x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Not the howler it's said to be

Delayed for two years after a last-minute change of director, The Wolfman is based on a 1941 creature feature starring Lon Chaney, a clunky minor entry in Universal's horror archives.

Anthony Hopkins as Sir John Talbot and Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot in The Wolfman.
Anthony Hopkins as Sir John Talbot and Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot in The Wolfman.

Ripped to shreds by US reviewers, this monster remake arrives with a troubled history and low expectations. Delayed for two years after a last-minute change of director, The Wolfman is based on a 1941 creature feature starring Lon Chaney, a clunky minor entry in Universal's horror archives. And yet, against the odds, Johnston's reworking turns out to be a pleasant surprise. No masterpiece, but certainly an atmospheric thrill ride clothed in sumptuous visuals.

The action takes place in 1891, partly in London, but mostly in the remote English countryside. Benicio Del Toro, who also co-produced the film, plays an American stage actor who returns to face a family crisis at his ominously gloomy ancestral mansion. Anthony Hopkins, in a typically hammy performance, co-stars as Del Toro's aristocratic father while Emily Blunt provides a frisson of romantic tension as his missing brother's fiancée. Meanwhile, a murderous beast is stalking the local woodland, slashing villagers to bloody pulp.

A broodingly intense actor in the Brando and De Niro mould, Del Toro may seem an unlikely choice for such a schlocky exercise in B-movie recycling. But his glowering, Heathcliffian performance brings a dash of emotional weight to what might otherwise have been a lightweight exercise in retro kitsch. Puffy faced and pockmarked, he looks authentically unsettled by the emotional and psychological carnage around him.

Right from the opening moonlight bloodbath, The Wolfman is awash with familiar echoes, from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, a similar exercise in neo-gothic Victoriana. The casting of Hopkins also invites comparison with Coppola's Dracula - indeed, Danny Elfman's bustling, booming score is actually based on the music to Coppola's vampire yarn. Even the man-to-wolf transformations look second hand, possibly because the make-up supervisor Rick Baker's previous credits include An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

Likewise, the script is devoid of original twists or postmodern gimmicks. Johnston and his screenwriters, including the Seven creator Andrew Kevin Walker, make little effort to reinvent an ancient yarn. Sticking faithfully to the original, The Wolfman is played throughout as old-school gothic melodrama, as archetypal as a Grimm brothers fairy tale. The violence is surprisingly graphic, but sparingly used.

It could be argued this lack of modern subtext is a cop-out, a missed opportunity. But taken on its own terms, as a fast-moving exercise in gothic suspense, The Wolfman is still a pretty effective thrill ride. If nothing else, it looks fantastic. The cinematographer Shelly Johnson is an award-winning painter, which shows in his fabulously composed tableaux of candlelit taverns and mist-shrouded forests. All inky shadows and muted earthtones, almost every frame looks like a Dutch old master canvas.

Johnston is known as a Hollywood journeyman director, but even he cannot go too wrong with a charismatic star like Del Toro, beautiful scenery and several buckets of blood. The Wolfman will not appeal to hard-core horror fans, nor highbrow art movie buffs. But the rest of us can simply enjoy it as a stylish, sumptuous, guilty pleasure.