Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Cinema File #9: "Werewolf: The Beast Among Us" Review

Or should that be "Amongst Us"? I don't know. Grammar Nazis, help me out here.

If you've read some of my other reviews, you know that I tend to give straight to DVD movies a little more slack when it comes to the technical side of filmmaking. Part of that comes from my basic framework of recommending films, judging them not just on general quality but based on a tier of whether they should be seen in the theaters, or maybe just as a rental later on. Obviously, budgets matter to the look and feel of a film and something like the recent Cloud Atlas is going to look a lot better than, say Arachnoquake. But at the same time, all the money in the world couldn't give the latest Wachowski effort a point, and the lack of it didn't stop Dungeons and Dragons 3 from excelling beyond its franchise, or Julia X from coming back from behind with a ridiculously fun last five minutes. Conversely, I tend to judge big budget fair more harshly when they ultimately fail from a story or character perspective, because it seems like they have less of an excuse, with so many more people involved being paid a whole lot more to make a great movie. Still, overall, story and character matter more to me than effects or the kind of visual perfection that only major studios can buy. To my mind, when I hear a person complain about a movie and they start by ragging on the CGI or special effects first, I tend to think they don't watch movies for the same reason I do. That stuff shouldn't matter, as long as it's fun. Today's entry, Werewolf: The Beast Among Us, is gonna be one of those movies that a lot of people dismiss purely due to the admittedly low budget feel of the effects. The titular werewolf is, frankly, not the best looking monster you've ever seen. And yet, for all its many problems with tone, pacing, and characterization, this movie had enough fun moments for me that I have to think there are a few people out there who can look past the visuals and find something to like.

The story is pretty standard, an old timey village is being terrorized by a werewolf, and a rag tag group of monster hunters come to town to track and kill it for the bounty, aided by a plucky young townie out to protect his home and his girl. Right away, though, as the story begins with what proves to be a somewhat tangential flashback, there's a style at play that really worked for me. We see a family in a cabin living in fear of what's inside, and a young girl seemingly running for her life from some unseen monster, but then a nice little twist on the formula sets us up for the proceedings as we see just what the monster is and how well prepared this family is against it. It's nothing special, but its clever enough that by the end, I find myself wishing the rest of the movie was more in keeping with it. That's not to say that it goes so far down hill from there, just that the plot going forward is a lot more traditional. We then jump to the present, or rather the 19 century, where our hero, a doctor's apprentice, tries to worm his way into the group of professional werewolf killers, led by Ed Quinn, formerly of SyFy's Eureka. Like the gang in Dungeons and Dragons 3, they are painted as a morally dubious lot, and most are interesting and charismatic to varying degrees (though the guy who seems to specialize in biting attacks with silver dentures comes off as a bit too silly even for me). However, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, I found myself wanting more of their interplay. What's there is fine, but with the exception of two of them, you don't really get enough to want to follow them any more than any other character.

There are a lot of little touches that I liked, the callous everyday acceptance of supernatural carnage, why the town doctor keeps a gun in with his tools, the goofy camaraderie of the hunters, the elaborate set up and comically disastrous springing of a forest full of werewolf traps, and an extended scene of morgue raiding to gather the werewolf equivalent of chum. It's almost as if there are just enough really good and stylish scenes to highlight the more bland and mediocre ones, making you wonder where the talent displayed just a few moments ago went. The film sort of unravels at the end, after the reveal of the werewolf's human identity, which is not entirely unpredictable, but also not painfully obvious. With a title like The Beast Among Us, I was expecting a better lead up in terms of possible suspects, red herrings, and so on, and while they try at that enough, it almost seems too rushed, to the point where once we finally get the answer, it's just a relief to have it over with. Also, the reveal involved one of the more interesting characters indulging in a villainous turn that almost feels comicbooky, and doesn't fit with the tone the movie had established up to that point. It's a fun twist such as it is and lets one of the better actors in the movie chew some scenery, but it could have been built up to more and played with more subtlety than what we got.

I actually thought the action was fairly good, if a bit slight. Here again the issue of the werewolf effects comes up, and to say that they probably should have kept it more in the shadows it pretty obvious. Still, what some might see as the hokey-ness of it never took me out of the movie, though I might be easier than most when it comes to that. If I had one major gripe, it's that the climax of the film is a little too haphazard, and one late edition left me rolling my eyes in disappointment. I was trying to think of a way not to mention it, but what the fuck, basically one of the characters we follow throughout the movie turns out to be a vampire. The thing is, it's not really even a spoiler, considering it's a twist that comes out of nowhere and is completely unnecessary to the story. It's just that all of sudden, the dude sprouts fangs. I guess in the post Underworld/Twilight world of cinema, it was obligatory, just so we could have our vampire vs. werewolf grudge match, but with how little it adds to anything, they should have just skipped it. Now, if all the hunters turned out to be vampires in a late game twist, that might have been interesting, but as it stands, it's just superfluous and fan service-y. Also, apparently in this universe, vampires can walk in the day. I hate this. I know you can change things here and there on the margins, but fuck it, vampires should burn in sunlight goddammit! It's just tradition. Actually, this movie has a sort of muddled mythology when it comes to its monsters. Best as I can tell, if a werewolf bites you and you live, you become a werewolf, but you can also be born one, which makes you more powerful, and if you get bitten and die, but are still basically intact, you come back as a zombie like creature called, I think, a Varcolac. It's kind of too complicated for its own good and ultimately matters much less than the exposition devoted to it would imply. To the film's credit, they do establish a sensibility I like concerning what humans know about monsters, which is to say very little. There's no monster expert, and even the hunters only know what they've seen and have cobbled together a loose idea of what's out there. It leaves a lot of room to play with the idea behind some of these monsters, parsing legend from fact.

Overall, I'd say if your standards aren't so ridiculously high so as to preclude any straight to DVD movie (and if they are, I don't want to know you), then give Werewolf: The Beast Among Us a try. It's nothing close to the best werewolf movie you'll ever see, but far from the worst either. The last good one I can remember was Dog Soldiers (which I think came after Ginger Snaps, but maybe I'm wrong). Still, there are a whole lot of bad ones. I'm thinking American Werewolf in Paris, that shitty Kevin Williamson one with Christina Ricci, and anything called Ginger Snaps after the first one. This is better than those, but not quite up to par with the greats. It's about as good as the recent Wolf Man remake, but a lot cheaper, if that helps. So, what the fuck, check it out. What have you got to lose?

Anyway, Happy Halloween everybody, and good hunting.
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