The werewolf gets no respect.
Everyone knows Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster, even if they haven’t seen the movies, but hardly anyone really knows Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man. Vampires are everywhere nowadays, often in risible incarnations, but we can still take them seriously, while werewolves seem inherently semi-comic. Howling at the moon inspires smiles rather than chills.
Ever since An American Werewolf in London, werewolves have been essentially postmodern monsters, with no hint of the Victorian aura of gothic romance and tragedy that still clings to Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. (Let us not speak of Van Helsing.) Perhaps it’s because Dracula and Frankenstein have actual Victorian literary cred that in the early 1990s they each got ambitious if flawed period remakes by, respectively, Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh. Around the same time, Mike Nichols made Wolf, a modern-day take on the werewolf starring Jack Nicholson.
Now, more than fifteen years later, Joe Johnston and Benicio Del Toro want to redress that imbalance. Playing it basically straight, The Wolfman harks back to the werewolf’s 19th-century roots, if not in Victorian horror literature, at least in the gothic Universal horror tradition it inspired. Here is a werewolf movie that still considers it worth mentioning that even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.
The Wolfman considers it worth mentioning; it does not know why. There is much talk of curses and damnation and fate, of God defending his faithful and forsaking the damned to the power of Satan. There are Gypsies who talk about the saints and a Sikh manservant who calls himself a warrior of God. Yet it’s far from clear that there are any actual ideas behind this fraught language, let alone a worldview behind the ideas.
The Wolfman retells the classic werewolf story, but has little to add besides volume and gore. Jump moments pile up to the point that you stop jumping and merely feel annoyed at the obvious, heavy-handed manipulation. Alone in the dark in his ancestral home, Lawrence Talbot seems to hear a creepy whisper, but it turns out he’s just remembering something from his youth. Then a minute later it happens again. Later on there’s a gotcha dream, with a menacing figure rising from the shadows and leaping at Lawrence in his bed — but then he wakes up. Or so it seems, but then it happens again — but it’s a dream again. It’s like a haunted house where they never stop jumping out and saying “Boo!”
Lawrence is played by Del Toro, a gifted actor and, apparently, a werewolf buff and collector whose desire to pay homage to The Wolf Man is sincere. Unfortunately, Del Toro is part of the problem. For one thing, while I’m not yet sure that Del Toro couldn’t be persuasive in a period piece, I’m now pretty sure he can’t play a 19th-century scion of Scottish gentry. For another, Lawrence is supposed to be an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, a man of the London stage whose turns as Macbeth and Hamlet are admired by Scotland Yard investigator Francis Abberline (Hugo Weaving). Nothing in Del Toro’s performance hints at that kind of accomplishment, that sense of a life far from the Scottish moor. Instead, Lawrence is a sad sack who never seems like anything but a man walking to his doom. It detracts from the impact of his character’s fate that he seems to know and accept that he is a character in a horror movie.
Anthony Hopkins plays Lawrence’s estranged father Sir John Talbot like a man who is past caring what others think of him, and can barely be bothered to muster the appearances of social convention. It’s possible that this was a thoughtful acting choice, but to me it was indistinguishable from phoning it in. A Scottish burr creeps into Hopkins’ line readings sometimes, but by no means always.
There are makings of a thoughtful reinterpretation of the werewolf story. The creature’s origins are closer to home for Lawrence, and the oft-maligned Gypsies are no longer the carriers of the curse, which could instead be seen as an oblique legacy of British imperialism. Giving Lawrence a brother who is an early casualty, and making the romantic interest, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), the former fiancée of Lawrence’s brother, are both good ideas. A tragic back story involving Lawrence’s ill-fated mother is a potentially intriguing twist. Occasionally a good line crops up, as when Inspector Abberline (Weaving) remarks dryly, “Rules, Mrs. Kirk. They’re all that keeps us from a dog-eat-dog world.” Even better, Gwen, clutching at straws, hoping to save Lawrence, reasons, “If such things are possible, then everything is — magic, and God.” For a heartbeat, The Wolfman hovers on the threshold of thoughtfulness.
But it’s all squandered. The Wolfman has little if any perspective on lycanthropy; none of the potential themes — tragic family legacies, the human capacity for brutality and the rule of law, the insights and limitations of religion and science — emerge as a real subtext. The closest the movie comes to a real idea is this: It’s wrong to kill a man, not an animal — but where does one end and the other begin? Don’t squint looking for the payoff, you’ll strain your eyes. Instead of existential awareness, The Wolfman offers only lots of gory, graphic violence. Bodies are shredded, viscera are ripped from abdomens, heads are swapped off shoulders. No insight into human behavior is manifested; all of the characters think, speak and act exactly like characters in a movie like this.
When a character casually includes himself under the heading of “the cursed and the damned,” is there any actual eschatology there? What is the thought, and how does he know? When the vicar rails that “We have sinned … Our crimes reek to Heaven, and they demand vengeance,” does he have any particular sins in mind? Or is it just the sort of thing clergymen are expected to say? (Why doesn’t the film recall a character’s earlier comments about the Gypsies selling the local youth as much wine and dark-haired women as they could take?) What does it say about The Wolfman that its token cleric is vastly less interesting than his broadly comic counterpart in Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit?
As bad as the vicar is, the representatives of science are worse. The Wolfman is never closer to self-parody than when Lawrence is committed to a London asylum, where sadistic attendants strap him into an infernal contraption that ratchets him down into a tub of ice water. Then he’s bound on display in a sort of amphitheater with scores of pointy heads gathered on the night of a full moon, supposedly to observe the shattering of Lawrence’s illusions. Right. Like if I’m a pointy head I have nothing better to do than sit around all night watching a lunatic not turn into a werewolf.
Perhaps in the end the werewolf is partly to blame for his second-class status. A vampire seduces; Frankenstein’s monster is a tragic victim of man’s Promethean meddling in life and death. With a werewolf, it seems, it all boils down to random acts of violence. One could make a thoughtful picture about violence and randomness, but The Wolfman isn’t it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.