Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro, "Things We Lost in the Fire," "Che") is a Shakespearean actor appearing on the New York stage when he receives a letter from his brother's fiancee, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt, "The Devil Wears Prada," "The Young Victoria"), telling him that Ben (Simon Merrells) went missing from the family's English estate several days ago. Lawrence returns to his ancestral home only to be told by his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins, "Bram Stoker's Dracula"), that he found his son's body in a ditch. Lawrence is determined to discover what happened to his brother, if not for himself, then for the lovely Gwen, but his quest brings him face to face with "The Wolfman."
This long delayed production, adapted from Curt Siodmak's original 1941 screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker ("Se7en," "Sleepy Hollow") and David Self ("Thirteen Days," "Road to Perdition") and directed by Joe Johnston ("October Sky," "Hidalgo"), turns out to be a surprisingly effective update that respects the gothic tradition yet jolts with restrained gore and surrealistic drug-induced nightmares. The story is rooted in a family curse that recalls Hammer Horror Poe adaptations filtered through the more moodily monochromatic cinematography of Shelly Johnson ("Hidalgo," "The House Bunny"), but while the genesis begins in India, England's rural gypsies are still on hand to lend traditional flavor.
The prodigal son, as Sir John calls him, arrives to a peculiar greeting, an immense home filled with Victorian bric-a-brac and his father's hunting trophies and an introduction to his father's Indian servant Singh (Art Malik, "Nina's Heavenly Delights"). Lawrence makes a request to meet Gwen and pays his condolences. In the town pub, an old man recounts tales of the full moon and beastly presence that mesh with ghastly wounds Lawrence has seen inflicted on Ben's body. Lawrence begins to remember nightmares from childhood, leading up to the suicide of his mother, whose dead body he discovered in the arms of his father, her throat slashed. Ignoring his father's advice to stay inside during the full moon, Lawrence sets out to a gypsy camp and consults with Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin, "Talk to Her," "The Orphanage") on the meaning of a gold medallion worn by his brother. While there the camp is attacked by a swift-moving beast and while Lawrence saves many, he himself is bitten. Maleva sews his wounds as others tell her she should let the doomed man die. Returned home, Lawrence is disturbed by the completeness of the healing process, his heightened hearing and his overpowering reaction to the pulsing of Gwen's neck and he commands her to return to London for her own safety. Rumors are swirling about the village and beyond, however, bringing the inspector of the Ripper case, Abberline (Hugo Weaving, "The Matrix," voice of "Transformers'" Megatron), to the Talbots along with a mob from the village. Sir John manipulates the situation just so and before long his son is once again restrained in Lambeth Asylum under the medieval care of Dr. Hoenneger (Antony Sher, "Mrs. Brown," "Shakespeare in Love").
This last development leads into two of the film's best set pieces. After being locked into a chair mechanism, Lawrence is repeatedly doused into an ice bath and injected with a syringe. A surreal POV montage follows, incorporating memories past and present, visions from his mother's mausoleum, asylum inmates and the 'feral boy' his father found in an Indian cave decades earlier (transferred memory?). Later, Hoenneger puts his Freud hat on and displays a restrained Talbot in a round theater, psychoanalyzing him before a packed audience of his peers as Lawrence begins the film's second transformation to the horror of all but the man who cannot see him.
Johnston's direction of the actors appears to have called for restraint, even from the often hammy Hopkins, which works well for Del Toro's performance, lending him the mysterious and damaged air of a man who suffered trauma and a nineteenth century London asylum as a child. Del Toro, whose character's self-imposed exile to the U.S. can account for his American accent, speaks his lines with none of the quirkiness and intensity we've come to expect. At first this may play as somnambulistic, but the style builds in effectiveness as Lawrence's back story is filled in. Lawrence's chosen profession is likely a place to disguise his own conflicted self image. Hopkins dryer, slyer take on Sir John could have used a little more bite, but it's refreshing to see him resist chewing the drapery. Blunt does well by the grieving damsel in distress, but her shifting romantic attraction is underwritten. Weaving, who does great villain, is left betwixt and between here. The late Solana is played by Cristina Contes, a suggestion of gypsy blood in the Talbot line which Sir John alludes to in a lewder context than his usual declarations of undying devotion for his late wife.
The production is beautiful to look at, all gray stone, statues and gargoyles, stuffed lions and antlers, beasts and their prey. Moons rise quickly and clouds sweep across stormy skies. Exterior forest and moors peopled with shadowy figures are atmospheric and Johnson's interior lighting is period authentic, with darkened corners and shadows during typically gray days (although his evening 'moonlit' interior light sources are sometimes heavy handed and unnaturally angled). Werewolf transformation effects are right out of Rick Baker's own seminal "An American Werewolf in London" The propulsive score by Danny Elfman owes much to Wojciech Kilar's for "Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula."
"The Wolfman" is a very respectable reboot of Universal's famed horror franchises. The sequel suggestive ending points at a continuation via Abberline's character - is "The Wolfman meets Jack the Ripper" in the offing?
Robin did not see this film.
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