The new edition of the old Universal horror title "The Wolfman" constitutes a pleasant surprise, if "pleasant" can be used to describe a brooding $100 million plus diversion with this many beheadings and eviscerations.
Director Joe Johnston's reboot is devoted to the pleasures of meticulous and insinuating period re-creation (1891 Blackmoor, England, plus a side trip to London), shot in a mixture of studio interiors (at the famed Shepperton Studios) and open-air location work. Doggedly, or rather wolfishly, the film doesn't go in for camp or mirth, at least until its misjudged and semi-endless wolf-on-wolf climax. Benicio Del Toro's Lawrence Talbot, a famous Shakespearean actor in this version of the story, broods and suffers, and he is, after all, in physical torment for much of the story.
In this version, father-son issues take precedence over jokes about back hair. Anthony Hopkins plays Sir John Talbot ( Claude Rains in the 1941 original, scripted by Curt Siodmak), whose son has disappeared. This disappearance brings Lawrence back into the family fold, such as it is. Someone or something is on the loose, slaughtering Gypsies and good, upright Victorian English folk. When Lawrence is attacked and begins showing signs of trouble, it's his father who takes care of him, though he seems strangely interested in letting "the beast" run free.
Hopkins phones it in here, albeit entertainingly: He seems to have gone straight past "relaxed and authoritative" and landed in "bored." But everyone else is fiercely committed to taking the cockamamie mythology seriously. Emily Blunt? Perfect combination of Victorian restraint and sultry gazes as the fiancee of the missing brother. Hugo Weaving, whose mutton chops foreshadow a certain transformation quite wittily, makes for a formidable Scotland Yard foil. Geraldine Chaplin brings feral intensity to the Gypsy woman who has the lowdown on the curse. It's amazing this stuff works at all really.
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, the movie had a troubled production development, changing everything (directors, editors, composers) but its underwear en route to the multiplex. I think Johnston has saved it; he may have his weaknesses (so many scudding-clouds transitions!), but he shapes the attack sequences with a sure sense of pacing. The film is extremely bloody. I'm not sure who it's for, exactly: It may be too somber for the teens and too splattery for others. Then again, I went for it.
"You and 20 million other guys!" That was Lou Costello's retort to Lon Chaney Jr. in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" when Chaney tells him the full moon turns him into a wolf. That's precisely the sort of gag that you will not find here.
A cursed, murderous being runs amok in Victorian England.
With Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Joe Johnston.
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated R: Violence, goreCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times