“The Wolfman” stars Benicio Del Toro, which normally means I would readily suffer pain and humiliation and even demonstrate some nonexistent rock- climbing skills if need be, just to see my beloved. It’s a lonely quest in Japan, where Del Toro doesn’t have quite the following he deserves: He’s too craggy, too hairy and just plain weird.

But for me, the fascination holds fast: Del Toro is one of few American actors who never seems to get older so much as creasier and in the most artistic fashion. A textile designer could make millions from color-copying the lines of his face and printing them onto denim surfaces: a distressed look taken to the extreme. He’s not a wreck a la Al Pacino (another lovely monster); he’s a gloriously decomposed heap, suggestive of some installation item at a posh eco-art gallery. And to play a late Victorian aristocrat (just thinking of the wardrobe possibilities makes me swoon) in a WEREWOLF movie — the only response I could think of was a resounding, “hell yes.”

Alas, “The Wolfman” itself turns out to be less than an appropriate vehicle for Del Toro’s particular brand of charm: a lot of blood splashes about, but the package falls short on real guts and muscle. And though director Joe Johnston (“Jumanji,” “October Sky”) tries mightily for class and top-drawer horror of the old-school kind (the film is a remake of a 1941 classic), “The Wolfman” remains a little skimpy, a little mediocre, holding back on the kind of effort that can boost a pack of mere wolves into scary, mesmerizing sex symbols.

The Wolfman
Director Joe Johnston
Run Time 102 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens April 23, 2010

On the other hand, “The Wolfman” has a good sprinkling of street cred going for it, and that is no mean feat. Besides the presence of Del Toro — the cinema alchemist who can walk into a suburban living room and change it into something strange and disturbing — there’s Anthony Hopkins, playing his father. Here’s another guy with several lifetimes carved into his facial terrain — and for this movie he exposes a set of crusty, blackened teeth that force you to suppress an urge to whip out the dental floss every time he speaks.

All this works to the story’s advantage — when wolves tear into people’s jugulars, creating a pile of gory mess every few minutes, sanitary concerns just fly out the window. Physically, Del Toro, too, is very much in his element, so much so that the whole wolf thing seems almost redundant. He certainly has no need for makeup or CGI, just neglecting to shave for a few hours seems to have done it.

Hopkins plays Sir John Talbot, residing in a crumbling estate in the English countryside. Sir John is poor and mean but still majestic — lurching through his mansion in velvety robes, sprouting so much white facial hair you might think he habitually eats polar bears for breakfast. Del Toro is his estranged son Lawrence, who returns to his ancestral home after many years in America.

Father and son share an animosity toward each other — Lawrence blames Sir John for the death of his mother, which happened when he was a boy, and Sir John is convinced that his first-born is a raving lunatic. So home life is hopelessly bleak, if it were not for the presence of the comely Gwen (Emily Blunt): fiancee of Lawrence’s younger brother, Ben, who has suddenly gone missing.

Gwen implores Lawrence to locate Ben, but the more he hangs around the local village and delves into his brother’s disappearance, the more he learns about the ancient family curse involving werewolves. Was Ben the victim of a wolf attack? If so, did Sir John have anything to do with it? The answer hangs in the air like the heavy scent of discount perfume.

“The Wolfman” is probably the grown-up’s answer to the rash of teenage vampire movies (“Twilight” anyone?) that are fast becoming the new standard for crowd-pleasing blockbusters. But it simply doesn’t work. Even with its seasoned A-list cast, “The Wolfman” doesn’t quite conjure the dark angst and the suggestive sensuousness of the Victorian horror tales it was inspired by. Which goes to show you that when it comes to blood sucking, a long black cape and red contacts go a lot farther than fangs and black fur.

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