Surprise! The Wolfman's old-school monster movie is actually awesome!

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

So ... wow! After years of painfully crass "re-imaginings" of their classic monster movie heritage in the form of turd buckets like the Mummy movies and Van Helsing, Universal has finally figured out that there are people who ... y'know ... actually like monster movies, and who see monsters as more than fodder for video-game tie-ins.

'Cuz that's what The Wolfman is: a straight-up, unapologetic monster movie that hits all the same dramatic notes as the 1941 classic The Wolf Man (note the space between "Wolf" and "Man" in the title of the original). Sure, all those dramatic notes are 'roided up for a modern-day audience, as are the gore, makeup and CGI effects. In fact, this might be the goriest release from a major studio since The Thing.

But the bones of what made the classic 1930s and 1940s Universal monster movies so freakin' awesome are here, not just from The Wolf Man, but from other Creature Feature gems like The Werewolf of London and The Ghost of Frankenstein and even the odd Hammer movie, like Curse of the Werewolf.

Of course, The Wolfman is filmed in color, but director Joe Johnston uses a muted color palette that at times creates a feel just like the black-and-white, foggy vibe of Old Skool monster movies. The Wolfman isn't clever or smarmy or postmodern. It's an homage ... which today feels more innovative than any remake or reboot made as a first feature by some hair-gelled music video or sneaker commercial director.

Those 'roided up dramatic notes I mentioned are heaved around onscreen by Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro (who is a primo choice to play someone suffering from lycanthropy, as he kinda looks like a guy recovering from a bout of rabies anyway). Del Toro uses his eyes and the hunching of his shoulders to communicate a profound discomfort at coming home to his father's estate, while Hopkins seems to make himself much larger than life playing Del Toro's father, a guy whose personality is actually big enough to fill the almost empty mansion he inhabits. It's a cool duel of personalities and acting styles that don't look like they'd dovetail, but they do.

Less compelling is Del Toro's romance with Emily Blunt, the requisite Victorian lady of refinement whose love hopefully can save our tortured hero. Blunt does what she can with a role right off the rack of Masterpiece Theatre tropes. Hugo Weaving does a bang-up job as Inspector Aberline, a character based on the real-life officer who was the lead investigator of the Jack the Ripper case, here hauled out to Blackmoor to investigate the werewolf killing that he thinks is the work of a lunatic. Weaving delivers really awkward dialogue with smoothness and ease, making some pretty obvious bits of exposition sound natural.

At the core of The Wolfman isn't just Del Toro as Shakespearean actor Lawrence Talbot struggling with the curse of turning into a man-beast. The Wolfman is about father/son conflict, and it's freighted with all kinds of riffs on that theme, going from the Bible to classic theater. Hopkins, as the elder Talbot, is a kind of gone-to-seed Henry Morton Stanley or John Henry Patterson; he used to be at the top of the food chain of the British empire, but now he lives in a crumbling estate, with crumbling health, in an overgrown countryside. Visually, the movie quotes from a bunch of Romantic-era painters like Caspar David Friedrich. At times all these themes come across as kind of groan-inducing and obvious. But the simple fact that Johnston and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self at least tried to give The Wolfman some heft beyond cool monster effects and gore speaks volumes.

And the monster effects and gore are, of course, great. The CGI isn't too cheesy, and Rick Baker has created a makeup design for Del Toro that makes his face bestial but recognizable, and that quotes Jack Pierce's original werewolf design for The Wolf Man. And best of all, the movie doesn't stop to show you how great the effects are. When Talbot changes, it's smooth and cut in such a way that the narrative doesn't get derailed. This flick promises you a badass werewolf with lots of fur flying and howling and rending of bodies, and it delivers. Yes, the movie is clunky at first and doesn't seem to find its feet until after maybe half an hour in (the phases of the moon and the passage of time make no damned sense). There are a few "spring-loaded cats" or "buses" (fake scares) in the movie when none are needed.

But for folks who want a good, if not great, monster movie experience, The Wolfman is well worth the price of a ticket. While amped up and undeniably a movie of this era, The Wolfman, for horror fans, is like a visit from an old friend. A hairy friend with the flesh of his victims in his fangs, true. But you get the idea.

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