MOVIE REVIEW- Camp or horror? <i>Wolfman</i> can't decide


Once again, Hollywood looks to its past for "new" ideas. At least they're going all the way back to 1941 for this one...unless you count Wolf and the Teen Wolf, American Werewolf and Howling movies of a more modern era. (Don't even mention Team Jacob!)

For better and worse, The Wolfman is a serious attempt to recreate the original with more modern techniques, not an unnecessary attempt to cash in on a familiar title. Director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III and two of my personal favorites, October Sky and Hidalgo) has assembled an impeccable cast and crew to bring Wolfie back to the screen.

As one of Percy Jackson's demigod friends says, "All of us have daddy issues." Well, no one has them worse than Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro in the role created by Lon Chaney Jr.). The details emerge in the first half of the picture: how he was traumatized as a child by his mother's death and institutionalized for a year by his father (Anthony Hopkins), then went to America to live with an aunt and never returned home until now.

Lawrence has become a famous actor and is appearing in London when his brother's fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), writes to tell him his brother has disappeared and ask him to return to Blackmoor to aid in the search (because there's nothing like decades of estrangement to give him insight on where to look).

By the time Lawrence arrives, his brother's remains have been found, and he's not the only local who appears to have been torn apart by some kind of animal. Someone remembers a similar wave of murders a quarter-century ago when the village was also being visited by a gypsy caravan... just like the one that's here now.

Lawrence visits the gypsies and is getting a reading from Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin) when the wolf attacks again. Lawrence is bitten, and you know what that means.

The trouble is, you also know everything that's going to happen, once Lawrence confronts his father and solves whatever mystery there was. With nearly an hour to go, you've been told exactly what has to occur, so you can only watch it unfold.

Of course Lawrence is also bitten by the love bug as he gets to know Gwen and helps her over her grief at losing her fiancé. Hey, a Talbot's a Talbot, right?

The Wolfman might have been played for laughs, but it isn't. Instead it's played so straight you might be tempted to laugh anyway, but it walks a fine line without ever quite veering into camp. This homage to the pre-ironic age may disappoint post-ironic viewers, to whom many of the non-action scenes will seem dull and stodgy.

It doesn't help that Johnston's solution to this problem is the overuse of cheap shocks. In the first five, we're startled by a flock of birds flying out of a tree and a dog suddenly appearing and barking ominously. There are several more of these to come.

Considering the potential, there's less bloodletting than you'd expect. Oh, a decapitation here and a few fingers bitten off there, but overall it's more about the power of suggestion that prevailed in the pre-John Carpenter era.

Effects makeup artist Rick Baker has been doing these transformations since An American Werewolf in London, and no one's better at them, even if he doesn't bring much new to the makeup table this time. Likewise, Danny Elfman's music and Milena Canonero's costumes. You hire the best people, and you get the best work. If the best work doesn't add up to the best movie, at least they did their jobs.

It might have made more sense to wait two weeks and release The Wolfman on the weekend of the full moon, but someone thought it would be effective counterprogramming to put a little wolfbane in your Valentine bouquet.