Considering its famously troubled production, it's amazing how much the creative team behind The Wolfman gets right. In many ways, the film is a dark dream come true for fans of classic horror pictures; it's a gorgeous, Gothic collage of mist-shrouded moors, torch-wielding villagers, haunted English manors, crumbling ruins, moonlit forests, rainy London streets, and horrifically primitive insane asylums. It has style to spare, but director Joe Johnston's long-awaited remake of Universal's old standard is a largely passionless affair, practically devoid of emotional impact or any genuine scares. Though it's gory as hell and satisfying on a superficial level, it feels strangely bloodless. The cold, carved-in-stone feel works beautifully for the film's impressive production design and cinematography, but not so much for the script and performances.
Rather than modernize the story, the filmmakers have kicked the action back roughly 50 years, to 1891. The decision was a good one, allowing them to frame the film against a backdrop of the vaguely referenced Ripper murders of the late 1880s, while making the most of the era's Victorian horror trappings. The Wolfman uses Curt Siodmak's 1941 script as a jumping-off point, adding what its writers probably hoped was a great deal of pathos and emotional complexity. Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and David Self (Road to Perdition) certainly had the right idea; they've turned the conflict inward and ramped up the dramatic potential considerably over the film's much simpler predecessor. Famed stage actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) has returned to his family's estate following the horrific mutilation killing of his brother, Ben. Larry is determined to find out what happened to Ben, and he has an idea that his father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), knows more than he's telling. Ben appears to have been torn apart by an animal—probably that damn dancing bear that lives in a nearby gypsy encampment—but a handful of villagers suspect that his killer is something far worse.
An ill-fated romance soon develops between Larry and Gwen (Emily Blunt), Ben's grieving fiancée. Larry has bigger problems, though, when he's attacked by a mysterious creature while investigating his brother's death. Even if you're unfamiliar with the classic Lon Chaney Jr. version, you probably know the rest. And while the superstitious locals are arguing about how best to deal with whatever it is that keeps eating them, Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving) of Scotland Yard, fresh from the Jack the Ripper investigation, is convinced that the culprit is something more pedestrian, if no less deadly. Not only is he looking for a human killer, he has someone very specific in mind: Larry Talbot.
The effects debate that had fanboys rattling the timbers of their parents' basements proves to be a non-issue, for the most part. The practical makeup effects by Rick Baker are gloriously old-school, making relatively minor changes to Jack Pierce's classic werewolf design. The CGI transformation sequences, while they don't top Baker's ground-breaking mechanical effects in An American Werewolf in London for sheer, jaw-dropping horror, are effective eye-candy, and worth the wait. There are some half-assed CG creations, most notably the aforementioned bear, and a frustrating tendency to cut away during the transformations of the climactic battle scene (that CGI stuff is, like, really expensive), but The Wolfman's real problems have nothing to do with its window dressing.
The tragedy of the film is that, though it has the makings of both great horror and great drama, it realizes neither. It's actually sort of impressive that the filmmakers managed to dodge any real emotional impact; when Larry isn't ripping people to bits, he's daydreaming about shagging his dead brother's girlfriend and wrestling with an Oedipus complex of truly epic proportions. It's terrific stuff, but it's executed so lackadaisically that we're never moved by the proceedings. Not all the blame can be laid at the writers' feet, though. Johnston, who picked up an Oscar for his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark as a visual-effects artist, certainly knows how to shoot a great-looking movie, but he has no clue how to get under the characters' skin or coax great performances from his cast. Blunt and Weaving are excellent but underused and Hopkins hams it up every chance he gets, but Del Toro gives a strangely bland, wooden performance as the tortured Larry Talbot. It's a movie full of great ideas, but everyone seems so busy to get to the next set piece that no one wants to take the time or trouble to develop them.
But none of that should stop you from seeing The Wolfman if you're a fan of old-fashioned horror movies, provided you don't mind a fair amount of spurting gore and exposed innards. For all its flaws, it's nice to see a horror movie aimed at adults, with nary a sparkling vampire in sight. You'll probably enjoy it for what it is—an impeccably designed, gorgeously photographed homage to classic fright flicks—even as you lament it for what it could have been.