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:: The Wolfman

Resurrecting an iconic figure from Hollywood’s horror movie past would seem like a potentially smart move, especially in the wake of the recent pop-culture fascination with all things vampiric, led by the charge of the Twilight gravy train. It was way back in 1941 that master of disguises Lon Chaney first stepped into the guise of The Wolfman. Memorably he created a tortured beast, a man torn between worlds of night and day in a tale enriched by metaphors that highlighted issues of identity as well as the internal struggle between civility and baser human instincts.

Benicio Del Toro, an actor who has slowly seen his credibility swell over his years - culminating in Steven Soderbergh’s recent Che (2008) - put forward a strong case for re-imagining The Wolfman for a new generation. It was at his suggestion that Universal investigated the possibility of restoring this creature to life once more. However, trouble began late in pre-production when originally-attached director Mark Romanek – responsible for the memorable One Hour Photo (2002) – departed from the project, citing “creative differences”. His replacement, Joe Johnson, was a man used to juggling big budgets, but with only a few weeks notice could his heart possibly be in it or was he turning up just to cash a paycheque?

On a positive note, The Wolfman sports spectacular production design, recreating Victorian England with a keen eye for detail. This provides genuine atmosphere in the early going as Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells) is attacked by a mysterious creature in the woods one night. His fiancee Gwen (Emily Blunt) calls on the assistance of his long-departed brother Lawrence (Del Toro) from London to investigate his disappearance. When Lawrence arrives, he discovers his brother’s mutilated corpse and a dark strain of his family’s history rising to the surface. When roving gypsies are set upon by the cyclonic savagery of the murderous creature, Lawrence goes on the attack, only to receive a bite that permanently marks him as one of the beast’s brethren. Though his slightly demented father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), tries to keep Lawrence’s affliction under wraps, he becomes transformed on the night of the next fall moon, unleashing terror on the local community with a primal assault of his own.

The Wolfman’s most glaring weakness rests in its screenplay. Devoid of any real substance, it borders on vapid. Even performers as talented as these prove incapable of breathing life into it. This is a quite a blow considering the credentials of writers Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and David Self (Road to Perdition). For someone who apparently championed this project so passionately, Del Toro’s performance is staggeringly limp. He simply doesn’t possess the gravitas to pull off a series of stern, gloomy glares, obviously in some vague hope that they’ll carry imperial weight. The translucent, usually interesting Blunt fares no better, though she’s given the slimmest of characterisations to work with. The supposed romantic subplot between she and Lawrence fizzles embarrassingly; apparently the writers felt the depth of their feelings for one another could be conveyed through a session of rock-skimming and little more.

Hopkins seems to be covering awfully familiar territory by now with his over-inflated theatrics; here he’s like a minimised Hannibal Lecter stripped of all macabre wit and potency. He may be having fun chewing the scenery, but the audience can no longer be said to be extracting quite the same joy out of the experience. Only Hugo Weaving, although in a similarly underwritten role as a Scotland Yard Inspector, has cause to hold his head aloft. At least his lines are delivered with a modicum of interest.

The Wolfman, though providing occasional thrills on a visceral level and for fans of showdowns fought with CGI armies, is a bitter disappointment for anyone hoping for a classic updating of an integral story in horror movie history. The main set-pieces are admittedly entertaining and well-handled; they’re bound to keep you awake at the very least. Rick Baker's convincing make-up effects deserve special mention too, whilst Danny Elfman’s active, occasionally thunderous score keeps things moving along with a gratifying boldness. It’s just a shame the connective tissue holding the standout sequences together is so dull and ineptly constructed - a real surprise considering the talent in front of and behind the camera.