The roots of The Wolfman are all American. Directed by little-used Texan Joe Johnston (with previous credits including Hidalgo and Jurassic Park III), scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker (the imagination behind the more twisted, realistic horrors of Seven) and starring and co-produced by celebrated actor Benicio Del Toro, it is therefore refreshing to find that the film taps into a particularly English vein of horror film and is closest in spirit to films like Witchfinder General or the Hammer Horror series.
Taking the 1966 film of the same name as a source material, Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, who returns to England and his creepy familial home on hearing that his brother has been killed. Reunited with his father, played by Anthony Hopkins, he sets about to uncover the circumstances behind his brother’s death, with predictable consequences when he comes into contact with the wolf-beast responsible.
The fact that we have a good idea where this story is going from the opening minutes though isn’t hugely important. To make up for the audience’s familiarity with the werewolf story, the film makes abundant use of atmosphere and setting to entrance the viewer and the saturated colours and prominent back-drops evoke an almost comic-book feel.
In turn, many will watch to see Del Toro’s transformation alone and again in this respect, the film doesn’t disappoint, as man becomes wolf with a bone-tearing physicality which is closest to The Fly in its graphicness.
Del Toro is at his most restrained in this film though, except when stalking the moors and slicing up unfortunate villagers of course and often defers to Hopkins when it comes to intensity and edgy manicness. The elder actor clearly enjoys himself playing a character who reveals a much darker edge as the film progresses.
At the same time, there is a sense that the film could benefit from a touch more humour and flamboyance which Del Toro could surely have provided and in its deference to the English horror traditions, it perhaps takes itself a touch too seriously. Hugo Weaving provides the lightest touches in the film as Abberline, the police inspector sent to investigate the wolf killings, though do your best not to think of Agent Smith as he calmly interrogates Del Toro.
The film also introduces the interesting idea of the Talbot family being ostracized by the local villagers, with a religious undercurrent to their actions, which isn’t fully explored but by the time the film reaches a well-pitched climax, such concerns are soon forgotten. You are left with a thoroughly satisfying and memorable horror film, which in terms of atmosphere and look, far surpasses more stripped-down, modern alternatives.