Sometimes an actor seems perfect for a part until you see him in it.
When word came that Benicio Del Toro would play the title role in The Wolfman, an update of the 1941 Universal Pictures horror landmark, it sounded like inspired casting. Brooding and misshapen – in my review of Things We Lost in the Fire, I said he had “a mushy pillow of a mug” – Del Toro should have been ideal for a cursed aristocrat who unwillingly transforms into a savage beast.
Del Toro, though, is a disaster. He’s not brooding but morose, as if he’s been injected with downers or under the mistaken impression that this is a zombie film. Famous for mumbling in The Usual Suspects, here he appears to be struggling with an unidentified accent – odd considering the movie explains early on that his Lawrence Talbot has recently returned to England after spending years in America.
This is 1891 England, and Lawrence has come back to his family’s gothic, country estate in the wake of his brother’s grisly, unexplained murder. His father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), doesn’t seem too bothered by the whole affair, even when the creature goes on a killing spree in the village during the next full moon. Lawrence suffers a swipe during that attack, and his late brother’s fiancé, Gwen (Emily Blunt), sticks around long enough to tend to his strange wounds.
The 1941 version, called The Wolf Man and starring Lon Chaney Jr., is by no means a classic, but it is a delightful, defining example of the atmospheric Universal horror pictures of that era. This Wolfman, directed by Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III), lays the fog on thickly too. The mist creeps through eerie bogs and mansion halls – maybe that’s why Del Toro walks around as if he’s in a haze.
Hopkins takes the opposite approach, recognizing the movie’s potential to be a ripe slice of horror cheese. “The past is a wilderness of horrors,” he growls while stomping around his mansion, rifle in hand. Hugo Weaving, the villain of The Matrix, follows suit as an eyebrow-wiggling Scotland Yard inspector. These are two actors who aren’t afraid to roll their Rs.
Blunt, the rising star of The Young Victoria, seems game too, especially when Lawrence turns sexually aggressive. She notably perks up – this fable has always partly operated as a kinky erotic thriller – yet The Wolfman proves to be more interested in aggressiveness of another kind.
This is a vicious picture, full of dismemberments and disembowelments and the chomping of what I think was someone’s liver. The brutality isn’t ever really considered – the movie doesn’t address why Lawrence’s alter ego is so bloodthirsty – so that all of the violence leaves you less in a state of shock than confusion.
And what of that alter ego? What does he look like? Remarkably like Chaney’s 1941 wolf man, which isn’t a good thing (I think Chaney sported the original fright wig). Hollywood makeup legend Rick Baker has taken on the job here, but perhaps makeup wasn’t the answer. The Wolfman struck me as the first special-effects casualty of the Avatar age. That movie used advanced, performance-capture technology to allow actors to provide the movements, facial expressions and voices for ultra-realistic, computer-generated characters. I never would have guessed that I would say this, but The Wolfman could have benefited from less Del Toro and more CGI.