Vampires and werewolves have long held a grip on our horrific imaginings, with good reason: They get the job done. Sure, other monsters have had their moments, and zombies remain a reliable stand-in for the mounting sociological problems of any era. But when it comes to more personal demons, werewolves and vampires cover the bases. Vampires make apt doubles for the forces that threaten to seduce and corrupt us. Werewolves represent the beasts already within, and all the attendant rage and lust we hide.
The best moments of The Wolfman—a remake of the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. classic—get that. When its werewolves get to rampaging, the film delivers a succession of literally visceral shocks. “He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim,” Warren Zevon warned in “Werewolves Of London.” In the hands of director Joe Johnston and writer Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and David Self (Road To Perdition), these monsters don’t stop with the lungs. The violence here is brutal, brief, and squishy. Wolves don’t waste time.
If only the film around those scenes didn’t feel equally gutted. Special-effects veteran Rick Baker—whose werewolf experience stretches back to The Howling and An American Werewolf In London—has designed a beast worthy of awe and wonder, but his wolf-man has more personality than The Wolfman. In a performance that relies on the same cryptic remove as his work in Che, Benicio Del Toro plays a successful American actor who, while touring his native England, gets news of his brother’s violent death and returns to the home of his long-estranged father (Anthony Hopkins). Surrounded by late-Victorian decrepitude, he begins to recall some long-suppressed childhood trauma as he befriends his brother’s widow (Emily Blunt).
It’s no accident that Del Toro’s homecoming interrupts his successful run in Hamlet. Johnston’s film piles on Oedipal discomfort as its hero gets closer to the truth of his brother’s death, an investigation interrupted by an unfortunate animal attack and its aftereffects. But the story feels thinned-out, as if merely establishing the elements of a fur-covered family melodrama were enough. No simpering Lon Chaney Jr., Del Toro underplays the part, and the choice leaves his character removed from the action, with only hints of heat offered in his scenes with Hopkins and Blunt. Apart from a few sequences where he simply looks bored, Hopkins runs in the other direction, suggesting the overheated film that might—and probably should—have been. A few stray livers and severed heads aside, this is a monster too polite for its own good.