A lavish coffee-table book of a horror film, "The Wolfman" features visuals so beautifully planned and executed that each frame begs to be lingered over and savored.
The film is set in rural Victorian England in a fall where the skies are the color of lead, the woods exude a primal spookiness and the harvest moon blazes like the lantern of an onrushing train. The editing moves at a stately pace, evoking an agonizing sense of dread.
Joe Johnston, best known for light crowd-pleasers like "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and "Jumanji," aims for grim gravitas here, as in Francis Ford Copolla's "Dracula" and Kenneth Branagh's "Frankenstein." When the blood begins to flow — fly, actually — the gruesome tableaux are worthy of an art gallery slide show. Impaling on an iron fence, a white swanlike neck bisected by a straight razor, steaming viscera torn out by fangs; it's a splatter film with a genius art director.
In this era of reboots and reimaginings, "The Wolfman" sticks close to the classic story, adding psychological notes and, oddly, political references, to the legend. Benicio Del Toro, his heavy face echoing Lon Chaney Jr., plays the doomed Lawrence Talbot, here a Shakespearean actor specializing in the tragedies. Labeled mad and "fragile" as a child, he was shipped off to an aunt in America by his domineering father. His brother's death at the claws of something brutal and violent brings both Del Toro and his brother's fiancee Emily Blunt to Blackmoor, the isolated family estate.
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They are welcomed with ambiguous hospitality by Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins). He's a portly, bearded big-game hunter with the manner of a sinister Santa Claus and a flair for pronouncements like, "Never look back; the past is a wilderness of horrors." If he looks to his guests like he's chuckling over some nasty, private joke, it's because he is.
There are twisted roots to the Talbot family tree that justify Del Toro's expression of inner torment. The screenplay repeatedly notes that the line between man and beast is not always clear, and as computer-generated effects turn human hands into gnarled claws and mouths into foam-flecked muzzles, the film wallows in the horror of deformity and disfigurement.
Most locals scapegoat the Gypsies and their dancing bear for master Talbot's mutilation but some mutter about a werewolf, and soon the blacksmith has a busy sideline melting heirloom silverware into bullets. Hugo Weaving glowers as the Scotland Yard detective assigned to the case. Monstrous mysteries are his specialty; he last led the hunt for Jack the Ripper.
After a scarring encounter with the lycanthrope, Del Toro inherits the curse. In the film's best passage he is confined to a dungeon-like asylum where a smarmy psychologist prescribes submersion in ice baths and electroshock to cure his "delusions." Del Toro's explosive reaction proves that the textbook approach to an absurd claim isn't always the correct one.
While the production design is a sumptuous swirl of eerie and disturbing Victoriana, there's a 21st century subtext to the legend. The characters' backstory hinges on a bloody encounter in "the Hindu Kush," the British imperialists' name for eastern Afghanistan, and Del Toro's sessions of medical torture look a lot like the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" for al Qaeda suspects. There's also a ripe strain of Oedipal conflict simmering between Hopkins and Del Toro and morbid sexual repression in his yearning for his late brother's betrothed.
There's plenty of bloodletting, but Johnston and his collaborators know that the real moments of fear come in those long, nerve-wracking moments when the finger hovers over the panic button.