Remember ground fog? That smoky, thick dry ice stuff that used to swirl through black-and-white Hollywood forests and graveyards? The Wolfman, a remake of the cheesy-spooky 1941 Universal horror classic, has enough ground fog to make you feel like you’re trapped in? well, a rather ancient horror movie. For a good stretch, I thought ground fog was about all the film was going to offer — that, and a lot of very solemn, borderline deadly scenes in which Lawrence Talbot, the prodigal heir played by Benicio Del Toro, returns to the castle of his father, Sir John, embodied by Anthony Hopkins in that blustery style Hopkins always uses when it looks as if he’s trying to wake the scenery.
Directed by Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III), The Wolfman starts off in a fairly stilted manner. It looks a bit too much like a borrowed backlot gothic funhouse, and Emily Blunt, as the love interest (the former fiancée of Del Toro’s brother), stands around and pouts without having enough to do. Then something curious happens. After Del Toro’s Lawrence gets bitten by a werewolf and turns into one himself, he’s accused of insanity and packed off to a Victorian mental institution. There, he’s subjected to such unfair treatment that we start rooting for him to sprout hair and fangs and show his captors a bit of the beast within. Nothing makes a Wolfman movie work quite like getting you on the Wolfman’s side.
Del Toro, who looks a bit sunk in torpor during the first part of the movie, comes alive once he gets a taste of blood. The transformation scenes, generally the best part of any werewolf film, were dreamed up by the venerable make-up magician Rick Baker, and they feature lots of twisting, straining fingers and limbs and dripping lupine incisors. Nothing, in other words, that we haven’t seen before. (Baker did this sort of thing just as well almost 30 years ago in An American Werewolf in London.) They’re still fun though, and Del Toro, with his melancholy-brute features, endows this raging beast with some of the ”Why me?” poignance you may remember from Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance in the original. Lawrence, you see, has no desire to be a werewolf. He doesn’t get off on the power of the dark side; he just wants to be free of it. And that lends The Wolfman, hokey and uneven though it is, the kind of authentic emotional hook that too many horror movies today don’t have. B