The Wolfman is Back!

wolfman The Wolfman is Back! The Wolfman

Running time 125 minutes
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self
Directed by Joe Johnston
Starring  Benicio Del Toro,
Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt

Rating: Two and a Half Eyeballs out of Four

eyeball The Wolfman is Back! eyeball The Wolfman is Back! half eyeball The Wolfman is Back!

Old monsters never die. They just keep coming back, in an endless series of unnecessary remakes. So get ready to hear once again legendary screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s famous line: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.” The Wolf Man is back—and he’s not just another pretty face.

Based on the classic 1941 horror film The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney Jr. as Lawrence (Larry) Talbot, a soft-spoken British-born nobleman who returns from America to run the country manor of his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), and has the rotten luck to get bitten by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi), the 2010 retelling, for no logical reason, changes the spelling to The Wolfman. A lot of other things change, too, and not always in ways you could call improvements. The tense prewar setting is now an ornate and overproduced Victorian England in 1891. Larry, now a hopelessly adrift Benicio Del Toro, is no longer a California astronomy student but a New York actor playing Hamlet in London. (Don’t ask.) Sir John, his father, is now a weird, disappointing Anthony Hopkins. Chaney was a soft, fleshy actor with a wimpy voice and clammy skin, but he brought a sympathetic sweetness to the role of the ill-fated Lawrence Talbot. Mr. Del Toro may be a stronger screen presence than Chaney, but he mumbles and scratches so much that nobody in his right mind would ever believe him as Hamlet, and he looks so baggy-eyed and ravaged before the wolf ever appears that there’s nothing to build his character on. Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) no longer runs the village antique shop, but is a mixed-up girl who was betrothed to Larry’s dead brother, and who has a sick penchant for wandering around in the fog, and makes the dumb mistake of thinking she can cure lycanthropy. As the titular head of one of England’s finest families, Mr. Hopkins displays a spectrum of curious accents that wander from Southern trailer trash to Irish brogue to Hannibal Lecter, sometimes all three in the same scene. With all due respect, he is no Claude Rains.

After the werewolf rampages through a gypsy campsite, attacking everyone who ignores the warnings of ancient fortune teller Geraldine Chaplin (where is Maria Ouspenskaya, now that we finally need her?), the movie makes a number of tactical errors from which it never recovers. The folks at the local tavern still wisely melt their silver into bullets and keep plenty of wolfbane handy, full moons still rise like white pumpkins and snarling creatures still pop out of the swamp with teeth that need a dentist, but any resemblance to Curt Siodmak’s 1941 script ends there. Siodmak was a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis and retained a lifelong hatred of the Germans; many symbols of horror in The Wolf Man were references to Nazi persecution, and the pentagram that appeared in the palms of the werewolf’s next victims was an obvious substitute for the Star of David. This time, there are no pentagrams to make your blood run cold. Elegant Talbot Hall is no longer a safe refuge from a world gone mad but a mausoleum full of cobwebs, candlelight and underground crypts; it looks less like one of England’s fanciest estates and more like the House of Dracula.

The monster is now a computer-enhanced behemoth in Rick Baker makeup that drools noisily, severs heads with a single claw and makes an awful mess on the carpet. Larry is hounded by a Scotland Yard inspector played by Hugo Weaving, one of the three drag queens in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and dragged away in chains to a gothic madhouse where a primitive brain doctor (the great English stage actor Anthony Sher) tortures his patients with horrors of his own—dunking Larry screaming into vats of ice and jamming footlong hypodermic needles into his jugular vein. (Think Fogg’s Asylum in Sweeney Todd.) While these lunatics treat lycanthropy as a self-induced delusion, you can hardly wait for them to experience their first full moon. In the resulting carnage, the Wolf Man rips out human kidneys and spleens with bare teeth in a bloodbath that is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, followed by a leapfrog across the roofs of London that looks like outtakes from Godzilla, King Kong and Mighty Joe Young.

The film’s biggest departure from the 1941 classic—and its silliest mistake—is making Sir John a werewolf, too. Yes, for reasons that are not entirely clear, he killed his whole family and applied the fatal bite that turned his own son into a savage beast forever—a disease from poison fangs for which there is no cure. In an explosion of mayhem that leaves Talbot Hall looking like a slaughter house, everything leads up to the big showdown between father and son that gives you two wolf men for the price of one. There’s more, and some of it is effective enough to turn your hair gray overnight. But the direction by Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) sacrifices originality for computer graphics and stop-motion camera tricks, and the script, by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, bulges with real howlers: “I didn’t know you hunted monsters.” “Sometimes monsters hunt you!”

In 1941, the Wolf Man was so popular he was revived in four more Universal horror classics, two with Abbott and Costello. He’s still entertaining enough to rise several notches above the dumb remakes of The Mummy and Dracula, but can history repeat itself? How scary is the Wolf Man in 2010, when half the people in the New York subway look like werewolves already?

rreed@observer.com