A few years ago a friend called a film we both admired, to my budding surprise, a political allegory. When asked by a third person and someone who had not seen the work to justify his statement, he proffered a couple of short sentences thankfully not smug or discomfiting. The name of the film need not be mentioned here, nor the remarkable parable he detected. What is important about such minor revelations is the thought invested in the symbols of the written or filmed word. Critics have always tended to praise works that can sustain more than one reading even if all the possible interpretations are rather thin. And what of works that really only have a single possible meaning yet internally wrestle with two or three? A question that may well be asked of this film.
The premise is so imbedded in literature that it requires little introduction. Upon a dark Victorian moor, someone or something has carved up three men, including Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells), son of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), a local landowner and widower. The town elders are less superstitious than one might have supposed and expect a scientific explanation from the gypsies stationed on a nearby meadow. The Roma settlement possesses the usual assortment of trained animals and necromancers – the former suspected as dangerous, the latter suspected as fraudulent – but we learn other details. Namely, that Sir John's late wife was also a Roma who committed suicide about twenty-five years ago – just when, it turns out, another local remembers finding a shepherd and his flock slaughtered in a most barbaric fashion. This wife is buried in a sepulcher with an adjoining shrine graced with nightly visits by Sir John. By his own estimation he is quite dead (he speaks in a hurried, breathy, almost overfamiliar tone like a busy ghost), and he might as well have been for the last twenty-five years to his elder son, Lawrence (Benicio del Toro). Sent to America after the familial tragedy, Lawrence Talbot has become a world-famous stage actor, although you would never guess so given the brief snatch of this play to which we are treated. However improbable a film’s hodge-podge of accents may be given its plot and setting, they should never detract from the overall effect – yet this is precisely what occurs. Del Toro's looks and gestures are convincing, but his cadence is distinctly Spanish and his voice, I suspect, too high-pitched to qualify him as a Shakespearean lead (his Yorick speech smacks of parody). Lawrence is summoned to the moors, specifically to Blackmoor, as the family estate is called, by Ben's fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Their first exchange in his dressing rooms induces the other cast members to clear out, he makes a poignant remark about the "shifting character of man," and we understand, even if we have never seen or heard of the original film, that Lawrence will go to Blackmoor and discover some horrible things.
In the train moorward he is buttonholed by a sinister elderly gentleman (Max von Sydow) who, for reasons unknown to everyone including Lawrence, wishes to bestow upon the actor his walking stick with wolf’s-head pommel acquired "lifetimes ago" in Gévaudan.* After looking at his fellow traveler sidelong a few times (one of the film’s lovely little touches) Lawrence falls asleep as the eternal countryside glides on. When he awakes he finds the vanished old man, who was dapper and well-spoken in a very ingratiating way, to have been in all likelihood a figment of his tortured mind. If it weren’t, of course, for the cane left leaning against the opposing seat. As Lawrence finally makes it to Blackmoor a series of unfortunate incidents occurs, some of which are roundly predictable, others not. We are not, in any case, overmuch concerned with predictability as Lawrence is destined by the laws that govern dramatic convention to assume the responsibilities and ills of the title character. He views Ben’s grisly remains kept in a butcher’s shop beneath gigantic, looming pincers and then tells his father he came because of “Ms. Conliffe’s letter,” when she visited him in person (the letter is mentioned at some other point, but this may be a dramaturgical glitch). The suspected killer is described as “a fell creature,” a nice pun for those who like old words, and the villagers continue to bandy about some theories until the beast strikes again. Given the sheer numerical disadvantage, we may harbor some, ahem, grave reservations about the wisdom of the beast’s attack, which is so ostentatious as to seem forced. One wonders whether any animal would attack a lit camp of almost a hundred people – unless, of course, it thought it could kill them all – but another explanation whispers to us.
Some fantastic chiaroscuro occurs in a cemetery that will remind you of Stonehenge with fog that assumes the shape of claws and teeth, as well as some odd looks between Ms. Conliffe and Sir John and between Sir John and his faithful manservant Singh (Art Malik). These moments serve pure atmosphere and the atmosphere is most evil at every corner and bend of The Wolfman, even when the requisite Scotland Yard investigator (a glowering Hugo Weaving) gets involved. Weaving plays Inspector Abeline, whom Lawrence rightly identifies as having been part of the investigation of this mysterious figure. Abeline smirkingly addresses Lawrence with the platitudes always directed towards screen stars even if he doubts he is talking to a sane man. “There are no natural predators left in England,” he tells the American, “who could inflict such savage injury,” but the natural has long abandoned Lawrence’s terrible daydreams. Towards the film’s middle, Abeline takes us on a very different route that some claim pads the script with an unwarranted derailing. Yet it is this very premise which lands Lawrence back in the asylum to which he was consigned for one year following his mother’s death that makes the most sense. The double-talk and psychobabble that ensue (and that are given cameos throughout the film) are eradicated in a fantastic scene resulting in a few glorious minutes of unadulterated havoc before the film succumbs to the necessities of the plot. Not that there isn’t time for a medallion and a curse or two.
* Note: this scene appears to have been cut from the theatrical version, but included on the DVD.