Benicio Del Toro looks pretty awesome in full werewolf get-up in The Wolfman. His makeup, mostly old-school prosthetics and fur with just a dash of computer-generated accents, is fantastic - nostalgically hokey and still cutting edge. The man-to-beast transformation scenes, which are surprisingly brief, are also greatly effective, if not quite so elaborate or revolutionary as the ones John Landis achieved in his seminal 1981 horror comedy An American Werewolf in London.
But the rest of A Puerto Rican Werewolf in London - I mean The Wolfman - is done in by a fatal lack of purpose. Director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, Jumanji) ladles on the mood and atmosphere: This is the sort of movie in which the woods are always shrouded in fog and shadow, and the moon looms impossibly large. The production design is impeccable: There's no faulting the movie's art direction. But Johnston fails to make a story set in 1891 England relevant to contemporary audiences. Why not set it in present-day London? Why retell this woefully familiar tale at all?
There are some new, albeit disappointingly telegraphed, plot twists in the script by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and David Self (Road to Perdition), but they're not enough to distract you from the fact that you're watching a remake of an old, infinitely superior movie,and you keep wondering what the point was. No metaphors or subtexts regarding the beast that lurks within the hearts of men or sexual repression or the rampaging id - nothing but a superficial gloss on well-worn material. The film isn't quite so redundant as Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, but it comes close.
With the exception of Hugo Weaving's Scotland Yard detective, who investigates a recent string of murders apparently committed by a wild animal, the performances in The Wolfman all feel as if the actors were playing dress-up. The usually resourceful and vibrant Del Toro is muted and disengaged as Lawrence Talbot, an actor who returns to his hometown just outside London after his brother's mysterious death. As Lawrence's father, Anthony Hopkins hams things up so ferociously you wonder if the monstrous creature roaming the moors is a wild pig.
And the talented Emily Blunt is saddled with the most perfunctory Token Love Interest role of all time - Gwen Conliffe, the former girlfriend of the dead brother, who immediately starts making cow eyes at Lawrence even though the corpse of her ex is still warm. A tender scene in which Lawrence and Gwen discover a mutual attraction while he's teaching her how to skip stones across a pond is so dull and perfunctory I started wishing the filmmakers would throw in a surprise homage to the scene in Frankenstein in which the monster throws a little girl into a lake.
For an R-rated horror film, The Wolfman is also surprisingly light on scares - and when I say light, I mean completely devoid of them. This movie wouldn't scare an impressionable 5-year-old girl who's afraid of the monster under her bed. OK, that's not really true. The Wolfman would probably freak that little girl out, especially during a scene in which the rampaging werewolf leaves a pile of entrails and severed limbs in his wake. But there's a dispiritingly rote and uninvolving air about The Wolfman that keeps the movie from being the slightest bit frightening for anyone old enough to see it. All the atmospherics big-budget Hollywood can muster will never fill the void left by a weak story, and there wasn't a moment in The Wolfman during which I believed anything I was watching. The editing also feels choppy, as if large chunks of the film had been excised during the year-long delay before its release.
In the best scene, some doctors and psychiatrists who think Talbot is a mere lunatic and not really a monster strap him to a chair as the full moon rises to prove their case, and Del Toro bellows "Tonight I will kill all of you!" before sprouting fangs and claws and proceeding almost to fulfill his promise. The scene - a large group of frightened people trapped inside a locked room with a crazed monster - is fun and original and exciting. The rest of The Wolfman, which must have the limpest ending ever to grace a werewolf picture, is about as frightening as a Benji sequel … the one in which he got rabies.