‘Wolfman’ is a howling good time
AwROOOOoooo! What are dignified, award-worthy thespians like Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, and Sir Anthony Hopkins doing in a piece of old-school hokum like “The Wolfman’’? Having the time of their lives while trying to keep a straight face. The movie is by no means good but it’s surprisingly enjoyable: a misty, moody Saturday-matinee monster-chiller-horror special that hits the same sweet spot for moviegoers of a certain age (cough) as those snap-together Frankenstein model kits from the late 1960s. You can practically smell the Duco cement.
Of course, the Wolfman was always the poor relation of the Universal Studio horror crew. The Frankenstein monster and Dracula got there first and had defining stars in Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi; 1935’s “Werewolf of London’’ had the dull-as-dirt Henry Hull. (Nifty transformation scene, though, and points for inspiring Warren Zevon.) It was only with 1941’s “The Wolfman’’ that movie lycanthropy got a face: poor, hulking Lon Chaney Jr., who always suggested a football player who’d been forced to take over the family watchmaking business. That first “Wolfman’’ isn’t a very good movie, either, so it’s not like the new one is sullying hallowed ground.
On the contrary, director Joe Johnston (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’’) and writers Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, working from Curt Siodmak’s 1941 script, treat the hairy old cliches with reverence. Set in 1891 in the fictional hamlet of Blackmoor, England, the new “Wolfman’’ lets the fog machines rip from frame one, and every time an offscreen wolf howls you may find yourself giggling uncontrollably.
In an inspired casting touch, Benicio del Toro stars as Lawrence Talbot, a traveling actor returning to his ancestral manse to bury his brother (Simon Merrells) and confront the family demons. Since del Toro already looks like the missing link - he has a hairline lower than Butch Patrick on “The Munsters’’ - this gives the makeup team only half the work to do.
Hopkins staggers merrily around as the unfathomably decadent Sir John Talbot, cradling a gun as if he were re-enacting his post-stroke scenes from “Legends of the Fall.’’ With tremulous conviction, Blunt plays Gwen Conliffe, the brother’s fiancée who’s drawn to the tormented Lawrence after he’s bitten one eldritch evening and starts staring fixedly at her neck. Since the original film’s Maria Ouspenskaya is long dead - not that that would have stopped her from chewing the scenery - Geraldine Chaplin has been drafted to play the aged Gypsy woman Maleva, issuing dire warnings and asking Gwen, “Vill you condemn him or vill you set him free?’’
One caveat: Because this is the 21st century and the multiplex circus demands blood, the new “Wolfman’’ is trendily gory. The violence erupts in brief, visceral spasms rather than prolonged wallowing, and I was cheered to see the Wolfman tear loose a victim’s liver in one scene, like a dog going straight for the Liv-a-Snaps. Mostly, though, Johnston busies himself with atmosphere and mood; this is a more faithful updating of Universal horror tropes than the recent “Mummy’’ desecrations, and it has its very real, if goofy, pleasures.
The transformation scenes come courtesy of makeup effects legend Rick Baker, who doesn’t dwell on the details as he did in 1981’s “An American Werewolf in London.’’ They’re shown off best in the movie’s strongest scene, in which Talbot is trussed to a chair in a medical amphitheater, surrounded by Victorian doctors curious to see what happens when the full moon rises. (The payoff is delicious - for Lawrence.) As with all monster movies, though, the more you see the sillier it gets, and the climax of “The Wolfman,’’ with two Oscar-winning actors in fur masks going at it tooth and talon, plays like a tussle at the pound.
Del Toro, sadly, is a bit of a dud in the title role, reciting his ornate period dialogue in an embarrassed monotone. Or maybe he’s just channeling Lon Chaney Jr. Hard to say. “The Wolfman’’ knows the old horror classics had pure pulp running through their veins, and it honors those cheap thrills with gusto. This isn’t a great movie - it’s just a good dog.