As with most horror junkies, I was way too young to have been terrorized by the genre. John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981) — which, I think for the majority of us out there, is the seminal werewolf film — was a case in point. I was 9 and up way past my bedtime; my parents more than likely lulled in by the film’s misleading music and their love of the countryside. Suffice to say I didn’t make it past the attack on David and Jack and was taken to bed traumatized… yet fascinated by werewolves.
Another late night viewing that tapped into similar fears came a few years later. British film, The Nature of the Beast (1988), placed a relatable Northern teenage boy front and centre and fed directly into modern folklore surrounding the Beast of Bodmin Moor that had captured the imagination of adult and child alike in Britain during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Although primarily a drama, I found the boy’s journey trigger memories of ‘sticking to the roads’ and remained a while until I plucked up the courage to watch what happened to David once he woke up in that London hospital. As with many of these early interludes with horror — it is no surprise that Landis’ masterpiece would become one of my favourite films of all time.
Wer (2014) is not An American Werewolf in London. Not by a country mile. I’ll be honest, on second viewing, it doesn’t hold; but where it lacks coherency — with its muddled plot and lack of polish — it makes up for with ambition in an effort to deliver something fresh for the werewolf sub-genre. In a similar way 1981’s trinity of lycanthropy — The Howling, Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London — showed three unique takes on the mythology, it is no surprise that the 80s saw further transformations from the folklore of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) to the funfairs of Fright Night (‘Oh, you’re so COOL, Brewster!’) and Stephen King’s Silver Bullet, both released in 1985.
From full moon to period pains, the 21st century found its teeth with Ginger Snaps (2000) — an angst ridden teenage wet dream with bite — Christophe Gans’ stunning martial arts come French period horror, Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) and Neil Marshall’s return to genre fair with Dog Soldiers (2002). But alas, werewolves soon began to descend into very forgettable territory battling either leather clad vamps or sparkly day-glow teens that go hump in the night laying a deluge of Wachowski-inspired underworlds, twilight times, remakes and rehashes of Grimm’s fairy tales that had, for want of a better term, castrated the beast.
Kicking off a counteraction against such films were several ‘under the radar’ werewolf flicks that were the perfect antidote for teen fiction. Wer sits as a perfect triple feature with the likes of Late Phases (2014) and Howl (2015) and although they may be a little clunky and lack finesse there is a genuine attempt to lend a fresh approach and revise familiar origins.
Aside from some convoluted subplots and forced characters (more on this later), William Brent Bell’s take on the mythos sets up an engaging premise and backdrop. While on vacation in France, an American family is savagely attacked. The only survivor is the mother, who recalls that her husband and child were torn apart by a man. A local feral hermit, by the name of Talan Gwynek, is arrested and brought in for questioning where American defence attorney Kate Moore suspects there is more to the man than first presumed. Much to the French police department’s disgust, she continues to explore the case and Talan’s background aided by her investigator, Eric Sarin and animal expert, Gavin Flemyng.
The film is littered with stereotypes from the take-charge American, arrogant French guy and English prick. At times Wer feels like nothing more than an X-Files episode as it navigates through police procedural and investigation with the film struggling to decide whether it is a found footage / docudrama or not. Bell gradually shifts away from news footage, interviews and journalistic approaches but then attempts to dissolve and blur these boundaries as though he is not confident with a trend in filmmaking that was already tired by this point, therefore losing focus and confidence in what he was trying to achieve. This is merely an observation and shouldn’t let it put you off watching the film as there are rewarding moments you will lap up that include some genuinely gnarly sequences involving the victims’ remains which are more than reminiscent of Jaws (1975) and Hooper’s ‘this is not a boat accident’ scene.
With red herrings scattered throughout, it is the refocus on Talan as he violently escapes police custody that manages to ramp up the action. Early on in the film the ‘animal expert’, Gavin, is scratched by Talan—a subplot that seems to be kept at a distance until the final act. With little character development, Gavin’s own transformation feels redundant and part of a separate film and only highlights some of the poor choices in the script. As he embraces his own animal urges and slowly transforms, it seems that everything Wer sets up to achieve is, by the end, left with a rather flat delivery in an attempt to justify Gavin’s presence throughout the film and hit the audience over the head with his final words.
Where Gavin is a weak, insecure character, Talan is a huge imposing man; his hairy and dishevelled appearance only emphasising his potential lycanthropy. “He was very sick,” states his mother who highlights a condition where he is unable to move or even pull himself out of bed. This manages to touch upon something sympathetic, which is crucial in a werewolf story; the notion of an innocent man literally turning into a killer is what can make these stories so compelling. His mother goes on to hint at how the affliction is in the family when we see a family photograph that reveals a great uncle who resembles her son. During a crucial scene where Talan is visited at the Police station by his mother, he is embraced and she parts his hair to finally reveal his features that have been hidden under thick black hair and stooped posture as the camera focuses on his huge, cuffed hands—the same hands we are being led to believe tore an adult and child apart.
Bell’s major strength is in how he manages to retain as much of the practical effects as possible with only a spattering of digital blood. Although it is heavy handed at times, the action sequences are explosive and help keep the story moving forward with Talan’s transformation more about the realignment of his posture rather than full metamorphosis. Bones slide under skin, resembling something closer to a contortionist or someone popping a shoulder out of joint. There is little change — he is more afflicted than transformed — more akin to the classic ‘wolfman’ and when we do see him move to all fours it is sudden and seen from a distance as we begin to witness more of his abilities under the influence of the moon.
In another scene we are presented with the myth of the lunar cycle that ties perfectly into the film’s setting. The Old French word ‘lunatique’ — that derives from the Latin word ‘luna’ (moon) — a belief that changes of the moon caused intermittent insanity is what the film’s premise rests on. Albeit, there is only so much you can action here, but this is where the more interesting elements are in downplaying the werewolf legend and returning to its roots of lunatics and murderous characters from European history that dwelled in the darkness of old forests, preying on folk. “Do we really know what effect the moon has on our mind?” says a forensic as an x-ray of Talan’s skull is lit up like a moon.
Wer succeeds most by harkening back to the infamous imagery and myth of the werewolf; a myth grounded in ‘man as beast’. Afflictions, both mental and physical, that manifest themselves and have grown into the stories of legend and — as depicted in such work as Woodcut of a werewolf attack, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1512) — iconic imagery of European folklore. As the urban world grew and the industrial revolution gave more light to the world, myth died, but the murderous personalities simply changed from wolf’s clothing into finer attire. With rural settings left behind, Europe’s history of animalistic murders morphed into legends of lycanthropy that still retained some delusion that a person can transform into a wolf or any other animal.
We crave the transformation sequence in these films. Sequences more than often measured to Rick Baker’s outstanding work on An American Werewolf in London and Rob Bottin’s masterful moment during the final act of Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981). They are second to none… after the genius of dogs shooting laser beams of animal fur onto a man’s face in Thai shit-fest, Mnusy hmapa (Werewolf, 1987). Obviously… I’m joking. Wolfcop (2014) is much better.
Wer is more than enough fun to sink your teeth into. Despite my own reservations on rewatch, independent films like this should continue to be made because, let’s be honest, there just are not enough werewolf movies in the world.