Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Wolf in the Fold

I was discussing the new DTV movie, Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012, directed by Louis Morneau) with a friend of mine while I was watching it and I noted that I couldn't tell when or where it was set. Late 19th century, I suppose, but where? Eventually, I decided that it was set in Horror Movie Land, which I take to be somewhere in Eastern Europe based on the number of Romanian names in the credits. But I could be wrong. There's a babel of accents among the characters in this movie, so I guess Horror Movie Land could be like one of those magic shops in fantasy/horror short fiction where it appears where it's needed and vanishes again. Regardless, it's nowhere real. More a theme park than a setting.

The story here follows a band of intrepid werewolf hunters on the track of their latest prey, a particularly brutal werewolf who is terrorizing a town and leaving bodies in the streets every full moon. It's reign of terror isn't limited to the full moon, though. It's rampage spills over into the period when the full moon is waxing and waning. The upcoming moon is at the winter solstice, too, so the beast will be especially hard to bring down at the height of its power. In among the besieged townsfolk is Daniel, our nominal hero, who works for the local doctor and has a bright future ahead of him in medical school in spite of being born to a mother who owns the local brothel. Daniel's girlfriend, Eva, is way above his caste; she's the daughter of the richest man in town, who has barricaded himself in his estate while the beast is on the loose. Also on the scene are a couple of other werewolf hunters who are less scrupulous than our band of heroes. Our main band consist of Charles, whose family was killed by a werewolf in the movie's prologue; Stephan, whose weapons of choice are silver daggers; Kazia, a femme fatale armed with a flamethrower; and a couple of others whose names I didn't catch. One of the others is a blowhard who tells tall tales about how he lost his eye; the other fancies himself some kind of samurai. Daniel joins the hunters over the protests of Doc, and helps them to lay their traps. The beast, is too smart for them, unfortunately, and the game becomes one of deducing who the werewolf is. Its killings seem directed and the visiting troupe of Romani fortune tellers prophesize a wolf that is gaining the ability to transform at will and maintain his reason. But there's more to worry about than the werewolf. Stephan has designs on Eva and he's used to getting what he wants, Valdoma (Daniel's mother) seems to be keeping a secret), and the town constable has lost patience with the hunters and has taken the hunt into his own hands. There's also an unseen hand behind things, whose agenda is woven into the pattern of mayhem...

This starts on a fairly strong note. The opening scene is a variant on the stalking scene in Lewton and Tourneur's The Leopard Man, in which a girl flees through the night, chased by an unseen monster. The people at her destination won't let her in the door in spite of her pleas. The twist here is that the girl herself is the monster, which is revealed after she massacres the inhabitants of the cabin. It's not an ineffective scene, and the werewolf effects are decent for being CGI (the same is not true of later werewolf effects). The movie hasn't completely futzed the locale of the action yet, so this scene is credible. It's mostly downhill from here.

My initial reaction to our intrepid band of werewolf hunters is that they, and by extension the movie itself, are a bunch of cosplaying fantasy fans. The emphasis on steampunky badass-ness certainly reeks of it. (I don't mean to disparage cosplaying, by the way, which seems like a fun hobby). As such, even though there's certainly a uniformity of design sense, it turns our characters into a kind of superhero team. The leader of the werewolf hunters, Charles, is the natural hero of the movie, given that he's presumably the kid who survives the opening scene, but if this is true, then where did he get the rugged cowboy accent? The opening scene would appear to be set somewhere in Eastern Europe, and this is the first clue that we're actually in Horror Movie Land.

Somewhere right before the end of the movie, I decided that Werewolf: The Beast Among Us has too many villains, and resolving their various plots detracts from what should be the narrower focus on the werewolf himself, potentially a Lawrence Talbot-ish tragic character, but one redeemed by the fact that he's been manipulated into his reign of terror by one of the human(-ish) villains. Worse, we've seen the atrocities committed by the werewolf, so the attempt to turn him into a tragic hero echoes kind of false. I don't think I'm giving anything away when I note that this is another horror movie that turns on what I'm beginning to think of as the Roger Ackroyd plot, in which the hero turns out to be the monster. Daniel, our hero/monster, is redeemed not because he's a tragic figure, but rather because he's the designated hero, and designated heroes always get away with their shit in movies, however broken and awful it may be.

I'm also kind of annoyed at the way this movie plays fast and loose with the conventions of horror mythology. It kinda plays by the rules for a while, and includes some of the arbitrary genre markers of the werewolf movie (including the scene where the werewolf wakes up in the morning and finds mysterious wounds on his body). Once the film introduces one of its other villains AS a villain, it starts to break those rules to fit the "badassness" of the scene, and horror movie logic be damned. Internal consistency is nice. Pulling new plot elements out of one's ass at the end of the movie is not.

There are actually pretty good actors trapped in this movie. One wonders if Stephen Rea, for one example, wouldn't have preferred to leave his werewolf career at a level of conditional success (he was in Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, after all), rather than torpedo it with a direct to video horror like this. Steven Bauer can certainly hold his own in a good movie. This isn't a movie without resources. It has money for CGI effects and fairly elaborate production design. If movies were only about production values, this would work fairly well. But movies aren't solely about production design, and what resources this film has are misapplied by the talent (or lack thereof) behind the camera. I question this film's idiom, too. It wants to be Van Helsing rather than The Wolfman (to which, this film was intended as a DTV sequel, a fact not entirely washed out of the movie given that it includes the werewolf's rhyme). One wonders what would possess any self-respecting horror filmmaker to ape Van Helsing. The results are predictable, I guess.

Current tally: 13 film

First time viewings: 11

From Around the Web

The Rev. Anna Dynamite return with a recap of her last few movies, including The Curse of the Werewolf and Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, as well as the recent Ti West film, The Innkeepers.

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter visits the bactrachian horror of Frogs.

Dr. AC over at Horror 101 finds out what happened to Rosemary's Baby.

Tim over at The Other Side turns on a Red Light for his latest challenge entry.

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