Responding to the unexpected disappearance of his brother, stage actor Lawrence Talbot returns from America to (Victorian) England to pay familial respects and find out what happened. At the old family estate Lawrence is reunited with his apathetic father, both of them still haunted by the horrible suicide of their mother/wife when Lawrence was a toddler. After Lawrence befriends his brother’s fiancée in the woe of their mutual concern, he heads out one night (against his father’s ominous advice) to a passing gypsy camp to investigate an amulet that may have some relevance to his brother’s case. His enquiries are suddenly cut short when the camp is attacked by a swift and indiscriminate beast - panicking victims are torn apart amidst spiralling chaos prompting Talbot to pull out his rifle to take pot shots at the creature. Getting a little too ambitious for his own good he’s attacked himself, saved from a near fatal wound by another armed man, and a subsequent amateur operation to seal the torn flesh. Recovering at the estate from the attack, Lawrence attracts the somewhat hostile attention of the local police inspector, but this is the least of his problems when it becomes apparent at the next full moon that he has become infected by a werewolf, himself now a carrier of the curse.
Taking many elements of the screenplay of Universal’s classic 1941 monster movie The Wolf Man and mirroring them fairly respectfully, this remake injects a dose of contemporary violence and shock cutting to bring it in line with the expectations common in today’s audiences. However, to suggest those are the only elements that make this worth watching is something of an injustice. The film doesn’t exactly appeal to the most commercial of sensibilities: firstly, it is largely a slow moving exploration of the denizens of an almost fairy tale world, with sombre pacing periodically punctuated by brutal and quite exciting action. And secondly, the design of the titular creature is something of a throwback to an era I had long considered dead - quite brave and at odds with the genre’s cinematic context of today. In fact, the creature isn’t too far removed from that of the original film, aside from the much needed enhancements to special effects, make-up, and its ability to stride at a much greater speed (thereby multiplying its threat tenfold). Taking up the reins of the consistently forlorn Lawrence Talbot is Benicio Del Toro: apart from possessing a melancholy appearance surprisingly akin to that of Lon Chaney Jnr. (the star of the 1941 movie), the actor brings a distinctive quality to the role, maintaining an air of solemn believability throughout and contributing quite skilfully to the tragic nature of the character - he demonstrates an amazing look and presence. One cannot help but feel a twinge of disturbed sorrow during his utterly miserable incarceration and torture at the asylum following his arrest (don’t fret too much - this act concludes with a beautiful payoff!). Strong acting remains a staple of the production for its duration, a particular favourite performance of mine arriving in the form of persistently odd Hugo Weaving as the sharp minded inspector. All of this brings verisimilitude to the more complex (than the original) characterisations and relationships established throughout the story, and whilst it is overall quite faithful to its source there are one or two twists along the way to keep things interesting for fans such as myself who know the original movie reasonably well. And enormous appreciation must go to werewolf aficionado Rick Baker and the special effects team (CGI or otherwise) for creating what must be amongst the most effective transformation sequences either side of the perennially stunning experience that is An American Werewolf in London.
The strong gothic backdrop to the scenario is embellished by delightfully crafted compositions of near achromatic cinematography, something I wouldn’t have anticipated from a director as seemingly nondescript as Johnston. The cinema screening I originally attended was unforgivably marred by a slight but perceivable out-of-focus projection, a factor that thankfully does not afflict the Blu-ray, which (containing both the theatrical and extended cuts) presents the film in full HD at 1.85:1 with a lovely artistic image and noticeable (on a very large screen) grain retention. The DTS-HD MA audio track particularly shines with the deep and emphatic orchestral arrangements, giving you an appropriately cinematic experience if you have surround kit. The steelbook, which I acquired soon after its release, is very attractive, albeit plain on the inside. The Wolfman was unfortunately plagued by a troubled production so it’s pleasing to find a gloomy, morbid, violent, and bewilderingly traditional horror story that may not please those accustomed to more conventional modern cinema but will tap some of the right nerves for a few.