February 18, 2010

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The Wolfman (R)
Benicio Del Toro is the ferocity hidden in the heart of every man, waiting to be unleashed, and Emily Blunt is the high-collar, corseted paragon of Victorian romance that makes the ferocity look extra sexy in The Wolfman, a stylistically exciting though ultimately “meh” werewolf story.

It’s 1890, Great Britain, and Gwen (Blunt) writes to Lawrence (Del Toro) to beg him to return to Blackmoor, home of his family’s grand estate, to help her find Ben (Simon Merrells), Lawrence’s brother and Gwen’s fiancé. By the time Lawrence arrives, however, it’s too late — as his father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) tells him, Ben’s lifeless and severely mangled body has been found in a ditch. At the local pub, the men consider what kind of beast or mad man must have killed Ben — and not only Ben but other people. The talk turns to the Gypsies and the dancing bear that is part of their act. The killings started when they arrived, the men say in the manner of violent mobs everywhere.

The townsfolk go to the camp — at night with a full moon, of course — but as they argue with the Gypsies over the bear, something truly horrifying comes into their midst. Lawrence, who has come as part of his investigation into what happened to his brother, sees the thing, chases it, shoots at it but is ultimately bitten before the thing, whatever it is, is scared away. The Gypsies say he is now cursed and the townsfolk seem to believe that assessment, particularly when he starts to heal remarkably quickly and demonstrate sudden and extraordinary strength. Scotland Yard sends its man Abberline (Hugo Weaving) to investigate, but the townspeople have their own ideas, ideas for taking care of the thing terrorizing the moors that involve a pit, a deer tied to a stake and a whole lotta guns.

The Wolfman goes to lengths to recreate the feel of a classic horror film. From the look of the movie — all shadows and fog — to the score and the structure it uses to build dread and tension, you have a film that occasionally comes close to retro horror. But it’s all surface; none of all these carefully created externalities bring the dark loveliness to life. The upside, I suppose, is that while it doesn’t actually suceed in making you enjoy the film, it does make you want to enjoy the film.

And I did want to like it. Benicio Del Toro is convincing as a tortured romantic. His Lawrence is an actor and I found myself deeply interested in wanting to see his Hamlet or his Heathcliff. This is a different kind of role for Del Toro and it was fascinating to watch him twist himself through the requirements of this story which is part gothic mystery and part monster movie.
Hopkins on the other hand is always doing stuff like this — enough that even when he’s sort of tossing off a performance as he is here it’s still a giddy treat. He’s solid as the go-to hissing face of evil.

Blunt, who is such a delight in most movies, doesn’t have much to do here beyond looking worried. It’s a performance sewn together from leftover scraps of her young Victoria (Young Victoria and the Wolfman — now there’s a black satin-and-lace Valentine I’d want to see). She’s A-OK, but not nearly as significant as all the tear-stained close-ups suggest she’s going to be.

All of these factors, even running at half speed, would seem to add up to a B movie triumph but there’s something about the mix that doesn’t quite gel. The movie simply feels off — not moving fast enough to keep the moodiness fresh but surprisingly perfunctory in the way it handles some parts of the story.

The Wolfman is a good dress rehearsal, a nice first effort. But it doesn’t feel finished. In the end, it gives you lots of great howling but not enough bite. C+

Rated R for bloody horror, violence and gore. Directed by Joe Johnston and written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self (from the 1941 movie screenplay by Curt Siodmak), The Wolfman is two hours and five minutes long and distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.