starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving
screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self
directed by Joe Johnston
by Walter Chaw Gloriously, exuberantly awful, Joe Johnston's tone-perfect, imperfect-perfect update of Universal's horror legacy begs at any moment for grieving Gwen (Emily Blunt) to cry out, "He. Vas. My. BOYfriend!" It's easily the funniest movie I've seen in what seems forever--a comedy of imitation that clarifies, if anything, the extent to which our condescension to films from the '40s allows us to enjoy the Universal monster movies without irony. Not so lucky is this product of the post-modern era in which absolutely the only way to enjoy the film in any defensible way is to profess a deep knowledge and affection for the works of James Whale, Lon Chaney, and all the boys at the old studio who found themselves, not long into their run, making movie-mashups and Abbott & Costello vehicles. At the least, this redux demonstrates some respect for its source material, from its retro effects (credited to ace werewolf guy Rick Baker) to its joyful inability to assemble anything like a coherent narrative from the various bits and pieces Johnston and company have thrown into a bucket and then onto the screen. Consider the transition from a bloody, fountain-side flashback of dead mommy to prodigal son Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) descending a few steps into a mysterious torture chamber beneath some kind of estate-bound cemetery, where his dad (Anthony Hopkins), eyes glowing mysteriously, advises that the beast "will out." It's really just a collection of non-sequiturs, of scenes that don't fit together in a landscape with no scale (Lawrence takes a full month to walk sixteen miles from London to his house and still manages to beat his carriage-riding pursuers there), strung together willy-nilly by Oedipal suggestions the film is clearly incapable, and uninterested, in exploring. The Wolfman is a big, giant, dumb movie made with such breathtaking stupidity that it actually ends with a "wolf-out" battle royale like the one in Mike Nichols's Wolf--the difference being that The Wolfman doesn't appear to take itself the tiniest bit seriously.
Instead, this thing is such a legendary mess that at some point it has to occur to the viewer that it's uniquely hysterical. Yet the mirth it inspires is born not of rancour, but of--for me, anyway--real affection. Take the moment when Lawrence, after getting tortured for a while in a Victorian asylum and hallucinating that it's old dad turning the crank, is brought up short by a choke-chain like a dog in someone's backyard. Or the moment when post-transformation, in an examination theatre, Lawrence looks up from a victim with a mouth full of liver and stomach. From the limbs literally flying from pits and out of gypsy wagons to the hilarious decision to have severed fingers squeeze off one last round from death-gripped pistols to decapitated melons snapping their jaws a few times in impotent fury, The Wolfman reveals its true colours as a work of grand, misplaced desperation. I love that Del Toro is so awful as our man Lawrence: one of our most gifted and enigmatic actors (who else could have captured Che Guevara in both aspects of his life?) is tasked, it appears, to do every single thing he's not able to do--namely, be an expat Brit who's made his name in the United States as a great Shakespearian actor and returned to Britain to uncover the details surrounding his brother's death. I love that Hopkins delivers one of his now-familiar terrible performances with so much stunning apathy that it comes across as perverse commentary on his own persona. (Exactly like the film comes off as a referendum on what it is that we really delight in when we watch seventy-year-old Universal frights--which, let's face it, with few exceptions, don't hold a candle to the depth and weight of Val Lewton's contemporaneous work.) His introductory scenes, played off a bullmastiff named Samson, are reason enough to see the picture.
Camp in the best, least astringent sense of the word, The Wolfman finds its stride in Hugo Weaving's weary Scotland Yard investigator Abberline, burned recently by his inability to catch a certain Ripper and dedicated in his long, drawn-out syllables to proving that Lawrence's inability to reap love from his father has led him to a few dark places. The great tragedy of the film is that Weaving doesn't have a significant scene with the clearly-nuts Hopkins--imagine the places these two would go given this screenplay and this environment. But what we do have is a midnight-classic-in-the-making--a movie with more quotable bad dialogue ("You...morons! I'll kill all of you!"), more deliciously incomprehensible scenes (such as the one in Gwen's antique store in which Lawrence tumbles out of a cabinet with a groan), and more chest-pounding familial melodrama than should be allowable by law. It works as homage in the sense that it's no less dated than if it were made in 1941 with no budget and slumming actors burning off contract obligations; and it works as update in that watching it inspires a great deal of introspection regarding the ways we forgive that which we don't respect. Frankly, anyone who says that George Waggner's original 1941 The Wolf Man was better either doesn't remember it well, has never seen it and holds to the idea that remakes are verboten on principle, or is a condescending prick who believes that quality is measured on a sliding scale. Truth is, this Wolfman is an unholy mess--godawful, never-scary/sort-of bloody stuff--that just happens to be fun, energetic, and actually a bit sticky on the back end. It's so, so bad that it's almost great. It's a hoot. Originally published: February 17, 2010.