Film Review: The Wolfman

After a troubled production, the remake of the horror classic finally arrives in theatres decidedly worse for the wear.

In comparing 1941's The Wolf Man to its 2010 remake The Wolfman, it's striking to note how both movies serve as terrific case studies of the Hollywood production models of their respective eras. The original, which starred screen legend Lon Chaney, Jr. in his most iconic role, smoothly rolled on and off Universal Studios' horror-movie assembly line during the grand old days of the studio system. Within a roughly three-month span, the picture was shot, chopped, tested and delivered to theatres just in time for the holiday moviegoing season.

The Wolfman, on the other hand, fell prey to almost every peril that awaits big-budget studio filmmaking in the contemporary film industry. Shortly before shooting began, director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) departed the project over "creative differences" with Universal and veteran hired hand Joe Johnston (Jumanji) came aboard to salvage the studio's substantial investment. Rewrites preceded the movie's three-month production and reshoots followed it, as did several rescheduled release dates and a last-minute re-edit by Walter Murch. Considering its troubled history, it's no wonder that the finished product feels less like a complete feature film than a series of compromises between Universal and the filmmakers.

The seams between the movie's competing creative visions are on display throughout, most notably in its inelegant narrative and abrupt shifts in tone. The first act is largely faithful to the arc of Curt Siodmak's original screenplay. Once again, the story begins with Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) receiving word that his brother has passed away, spurring him to make the trip to his family's homestead in Wales after years spent abroad in America (a handy contrivance that saved both Chaney and Del Toro from having to master a Welsh accent). Arriving at the Talbot mansion, Lawrence attempts to reconnect with his distant father John (Anthony Hopkins) and meets his sibling's grieving fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt). While making an ill-advised trip to a nearby gypsy camp one evening, he comes face-to-face with a horrific wolf-like creature and receives a bite that soon causes him to sprout fur and fangs when the moon is full.

It's at this point that the fingerprints of the movie's first screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker become visible. Overtaken by his new animal instincts, Lawrence embarks on nightly hunts that frequently result in local villagers losing heads, limbs and internal organs, bursts of violence that provide the kind of awesomely bloody jolts you'd expect from the writer of Se7en. The gruesome murders attract the attention of Scotland Yard, which dispatches one of its top investigators (Hugo Weaving) to find the killer.  Betrayed by his father, who is hiding a dark secret of his own, Lawrence is captured and locked up in an asylum. But thanks to the arrogance of a pompous doctor, he is exposed to moonlight and wolfs out once more, this time escaping into the teeming streets of London on his way home for a final confrontation with a bigger, badder wolf man.

One can only speculate what Romanek's Wolfman might have looked like, but based on One Hour Photo it seems likely that he would have placed greater emphasis on Lawrence's psychological torment, not to mention his troubled relationship with his father. Since Johnston's background is geared more towards mainstream spectacle—the approach no doubt favored by the studio—his version uses these elements purely as set-up for effects-heavy set-pieces. To be fair, the director does seem eager to pay homage to the look and feel of Universal's classic horror titles, setting much of the action in dark castles and misty moors. He also wisely resisted the urge to turn the movie's monster into a purely CGI-creation like the werewolves on display in Van Helsing and the Twilight movies. Instead, makeup guru Rick Baker was given free rein to put his own stamp on Jack Pierce's original Wolf Man design and the results are impressively ferocious. Unfortunately, the movie never lingers long enough on the creature or his environment to effectively establish a mood of suspense and fear. Perhaps that late-inning re-edit was the studio's way of telling Johnston that he needed to pick up the pace, lest the audience tune out if the storytelling slowed for even a fraction of a second.

All the off-camera turmoil clearly took its toll on the performances. Hopkins has been unapologetically phoning it in for years now, but his distracted, disinterested turn here represents a new low. Lumbering around the set in what appears to be a heavy fur bathrobe, he seems poised to fall into a deep sleep at any moment. The movie's leading man comes across as heavily narcotized as well, which is surprising since Del Toro has been very vocal about his love for the original film and was one of the driving forces behind getting a remake off the ground in the first place. An introspective actor by nature, his performance style simply doesn't mesh with Johnston's approach to the material. The only performer who seems at all engaged with the proceedings is Blunt, who throws herself into her underwritten role with admirable gusto. Weaving, meanwhile, provides some much needed levity by purposefully recycling his Agent Smith routine from the Matrix movies. Just try not cracking up whenever he addresses Del Toro as "Mister Talbot" with that signature smirk on his lips.

Severely compromised movies like The Wolfman almost make one miss Hollywood's long-dismantled studio system. After all, despite being saddled with its own host of problems, the system did consistently turn out movies on time and on budget with a minimum of behind-the-scenes drama. That's the production model that worked for the first Wolf Man and it would have greatly benefited its latest offspring as well.