The Wolfman is a bizarre mix of the old and the new. It's clearly in love with the classic Universal horror films that inspired it, but tries to wed that nostalgia to cutting-edge creature effects and a revamped storyline. But for all its modernizing touches, it doesn't really improve much on the Lon Chaney Jr. classics beyond an admittedly impressive tech upgrade. It attempts to add strong psychological components to the tale, but does so in only the most obvious and shallow of ways. It adds tons of gore and a few rousing set pieces, but not much actual suspense. If all you're looking for from The Wolfman is a big-budget spit-polish on old, familiar tune, Wolfman its moments. Just don't go in expecting any surprises.
The Wolfman tips its hat to the original right out of the gate, opening with the "Even a man who is pure of heart" gypsy poem fans will remember well. From there, we witness the ignoble end of one Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells), who finds himself on the pointy end of an angry werewolf, much to his demise. We soon learn that Ben was the brother of Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro), a Shakespearean actor trodding the boards back in London. He's approached by Ben's fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt), who implores him to return to the family home he's been avoiding for several decades and help find his missing brother. Lawrence agrees, reluctantly, but by the time he arrives, Ben's mauled body has been found and their worst suspicions confirmed. From there, Ben sets out to solve the mystery of his brother's death, all the while confronting his own demons involving his cold, estranged father (Anthony Hopkins) and the tragic suicide of his mother many years ago, a trauma so powerful it landed him in an asylum for a while. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the original film will know this trip home won't end well for Lawrence, which is a shame since he seems like such a pure-hearted guy, the sort who probably his prayers by night...
Credit must be given to screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self for at least trying something new with this version of The Wolfman, rather than just slapping a 2010 wolf suit onto a 1941 framework. I can admire their attempts to couch this tale of lycanthropy in very human tragedies and failings, and I think there's plenty of potential in the concept of the werewolf as rampaging id. However, the psychological elements never venture beyond the most predictable of avenues. Kudos, gentlemen, for shaking up the original story so that this new incarnation has a little mystery to it even for fans of the original Universal films. Unfortunately, "new" does not automatically equal "better," and while I appreciate the fact that my preconceptions about the film were not always correct, it is a little disappointing that the answers to all Wolfman's mysteries can be easily deduced at least an hour before the film finally throws its arms wide and declares "Tah dah!" Ambition is to be appreciated, but given the caliber of these screenwriters (Walker wrote Se7en; Self gave us Road to Perdition), Wolfman could and should have been something special. Instead, we're left with a plodding, predictable remake that -- most damningly -- never offers any real scares.
All that said, this is a gorgeous-looking movie. With lush cinematography and elaborate set and production design, The Wolfman definitely looks like the reported $85 million that went into its budget. Fans of cinematic gore and creature effects will also find plenty to like here. If you've ever wondered what sort of damage a seven-foot feral werewolf with talons the length of a grown man's finger could do to the human form, The Wolfman -- especially the extended, unrated cut -- answers the question with vigor and variety. One can't help think that if Del Toro's wolfman were locked in a room with the characters from Twilight the entire "Jacob versus Edward" question would swiftly be rendered moot. The action is well-paced and conceived, and if it all basically amounts to "wolfman runs around ripping people into bloody kibble," that violence is so artfully realized that it's hard to quibble too much. The disappointing side, again, is that while the wolfman's rampages are spectacular, they're never once scary. At its best, the movie is a sort of over-long demo reel for the amazing creature work done here by Rick Baker and others. The wolfman they've given us is brutal, convincing, and honoring of the original design without letting that nostalgia hamper new ideas.
If only all that amazing visual work was supporting a better-paced, more compelling, less predictable story. If you're a creature junkie, The Wolfman is worth a shot just from a technical standpoint. But if you're looking for the a rock-solid werewolf movie, skip this and go with the original or with other bona fide tooth-and-fang classics like Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers or John Landis' An American Werewolf in London.
The best part of The Wolfman is the creature itself, and thankfully the special features don't scrimp when it comes to providing insight into the crew's attempts to upgrade an iconic monster. The "Return of The Wolfman" featurette is a general look back at the making of the new film and the original classic that inspired it, but all three other featurettes focus on the design, creation, and implementation of the 2010 Wolfman. "The Beast Maker" focuses on the legendary Rick Baker and how he created the vicious new werewolf designs while still paying homage to the unforgettable "Lon Chaney in yak fur with an underbite" look. "Transformation Secrets" looks at how the team blended CGI with live-action footage to accomplish the film's admittedly impressive man-to-wolf transformations. "The Wolfman Unleashed" examines the film's stunts and action sequences, everything from the chase sequence through London to little stuff like how they made the werewolf appear to run at 30 miles per hour. Collectively, these featurettes are more entertaining than the movie itself, especially if you have any interest in the craft of moviemaking.
The disc includes both a handful of deleted scenes and a couple of alternate endings. Well, "handful" might be a bit generous. It has two deleted scenes, neither of which amount to much, and three extended scenes. One adds a few seconds to the first big transformation scene and one extends the final fight sequence slightly. The only one that's really worth watching is the "Extended London Chase" scene, which features a fairly amusing bit where the wolfman is momentarily charmed by a blind singer in the middle of a costume party, and then eats a dude's head. It's a shame, really, because if he'd just minded his manners he had the "Best Costume" award in the bag. Both alternate endings are variations on a theme, and neither are worth watching.
Like any good Blu-ray these days, Wolfman comes with a second disc containing a digital copy of the film, for those of you who simply can't get through a plane ride without exposed viscera. Even better, it also includes a card explaining how you can watch the original Wolf Man movie for free on your computer, phone, or internet-connected Blu-ray player. Not a bad deal, that.