With Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving. Rated R for bloody horror violence and gore. 102 minutes.
Movies inspired by the 1941 horror classic “The Wolf Man” go in and out of fashion. We had a spate of them in the 1980s, like “The Howling,” “An American Werewolf In London” and “Wolfen,” but then, audiences went elsewhere for their thrills. It’s been a while, and there have been tremendous changes in special effects, and so Universal decided to dust off the original film and update it.
Ironically, this new version of THE WOLFMAN is set earlier than the original which took place in the then-present. Now, it’s the 1890s and visiting American actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is summoned to the old family estate by his brother’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt). It’s been many years as Lawrence has been estranged from the family – for reasons the film slowly reveals – but his father (Anthony Hopkins) is happy to welcome the “prodigal” back home.
Talbot undertakes to discover what happened to his brother, and we’re already anticipating what’s going to happen: he’s going to survive the attack of a werewolf only to become one himself. As the townspeople, particularly police inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving), suspect what’s going on, it’s only a matter of time before secrets are revealed, bloodier and more violent attacks occur, and we learn if the old gypsy woman (Geraldine Chaplin) is correct that there is no cure for Talbot’s condition.
As Talbot, Del Toro proves to be inspired casting. We might not quite buy him as the celebrated Shakespearean actor from America, but as the brooding victim of “lycanthrophy,” who fears and hates what it turns him into as much as the townspeople do, he’s perfect. Hopkins is always a surprise in these kinds of movies until you realize he’s done several of them, apparently enjoying it. As we learn the full truth of his character Hopkins doesn’t miss a beat. Blunt and Weaving offer strong support, and it’s always an unexpected pleasure to have Chaplin show up, even in a part once played by Maria Ouspenskaya.
Director and former special effects wiz Joe Johnston keeps things dark, but moving at a steady clip. There’s little down time here, and even a long sequence where Talbot is institutionalized pays off in unexpected ways. He’s helped by Danny Elfman’s score, which is lush and Gothic, befitting the dark proceedings. For horror aficionados the real attraction will be Rick Baker’s makeup effects in transforming man into wolf. We see it in bits and pieces with the final result being suitably horrifying. The only part that seems like, er, overkill, is when the plot contrives to give us a battle between two wolfmen, making it seem like all too many recent comic book movies where the superhero battles the supervillain and you wonder if the actual actors playing the parts were even on the set when they shot it.
Although “The Wolfman” greatly rewrites the original, and provides more gore than ever would have been permitted in a 1941 movie, it does its source justice. Universal is reportedly looking at remaking a number of its horror classics of long ago. If so, they’re off to a decent enough start.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.