Asleep in wolf’s clothing
“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
Evoking the classic aphorism from the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. vehicle The Wolf Man, Universal attempts to jumpstart another franchise from its early-20th-century monster stable, but is handicapped by 21st-century ADD writing and bad pop psychology.
It’s a pretty basic story: A 19th-century prodigal son (Benicio Del Toro) returns home to the English familial estate after his brother’s gruesome death, eventually gets bitten by a werewolf and starts loping around the moors ripping villagers’ lungs out. Blood-spattered Jane Austin posturing ensues.
Unfortunately, here the basic story is spread out to make things complicated for no other reason than to make things complicated, but without the narrative chops to make the complications add up reasonably. At times, it seems like the money shots for the trailer were written first, with the rest of the script thrown in as an afterthought. Any potential twist is telegraphed clumsily. Tone-deaf (and often laughable) dialogue is spouted by a dead-eyed cast that seems more eager to hit the craft services table than to show any craft in front of the camera. An abrupt detour to London is thrown in for no other reason than to have an American werewolf in London sequence, then it’s back to the estate for a Hulkamania WWF climax that reads silly as hell rather than thrilling. Even the werewolf’s howl is sad and pathetic, seemingly provided by some intern imitating Warren Zevon.
Part of the disassociation also comes from the lack of empathy Del Toro evokes. The brooding bundle of resentment doesn’t come across as pure in heart from the moment he rolls into the picture. He’s lusting after his dead brother’s fiancée almost from the get-go, and the implication is that it’s because she looks like his dead mother. Like I said, they try to make it more complicated than it needs to be, while losing the tragedy of the original: “Even a man who is pure in heart …”
The prosthetic effects and bloody mayhem are solid, though. Credit master monster-maker Rick Baker there. But not solid enough to sit through the movie to experience, although there’s an unintentional camp aspect to the mayhem, at odds with the retro tone of the rest of the movie. Aside from Baker’s effects work, there is absolutely nothing to recommend this generally boring misfire. It’s a wannabe Tim Burton period piece without the Goth feyness, attention to detail or even a noticeable understanding of the source material.