For all the advances made in special effects in the last ten years, werewolves have had a really tough go of it. We've had any number of tremendously convincing screen zombies, and marvelous vampires of both the sparkly and non-sparkly varieties, but for some reason, representations of lycanthropes have been miserably wanting. Neil Marshall's otherwise sterling Dog Soldiers suffers badly for having detailed but inflexible body suits, and even that film at least has the benefit of textured, physically convincing wolves. The scattered CGI werewolf movies of the past decade, from Underworld on to The Twilight Saga: New Moon, have perpetrated one garishly unconvincing monster after another, with graphics that wouldn't pass muster in a middleweight computer-animated cartoon. And let us not speak of the apparent impossibility of creating a convincing man-to-wolf transformation in a digital environment: nearly three decades after The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, those films are still the standard-bearers for that particular effect.

So we should at least thank The Wolfman for giving us the first all-around credible movie werewolf in recent memory: the practical make-up, courtesy of the justly renowned Rick Baker, is both expressive and unearthly, disguising the actors just enough that you can still tell who the character is under all that fur, and the CGI models used in action shots and the transition scenes are blissfully realistic.

We have nothing else to thank The Wolfman for. Maybe its costume and production design (provided by the also-justly-famous Milena Canonero and Rick Heinrichs, respectively).

We sure as hell can't be particularly grateful for its terrible screenplay. Theoretically a remake of the 1941 genre-defining Lon Chaney, Jr. vehicle The Wolf Man (please note the subtle distinction between the titles), the new film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self - the former man at least has some respectable credits, while the latter vomited out Thirteen Days and the 1999 remake of The Haunting - borrow little from Curt Siodmak's original scenario besides character names and the set-up that a prodigal son has returned to his ancestral home in Great Britain on the event of his elder brother's violent death (the remake doesn't even leave the action in Wales). It's cheap and unfair to compare two films just because one is a remake of the other, but I'm in the mood to be unfair for a bit: Siodmak's Wolf Man is a much smarter movie than you probably remember or assume, not least because that writer found a way to make Chaney's essential inability to act a strength, by devising his Larry Talbot as a likable lug Everyman, who suffers immensely just because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong moment. There's no denying it's a B-movie, but it's the kind of B-movie that proves just how much mileage good filmmakers could milk out of the limitations of cheap genre filmmaking: it tells its story simply and effectively, does what it can to hit the audience on a gut level, and doesn't take time to run down any blind alleys.

This new Wolfman... to be altogether honest, I can't even really figure out what motivates the plot at all, other than the crude desire to extract money from the wallets of those poor souls who will swallow any load of crap covered in enough stage blood and convincing prosthetics. In this rendering, Lawrence Talbot (Benico Del Toro) is a great Shakespearean actor who has lived in America for years and years, now returned to late-Victorian England to present his celebrated Hamlet. While in London, he gets a letter from his brother's fiancΓ©e Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), informing him that his brother has been found dead in a ditch. With reservations, Lawrence - you just can't even begin to think of him as a "Larry" - returns to the village of Blackmoor (not a leading name, not at all; a pity that "Deathswamp Mire" was already taken) and his family's home, there to attempt, haltingly, to reconnect with his father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), and to figure out what happened to his brother.

It goes to a lot of bent and twisty places along the way, but of course one of the first places is a Gypsy camp where something big and hairy kills a couple people in immensely bloody ways before taking a bite out of Lawrence; then in due course, Scotland Yard Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) - at first I thought this was a clumsy but cute reference to the historical investigator in the Jack the Ripper case, until dialogue establishes that he is the historical investigator - comes along and concludes, not unreasonably, that Lawrence has some violent secrets, and may well be responsible for the deaths in the camp, a conclusion given added weight on the next full moon, when several people are savagely killed and Lawrence is found coated in blood, hiding under a tree. Of course we know the truth: he's got the wolf in him, and while Scotland Yard might think he's just a garden-variety loony, the truth will out.

But I have not begun to hint at the intrigue that pokes its nose about in the first half of the movie and dominates the second half: nor shall I, because it's stupid. I won't spoil the ending of the movie (why bother?), except to say that there seems to be very little need to have some kind of half-assed conspiracy of one at the bottom of a werewolf movie; it reminds me actually of Walker's script for Sleepy Hollow, which similarly decided that a murdering ghost horseman just didn't make sense without having a human handler bent on destroying the local community.

The clumsy and ineffectual story doesn't do anything but stand in place, whirring: The Wolfman doesn't even pay more than lip service to the idea that werewolves are a metaphor for masculine brutality. That's right, it's so lazy that it can't even be bothered to indulge in the mustiest clichΓ© of its own subgenre. Meaning that Del Toro is horribly squandered on a role that serves no purpose other than to facilitate scenes of carnage; for not even he can pull something human-sized out of this cynical exercise. I'd hoped that Hopkins might have been enough campy fun to be decently watchable, but except for a few scenes, even that pleasure is denied to us; mostly, he's just stern and mysterious.

Nope, it's just a horror film product, the movie version of that sliced American cheese in the plastic wrapper; nor can the magnificently hacky director Joe Johnston (who made such passionate works as Jumanji and Jurassic Park III earlier in his career) do much of anything to give the material some juice. It's not even effective as a gore dispensary: there's plenty of gore, sure, but it's presented in a staggeringly flat, disinterested manner. And everything is so damn dark that you can't really be certain what you're looking at in some of the exterior scenes, anyway. So much for a noble brand name: there are too many awful horror films to give this one special score on that count, but it is at any rate unforgivably disposable.