Making a nicely produced piece of classic horror, if there is such a thing, director Joe Johnston (October Sky, Jumanji, The Rocketeer) depicts the son (Benicio Del Toro) of an eccentric gentleman (Anthony Hopkins) in the 1891 British countryside as they are ensnared in an Oedipal psychodrama that leads to romantic love, confrontations with religious fundamentalists, and the breathless sight of a rampaging werewolf in London.
Universal’s The Wolfman is not my cup of tea, typically, and viewers should be forewarned that the frights are deployed without warning and the blood and guts are on ample display, but for what it is, Mr. Johnston, one of Tinseltown’s top creators of exciting adventure, delivers a true thriller. Shot in black and gray, and shrouded in fog, its point that man and monster are sometimes indistinguishable comes early and often in the form of a mythical beast that is one of the screen’s best werewolves. The detail in this creature is amazing; he’s a ferocious beast with vaguely human characteristics, not an overdone computer image on steroids. Resembling Michael Landon’s classic werewolf, this wolf is cunning, nimble, and powerful, swiping with his deadly claws, tearing limbs like tissue paper, and sprinting while upright or chasing on all four legs.
With various literary and visual references to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, silver bullets, gargoyles, and the “power of Satan”, The Wolfman grabs a hold and doesn’t let go, with Mr. Hopkins simply devouring every scene as the morally monstrous father, Del Toro as Lawrence, an heroic American trying to set things right after a terrible childhood trauma, Emily Blunt (Dan in Real Life) as the young, nubile beauty whose husband was killed by the werewolf, Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta) as a policeman and Geraldine Chaplin (Tonia in Doctor Zhivago) as a gypsy.
While a religious zealot warns that the wolf represents man’s pride and alternately urges the besieged villagers to loathe themselves, an intellectual who’s more monstrous than the werewolf (and whose demise is too good for him) enters the picture as the policeman persistently observes, tracks, and hunts the creature. Characters and plot are fully engaging and seeing Anthony Hopkins in this voracious role is worth the admission price alone (don’t bring the kids) for those who can stand the horror. The only downside other than the gore is a throwaway servant character, a Sikh “warrior of God”. Blunt is good, Del Toro is excellent as usual, and Weaving’s earnestly intelligent detective puts last year’s manic Sherlock Holmes to shame. The Wolfman‘s theme that man is essentially self-made, even when faced by monsters that are not, is expressed in an exchange between Del Toro’s thespian character and Blunt’s grieving widow, when he comes upon a waterfall and recalls it as a place of refuge and she asks, “from what?” He answers, “you mean from whom.” This Wolfman has a mind of his own. But be prepared to close your eyes.