It’s hard for any horror fan who is up to date on genre-scene gossip to watch the new remake of The Wolfman without thinking of its troubled production history.  Its backstory is as tragic as its title hero: a last minute switch of directors, after-the-fact rewrites, five weeks of reshoots and eleventh-hour wrangling over the musical score are among the many troubles this film suffered en route to the big screen.

That’s a lot of baggage for a film to carry before it’s seen, especially in a genre where the fans are naturally skeptical about big-studio product.  However, the biggest surprise is that The Wolfman is pretty watchable.  It’s not the best example of the genre but it’s also far from the worst.  It also has a few key attributes that genre fans are likely to find refreshing.

The plotline follows the basic archetype of the original version, with a few notable revisions.  Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro) is an actor who returns to the old family home in England when his brother dies under mysterious circumstances.  His backstory, which includes a stint in a mental asylum, is revealed as he mixes uncomfortably with his estranged father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), and investigates his brother’s death with the help of the brother’s now-widowed fiance, Gwen (Emily Blunt).

Things take a turn for the archetypal when Lawrence is attacked by a fast-moving, man-sized beast one night.  He experiences some beastly changes when the full moon arises, leading to mayhem that attracts the attention of Detective Abberline (Hugo Weaving).  Lawrence tries to elude him as he searches for the beast who attacked him, moving towards a date with destiny that hinges upon a shocking revelation…

The end result is entertaining but falls short of classic status for a few key reasons.  A key problem lies in the script, which attempts to reinterpret the wolf-man mythos in a way that feels simplistic.  Without getting too heavily into spoilers,  the “reimagining” part of the film involves a twist at the midpoint that pushes the story into a more psychological, less mythical direction.  This twist is acceptable to some but, for this viewer, said change bled a lot of the macabre magic out of the story.

The film’s impact is further hindered by some noticeable studio-level tinkering.  The editing of the film focuses on narrative drive, meaning some plot elements and subtleties fall by the wayside.  The most notable loose end is the subplot involving the gypsy fortune teller.  It was a vital part of the original film.  Here, it feels grafted on and is pretty much abandoned in the film’s second half.  The film’s finale also feels rather cobbled-together, including a setpiece that has “reshoot” written all over it.

Despite these complaints, a lot of The Wolfman works really well.  Despite the script’s problems, it keeps the vintage setting for the story and eschews the temptation for postmodern humor in favor of a straightforward, irony-free approach to the story.  This is a horror movie made by adults for adults, with no pandering to the youth market.

The performances are also quite good.  There was grumbling in press and fan circles about Del Toro’s casting but the script’s retooling of the character suits him well.   Anyone playing a cursed man-beast should have a feral, otherworldly quality and Del Toro has that in spades.  Hopkins does well, underplaying at first but opening the character up in interesting ways as the film progresses, and Blunt makes a lovely and sympathetic romantic interest.  That said, Weaving is the big scene-stealer of the film, growling his lines in an articulate yet menacing way that makes any scene involving him a sinister delight.

However, the best element of The Wolfman is Joe Johnston’s direction.  He’s better known for fantasy fare but he shows a real flair the horror genre here, ladling on a thick, gothic atmosphere that easily conjures up memories of Hammer Film’s bloody, lusty reinterpretations of Universal classics.  He doesn’t shy away from the gore or shocks, a refreshing move in this PG-13 horror era, and the horrific setpieces crackle with a grisly energy that one usually doesn’t get in big studio fare.

If this direction had been wedded to a better-realized script, the result could have been a classic. Unfortunately, The Wolfman never quite ascends to that lofty pinnacle.  The endlessly reshuffled storyline never connects at the visceral, emotional level that unforgettable horror filmmaking demands.  That said, viewers who can manage their expectations will find that The Wolfman works as an exercise in style and atmosphere.  Studio-style horror hasn’t felt this lavish and intense in a while.