'The Wolfman': Furball, By Kurt Loder

Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins in an unwise remake of the vintage horror classic.

"The Wolfman," here at last, is sadly lacking in snarl. There are plenty of bared fangs and flesh-rending claws, of course, and there's much howling at the moon, too. But the movie is essentially an exercise in Gothic atmosphere. It's lavishly produced, sumptuously scored (by Danny Elfman), and beautiful to look at. It's just not very scary.

But how could it be? Is there anyone who doesn't know the simple story, at least in outline? Or who needs to have it told once again? Given the film's troubled production — the last-minute director switch, the re-shoots and re-editing, the year-long release-date delays — it's probably turned out better than anyone might have hoped. But it still feels redundant.

The movie is a remake of, and inevitably a tribute to, "The Wolf Man," the 1941 Universal horror classic that introduced silver bullets to the werewolf genre, and also the shivery little poem that begins, "Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night ... " In this new version, director Joe Johnston (who replaced Mark Romanek) has pushed the story back to 1891. He fondly retains the misty moors and twisted trees of the original film, as well as the big wolf-rousing moon that seems to be stuck on full every night of the year. But he and the writers, Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, have enlarged the tale in clever ways. Now, Larry Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), the doomed hero, has been called back to England from America — where he was sent as a child following the bloody and still-mysterious death of his mother — by Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), the fiancée of Larry's brother, Ben, who has suddenly gone missing. At the decrepit Talbot Hall, he reconnects uneasily with his cold, disapproving father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), who in this version of the story is a, shall we say, more complex character than in the original film.

Ben soon turns up, unfortunately dead, and the story gathers shape. We already know that Larry will be bitten by a werewolf, that he'll seek enlightenment about his alarming new condition from the gypsy crone Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin, stepping in for the incomparably shriveled Maria Ouspenskaya in the 1941 movie), and that he shouldn't bother making any long-range plans for his future. Newly added, though, is a sequence in a London insane asylum (a place so hellacious that when Hopkins' Sir John pays a visit, we half expect a sly smirk of acknowledgement at its resemblance to the Baltimore bin in which Hannibal Lecter was incarcerated in "The Silence of the Lambs"). There's also an early form of waterboarding, a ferocious escape, and a chase across the rooftops of London, with the transformed Larry being pursued by a new character, Scotland Yard Inspector Frederick Abberline (Hugo Weaving). Abberline, of course, is a real historical personage — the lead investigator in the Jack the Ripper case of 1888. Presumably, he's been brought in to help out with the wolf hunt because of the expertise he displayed in failing to catch Saucy Jack. Let us only say that he's more successful here.

As Larry, on the run, attempts to get to the root of what now appears to be the Talbot family curse, there are a lot of expensive gore effects — gut-ripping, entrail-flinging, arm-yanks and head-severings. And the seamless, digitally-assisted wolf transformations are naturally a far cry from the stage-by-stage lap dissolves of yore. And when these effects abate for a bit, we can savor the rich detail in which the decaying family manse has been created — the candles and cobwebs, the leaves drifting across the marble floors, the fireplace big enough to roast a Jeep in.

But the movie itself never catches fire, and the only real thrills in it are cheap fake-outs — a sudden eruption of birds, a hideous creature crawling up on the foot of a bed (only a dream!). Del Toro is a master of hulkish brooding (and of course a better actor than Lon Chaney Jr., the original Larry Talbot), but hulking and brooding are pretty much all he's given to do here. (More robust parts of his performance may have been left behind in the edit bay.) Hopkins brings his usual razory gleam to the part of Sir John, but the character's expansion for this film, although inventive, has left it awfully thin. And while Weaving, with his familiar clenched glare, contributes an enjoyable sourness to the proceedings, his Abberline seems to be on hand mainly to set up a sequel — a more moonstruck objective than anything else in the picture.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Percy Jackson & The Olympians," "Valentine's Day" and "Terribly Happy," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "The Wolfman."

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