Back in the 1930s and early ’40s, Universal was the studio for horror films, spinning several successful franchises with adaptations of classics (“Frankenstein,” “Dracula”) and variations on popular lore (“The Wolf Man,” “The Mummy”). It’s not surprising that they try to revive various of these properties every few decades. Hence, this remake of the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle, which retains most of the plot and characters, as well as the lycanthropy “rules” codified by Curt Siodmak, the original screenwriter. (To be fair, Siodmak borrowed heavily from the 1935 “Werewolf of London,” which remains more effective than any of the Chaney Wolfman films and much more effective than this new entry.)
Benicio Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, presented here as a famous actor, currently touring England as Hamlet. He is about to depart home to America – where he has lived for decades, thus sparing Del Toro from affecting a British accent – when he hears that his brother has disappeared. He dutifully visits the ancestral manse, where he is greeted by his estranged (and strange) father (Anthony Hopkins). Also in attendance are Singh (Art Malik), Lord Talbot’s Sikh manservant, and Gwen (Emily Blunt), Lawrence’s sister-in-law-to-be. Or, to be more accurate, his former sister-in-law-to-be: His brother is no longer missing; his hideously savaged corpse has been discovered in a ditch. Sad, indeed, but with the silver lining of making Gwen available for wooing.
While hunting the murderous beast who killed his bro, Lawrence is bitten but survives, thus contracting Wolfman disease himself. Now there are two Wolfmen about. “Who is the other one?” one might wonder, if the answer hadn’t been telegraphed from 10 minutes in.
Filmmakers retooling an old story face the question of whether to update it, try to re-create the original, treat it from a campy distance, or even simply start from scratch. “The Mummy,” the most successful of Universal’s revisited horror films, used the barest bones of the concept as a framework for an “Indiana Jones” movie – except without Jones or Harrison Ford or Steven Spielberg.
Many hands labored on “The Wolfman”: Joe Johnston replaced director Mark Romanek, one of several changes. Yet nobody seems to have figured out just how to approach the material. Hopkins seems to be acting in a different, broader film than everyone else. Del Toro, in contrast, seems, frankly, lost.
Del Toro’s casting is the biggest problem, which is remarkable since this was his pet project from the start. Physically he’s a good pick as a Chaney surrogate; with dark circles around his droopy-lidded eyes, he always looks as if he’s been awake for 36 hours straight. But, when not in his flamboyant mode (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”), he’s a very interior actor. In “Traffic,” we know his character not so much through action or speech as through simple close-ups.
In the genre context of “The Wolfman,” his quiet brooding ends up telling us next to nothing about his thoughts. He seems withdrawn at first, then becomes numbingly melancholic after his conversion. He’s not merely lycanthropic; he’s misanthropic.
Subtext is equally absent. Werewolves and vampires alike have long been metaphors for repressed sexuality and aggression. “The Wolfman” strips that out, but doesn’t find anything to replace it with. Lawrence’s condition is the result of simple rotten luck. It means nothing. And his main reaction is basically to go all mopey on us.
Danny Elfman’s pleasingly melodramatic score works overtime to compensate, but it’s not enough. Outside of a few shock cuts, “The Wolfman” isn’t scary. In fact, it isn’t much of anything. Grade: D+ (Rated R for bloody horror violence and gore.)
Peter Rainer, the Monitor's movie critic, is on vacation this week.