Horror remakes. Hollywood is as powerless to resist the compulsion as a werewolf is to ignore a full moon. The cursed creature must sprout claws, grow fangs and bulge hairily from his shredded clothes. The movie industry must talk us into buying tickets to pictures we’ve already seen. And just about as often.
So here we have The Wolf Man 2.0, Universal’s inevitable reboot of the 1941 classic starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi. Youthful moviegoers will probably not pick up on arbitrary liberties taken with the original — the title has been pointlessly condensed, the period pushed from the 20th century to 1891, and the action relocated from Wales to northern England. The principal character, Lawrence Talbot, is no longer a California astronomy student but a Shakespearean actor living in New York.
What will be evident to audiences of every age, however, is that none of the tweaks in any way makes for a more entertaining production.
In the lead role, Benicio Del Toro appears almost painfully aware of it. The Oscar winner comes off as lost and afflicted with low affect. Which would be fine had he signed on to play a zombie, but that proves a bit of a problem here. In London for a performance of Hamlet, Talbot receives a letter from his brother’s fiancée (Emily Blunt) informing him that her dearest has disappeared and begging him to return to his ancestral home.
Which he does, only to be informed by his eccentric and emotionally remote father (Anthony Hopkins) that his brother’s body has already been found. Del Toro’s character is stunned to see the corpse’s bones picked clean when he views it in the village butcher shop. Conveniently for him, the place is located around the corner from the pub, where rumors are flying about a beast wreaking havoc in the nearby woods.
Talbot barely has time to become bewitched by Blunt before he makes a beeline for the nearest gypsy camp. Where else does one go for up-to-the-minute supernatural news? The obligatory ancient fortune teller (Geraldine Chaplin) has no sooner started her ominous mumbo-jumbo than the place is attacked by something big, bloodthirsty and so fast it’s already severed your head or yanked out your large intestine before you realize it’s behind you. The attack seals our hero’s fate.
The whole point of an update like this, of course, is to wow audiences with the latest generation of special effects. If Del Toro’s transmutation were sufficiently awesome, it would hardly matter that the rest of the retread is a yawn; that director Joe (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji) Johnston was not, to put it kindly, born to make horror films; or that screenwriters David Self and Andrew Walker add a surprise twist that’s a howler.
But the fact is, it’s not awesome. Tiresome, maybe (the moon seems to get full every five minutes), but not awesome. The process uses a questionable combination of high- and low-tech computer imaging for effects such as the elongation of limbs, plus old-fashioned makeup courtesy of monster master Rick (An American Werewolf in London) Baker. The result is not notably dissimilar from werewolf metamorphoses we’ve seen in previous motion pictures. If anything, Baker’s decision to go retro and model his work on Chaney’s shag Halloween mask undermines the movie’s mission. It’s a hairy look but, let’s face it, not a particularly scary one.
Universal hit the jackpot when it resurrected and retooled its Mummy franchise in the late ’90s. The new films weren’t great art, but they were loopy, goofball fun. Studio executives evidently decided to go in a different direction with The Wolfman. It’s gory, dour, plodding and downright silly in spots. One thing I can’t imagine anyone calling it is fun.