The moors in the north of England in the winter of 1891 are tableaux of dreary monochrome.The ground is dark with dirtied snow, the forest trees are leafless, the overcast skies repel sunshine. In the manor house of Lord Talbot, cobwebs hang from all the corners, and the rooms are full of candles that cast more shadows than light. Everything is so grey and airless you feel like swooning to match the overwhelming atmosphere of doom. The only spark of color in this world is in the gypsy camp. Here society’s outcasts live in brightly hued caravans, dress in shiny metals and dance by evening firelight.
Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns to his ancestral home after an appeal from the fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt), of his younger brother Ben. Lawrence’s childhood had been a tragic one. He found the slaughtered body of his mother, a raven-haired beauty who gave him his brooding Latin looks, cradled in the arms of his father.
Was it suicide or murder? The newspapers claimed the former. Young Lawrence told crazed tales of prowling wild beasts. He was locked in a lunatic asylum to recover. Years later he immigrated to America, where he found his calling on the stage, recreating to great acclaim the lives of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, such as Hamlet and King Lear.
Ben’s body is found in a ditch, ripped to pieces by some frenzied beast. But there are no predators anymore on the moors so what kind of animal could wreak such havoc? Lawrence promises the grieving Gwen he will find who—or what–killed his brother. On the night of the full moon, at the gypsy camp, an old fortuneteller (Geraldine Chaplin) warns Lawrence of a threatening curse. A wild wolf-fiend runs amok through the camp, killing indiscriminately, and Lawrence is severely wounded from a grievous bite on the neck. Though near death, over the next several days he miraculously recovers—causing awe to his doctors and concern to a Scotland Yard detective (Hugo Weaving) sent to investigate the killings.
In a transformation that is truly horrifying–thanks to genius make-up and many strands of yak hair, brilliant cinematography and a stabbing musical score–Lawrence becomes the wolf man of the moor legends. The arrival of the full moon brings a reign of bloody terror. “You’ve done terrible things, Lawrence,” his father tells him, “terrible things.” Is Lord Talbot horrified by what he knows his son has done—or jealous?
At the Lambeth Lunatic Asylum in London, Lawrence is subjected to the horrendous mental health “cures” of the day. On the night of the full moon, he is strapped to a chair to prove that his lycanthropy is merely a delusion. In an unforgettable scene, Lawrence turns into the beast and wreaks his revenge. The doctors are so officious, you don’t really feel that bad that they all get slaughtered. You root for the wolfman as he escapes over the rooftops of London and then drags himself home.
But by this time, also, you’re yawning from the lethargic pace with which director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo) has chosen to tell this tale. There are too many victims ripped apart, too many body parts flung around. To be scary, a woflman doesn’t have to kill a lot of people, he just has to kill a few and scare a lot more out of their wits. So Lawrence’s curse becomes excessive even for his sad, brooding eyes.
And then there’s Gwen, the virginal love interest. Okay we know that her love is supposed to rescue Lawrence from his curse, but she doesn’t spend enough quality time with him to warrant a heaving bosom, much less any moonstruck nuzzling. The one time Lawrence and she get in close proximity, when he teaches her to skip rocks on the lake surface, just doesn’t quite make it. If the movie had taken more time to fill out the relationship between the two moon-crossed lovers, it would have created more sympathy for both of them and a final scene that could have left the audience with broken hearts.
As a film fan, I really liked The Wolfman and readily forgive its flaws. As a film reviewer, giving my opinion to readers who are on budgets with how they spend their entertainment dollars, I say if you like Gothic horror movies, you’ll probably forgive The Wolfman’s flaws, too. But if you don’t like Gothic horror movies to begin with, wait until it comes out on DVD to enjoy the stunning visual imagery.