The Wolfman should be any good – it’s been delayed since 2008, had massive reshoots, a new score, and had more bad word of mouth in development than, well, Titanic (well, that didn’t turn out so badly). Amazingly enough, though, The Wolfman is kooky, bloody, gothic fun that looks gorgeous.
Benecio Del Toro is an unusual choice to step into Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolf suit as Lawrence Talbot, but he gives the role surprising gravity. Anthony Hopkins plays Sir John Talbot, Lawrence’s withholding father, with his patented highbrow hamminess, and Emily Blunt plays Gwen Conliffe, the fiancée of Talbot’s brother. As the film opens in 1891, Del Toro’s Talbot, a famous American actor à la Edwin Booth, learns that a beast has murdered his brother on the moors – shades of The Hound of the Baskervilles! – so he returns to his family manor to unravel the mystery.
The locals of Blackmoor are certain that the gypsies who recently appeared outside the village are responsible – perhaps the half-blind dancing bear did it! Talbot goes to confront the “immigrant menace” and falls victim to a voracious werewolf. Faster than you can say, “Full moon me!” he turns into a cool, terrifying beast himself. The story is a guilty pleasure hoot, especially the gypsy camp blood bath death frenzy. Heads roll, guts spill, limbs fly and director Joe Johnston (Jumanji) stages the actions scenes for maximum Grand Guignol fun. And let's not forget the Danny Elfman score that won't quit. I mean it. It. Won't. Quit!
Unlike the 1941 version, the source werewolf plays a major part in the film’s twists and turns. There are still plenty of WTF moments, like why there seem to be about seventeen full moons over Blackmoor, but through it all, Del Toro, Blunt, Hopkins and Hugo Weaving as a Scotland Yard detective keep straight faces and act the hell out of the proudly schlocky material.
“Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night, can become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright,” but it’s hard to buy Del Toro as pure of heart, which is why his wolfman is so good. He doesn’t seem to need that much transformation to become a beast. Blunt plays her damsel in distress with enough strength to hold her own, while Weaving’s drollness with the locals makes him a good foil for Talbot.
As Titanic and Tootsie proved, not all troubled films turn out terrible. The Wolfman, though hardly in those films’ league, managed to transform itself into a not-so-dreadful penny dreadful that will make you howl with glee.
UPDATE: The Wolfman is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.