Face it. Victorian England is perfect as the setting for a monster movie — any monster movie. It’s lit at night only by candles and lanterns, it’s often foggy, the sun doesn’t show up for days at a time, and nearly everyone is superstitious enough to believe in things like ghosts and, yes, werewolves. You fully expect to find a mad scientist around every corner, a curse on every crumbling manor house, and a terrifying creature lurking behind you every time you turn around. Late 19th-century England is the birthplace of every horror movie cliche, basically.
All those cliches are here, but somehow, it works.
Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is English gentry, even though he doesn’t sound like it. I accidentally saw another reviewer complaining about how miscast he was, and how jarring it was to have one lone American accent in the cast, but none of that bothered me. They do explain the accent; you just have to be a little patient. Anyway, he’s become a famous actor, called away from his portrayal of Hamlet by an anxious letter from Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt — she had a tiny part in Dan in Real Life, but I know her best from an excellent episode of Foyle’s War), his brother’s fiance. Brother Ben is missing, and Gwen pleads for Lawrence to return home to Talbot Hall and help however he can.
Lawrence is estranged from his father, Sir John Talbot (played in excellently creepy fashion by Sir Anthony Hopkins, from Fracture, among a hundred or so other good films), and no wonder. If there was ever a colder or more distant father, I don’t want to know about it. When describing the loss of his wife, Spanish beauty Solana, he tells Lawrence, “Her death destroyed me, you know,” which sounds like a very moving expression of love — except judging by his tone, he might as well be discussing whether they should have beef stew or mutton for dinner. No matter how terrible or cruel the things he says, he never once raises his voice or shows any emotion beyond faint amusement or, occasionally, a sort of resigned, distant fondness, as if he’s tolerating a promising horse or hunting dog that’s being difficult.
Brother Ben is dead, of course, and he’s not the only one. There’s no shortage of mauled corpses here. A group of locals blames a caravan of Gypsies currently stopped there, and go after their dancing bear. With perhaps a touch of fellow-feeling, the true beast obligingly clears the bear’s good name by attacking locals and Gypsies alike when they’re not looking. That’s pretty much how everyone gets killed — abruptly, messily, and when they least expect it. But Lawrence — appropriately charmed by the pretty, forlorn Gwen, determined to discover Ben’s killer whether man or beast; and also wracked with guilt over his brother’s death, is determined to meddle — and is right there to witness all the blood and death, and get attacked himself. He survives, of course, because otherwise it would be a very short movie. And hey, what’s a curse for, if not to share with others?
|Strangely, this time it isn’t Anthony Hopkins in maximum security. He’s just visiting.|
This is where I don’t see why anyone could say Benicio is badly cast. He’s very, very good at looking lost and weighted down by a cruel Fate, and what more could you ask for in a wolfman? Lycanthropy, like vampirism, doesn’t really get considered a curse, these days. Vampires sparkle annoyingly (unless they’re in Daybreakers), and it sounds cool to be able to turn into a wolf and run through the trees. Except it isn’t so cool not to be able to control one’s one animal instincts, as Lawrence finds out in a great hurry.
Being the enlightened, caring society that they are, the authorities graciously put Lawrence into an asylum instead of a prison, though as far as I can tell, the only difference is that in the asylum, they call the torture part of your cure, so at least you’re not suffering for no reason. And they have a nice sign up for all to see that reads, “Compassion Guide Thy Hand,” so you know they mean well when they’re dunking you in ice water. But in spite of the best kind, caring efforts of the doctor in charge of Lawrence’s case, even modern psychiatry can’t cure an ancient curse, and things manage to go from seeming just about rock-bottom bad for our tormented hero, to even worse.
Along the way we meet a Scotland Yard detective determined to bring his profession in line with all the latest scientific advances — a laudable goal, but also not much use against a creepy monster. The detective is Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving, Agent Smith of The Matrix and Elrond of the Lord of the Rings trilogy), who was also a real person — the detective in charge of the investigation into the Ripper murders, also once played by Johnny Depp in From Hell. Talk about a thankless job. And it turns out that investigating werewolves isn’t the way to rejuvenate one’s career, unfortunately.
Now, I know that opinion is hugely divided on this one. Apparently, you love it or hate it. I guess I wouldn’t go quite as far as love myself, but I liked it enough to give it three and three-quarter idols out of five. Obviously if you don’t like old-style horror movie cliches, you’re completely out of luck. The same review I accidentally saw accuses it of being unscary; and it’s true that most of the scary stuff are just things that make you jump in your seat. It isn’t psychological horror, or make-you-not-sleep-at-night horror, but that isn’t what they were trying for. It’s good entertainment — I never once wondered if it was almost over so I could go home already — it’s wonderfully dark and bleak, a very convincing-seeming portrayal of England on the verge of the Industrial Age; and you get to feel for all of the characters. Except, of course, Sir John, because you’re pretty much always supposed to be nervous around Anthony Hopkins’ characters.