OCTOBER 9, 2012
Originally conceived as a sequel/spinoff of Universal's lackluster revival of The Wolfman, Werewolf: The Beast Among Us is a pretty decent (and now completely unrelated) werewolf movie, where nearly any issue one might have with it could be defended by saying "What do you want, it's a direct to video movie!" I mean, there are some bad CGI shots here, but the 150 million theatrical release movie had those too, so how can we get too up in arms at this movie that probably had 1/50th of the budget?
In fact its most damnable offense is that it often feels like the pilot for an enjoyable series about an area that has a werewolf problem. Unlike most werewolf movies, there's no "There's no such thing as werewolves!" discussion or complete obliviousness at how to dispatch of one - in fact the doctor's office has a little "station" of sorts where he will shoot a silver bullet into a human that's about to turn monster. And in addition to werewolves, there's a lot of "wurdaleks" running around, which are vampire/zombie type things, so basically you have this world where monsters are feared, but dealt with in a casual manner as something you just have to put up with on a regular basis. Thus, the possibilities are endless for ongoing stories of "master" villains, with the built-in allowance for a lot of action thanks to random wurdaleks that can be killed whenever the episode calls for burst of violence.
Similarly, our heroes are a group of hunters, led by Ed Quinn, an actor who is precisely the sort of guy you can see leading a Syfy channel show. He's handsome and charming but still badass, and his crew is a colorful lot, including an older guy played by a character actor (Steven Bauer), which again is what a TV show would do. And the movie is more or less a men on a mission flick, with a young man joining them as they hunt this new werewolf menace - a perfect gateway character, not unlike a rookie doctor on ER or whatever, who the veteran team members can explain the ropes to for the viewer benefit. And (spoiler?) none of them die, so they're all ready and able to kick ass next week.
Except, there IS no next week. This is a movie, and thus it's kind of frustrating that most of Quinn's team never gets to be anything more than a glorified extra. They each get a brief moment or two, but they're not fully fledged characters, which makes me wonder why the script refused to kill any of them off (except for one who is a traitor, if that counts). Any good men on a mission film has to be willing to off a few of these folks so we know how dangerous their objective is - it's the same problem I have with the Expendables movies. Even when someone dies, like Dolph in the first movie, he is miraculously healed (and forgiven by the others who he just tried to kill!). I guess they plan sequels?
Luckily, I'd be open to watching them, and not just because this one left a lot of room to explore. There's just enough action to keep it entertaining without being repetitive, and even though it's pretty easy to tell that one actor is playing a character that will turn out to be a villain (since he has nothing to do until that point; I dub this the Elias Koteas rule of thumb), the story DOES have a few decent twists that I found impressive. I also enjoyed the mix of practical and CGI wolves; again, not all of it looked that great, but considering the new designs I was surprised that it had any practical "man in suit" work at all.
Plus, as director Louis Morneau points out in the commentary (or maybe it was producer Mike Elliott, I forget), there's something cool about a movie of this type actually being shot in Transylvania. A lot of low budget horror films shoot in Bulgaria/Romania, but they're usually trying to pass themselves off as an American locale. On the other hand, a movie like Van Helsing is mainly shot in Los Angeles. So they get a lot of free production value, and can put more of their money toward the FX and action (or an actor like Stephen Rea, in his 2nd werewolf movie this year) instead of wasting it on trying to make somewhere LOOK like how this city appears naturally.
It's also got a decent sense of humor, another thing I found to be a pleasant surprise. There's a fun homage to Quint's town hall scene from Jaws, and I laughed out loud when a guy tried to pass off a dead dog as a werewolf. Bauer's also got a few funny lines, and again, the idea that werewolves and vampires are just part of life is just funny - when someone says they saw a werewolf, someone scoffs, but not because they don't exist, but because it's not the right night of the moon. Add in the very lovely ladies (Ana Ularu, please take all of Michelle Rodriguez' asskicker roles away from her, thanks) and you have a movie that's easy to just sit back and enjoy. It won't revolutionize the werewolf genre, but it's not attempting to.
It's also an easy DVD/Blu to recommend, as it has a nice little collection of bonus material, and a solid transfer that is typical of Universal releases. It can be a bit murky at times, but I assume that's intentional and not an issue with the transfer. The sound mix in particular was quite impressive for a DTV title; lots of surround activity, I even got fooled once thinking it was something outside my apartment (it's one of those deals where I realize how non-aggressive most mixes are - shouldn't I be used to hearing sounds behind me by now? I haven't changed my system in 5 years). You can also watch the R rated cut of the movie, which removes some gory shots during an autopsy scene (there's only 25 seconds of difference, so it doesn't matter much if your Redbox or whatever only has the R cut).
The bonus features are all brief, but cover the production well, including some shots of the guy in the werewolf suit, lest anyone be mistaken and think it was all digital (people ARE stupid, after all). There's also a fun piece where the cast and crew talk about the old Universal horror films, and how they're proud to be part of the studio's legacy of classic monster films (you WANT to be in company with Van Helsing?), and in keeping with that theme there are also a bunch of trailers for their modern monster movies, like Helsing, the 2010 Wolfman, Sommers' The Mummy, and, er, The Chronicles of Riddick.
And then there's the aforementioned commentary, which is mostly Morneau with Elliott chiming in once every 5 minutes or so. It's a solid track; he talks about shooting on location, story changes, casting, etc... pretty typical stuff. At one point Elliott points out a plot hole, which Morneau tries to explain and then changes subject, and the director also explains that at the time they were recording the commentary the movie didn't have a title (being so last minute, I guess that explains why the opening titles are among the shittiest I've ever seen; sub Decrepit Crypt Of Nightmares stuff), so, like the movie itself, it's standard stuff peppered with some personality.
Honestly, THIS is the script they should have thrown 150 million at. It's less of a rehash, the tragic hero turned werewolf story plays better, and there are actually some interesting characters here. Morneau mentions more elaborate action scenes that he had to cut or trim because of the budget, and really the film's slightness (and, again, the fact that it feels too much like a franchise starter) is its biggest flaw, something that would have been an issue if Universal hadn't pissed so much money away on that mess of a film. In short, this was a much more satisfying low budget/DTV horror movie than Wolfman was a big budget theatrical one.
What say you?