Special effects have become a lot more special since the 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man, but judging by Joe Johnston’s remake, bad acting and lousy plotting are timeless. This Wolfman is preternaturally pretty: The English country estate where Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) meets his lupine fate is more ravishingly atmospheric than a Merchant Ivory pastoral drama, while the costuming, interior design, and nighttime lighting almost compensate for the tattered script—but not quite. Adapted from the original, the screenplay is bloated with histrionics when it easily could’ve been updated with psychological suspense. That talented cowriter Andrew Walker (Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow) seemingly fell asleep on the job is only one of the film’s many peculiarities.
Lawrence is an American actor who returns to London to play Hamlet. After his arrival, the film promisingly builds in intensity. Lawrence’s brother, Ben, is missing, as he is informed by Ben’s waifish fiancée, Gwen (a luminous Emily Blunt). Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) is strangely stoic when his son’s body is found with most of its flesh torn off. The provincial villagers suspect a local encampment of gypsies, but when the gypsies, too, fall prey to the mysterious monster (in the only scary scene), the villagers, and Scotland Yard, come into conflict as to whether the predator is man or beast. Or mortal or infernal. These conflicts eventually sink under their own vapidity, but in the meantime, Lawrence, who was clawed, and Gwen, who is fearful of Sir John, find solace by casting rapt gazes at each other while grieving in a nearby forest primeval.
And then, it happens: Lawrence notices animalistic traits taking him over, and Rick Baker’s creature effects improve on his work for an American Werewolf in London with grisly realism. And after much moody skulking about the Talbot mansion, something else happens: The film transforms into a campy flop and neither the not-so-mystical gypsies, nor the Talbots’ underutilized family tragedy can be blamed. This mid-movie curse may have been caused by a last-minute change in directors, or maybe Sir Anthony Hopkins overpowered Sir John’s role so he could unleash his beastly craving for hammy overacting. Hopkins, who certainly should have an upper-class accent down after doing two acclaimed Merchant Ivory movies, seems to revel in the dialogue’s unintentional, er, howlers, and he does so with a garbled gothic accent.
With a little more interaction, Del Toro and Blunt could’ve given the story a poignant heart of doomed romance, but then, there wouldn’t have been time for all the kitschy asylum scenes and childhood flashbacks. Even a delectably grim Hugo Weaving as famed Inspector Abbeline can’t save The Wolfman from plunging into the brambles of nonsensical action sequences inspired by other movies, most noticeably Bram Stoker’s Dracula (another horror movie diluted by kitsch). And out of all the actors who might be frightening bouncing through the air in a smoking jacket, Hopkins isn’t one of them.