Finally, a werewolf who understands what he was cursed for. Not those pasty, mostly hairless Twilight twinks for whom lycanthropy is another word for puberty. We're talking about a snarling, flesh-ripping hellhound who might kiss a girl but would take her lips with him.
Everything old is new again in The Wolfman, a relatively close remake of 1941's The Wolf Man, in atmosphere and gypsy supernaturalism. This being a 21st century production, the visceral similarities end there. Rick Baker's makeup mastery, a geek squad of CGI technicians and gallons of gore push this werewolf into sights that Lon Chaney Jr. would never dream.
Benicio Del Toro handles Chaney's role of Lawrence Talbot, an American returning to the family estate in England where something prowls the moors. With his intimidating eyebrows and vaguely animalistic face, Del Toro immediately looks halfway to transforming into a werewolf or something nonhuman. He also has the straight-faced gravitas to pull viewers through reams of exposition before doing it.
Lawrence returns at the request of Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), who is engaged to his missing brother, whose chewed corpse is soon discovered in the forest. There are the usual pub grumblings about bears in the woods, plus a minister (Roger Frost) calling it the devil's work. It turns out he's closer to being right than the stuffy psychologist (Michael Cronin) believing it's a lunatic's phase.
The action finally revs up with a werewolf assault on the villagers, the beast leaping between slashings with lightning speed. Director Joe Johnston makes his wolfman move a bit too quickly at times; these scenes will be more fun when watched frame-by-frame on DVD. Johnston depends too much upon the sudden shock of someone being there and then he isn't, with only a blur and a loud music sting to let us know what happened.
Lawrence eventually gets bitten, catching the werewolf curse. Not even the gypsy crone (Geraldine Chaplin) can help him. Gwen was just beginning to think Lawrence might be a nice replacement for his mangled brother. Lawrence's estranged father knows more about the situation than he's letting on, allowing Anthony Hopkins to deliver some Lecter-like menace.
The Wolfman is commended for staying old school with the material, never camping it up or going overboard with special effects like Van Helsing. It's funny that Baker's transformation effects don't seem to have changed much from when he invented the latex-and-hydraulics process in An American Werewolf in London. Some things simply can't be improved.
If anything, The Wolfman takes the human drama too seriously for too long, with traumatic backstories that golden era horror flicks wouldn't be concerned about. But the third act is a hoot, veering away from the original's plot with a werewolf throwdown that's gory, giddy fun. There's even one guy left alive with a werewolf bite, staring at the full moon and pondering the sequel.
The Wolfman fits nicely between Francis Ford Coppola's garishly entertaining Dracula, and Kenneth Branagh's lame Frankenstein in the trilogy of Universal Pictures horror remakes. Nothing classic, but solid. It may even teach kids that there's more to being a werewolf than six-pack abs.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.