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Benicio Del Toro Gets a Big Dish of Beef Chow Mein in ‘The Wolfman’

The Halloween season is in full swing here in the halls of Toxic Nostalgia Manor where the spirits haunt the home theater and the movie popcorn (and a few unlucky victims) have been drowned in butter flavored oil.  Me and my inner goth are embracing all the haunts and frights that come with this time of year; ghosts and goblins and Hollywood producers losing their shirts on production hell projects that fail to stir the interest of younger audiences in the characters of past generations.

And so, we come to 2010’s The Wolfman, starring Benecio Del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, and Emily Blunt. This film was plagued with all the scary hallmarks of a project that is doomed to celluloid hell; budget overruns, re-shoots and an original director who took a walk just weeks before filming was set to begin.

Spooky stuff, indeed.

The movie opens in Victorian Era England where a man wanders alone through the woods of Blackmore at night in search of someone. Suffice it to say, his night does not end well. The man is Ben Talbot, the fiancé of Gwen Conliffe (Blunt) and brother of the movie’s main protagonist, Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro). Other than that, he is dog chow for a large furry creature roaming the same woods. (Hint: it’s a Wolfman.) This scene is rushed, barely giving any time to build up suspense that would have served the story better. As I stated above, there was a lot of tinkering done with this film and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone went back and shaved a few seconds off the original cut of the opening.

Ben is nowhere to be found after his late-night stroll so Gwen goes in search of her would-be brother-in-law, Lawrence, to help solve the mysterious disappearance. She finds him giving a performance as Hamlet in a traveling company. His delivery of the “Alas, poor Yorick…” monologue sounds more like it’s being delivered by French Stewart than Patrick Stewart but hey, suspension of disbelief, right? She tells him about his brother’s disappearance and implores him to help find Ben. But Lawrence is under contract to take the play to audiences in America. Thus, he sends her away dejected.

And, of course, the next scene is Lawrence in a horse drawn carriage, on his way back to his childhood home to search for his brother. There is no explanation of when or why he changed his mind so we’ll just assume it’s because he’s a good guy. It doesn’t matter, though, because it gives Del Toro the chance to act opposite of the legendary Max Von Sydow in a scene that was cut out of the theatrical release. MVS, as I like to call him, is a fellow traveler who takes a keen interest in Lawrence and after some conversation, he gifts to Lawrence his walking stick which has a silver blade hidden inside of it.

Subtle, this film is not. As the blade does come into play later in the film, I suppose theater audiences were left to think it was a convenient weapon to have lying around.

Lawrence’s homecoming is not fruitful. His cold, distant father, John (Hopkins), informs him that his brother’s body has been found, so kind of a wasted trip. Lawrence takes it upon himself to go to the morgue and see his brother’s body for himself, only to find a terrifying scrap of meat that no longer resembles the man he knew in life. Afterwards, he goes to the local tavern and starts a verbal spat with some locals who use the death of his brother as a reason to call his mother a whore. Other than that, it looks like a fun little watering hole. Having thoroughly telling the locals where to go, Lawrence goes back to his childhood home.

By this point, I’m still rooting for this movie but it’s showing lots of cracks. There is a lot of information that the viewer is expected to intuit without any explanation which makes you wonder if we’ll be left in the dark or if we can expect a massive info dump later? Also, the acting is a little uneven.

Emily Blunt appears to be trying her best to deliver a strong performance as the heartbroken, conflicted lover of a dead man but Hopkins and Del Toro are kind of phoning it in. This changes throughout the film with both actors vacillating between solid acting and uninspired readings. I wonder if there were too many changes on the fly or a rush to do re-shoots that didn’t give the actors enough time to invest an inspired performance into their dialogues?

Back at home Lawrence has a flashback to being a child. In it his brother wakes him up and he wanders out into the garden to find his mother dead in his father’s arms. Her throat has been slit and she’s holding a shaving razor, the victim, seemingly, of a suicide. That might be important for later.

Then we cut to his brother’s funeral which is really just a transitiony scene to get Lawrence and Gwen alone in the secret spot where he and his brother used to play as children. As I noted, this flick isn’t keen on subtlety and we feel some more of the simmering romantic tension between the two characters even though they just put poor old Ben in the ground. It is also here that it is revealed that Lawrence, after the death of his mother, was sent to an insane asylum for a year before being shipped off to the states to live with an aunt. I know it is a small thing, but the actor who played the younger version of Lawrence looks to be about 9 or 10-years-old. Even if he lived in America for most of his life, I don’t think it would be ridiculous to expect he would keep some of his British accent. At least he should be able to recall it enough to use in his career as a Shakespearean actor.

But moving on…

Gwen leaves to go back to London. Lawrence will stay until he finds the killer of his brother. His father asks him to stay inside because there is a full moon tonight so, of course, he goes out on horseback to find a gypsy encampment that may lead him to some answers. He inquires about a strange coin his brother possessed and is told to speak to Maleva, an elder mystic among the gypsies. Villagers form nearby, being the progressive thinkers that we expect, show up to kill a bear owned by the gypsies, which they blame for the killings, and then the cops show up to see what’s going on. A smorgasbord of confused and conflicted people standing around in the light of a full moon, surrounded by darkened forest and fog. What could go wrong?

The werewolf attacks, of course, cutting down whoever it can get its paws on. A young boy runs out of the village towards some monoliths. The werewolf pursues and so does Lawrence, armed with his shotgun. He is bitten by the werewolf on the neck and taken to Maleva. “Once he is bitten by the beast, there is no cure. You should have let him die. You would make me a sinner.” Despite her reservations, instead of letting him die she instead fixes him up.

He is then taken back to his father’s mansion where Gwen, who is suddenly not in London, stays by his bedside. He is visited by visions of a kid who looks a lot like Gollum attacking him in his bed. He makes a miraculous recovery. And, oh yeah, his father’s faithful servant, Singh, has several guns and silver bullets that Lawrence becomes aware of.

Hugo Weaving shows up at the 41:00 mark as Inspector Frederick Abberline, the real-life policeman who was part of the investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders. Any misgivings I may have had about this film were slightly eased when he showed up because I like him in everything he does. He’s just one of those actors that always seem to elevate scenes. And he was smart enough to not sign onto the piece of crap that was The Matrix Resurrections so bonus points for that.

But I should be pointed out that we’re 40 minutes into the film at this point and still being introduced to main characters and we haven’t even seen (Spoiler Alert) Del Toro’s character turn into the Wolfman yet. That’s another issue with the film; the pacing. I like a slow burn as much as the next guy but The Wolfman tends to stretch the story too long.

After Lawrence goes on his first rampage as a monster, he is taken into custody and sent to the same asylum he went to as a child and the film sags here in the middle.

His eventual escape and rampage through the streets of London is kind of fun but it was written more as something for him to do when his character could just have easily hidden in his father’s home and the history of him and his father could have been explored and John’s motivations for being such a prick of a dad could have been explained.

Instead, we see Lawrence hide in plain sight in London, where he’s public enemy number one, and then leisurely stroll across the English countryside to his childhood home for the next full moon.

By the time he finally has his big showdown with his dad, the filmmakers still haven’t done a satisfactory job of investing the viewer in the drama that exists between father and son. But at least we get to see a fight between werewolves, which is fun.

There’s a lot of things that I like about The Wolfman; dark, creepy set pieces, a Danny Elfman soundtrack and some good performances put in by the second-tier characters thanks to Weaving and Blunt. It’s enough so that I like the film but repeat viewing of it seems unnecessary.

And I can see why it didn’t make a huge splash at the box office. The Universal Monsters gave us some iconic horror creations in its time but they belong to a time long past. Newer audiences don’t have much interest in their grandparents’ monsters no matter how you dress them up for a modern audience. (See: Tom Cruise in The Mummy.) They want their own scares.

I grew up in a time of Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers and even then, I thought Dracula and Frankenstein were mild by comparison. So, for The Wolfman to connect with younger viewers, it really had to hit it out of the park. With uneven acting by the leads, unclear motivations and some visual effects that looked a little janky at times we got more of a pop up to the infield. It also didn’t help that they released the film in January. An October release would have at least helped draw more interest in that time of year when everyone is in the Halloween spirit.

I recommend The Wolfman, especially if you’re more in the spooky camp rather than scary. It won’t blow most people away but it is worth a view. Pop it on after dark and enjoy the moody tone, the gothic set pieces, and creepy musical score. And if you’re old enough, a glass or two of red wine wouldn’t hurt to enhance the experience.

Now, if I could only remember where I put my Roger Ebert costume…







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