comes along and decides to ruin everyone’s day. This is where The Wolfman shows its true colors as an action movie. There are no jump scares in Wolfman as much as excited anticipation about which villager is going to get the business next (hint: it’s the one who looks scared and confused and has no one else in the frame with him). After a hearty time of ripping out people’s hearts, the beast attacks and bites Lawrence. The gypsies manage to save his life, but we know that was probably not the wisest of ideas.
The Wolfman has breathless pacing that both helps and hinders the film. Lawrence is attacked by the beast within the first 10-15 minutes and the film never slows down. For an action film, that’s terrific, but for a film that’s decked out in gorgeously gothic sets and costumes with lush cinematography by Shelly Johnson, it feels like we’re missing out at times. It’s obvious that there’s a lot of this film on the cutting room, especially when it comes to the characters. Hopkins gets to be delightfully crazy and Hugo Weaving, as Inspector Abberline, gets to be a bad-ass anti-villain, but Lawrence and Gwen only come alive because Del Toro and Blunt know how to act, which is great because there’s nothing in this cut of the film that distinguishes their characters as real people. None of the cuts wreck the narrative to the point where you fall through a plot whole too big to escape, but this isn’t a movie built around a slow burn of suspense and thoughtful character study. It’s about the Wolfman tearing folks up.
Even though it indulges in gore and violence, The Wolfman is an earnest movie. It really does want to evoke the classic Universal monster and sometimes that comes off as cheesy, but that self-seriousness is crucial to the film’s success. You’re asking audiences to buy into a man-wolf hybrid. The special effects are incredible but the audience can’t treat the creature as real if the film doesn’t do it first. Without that belief The Wolfman would be a cowardly parody trying to hide in irony and smart self-reference rather than trying to do right by the classic movie that came before.
But the earnest approach and simple story belies not only the beauty of the film’s world, but David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker’s intelligent script. Not only have they reset the character back to Victorian England, they’ve seized on why that era is important to the character. Not only is there the historical context of sexual repression, but there’s also the conflict between scientific hubris and man in his “natural state”. Our main character is given over to the beast yet the advent of science dismisses such a literal transformation and this misunderstanding leads to…unpleasantness. Science, the representation of order and reason, is in direct conflict with the savage and animalistic nature of man. It’s a nice idea to pick up in between bouts of the Wolfman showing his hatred of other people’s internal organs.
I also liked the subtext about the nature of mercy killing and if that’s an act of human kindness or a savage act working under the pretense of nobility. The film makes sure that Lawrence neither has the ability or the opportunity to kill himself, but he wants to die and we learn early in the film that silver bullets only work if they’re fired from someone who loves the beast. It’s a twisted message that the only way to save someone who’s lost their humanity is to kill them.
The Wolfman doesn’t wade around in these ideas or anything deeper than a puddle of blood. It’s a bite-sized Milky Way stuffed inside a filet mignon. Both the action scenes and the setting work well, but it would have been nice to embrace the full drama and gothic horror of the setting rather than racing to the next slaughterfest.