Pity the poor lycanthrope. With no distinguished source material to draw upon, and no big-name author to place before the title, it seems the wolfman is barely holding onto his position among the monstrous big-hitters. Dracula and Frankenstein must shun him at parties. Hollywood has had to base their recent wolfman effort on the 1941 original, and though the charmingly low-tech practical-effects wolfman is present and correct, it isn't the 1940's feel that causes the viewer to howl.
Instead, it feels as though the filmmakers have taken a cheesy 70's Hammer script- a relic of a simpler time when certain tropes were not quite as hackneyed as they are today- and filmed it in 2009, with a decent budget and played absolutely straight. It's the only explanation for the way the film plays every single Victorian horror cliche without irony and without any attempt to present them in any new way.
Decaying Gothic mansion? Check. Fair enough. Fog-shrouded moors? Check. That's allright, too. But in the same movie as mystic gypsies, torch-wielding superstitious villagers and cruel Victorian asylum 'scientists'?
Damn, I'm making this sound like the greatest movie ever. Any film containing such a cornucopia of treats should be a winner. But believe me- whatever you have in your head right now is almost certainly a thousand times more entertaining than the Wolfman actually is. There's something about how these elements are presented- I feel they would only work if the audience had absolutely never seen a horror movie (or a Saturday morning cartoon, which is where most of these elements now belong) before. Maybe if this movie had been made in 1941, or in 1971, it would have been a masterpiece, its strong visual style setting trends for decades to come. But The Wolfman instead trots out time-worn plotlines and expects us to be affected by them.
Ditto for the dialogue- maybe I'm just close-minded, but I feel as though the day has passed when you can put such downright corny words into a script and still play it straight. When Anthony Hopkins first appears (wearing a hideous tiger-skin jacket that in no way telegraphs the later 'revelation' of his bestial nature) to greet his recently returned son, I literally begged him not to quote 'the Prodigal son returns'. Just as he said it. The film is full of moments where you think 'ah, now if this were a cheesy movie made before 1979, they would say X here'- and The Wolfman never disappoints. As soon as Emily Blunt is shown researching werewolf lore in a dusty library, we know that we're gonna be confronted with this:
Yeah, so there hasn't been a werewolf movie made yet that doesn't feature this woodcut: So far, I've noted it in The Wolfman, The Howling, and the X-Files episode 'Shapes'. But usually the pain is eased somewhat by having it introduced by Dick Miller (everything is better with Dick Miller).
The key to where it all goes really wrong lies in the asylum scene. Del Toro, who knows by now what he has become, is being studied by a demented 'doctor'. He's one of those Victorian sadist scientists who thinks that the best way to cure dementia is to cut out the patients' brain, or dunk them in freezing water. This particular trope has been used in From Hell and other movies to great effect, but here, the scientist is a ridiculous cartoon character who understates the horror we should be feeling. He straps Del Toro into a chair before an audience of doctors and students, in order to prove that no transformation will take place when the moon turns full. Of course, Del Toro knows all too well what will happen, and his desperate pleading is taken as being no more than proof of his dementia. It ought to have been a tense, physchological scene with the scientists waiting to be proven right, and Del Toro (and the audience) waiting for the carnage they know is about to occur. Instead, everything happens in a rushed manner reminiscint of a music video. Del Toro is strapped in, he warns the scientists, the moon appears immediately, he wolfs out within seconds. The resulting violence (and it is a great scene) feels light and pointless because of the botched foreplay.
The Wolfman does look great- dark and brooding- but ultimately, this is another slick trick to distract the audience from the fact that there is no substance. The edits are cut so tight that the film seems afraid to linger on anything for more than a moment, as if aware of how hollow the plot is. And apart from some howlers (the dodgy-looking were-Gollum should never have got past the script stage), the use of CG is mostly used to augment the wolfman as he leaps about, while he is portrayed for the most part using practical effects. And if I haven't mentioned any characterisation yet, well, that's because there isn't any.