Travel tip: Don't go to the English region of Blackmoor during werewolf season. It's not worth it, no matter what kind of deal you get. Just ask the Talbots.
The Talbot clan has literally lorded over Blackmoor for hundreds of years, and they've got a big country estate to prove it. But it's not always been easy. The villagers say the family's cursed, and the Talbots have suffered their share of tragedies and oddities. But Sir John Talbot is not one to howl over family misfortune. Even when his son, Ben, is found dead in the road—half eaten—Sir John does little more than pensively scratch behind his ear and move on.
Lawrence Talbot, Ben's brother, is less apt to tuck his tail. He promises Ben's beautiful fiancée, Gwen, that he'll find who (or what) killed Ben and show him (or it) some serious justice. Gwen's grateful. Sir John merely cautions Lawrence not to start his search under the full moon.
"I don't want to lose you, too," he growls.
Lawrence snorts at his father's advice and begins the search immediately—at night—beginning his inquiries with a band of gypsies. They prove to be enormously helpful—not so much because they have information but because their campsite, to the average werewolf, resembles an all-you-can-eat buffet. Before you can say kibble, a beast attacks and snacks on several unfortunate folks. Then, before it takes its leave, it takes a bite out of Lawrence's neck and shoulder.
It's a pretty horrific wound, and most of the remaining gypsies think they should let poor Lawrence die, for his and everyone else's good. But one old woman insists on stitching him up, muttering all the while about fate and curses and such. Lawrence eventually makes his way back to the Talbot estate, where he convalesces for nearly a month. And when he springs out of bed, the doctors are amazed at the fullness of his recovery. In fact, Lawrence confesses he feels better than he ever did before.
It's as if he's found a new leash on life.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
Lawrence, of course, has contracted lycanthropy—a condition that turns victims into slavering, savage werewolves. It's a bad thing—both for Lawrence and for those in his immediate vicinity, at least when the moon is full.
But when Lawrence is in his more natural, human state, he's a pretty nice guy. He's polite, erudite and principled. Suspecting that he has lycanthropy, he sends Gwen away for her own safety. Doctors strap him to a chair under the light of the full moon—in a misguided attempt to prove to Lawrence that he's not a werewolf, just crazy. And to repay them for their kindness, he sincerely warns them of their impending doom. He really doesn't want to kill anyone. In fact, he sometimes pleads with those around him to kill him so he won't hurt anyone anymore. (More on that in "Violent Content.")
Gwen tries to help Lawrence as much as she can, first by protecting him, then by trying to save him.
Lycanthropy is presented as a disease, not a spiritual condition or curse. To emphasize that idea, the film opens with a poem (a variation of what audiences heard in the original 1941 film The Wolf Man): "Even a man who is pure in heart/And says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms/And the moon is full and bright." Lawrence himself prays after learning of his condition, genuflecting afterward.
That said, The Wolfman does delve into spirituality and spiritual themes—particularly as they relate to the so-called battle between science and religion.
Faith is not particularly effective in dealing with Blackmoor's lycanthropy problem. A priest tells his flock that the werewolf is God's punishment for the village's sins, and he later says that "God has forsaken" Lawrence. When the werewolf attacks the gypsy camp, we hear people shout, "It's the devil! The devil!" Ben, we learn, was carrying a saint's amulet when he was attacked—a good luck charm that obviously didn't work. Singh, the Talbots' loyal servant, tells Lawrence that he is Sikh, and thus a "warrior of god." He's later found dead.
But at least religious characters don't wave off lycanthropy as superstition or psychosis, as do men of science. Science and medicine (albeit the 1890s variety) are impotent and imbecilic in The Wolfman—a point punctuated when Lawrence kills a number of doctors who thought he was merely a lunatic. So it seems that the film's makers use The Wolfman as something of a forum to say that neither faith nor reason are fully equipped to deal with the world's most serious problems.
The gypsies talk about fate and mention saints. A number of people ask God for protection. And Gwen tells Lawrence that if werewolves are possible, "then everything is: magic, God." Pagans are mentioned. Sir John refers to Lawrence as "the prodigal son," sometimes quoting Scripture as he does so.
We see Gwen topless from behind, the camera lingering on her back and the side of her breast. Characters suggest that local townsmen go to the gypsy encampment when they're looking for female "companionship." A book illustration features a nude wolfman.
If only werewolves were vegetarians. Alas, they like their meat, and they're messy eaters at that. And Jurassic Park III director Joe Johnston thought it wise to include as much blood and gore as his special effects budget would allow.
We see several decapitations. After one such attack, someone's severed head continues to gasp and bite as the blood runs out of its neck. Folks lose appendages by the bucketful, from fingers to arms to legs. Werewolves rip open dreadful wounds with their claws (sometimes across people's faces), tear out livers with their teeth and, at one juncture, skewer someone through the back of the head. (We see the claws exit through the mouth, blood streaming down both the claws and face.)
Thus, the killing fields are strewn with limbs and entrails. Corpses lay about, often partly eaten to expose bone and gristle. One character catches on fire, the flames burning clothes, hair and skin. Another falls from a window and is impaled on a wrought iron fence several stories below. Still another is run over by a horse-drawn carriage.
The werewolf's transformation process, which involves stretched bones, dislocated joints and a bit of blood for good measure, looks excruciating. Werewolves take their share of damage from silver bullets, too, one suffering a mortal wound. Two beasts, engaged in a death match, nearly tear each other apart before one emerges victorious.
When Lawrence is sent to an insane asylum, doctors strap him to a chair and dunk him in ice-cold water. Then they inject something into his neck and repeat the dunking. Needles puncture Lawrence's neck several times—each instance looking more painful than the last. Lawrence later asks doctors to kill him, in an effort to save them and put himself out of his misery.
Gwen faces the same challenge, and she eventually shoots the grateful Lawrence to free him from his lycanthropic bondage. A man, about to be attacked by a werewolf, tries to shoot himself—only to find that he's out of bullets.
In flashback mode, a very young Lawrence wanders out of the Talbot estate to find his mother, cradled in his father's arms, dead—a razor blade resting on her bosom. Later, we learn this "memory" was a fabrication: In reality, Lawrence saw his mother's throat torn out, in the arms of his father—a werewolf who is, essentially, eating her.
Crude or Profane Language
Two uses of "d‑‑n." A handful of misuses of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Lawrence drinks what appears to be brandy during an interview with a police detective. The detective orders a "pint of bitters" at a pub. Other folks are shown drinking wine and beer.
Made-up monsters have long been used as catalysts for us to ask some of humanity's thorniest questions. And The Wolfman—though it doesn't have the literary pedigree of Frankenstein or Dracula—offers up a crucible in which we can examine the beast, the devil inside all of us.
It is a rumination on what makes us human—what makes us better than the animals we care for … and kill. "There is no sin in killing a beast," a gypsy says. But later, Gwen wonders, "Where does one begin and the other end?"
One could interpret all of this as a filmmaker's evolutionary musings. After all, in 1891, the year in which the film takes place, Charles Darwin's famous theory would've seemed very new, and deeply troubling, to many.
But there's scriptural heft to this theme as well. We're taught that we're sinful creatures right from the beginning, and scientists know that babies lie, cheat and willfully manipulate their parents before they even know how to talk. Without good parental guidance, we grow up without a sense of morality, without an understanding of right and wrong. We become amoral … bestial.
"Rules," Sir John says, "they're all that keep us from a dog-eat-dog society, you know?" And he's right. Rules—the God-given restrictions we adhere to for our own good and the good of others—help keep us separate. Though segments of society sometimes tell us that rules are bad, that they are fetters keeping us from our "true potential," most of us know that our "potential" looks much like Sir John's.
Sir John keeps his werewolf side locked up for decades before he finally decides to "let it run free"—dooming himself and many, many others. We've all got a bit of werewolf inside us. And, as such, we're all in need of rules, of guidance, of a Savior, ultimately. Sometimes we need to be strapped into a metaphorical chair until the metaphorical full moon wanes again. That's the way it is. Not one of us is fully trustworthy to tame his own inclinations.
Of course, if you take the film's allegory to its logical conclusion, it would seem we're being told that death is the only way to truly free us of the beast. And while that is spiritually true, when it comes to the film's preferred method of suicide, wildly troubling.
None of these musings alleviate The Wolfman's central problem: Its unremitting gore. Not to mention that while it may have some philosophical pretensions, it's really not that deep. In many ways it mirrors its namesake, bathing itself in blood, consuming gore … and then asking us if we want a bite. The Wolfman is a beast. And it wants, simply, to feed.