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The Wolfman

After being cursed by delays, The Wolfman, Hollywood's latest spin on the popular werewolf myth, finally bares its ugly fangs in theaters this week. Predictably, the film is a train wreck of a debacle -- one would expect nothing less from a notoriously troubled production that saw its original director, Mark Romanek, abandon ship just two weeks before the start of shooting -- but The Wolfman's problems stem less from the late-game addition of helmer Joe Johnston, who at the very least delivered a terrific looking film (its gorgeously eerie Victorian aesthetic, evoking a palpable, exquisite sense of dread, is by far its best feature) than from the misguided efforts of its producer and star, Benicio Del Toro.

The Wolfman is the brainchild of Del Toro, an ardent horror fan who conceived the film as an homage of sorts to the low-budget "monster movies" from the '30s and '40s that he loved dearly as a child. It's fashioned as a loose remake of 1941's The Wolf Man, a film that both established Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance as the definitive take on the character and introduced aspects of the werewolf legend now considered sacrosanct. The notion that a werewolf can be felled by an item made from silver, for example, owes its origin to The Wolf Man.

But Del Toro feels all wrong in the role of Lawrence Talbot, the prodigal son of a 19th-century English aristocrat whose fateful encounter with a bloodthirsty lycan, the same creature that brutally murdered his brother just days prior, triggers his unwitting initiation into the accursed tribe of feral man-beasts. Del Toro's resume of low-key, understated performances marked by a muttering, often imperceptible delivery in films like Traffic and The Usual Suspects suggests a skill set better suited to playing another famous movie monster, one significantly less loquacious than his character in this movie. Seriously -- the guy should have remade Frankenstein instead.

Playing an American-bred (but English-born, we're told) character in an 1890 setting, looking uncomfortable in period attire, surrounded by such "proper" British actors as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt, and fully annunciating all of his line readings for the first time that I can recall, Del Toro appears hopelessly out of place in The Wolfman.

Things only get worse, unfortunately, when Del Toro's character transforms into the dreaded werewolf. Each time the moon is full, the film transitions, with increasing ridiculousness, from a somber Victorian drama into a hard-core horror flick, replete with grisly shots of torn flesh, exposed spines, and severed limbs. The first overly gruesome attack triggers a kind of nervous laugh, more from the shock than anything else. The second invites an amused, uneasy chuckle, which soon snowballs into an outright belly laugh. And the effect soon spreads to the dialogue, the outrageous gore rendering the film's mannered melodrama strangely hysterical.

Of all the Wolfman players, only Hopkins seems to get the joke, reveling in his manipulative mischief as Talbot's inappropriately glib, stoutly aloof father. If only he'd let his castmates in on it. rated this film 1/2 star.