Lycanthropy makes a welcome return to the silver screen with The Wolfman, Universal Pictures’s latest foray into the subgenre they basically created around 70 years ago. (All that stuff about the full moon? They’re the guys to thank!) Having just lost professional werewolf Paul Naschy, it seems even more important to keep the lupine flag flying – and the film certainly has a decent budget and boasts a bundle of A list actors, which is unusual in itself for a film of this kind.
However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. The film was delayed by Universal for several months and the first trailers for this were seen as long ago as August 2009. For a while there, it looked as though the film was going to sink – but it has, finally, made it to the screens.
The film opens with Ben Talbot, member of the landed Talbot family, being killed by a ravenous creature he has pursued across his lands. His distraught fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt) writes to Ben’s estranged brother Lawrence (del Toro) and begs him to leave his acting troupe in order to help find Ben. By the time Lawrence – the remaining ‘prodigal son’ of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) arrives, Ben’s body has been found. There is a killer on the loose – either an animal or a lunatic, and Lawrence vows to find it – and find it he does. In trying to defend a gypsy camp who are at first scapegoated, and then themselves attacked, Lawrence is bitten by the creature and incures the curse. He is still desperate to find out what happened to his brother, and must now do everything he can to solve the mystery – but evidence of long-buried family secrets is fast gathering around him…
The first thing to say is how much I enjoyed the film, for any of the faults I saw in it. Seeing an unashamed horror film on general release is still a pleasure. I would say that this is a decent entry into the canon: it has a sense of fun, as well as a sense of debt to earlier films (successfully interweaving several plot elements from previous films); I thought the visuals were stunning and the period detail was exquisite. As a Victoriana geek, I was in heaven (even the mourning clothes worn by Gwen were fairly accurate down to colour and fabric!) Speaking of Miss Blunt’s character, I thought she gave one of the best performances in the film. It was also a pleasure to see Art Malik making a return.
Of course, like any film, especially one open to so much film-geek scrutiny by its very nature, it has limitations. I think that, as much as I love Benicio del Toro, he was slightly miscast in this role – rather too cool for scenes which ought to render him wide-eyed with terror, although he’s great in the transformation scenes – something they really make you wait for in this film. Anthony Hopkins was certainly not miscast, but this isn’t one of his best performances. It may well have been deliberate, but the slightly nonchalant way he handled his scenes didn’t work so well for me. My other gripe would be with the pacing, particularly towards the end of the film: there was a sense that the film had to reach its conclusion, but the conclusion itself was slightly rushed.
And as to the wolf effects themselves? I have to be honest, I was half-dreading the transformations. I’m not rabidly anti-CGI, but it is overused, and hasn’t improved as quickly as it has taken over as a device in nearly all genres. Thankfully, it doesn’t look too bad here. The filmmakers knew to shroud the scenes in darkness rather than illuminate a huge array of computer effects, so the mood isn’t ruined. The transformations themselves (and some of the scenes) owe a great deal to An American Werewolf in London, which is no bad thing, and the appearance of the wolfman himself certainly was original, although I would have preferred a more lupine face shape (and that camp howl? Why? It sounds like a Casio keyboard!)
These are, though, minor gripes. Ultimately this is a worthwhile watch with a positively drinkable amount of atmosphere and the sorts of aesthetics which keep me awake at night. I only hope this does well enough for Universal to encourage them to keep making horror films.