In 1891, Ben Talbot is murdered by a wolf-like creature. His brother, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns home because of a letter from Ben’s betrothed Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) and reunites with his estranged father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), who tells him that Ben’s body had been mutilated by an animal of some sort. The stories in the pubs compare it to a similar murder 25 years earlier, and some blame the Gypsies camped outside the town. Lawrence’s mother Solana (Christina Contes) had committed suicide when Lawrence was a boy, and he spent some time in a mental hospital as a result.
During the full moon, Lawrence visits the Gypsies. The townspeople raid the camp to seize a dancing bear they think might have been the culprit, but a werewolf attacks the camp and Lawrence is bitten. A Gypsy woman named Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin) treats his wounds, but another Gypsy declares that Lawrence should be killed. Maleva insists that only a loved one can release him from his fate.
Lawrence heals quickly and develops heightened senses. His father’s long-time servant Singh (Art Malik) shows Lawrence his silver bullets. Inspector Francis Aberline (Hugo Weaving) arrives to investigate and suspects Lawrence. Fearing for Gwen’s safety, Lawrence sends her away. He follows Sir John to Solara’s crypt and his father gives him a cryptic warning of doom. Indeed, Lawrence transforms painfully into a werewolf, runs into the woods, and kills some hunters.
There, Lawrence is arrested the next morning. In Lambeth Hospital, he is subjected to treatment by the sadistic Doctor Hoenneger (Anthony Sher). Sir John visits and tells Lawrence that during a hunting expedition in India 25 years before, he was bitten by a feral boy suffering from lycanthropy. He confesses to being the werewolf who bit Lawrence and is guilty of the murders. He has Singh lock him up every full moon, but now he has learned to live with the curse and enjoy the power. He leaves Lawrence with a razor because the moon will be full that night.
During an evening lecture by Doctor Hoenneger, Lawrence transforms, kills Hoenneger and the interns, and escapes. He goes on a rampage through London with Inspecto Aberline in pursuit. The next day, he visits Gwen’s antique shop for help, but Averline arrives to search the place. Lawrence escapes to Blackmoor, but Amerline arrives before him and lies in wait outside Talbot Hall, armed with silver bullets. Maleva tells Gwen that Lawrence must die or the curse will spread.
Lawrence arrives at Talbot Hall and finds that Sir John has murdered Singh. Lawrence loads his gun with silver bullets but finds that Sir John has removed the powder. The moon rises and the two werewolves, father and son, battle each other, setting Talbot Hall on fire. Eventually, Lawrence kills his father. Amerline arrives to shoot him but Gwen stops him and he is bitten. Lawrence pursues her and corners her at a gorge. She shoots him with Amerline’s gun. He transforms to human shape as he dies, thanking her. Amerline contemplates his fate.
The film was directed by Joe Johnston from a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. It is a remake of the 1941 movie but took some serious liberties with the story. There were problems with the production—a change of directors, extended re-shoots, an inflated budget, and relays in its release. Danny Elfman was replaced as music director and his dark, moody score then restored because his replacement had created a modern electronic score that nobody liked. Reviews were negative and it was considered a box-office bomb but Rick Baker and Dave Elsey got an Oscar for the makeup. The Wolf Man’s howl included sounds from Gene Simmons and David Lee Roth.
Rick Baker found it easy to turn the hairy Benicio del Toro into the Wolf Man. Danny, the gypsies’ bear, was an animation—the polar bear from The Golden Compass (2007) changed into a grizzly. The Gypsy woman searching for her daughter is named Maria, probably after Maria Ouspenskaya, who played the role in the original movie. As in the original, Lawrence Talbot is never referred to as the Wolf Man. The Werewolf is always introduced by three short notes on the violin.
I found the misty, period structures moody and impressive, aided by Danny Elfman’s score, and there was a certain respect for the original. Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, and Hugo Weaving were as watchable as you would expect. I didn’t mind the liberties to the story because the ideas were very interesting, particularly the transformation during a 19th Century autopsy lecture, but it had become a gruesome action film instead of a tragic contemplation of human degradation. We love the original Universal stories because of their moodiness and dark beauty, and Lawrence Talbot was never an action hero, but a tragic anti-hero in the ancient Greek mold. This, it seems to me, is a mistake that many of the Universal reboots make.