“Why so serious?” would be an excellent question to direct at the makers of “The Wolfman,” a high-toned, bloody but otherwise bloodless effort to resurrect one of Universal’s venerable horror franchises for modern times. Approaching the matted-haired genre with a straight-faced studiousness befitting a bigscreen version of the Dead Sea Scrolls, director Joe Johnston & Co. know how to startle with innumerable shock cuts but don’t know how to build tension and intrigue, or how to approach the job with a sense of fun and relish. Long-delayed and reworked Oedipal take on the lycanthropic condition should take a meaty opening-weekend B.O. bite, but long-term prospects will certainly fall short of what must have been imagined when the project was launched.
“You’ve done terrible things,” Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) informs his son Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) the morning after the latter has transformed into a vicious beast for the first time and notably reduced the population of late Victorian England. Well, he’s not the only one, in a tale that scripters Andrew Kevin Walker (“Seven”) and David Self (“Road to Perdition”) seem to intend as the “Hamlet” of werewolf movies, given the woe that befalls multiple generations of the Talbot family and the torment suffered by the hair … er, heir apparent.
Lo and behold, Lawrence is a vaguely American-accented actor who is actually playing the brooding Dane on the British boards when he’s called home to the village of Blackmoor upon the death of his older brother from “unnatural wounds.” Having fled to the U.S. as a boy after his mother’s violent demise, Lawrence should well understand his father’s warning that, “the past is a wilderness of horrors,” but decides not to heed it when his brother’s high-calorie cupcake of a fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt), wants to know what really happened to her beau.
Despite the concerns of his father, an eccentric old coot who stalks around his vast estate carrying a shotgun, and a gypsy fortune teller (Geraldine Chaplin), Lawrence ventures out under the full moon and gets mauled for his trouble. Strangely, however, his wounds heal quickly and he emerges stronger than ever, so as to be ready for the next bright evening 28 nights hence.
Once Lawrence becomes the Wolfman, the mayhem comes fast and frequently — in the countryside, in London (to where Gwen has retreated — and to where Hugo Weaving’s Scotland Yard inspector follows Lawrence) and even in a medical teaching theater, where a temporarily subdued Lawrence becomes enraged, like King Kong, and breaks free to assault his examiners, including the chief doctor (a marvelously oblivious Antony Sher). As with Kong and Frankenstein’s monster, one is meant to respond to the pathos implicit in the tragedy of a man’s soul being imprisoned in the body of a beast, and Gwen does her best to try to break through to it even in the worst of times. But the emotion just isn’t forthcoming.
The werewolf attacks generally consist of abrupt cutaways to the face of the beast, accompanied by a sudden roar, then bites or, more often, slashing swipes by giant claws, which leave human hamburger meat in their wake. The constant repetition of these shock tactics, in lieu of genuine suspense, makes “The Wolfman” feel cheap, despite the vast amounts obviously spent on Rick Heinrichs’ opulent production design, the extensive visual effects, the more-than-effective special makeup effects (Rick Baker, back on familiar turf), Milena Canonero’s luxurious costumes, Danny Elfman’s insistent score and the tony cast.
Del Toro is unquestionably hirsute enough for the role (although his haircut freakily comes within a whisker of resembling the “Moe” cut he may yet wear in the long-gestating “Three Stooges” opus) and he communicates the inner torment of one of nature’s unfortunates. But his manner is awkward, caught mid-Atlantic somewhere like his accent, and one would be curious to hear Lawrence recite a bit of “Hamlet” and observe how London audiences respond.
Hopkins stops just short of raising his eyebrows through the roof and literally licking his chops as he rolls dire admonitions and ghastly revelations around in his mouth like samples of wine. Blunt is called upon to look alternately stricken and determined; perhaps, in the end, it would have been more fun for all concerned if she had played the wolf.
A mysterious credit buried in the final scroll is one for “assistant to Mr. von Sydow — Catherine von Sydow,” even though there is no Mr. von Sydow visible in the picture.