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Johnston’s Wolfman a gory examination of repression

The initial reviews for Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman have been mixed at best and it’s easy to see why. Its opening moves far too fast, one of its key actors phones in his performance and its third act flirts with silliness. That being said, I found this reboot of the 1941 classic engaging and at times daring in the way it pushes the boundaries of studio produced horror films and the weighty issues it takes on within its pulpy narrative confines.

To be sure, this is not your grandpa’s Wolfman as Johnston pulls no punches, ladling on the gore and violence that earns the film its R-rating and takes the movie in a logical direction that some may find unsettling. The premise from the Lon Chaney Jr. classic serves as a starting point for this serious take on sexual repression and Oedipal conflict. Benicio Del Toro is perfectly cast as Lawrence, the prodigal son of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) an eccentric member of the English gentry whose rolling estate and manor is haunted by dark deeds and dangerous secrets. Lawrence, an established Shakespearean actor, returns home at the urging of Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blount), his brother’s finance, who has disappeared. He soon finds that he would have been better off staying on stage as his brother is found dead, horribly mutilated, and that a local gypsy band’s fear that a wild beast is on the loose may be true.

Of course, Lawrence has a close encounter with the beast and before you know it, he finds himself quickly healing from grievous wounds, lusting after Gwen and growing stronger as the moon waxes.  The script by David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker adheres closely to the 1941 version up until this point, laying a firm foundation upon which to explore their own themes. Issues of familial guilt and a father-son conflict are introduced as we come to learn that Sir John may have a bit more knowledge of what’s afoot then he lets on and that the sin’s of this father will surely be visited upon his son in the most horrific way.

This subplot proves to be the film’s strongest and gives the film a degree of heft that is necessary for it to work, lest it become nothing more than a $100 million splatter fest. The violence here is astonishing in its cruelty as heads are lopped off, insides torn and strewn and blood rains down in a torrent. Johnston presents all of this with such speed and precision that we are not allowed to dwell on it but rather its effectiveness lies in the shock and suddenness with which it is executed.  The film’s true horror lies in Talbot’s past, which we see in poignant flashbacks, and his treatment once he’s afflicted. The film’s highlight occurs when he’s taken to an asylum, treated by an expert in delusional behavior and then proceeds to rend him and other members of the staff during a presentation used to show he’s been cured of his affliction as the full moon rises. Needless to say, Talbot proves them wrong with bloody results.

There’s a weight to this production that is admirable and Del Toro and Blount hit the proper notes, keying in on their character’s emotional responses to each other. The same can’t be said about Hopkins who is obviously bored throughout and does the production a disservice with such a lazy turn. I’d have preferred a big slice of ham from the actor rather than the sleepwalking bit he provides here. Fortunately, we don’t have to dwell on this, as the production design is the best I have seen in a horror film in years. Vast, gloom-filled sets, forests rife with dead trees aglow with moonlight and filled with mist impart a sense of foreboding and doom that creates a sense of horror that distracts us from the script’s faults.

In a sense, it’s helpful to look at The Wolfman as a horror opera, a production that’s not afraid of grand gestures, ornate sets and unbridled emotion as it deals with primal urges and desires in a manner befitting its theme. While I don’t thing it will become as revered as the 1941 original, Johnston and his crew must be praised for taking this tale in a different and far more daring direction.

The Wolfman is currently playing at the Beverly and Savoy cinemas.

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