WOLFMAN, the remake with Benicio del Toro, is one of those movies I keep watching in hopes that I’ll like it more. And to be honest, I do like it better than the first viewing, which is often the case for movies I enter into with expectations. There are certain things I want from a werewolf movie, and I’ve thus far been pretty disappointed with most of them.
Perhaps because werewolves don’t really seem to translate well on screen. I think the best I’ve seen so far were from UNDERWORLD, which in itself is a fun and pretty but not very good movie. But the werewolves were ones I believed, and in my opinion they were appropriately bestial and intimidating. In movies I’ve seen where the wolves were just giant wolves (like the TWILIGHT series), they suffer from being noticeably CGI or noticeably puppets. In movies where they’ve been more anthropomorphic and built around a human form, they just aren’t that frightening to look at. I’m not sure what it is. Is it the wet nose? I’m just not sure what it takes to make werewolves frightening to me, so maybe the answer to that is they should stop trying. As werewolf movies go, THE HOWLING is probably best, disjointed though the editing is. It really encapsulates the horror of the transformation and animalistic nature of the beast, and it covers how becoming a werewolf might bleed into the human life.
But I suspect that, despite all the fairly standard sex that seems to fill our screens in R-rated movies, we’re still quite shy about sex, and a person giving into their id just makes our Puritan little hearts nervous. You can’t turn a man into a beast and then cut his balls off and expect us to be intimidated by what he’s become–and more importantly, what’s in all of us. Which is supposed to be the real horror, I suspect: the Beast in us all. But where most books seem happy to detail the daily depravity we’re capable of in werebeast and human form, movies skirt around the worst of it whenever the id has to take shape. I think they worry we’ll be too shocked, I tell you, shocked, and they want a broader audience to make a broader amount of money. But that’s neutering the beast, and it just ends up not working quite the way it should.
THE WOLFMAN is no exception, although the cast is fantastic and the devotion to detail in setting, costume, and atmosphere admirable. The movie is awash in fur coats and stuffed beasts from the elder Talbot’s hunting days. The Blackmoor manor is strewn with leaves and shadows as though the wilderness is slowly taking over its palatial splendor. The palate runs a respectable moorland gray, and the movie isn’t lacking in bright red for the R rating.
But the movie suffers from a lack of identity, although del Toro takes on the Talbot role with the same bushy-browed, soft-featured intensity of Lon Chaney, Jr., in the original that would likely have made him proud. Anthony Hopkins is a delight in every mediocre role he takes. The first few viewings, I was sure he was phoning it in like he did in THE RITE, but subsequent viewings give me a chance to take in his more subtle choices. He latches onto every line with a sometimes quiet and sometimes growling ferocity. He commands every scene he’s in, which is why the man is an international treasure, despite the less than adequate meat in this movie to chew off the bone.
Emily Blunt, I believe, is the actor most ill used by a movie that doesn’t know whether it wants to be tragedy or horror. (WOLFMAN mostly goes with tragedy with bloody dashes of horror, but the joke’s on them, because good horror makes tragedy all the more intense.) Blunt is too good for the role, put into the movie as a shining beacon of perfect Victorian femininity, a bastion of purity that no beast should sully, a love more romantic from afar, an ideal rather than a woman. It’s disgusting in such a male-heavy movie to make the only woman such a representation of an abstract. Ideals are all well and good, but what people in a society ever really live up to them, especially in private? We wouldn’t need such strict rules and chaperones if people weren’t trying to break those rules at every turn.
At the beginning, Talbot calls a man’s character “a shiftable thing,” a statement clearly intended for the dramatic irony, but the sheer fact of the matter is that THE WOLFMAN doesn’t work because Talbot’s character doesn’t shift enough. It barely seems challenged by new appetites. He’s briefly distracted by Blunt’s bare neck (honestly, who wouldn’t be?), and dreams about a naked back. So salty. So animalistic. So…tame. Talbot mostly remains the mild-mannered man except when he is beast, when the point is supposed to be that Edward Hyde is Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll/Hyde stories tend to do werewolf better than werewolf movies – the Spencer Tracy version is superb and is one of the movies to better show Hyde’s glee, but it really plays up the good vs. evil that isn’t what the original story set out to tell. Instead, for an excellent werewolf tale, I actually recommend Jekyll/Hyde movie MARY REILLY with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich, which is a criminally underrated movie, if not necessarily a masterpiece (really, if you ignore the bad accents, it’s quite good). Like Bruce Banner said, he’s the Hulk because he’s always angry.
If the beast doesn’t exact the worst impulses of the man and if the man doesn’t exhibit the worst impulses of the beast, what’s the point of a werewolf movie? What the point of the blood and drama and confusion? If the presence of a werewolf doesn’t strip away the patina of respectability of all around him, you’ve missed the point.
I’m not saying I needed a Talbot/Conliffe sex scene to satisfy my own worst impulses (although I wouldn’t say no). But Talbot shows early nods to resentments, a festering anger from his childhood against the town, against his father, and a desire for his brother’s fiancee, none of which I feel come to a head in any real way once the transformation occurs. Was he supposed to seem virtuous for retaining his self-control? Is it to contrast with his father, who is, in his own words, more comfortable in the skin he is in, while Lawrence makes a living pretending to be other people? We get the glimpse of the wicked in Lawrence’s father, his willingness to allow himself to feel his baser nature rather than repress it, although he still retains some self-control while a man.
I just wish there was some transformation on the character level for Talbot to parallel the transformation on a supernatural level, that he didn’t only give in to the beast when the moon was full, that it infected his personal life in more interesting ways. Instead of the beast being an extension of him made manifest, it remains distant, the actions that of an animal rather than an id. I don’t think he would have seemed less tragic for the loss of control of his impulses–after all, he didn’t choose to be bitten, to have to fight harder against those impulses. He was paying for the sins of the father, which is never fair. Del Toro is perfectly capable of treading that line. In the one moment where the beast threatens to overtake Talbot in the presence of Conliffe, though he doesn’t do much, he’s frightening and alluring at the same time, wonderfully intimidating, and Blunt plays off that with a quintessentially Victorian response belied by the scared intrigue in her eyes. That moment is the closest I have to what I want from their dynamic, and it’s delicious. But it pulls away too quickly and never again treads near the same level of tension between man/woman and the beast in both, though brought to shallower waters in the man.
More than anything, the restraint shown by the script and the direction seems more a product of the idealization of the love interest, the sole female presence in the film–although the ghost of Talbot’s mother seems to hover over everything. As though a woman’s own red tides of anger, frustration, fear, grief, and lust would somehow mar her if it cracked her pretty portrait of a face. Moreover, I believe there’s a genuine fear underneath most werewolf movies of the beast that exists within women as well. Not just the female villains (most masculinized or hypersexualized or both into unrecognizability of what women experience every day). Not just the disposable, nameless, dehumanized prostitutes that we keep killing off like so many victims of so many Jack the Rippers. The Beast in us all.
I’ve seen one movie that didn’t seem afraid of freed, unfettered female sexuality. The remake of DRACULA (also with Hopkins, in a role he seemed to have much more fun in) may have just been Francis Ford Coppola’s feverish wet dream for most of it, but it’s one of the few movies I know of that seem to unapologetically acknowledge women’s lust in supernatural situations. Yes, much of it is downright shocking for this generations-removed Puritan, but quite refreshing as well when set against a slew of horror movies that are unapologetic in the amount of boobs they show yet somehow afraid of a woman actually enjoying herself in the midst of a fairly rigid social expectation that they don’t. If that’s the excuse why they kept Miss Conliffe the Victorian ideal, I’m pretty sure Lucy Westenra spits on that. If the point of werewolves is that there’s a beast in us all, the refusal to believe there’s a beast in Miss Conliffe seems the worst kind of oversight. It may have been unintentional, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.
If THE WOLFMAN is soft on sex, it certainly isn’t on violence, which is one of the movie’s only saving graces, although I would have preferred more substance and less flash to the chase scene in London. CGI is supposed to be a friend, not a lover, and it doesn’t work nearly as well as studios depend it will. But I have to say, the level of detail applied to the transformation scenes was professional as hell and believable, even if the final product loses some of that believability they put into the shifting. Still, the werewolf’s attacks are vicious, merciless, that of an angry mother grizzly, and it’s pretty spectacular as it’s happening.
But in the places between the transformations, the movie just seems unsure what it wants to do and where it wants to go. It’s the movie version of telling rather than showing, and though I’m inexcusably fond of asylum horror, THE WOLFMAN doesn’t linger there long enough for me to care as much as I want to about the hubris of doctors. It brings to mind DRACULA again (see Jack Seward’s asylum). WOLFMAN fails in almost every comparison with its classic Universal monster movie counterpart, even that of the beasts that the eponymous monsters become. The only place where it seems to shine more than DRACULA is in the sets and the cinematography, which is more a product of when the movies were made than a failing on Coppola’s part in his DRACULA.
It’s really a shame, because I want to like this movie, and like THE LAZARUS EFFECT, I think I keep watching it for the movie it could have been. It’s occasionally a decent script, and del Toro, Hopkins, Blunt, and a somewhat typecast but still devoted Hugo Weaving make the best of where the script weakens.
I just have Thoughts about what werewolves are in the pantheon of horror monsters, and I feel like the movie makers really missed the boat on this one, as they usually do with this particular monster. Almost as though they’re afraid to look into a mirror and really see themselves. They tend to do well with vampires, but with vampires, they don’t have to see their reflections.