I’ve always had a soft spot in my cold, desolate heart for the Unviersal monsters. Partly because I appreciate the gothic sensibility on display, but mostly because I know what it’s like to be chased through the woods by a mob of angry villagers. I remember growing up in what would eventually became the state of Oklahoma, put on trial as a witch at the age of nine when the village’s radish crop mysteriously died. Good times, good times. So, I was looking forward to The Wolfman and hopefully the beginning of a new era in gothic horror.
There is a scene early in the film, where Emily Blunt‘s dutiful character sits by candle light, reading. The dust in the air around her is suddenly illuminated by the flicker of the candle, and for a moment, it looks like she’s surrounded by stars. I thrilled at this moment and immediately began imagining the possibilities of that traditional gothic sensibility taken in a whole new direction by modern technology. A stylized, yet seamless new vision of the archetypes of the genre: creepy old mansions, fog-drenched moors and suffocating taverns of suspicious townfolk. Sadly, as my imagination ran wild with the possibilities, the stylistic moment of brilliance was to be the last in a film that chooses to rely on all the old elements, with no new layer of commentary or style.
Benicio Del Toro began his career as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee-wee. Here, he returns to those roots and plays Lawrence Talbot, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered actor who returns home to investigate his brother’s death and take a little walk on the wild (and furry) side. Actors, he soon proves, are probably not who you want to send into any dangerous situation. I certainly wanted to like The Wolfman, and I really can’t say it’s a bad movie, more like a missed opportunity. It’s no coincidence that Lawrence is an actor. He’s been acting all his life, repressing and erasing a horrific secret from his childhood. He plays his part as a mild-mannered dandy all too well, though, and I never got the sense there is any sort of mayhem lurking underneath, trying to get out. His transformation into the beast should have been a freeing experience for someone so repressed, but no such connection is made, and while we’re told that Lawrence is a lunatic who could potentially snap, whether cursed by a werewolf or not, Del Toro underplays to such a degree, I just don’t see it.
While I applaud the craft of the production team, which included legendary makeup designer Rick Baker, the look of Del Toro’s wolfman is perhaps too much of an homage to the original Lon Chaney look. You’ll rarely hear me calling for more CG effects, but this is a case where the look needed to be just a little more stylized for a modern audience. That goes for the rest of the production. Overall, The Wolfman takes its story very seriously, which is in keeping with the tragedy, but also robs the film of any sense of fun or wonder. Again, while I fantasized about a renaissance in gothic horror, a modern reinvention of those dark and creepy visions, The Wolfman plays it by the book. I’m curious what a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Wolfman movie might have been like. Burton is probably too Burton for this, but it’s that sense of reinvention and stylistic license this film, and the gothic horror genre in general, desperately needs.