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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for horror fans.
. "The Wolfman"

This fond evocation of the classic lunar monster of 1941 gothic horrordom suffers, though not for any visual inadequacy. To the contrary, the production values could scarcely be better, with award level cinematography (Shelly Johnson, "Jurassic Park III") and design (Rick Heinrichs, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"). Taking story liberties with the 1941 Lon Chaney, Jr. original, it doesn't solve the problem of commanding a deeper involvement with the horrors of a curse on a reasonable man.

In a pre-title closeup of a legend carved in stone, we read: "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a werewolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright." The tone is set. Great evil lurks in the Victorian hamlet of Blackmoor.

But then we see a man traversing a woods late at night, etched in moonlight, stalking someone, or some thing. He is angry and has thrown caution to the winds. He calls out for his quarry to show itself. He is armed only with his rage, and the conviction of a fool.

The man is Ben Talbot and he's set out to confront the beast that roams this forest on nights of the full moon. It has killed someone and it must be stopped. And, when the man-animal appears, it's in a shock movie frame or two that ends Talbot's life in a blurred stroke of barely seen claws. Get me the name of the person who thought this was any way to start a movie that will pride itself on a simulation of logical behavior.

The outcome of the scene serves the purpose, in any event, of having the truly gorgeous Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt, "The Devil Wears Prada"), the dead man's fiance', to write to his brother Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) in a plea for him to interrupt his decades-long acting tour to help find his missing brother. As he happens to be in the vicinity of his father, Sir John Talbot's (Anthony Hopkins, "Fracture") huge estate, the timing, if nothing else, is propitious.

Sir John welcomes his second son, expressing his pleasure that his prodigal has at last returned under his (astoundingly large) roof after many years away, though the full reason for his delight is yet to be revealed.

When Lawrence and Gwen meet, we expect the lady to be consumed in grief. We can't say with certainty that she's not, but it appears that there's something simmering below the surface between her and Lawrence, belying her love for Ben. This gives the audience no problem since we're already rooting for the guy, who is clearly the better man.

When Ben's remains are found, Lawrence brings his personal effects to her as she's preparing to return to London. She leaves reluctantly, with the promise of a later meeting with Lawrence after a suitable time for mourning. The idea throbs with possibility but, unfortunately, this theme can't be pursued because it's in the service of the legend and our hero's tragic path.

Besides the giant leap of film technology since the black and white, mono sound and 1.37:1 aspect ratio days of 1941, story complexity has advanced considerably through the years and this shows up in writers Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self's update of Curt Siodmak's original. The part of Sir John is wildly expanded, affording Hopkins one of the most stunning character portrayals he's had in years. And, it's one that demonstrates his power to deliciously rage and play with a part despite his 73 years.

Other new characters emerge, as well, the most dominant being the ever-suspicious Abberline (Hugo Weaving), a lawman who comes to the community to track and kill the beast with a great deal more firepower at his disposal than poor Ben Talbot thought necessary. Weaving's style of supreme smugness in this endeavor seems right off the pages of his Agent Smith in "Matrix" days of yore though it's easy to see it as a contribution to the needed tension in the dark drama.

The female element is, with Emily nearly a part of the Talbot family, a considerably amped up version of Fay Helms' village girl in the original. The calculation that a closer romantic presence would serve the humanity level of the piece was well considered by director Joe Johnston and his writers. But, somehow, despite Blunt's screen singeing presence, the ultimate emotional goal doesn't quite score. As yummy as she is, the promise she symbolizes is upstaged by the soulless horrors of the curse and its visual realizations. The story line of salvation through love doesn't thrive in the arcana of classic legend.

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Most damaging to the film's effects and prospects is Del Toro's suppressed emotionality. Remembering this problem from "Things We Lost in the Fire," his last (and rare) starring role in a romantic situation, in which he seemed leaden in the presence of a seethingly love-starved Halle Berry, we may draw the conclusion that he's not naturally designed for externalizing such intimacies as passion. Though the script has him driven to Gwen because her love holds the key to his salvation, he seems to want out more than he wants in. A freer, more expressive actor might well have given us a visceral connection to the dark destiny of the legend than what the visual magnificence of a superbly mounted production provides.

"Destiny," in fact, was the working title of "The Wolf Man" during its production in 1941.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Benecio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins
Father and son in a Victorian horror melodrama.

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