It's been ages (since 1948's Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein?) since anyone thought the Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man was scary in the least - cool, always, but scary not so much. The Benicio Del Toro Wolfman, on the other hand, is an intimidating sight - scarier than any werewolf has been in years. That's a real accomplishment for Baker and director Joe Johnston as the 'classic' werewolf look that they're sticking close to has long become the stuff of kid's entertainment - as seen on the Monster Squad TV show of the '70s and the Teen Wolf movies of the '80s. If nothing else, this remake performs the valuable service of reminding audiences that the old-school Wolf Man can still be a monster to be reckoned with. This isn't the demonic were-dog of An American Werewolf in London or the Disney-inspired Big Bad Wolves of The Howling (a look co-opted by 2002's Dog Soldiers), this is the classic, back-to-basics Wolf Man - and it works. It's a shame that the movie around the new Wolf Man isn't better but horror fans are accustomed to wading through a mediocre (or worse) movie in order to savor a great monster.
The love story that's supposed to be the heart of this movie is on the thin side (whether that's due to lack of chemistry between Del Toro and actress Emily Blunt or it's because the films feels truncated of any footage that doesn't advance the action and horror elements is hard to tell) but the werewolf is, to borrow a word favored by Anthony Hopkins' Sir John Talbot, "glorious." The only scene with the Wolf Man that didn't work for me - from an FX standpoint - was the Wolf Man's race across the rooftops while being pursued by the police. It just looked too silly, with too much CG enabling the Wolf Man to run on all fours (this effect came off fine in other scenes where it was only glimpsed quickly but in this prolonged sequence it didn't work). But aside from that, the werewolf material is where the movie triumphs. Even the CG used in the transformation scenes is mostly impressive. Sure, practical FX would've been nice to see but the CG used here to change Lawrence Talbot from man to wolf is a far cry from the sub par CG seen in An American Werewolf in Paris (1997).
Given how troubled a production this was, it's a marvel that The Wolfman is any good at all. That it isn't as good (much less great) as it clearly had the potential to be is sorely disappointing. What the movie would've been like in the hands of its original director Mark Romanek will never be known but I think given the situation he stepped into, Joe Johnston did a heroic job of salvaging the project. He wasn't able to make this into a classic, unfortunately, but even filmmakers who are pure of heart can fall short of the mark. Hopefully the longer cut promised for the DVD release will alleviate some of the movie's pacing problems (the first act, especially, is way too hurried) and give its underdeveloped characters some meat.
I'm sure there'll be complaints that this movie caters too much to the ADD-afflicted crowd and while I agree that is a problem when it comes to the obvious sacrifice of character moments, I think the movie's cheap 'jump' scares and R-rated gore FX are just fine. I read so many critics (in the fan press and otherwise) who always disapprovingly harrumph about filmmakers who resort to cheap scares in horror movies but cheap scares are part of the fun of horror movies. There's cheap 'gotcha' scares in Psycho, The Exorcist and Jaws for crying out loud, so let's not automatically scold filmmakers for trying to make the audience jump out of their seat.
As for the gore, some might feel that a true Wolf Man movie shouldn't cater to the blood and guts crowd but as a fan myself, I've always wanted to see the Wolf Man put his claws and teeth to better use and man, this totally delivers on that front. This is a really violent movie, complete with decapitations and even gut-munching.
On the one hand, I would've liked for this to have been a movie I could share with my young son (we've watched the original Wolf Man together) but on the other hand this'll be perfect for when he's older. Hell, maybe we'll watch it now - it's all just pretend anyhow, right?
Looking back on The Wolfman, my first thought is that I really want to see it again. For all the aspects of the movie that didn't work, I can't stop thinking about the parts that I liked. The cinematography by Shelly Johnson is stunning - a reminder of how much the horror genre left behind when the gothic style went out of fashion - and at risk of heresy I'd also argue that Rick Baker tops his own work in An American Werewolf in London here.
The transformations here can't compare with AWIL (though it gives that film such a run for its money, others may disagree) but the final look of the Wolf Man here is so classic that I can't help but prefer it to the hell-hound of AWIL - a design that always looked a little goofy. Of all the classic monster revamps since Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), this is easily the best. It's flawed, yes, but at its best it's like an Aurora model kit come to life - and I find that hard not to like.