The Wolfman is a very frustrating film. It sets out to recapture the spirit of the legendary 1941 version of The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. The basic framework of the original’s story remains intact, and the plot additions made do work for the most part, adding to the spirit of the Victorian legend without succumbing to the sort of modernization that adds spunky side kicks, saucy love interests, or politically modern sentiments blathered from 19th century mouths. But on the other hand, it fails to modernize the themes of the story such that we can relate to the deeper metaphors of the legend.
Instead it modernizes with special effects, gore, and a willingness to peek into the darkness. The special effects are decent, the transformation into a wolf suitably grotesque. Muscles and bones roil under the skin to reknit into a monster. Blood spatters and sprays, coils of intestines and severed limbs go flying all over the place, in between the obligatory bouncing decapitated heads. We get glimpses into a 19th century asylum, the height of sadism as a healing process.
But they took the visuals in the wrong direction by trying to stay true to the Lon Chaney Jr. visual take on the character. Benicio Del Toro looks exactly like Lon Chaney Jr. when transformed into a wolf, which is to say that his face looks nothing like a wolf and everything like an actor wearing the best yak hair that 1940s makeup artists could patch together with Elmer’s glue. Look, certain details, even irrelevant ones, matter to particular stories, but others just don’t. The Hulk better damned well be green, but the Wolfman’s face doesn’t have to look like the Teen Wolf’s older brother. Early in the film, the wolf is suitably frightening, hidden in the shadows and darting in to execute with wicked savagery, but around the seventh time lightning flashes and you say “fuck Lon, quit jumping out from behind trees!” it loses a little of its edge.
Problems with the wolf effects aside, the film itself is supremely engrossing, pulling you in with the mystery of what exactly is going on. There is certainly no mystery that Lawrence is going to get bitten and turn into a werewolf, and so the film doesn’t try. Instead, it invests mystery in the relationships between the characters, into what happened in Lawrence’s childhood, the nature of his father, the death of his mother. The film works slowly at these bits, parceling out slim portions. The film really wants to be more than a monster film, it wants to be about the relationships between fathers and sons, and more particularly about the relationship between civilized man and the beast within.
The problem is that the werewolf myth, particularly the version that plays out in this film, hinges on the tension of Victorian puritanism. The sort of society in which a man teeters at the edge of snapping because even the table legs have been covered with cloth in order to prevent impure thoughts. If parts of who you are must be suppressed every single day, every single breath, if your very impulses are condemned as base and immoral, if rules systemically trump desire, then the ultimate forbidden fantasy is for simple release.
This simply doesn’t resonate in and of itself to an audience who can order anything imaginable with next day shipping, watch the most hideous simulated violence on a continuous loop of pay per view, and indulge in the most depraved sex acts imaginable, either through the proxy of the Internet or at the nearest downtown bar. As such, it is not the scenes of the wolf that are the most fascinating, but those depicting Victorian England. To our eyes, that, not the wolf, is the strange and alien spectacle. To our anarchic and satiated society, the wolf is not a tempting escape, but a Tuesday night.
Joe Johnston has crafted a pitch perfect gothic horror film. It draws you in, captivates you, and other than a few stumbling points, maintains its hold on you to the end. The problem is that once it’s over, there’s an empty feeling, the feeling that while your brain can identify the depth and layers of the story, your heart just doesn’t respond to them. Worth seeing? Certainly, it’s a good horror film, a throwback to the truly old school. The fact that it’s so good is what makes it so disappointing that it doesn’t manage to be great.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.