Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within is the second snowbound, dark comedy werewolf movie made this year, which seems like a crazy coincidence until you remember stuff like Armageddon and Deep Impact or Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both pairs from the same year. It’s a popular trend and there’s always one that stands out as the better version of whatever sub genre they’re exploring, and this is certainly a far stronger film than Wolf Of Snow Hollow, which I was underwhelmed by. I don’t want to compare them too much but this one just nails the mile a minute dialogue, quaint characterization and pitch black comedic notes way better, and the inevitable whodunit of which character is the wolf is far more fun too. In a ski resort town in upstate NY, a various motley skeleton crew of local residents are being hunted and attacked by a werewolf, and one amongst them is responsible for it, hiding in plain sight. The twitchy, meek rookie park ranger (Sam Richardson) and bubbly, hyperactive mailwoman (Milena Vayntraub) try to keep the peace but these people love to bicker like I’ve never seen before, they’re worse than a room full of divorced parents. Some cast standouts include Wayne Duvall (Prisoners, O Brother Where Art Thou) as a smarmy, booze guzzling industrialist trying to buy out the town for an oil pipeline and Glenn Fleshler (True Detective, Hannibal) as a pelt adorned, perpetually grumpy mountain man who is sometimes indistinguishable from the werewolf itself and looks like he just walked in from Last Of The Mohicans. So begins an Agatha Christie type countdown as characters are dispatched in bloody fashion and the unveiling of the wolf’s identity draws nearer. The film is tons of fun thanks to a sharp, pithy script and a host of appropriately caffeinated actors who hit the ground running and all give wonderfully lively work. It’s kind of a slight, mild horror with the emphasis on comedy, it careens by like a rogue snowdrift and is a solid good time.
There’s one moment in The Wolf Of Snow Hollow where a character suggests that everyone in the room pause for a moment of silence and it made me chuckle because I didn’t believe anyone in that room, let alone any character in this film, to be capable of a moment of silence, since most of them spend their scenes yelling, shouting, arguing and making noise at a thoroughly exhausting, mile-a-minute pace. Writer director star Jim Cummings has attempted to make an oblong Christmas themed werewolf comedy fused together with a hectic, dysfunctional family drama and the result, although competently made, is a bit unwieldy and all over the place for me. In a snowy Utah mountain town that could almost be called sleepy if everyone weren’t so over caffeinated, some sort of huge wolf like beast has been attacking people and leaving a trail of corpses. It falls on the impossibly stressed out county sheriff (Cummings) who has large boots to fill as he prepares to take over the job permanently from his semi-retired father (the late great Robert Forster in his final film appearance). He’s also navigating a shaky relationship with his ex wife and daughter, plus regular AA meetings, some truly incompetent deputies and a coroner who is borderline insubordinate in the investigation. There’s just too much going on and it started to give my brain the zoomies to be honest. The werewolf is cool enough, it’s attacks vicious and well staged but the final resolution and explanation for the creature felt a tad… underwhelming. It’s definitely worth a look to see Forster on his game one last time, and there are some genuinely hilarious moments written, acted and directed by triple threat Cummings, who no doubt has talent. I just feel like a snowy werewolf family comedy set around Christmas is such a goldmine of a genre concept, this should have been an instant classic and for me, felt only alright.
It’s rare to have your favourite entry in a franchise be the fifth sequel, but here we are. Underworld: Blood Wars is most likely the most imaginative effort in the franchise and does a few key things that the others don’t, which I’ll get to in a minute. As expected, the tireless war between vampires rages ever on, as aristocratic vamp elder Thomas (Charles Dance) waffles about on a proper battle plan while mutinous underlings grow restless in his ranks. On the Lycan side of things, new and more organized warlord Marius (Tobias Menzies) rallies the Wolf clans for an attack that poses real threat. Meanwhile Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is perpetually exiled from both races, existing on the fringes where she searches for the daughter she never new she had until Thomas begrudgingly asks for her help in the impending wars. It’s strictly politics and expository setup until the story really kicks off, which is when it becomes one for the books. The action, gore and choreography is wonderful as ever here but what really makes it stand out and what might be my favourite sequence of the whole franchise is Selenes breathtaking journey to the Arctic to request shelter with a mysterious coven of Nordic snow vampires. How cool is that??!! The whole franchise we have this his buttoned down, black leather bureaucrat baroque vampire aesthetic with muted colours and droll performances and suddenly theres this blast of inspiration in the mythology and we are treated to new facets of lore we feel Ike we already know so well. The Nordic clan have an ethereal elvish aura to them with very elemental costumes and an ice castle hideout that has an airy, artsy look to it, there’s just nothing else like them anywhere else in the franchise and I *loved* the creative choices made here. Additionally, Selene goes through quite an intense hurdle here battling Marius and at one point, without spoiling too much, she undergoes a sort of Gandalf The White visual transformation and character arc here complete with a fur adorned outfit, wintery white hair highlights and an epic Deus Ex Machina third act mix drop moment that had me cheering. There’s also genuine pathos in her quest to find her daughter, an emotional resonance that isn’t often found in this film, so often full of sound, fury, blood, bullets and fur. Breathtaking film.
Underworld: Awakening picks up the relative slack of Revolution and rejoins Selene’s story once again after the rousing medieval diversion of Rise Of The Lycans and is one of the strongest, most action packed and exciting entries so far. This one is cool because it goes for a shocking and ambitious premise: the human population on earth have somehow found out about the vampire and Lycan races and it’s caused all kinds of chaos. A human CDC kingpin (Stephen Rea) concocts a shady plan full of tainted vaccines, inter species psuedo genetic modification and various hidden agendas that poses a real threat to both sides while Kate Beckinsale’s Selene, who never seems to get a moments rest, wakes up from some kind of cryo-sleep in Rea’s spooky lab and must fight her way out, figure out his sinister plan and protect the daughter (India Eisley) she never knew she had from all these nefarious forces. There is a fucking tremendous amount of action in this one, nearly wall to wall and it just might have some of the most impressive set pieces, or at least the most satisfying for me as a fan. Rea is no stranger to the vampire/werewolf genres, he’s done vicious turns for Neil Jordan in both Interview With The Vampire and The Company Of Wolves. He makes a formidable enemy for Selene here and gets to chew scenes in that kind of super low key, almost laidback but still menacing way he’s perfected as an actor. Also in his employ is a strange Lycan super-breed who becomes the size of a literal tank when he transforms, so there are numerous incredibly badass sequences of her fighting this gigantic tank-sized werewolf that are so much brutal fun. She also finds herself at the bottom of an elevator shaft at one point with the speeding elevator in free fall headed right for her. Being the franchise that this is, she simply empties countless rounds from her guns into its incoming floor until it’s perforated with bullet holes and she can literally punch right through it. So. Fucken. Cool. Once again this franchise is not gonna be everyone’s thing and even for those who liked the first, these might get a bit repetitive but this world, action, effects, atmosphere and overall aesthetic is just so up my dark alley I could literally never get tired of them, and this was one of my favourites so far.
Kate Beckinsale roars back into action with Underworld: Evolution, a sequel that, like many follow ups, isn’t as structured or fresh as the first but still manages to be every inch as stylish, baroque and gorgeous looking as the other few in the series I’ve seen (I am making my way through a Blu Ray box set of all five films in their extended cut glory). The action takes up right where it left off; outcast warrior Selene (Beckinsale) has killed vamp elder Viktor (Bill Nighy) and ran off into the night with her halfbreed lover Michael (Scott Speedman) with monstrous final boss Marcus in hot pursuit. This provides one of the entire franchise’s most jaw dropping, visually dynamic action sequences as they careen down Vancouver’s Sea To Sky highway against a muted overcast sky in a big rig semi truck. Now Marcus (Tony Curran under a metric ton of makeup) is one of those snazzy Spawn-esque vamps who can fly and has extra razor sharp limbs and cool bodily accessories to help him fight, so basically he’s flying alongside them at a crazy speed attacking the truck while Selene empties clip after clip into his face from her semiautomatics before ploughing right into the Britannia Mine tunnels, it’s just an exhilarating, incredibly well shot action sequence and the highlight of the film. Also I’m a bit tired of American studios filming here and then trying to pass off my beautiful home province as some place in the states or wherever so from now on I’m just going to refer to any film shot in Vancouver as being set here as well. Anyways, this is a solid entry that benefits from Marcus as a formidable, physically ruthless villain and continues the ongoing trend of seasoned British stage actors cast as vampire elders, Derek Jacobi stepping in here for a mostly absent Bill Nighy. Not my favourite of the series that I’ve seen so far, but a solid entry with memorable set pieces including a snowy medieval prologue that sets the tone for Rise Of The Lycans, an impressive climax set atop a ruined mountain castle complete with hovering helicopters and that Sea To Sky truck chase is just one for the ages.
Many werewolf films take place in the woods, mountains or various other rugged and elemental vistas that are inherently threatening and suit the mythos. But what about the urban jungle? How many werewolf films can you think of that place their action in a big city? Wolfen is one that does this and as such stands out in the genre for being a moody, eerie inner city horror about a gruff, unfriendly NYC police detective (Albert Finney) chasing down mysterious murderous hoodlums who he soon realizes are some kind of lycanthropic shapeshifters straight out of a Native legend. This leads him on a hushed yet bloody and quite atmospheric hunt through some of New York’s shadiest areas, made all the more spooky by the presence of these ferocious and quite stealthy cryptid hybrids. He’s helped and hindered by many in one eclectic cast that includes Diane Venora, James Tolkan, Rino Thunder, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines as a slick streetwise colleague, a very drunk and very brief Tom Waits and Tom Noonan as an ill fated ‘expert.’ This isn’t a very loud, snazzy or schlocky horror flick and in fact if memory serves it’s more of a mood piece type thing than any sort of thriller or shocker. Finney is sombre, muted, hard to read and even vaguely menacing, while the cast around him are sly, eccentric and always seem like they know more than they’re letting on. The werewolf attacks are hazy, dreamlike and terrifying in an otherworldly sort of way while still retaining enough gore and gristle, the special effects for the creatures themselves wonderful and the use of real wolves (or dogs, perhaps) adds to the earthen, folky aura that collides fascinatingly with this urban aesthetic. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this (a rewatch is no doubt imminent) and I can’t recall everything except that it’s one strikingly distinctive, unique and very immersive big city horror cop flick amalgamation that is well worth checking out.
A 90’s werewolf flick starring Tom Cody from Streets Of Fire, written by the guy who penned The Hitcher and set in the Pacific Northwest.. gotta be a winner, right? Well.. kinda. There are aspects I did enjoy about Eric Red’s Bad Moon and some things I thought were a little weaker. Michael Paré plays a dude who gets bitten by a werewolf in the South American jungle and winds up back home in Vancouver where his affliction puts his sister (Mariel Hemingway) her son (Dennis The Menace) and their German shepherd Thor in great danger. In this version of the werewolf lore it doesn’t have to be a full moon for him to transform, it just happens every night, which causes maximum destruction and carnage in the neighbourhood. So what I liked about this film: obviously I’m a push for that Vancouver scenery and the film is gorgeous, the two main settings being a beautiful character home that Hemingway’s lawyer salary has snagged and a breathtaking lakeside locale where Paré parks his airstream. The film is actually mostly from the perspective of the dog, who is the only one to really figure out that there’s a monster around, POV shots and pacing are used to present him as the protagonist and I really enjoyed that choice. What didn’t work for me: the wolf itself looks cheap a scraggly, not aesthetically pleasing or impressive enough for me. The human characters/acting are not so great either.. Paré is a great presence in anything and does ok but his character goes through a bizarre an unexplained personality change (beyond just being a werewolf lol) midway through the film while Hemingway and the kid are just awkward, stilted and I just didn’t buy that these people were siblings/uncle etc. The dog is great though! He should have his own spinoff film where he goes into business as a werewolf hunter. I wanted to love this based on all the elements involved but it kinda just was an okayish one bordering on a meh.
I feel like the Underworld films don’t get proper credit for just how visually magnificent and stylistically sumptuous they are. I mean sure the stories are often a muddle of faux Shakespearean shifting alliances and paranormal melodrama that are impossible to decipher but if you just approach them overall as the story of an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves with lots of preening politics, an abundance of beautifully gory, darkly balletic action sequences and the occasional splash of forbidden romance then you’re good, and don’t need to engage the brain much further. Take Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans, for example, which best I could figure is some kind of prequel to the first film where we see what went down between the two species hundreds of years before. Bill Nighy gives the word overacting new meaning here but is a lot of fun as Viktor, king of the vampire nation who has effectively enslaved all the werewolves for his own work/war effort and forces them to hunt down their own kind who rebel. His daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) does some rebelling of her own by constantly defying daddy’s orders and carrying out a secret romance with Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen). This overall unrest leads to the werewolf uprising and eventual incursion that will start a centuries long war. That’s all you need for story, trust me. What works best about this film is the resplendently beautiful production design and what makes it stand out in the initial trilogy is that it’s set far in the past so the uproarious gunfights become ruthless swordplay, the nocturnal urban atmosphere becomes a moonlit medieval castle aesthetic and never before has the franchise felt this gothic. Mitra is a beauty and then some, and while she’s not quite as lithe or physically distinctive as Beckinsale and her leather trench coat, she suits the ancient warrior aesthetic and does the Underworld name proud. Nighy is so far over the top I wanted him to calm down a bit before he had a stroke or something, he’s about as arch and theatrical as it gets but it suits the role and tone of the film nicely. Much of the film is sound, fury, blood and metal under inky black moonlight and some may have trouble deciphering the specifics of choreography under such a dim cloak of a visual palette but trust me it’s all there and it’s all *very* well done. This franchise has some of the most gorgeous, anatomically and aesthetically satisfying werewolves I’ve personally seen in horror, just great big bastards that look like they could rip a cow in half and are deadly in their speed, physicality and agility despite their hefty size. The Vamps have this eerie aristocracy to them and always seem calmly observant and deviously in charge, with help from the iridescent, creepy contact lenses the actors get to wear. The fight scenes are brutal and relentless, packed with gore and stylish weaponry and staged against spatially striking castle, river, forest and mountain vistas. There’s a shamelessly lurid sex scene between Sonja and Lucian where they’re literally writhing in slow motion on the edge of an impossibly baroque cliffside that is quite possibly one of the most arousing, breathtaking sex scenes I’ve ever seen on film. Say what you want about these movies man, and maybe I’m just a whore for visually stimulating horror films and am too generous on the ones that rely on the style over substance play, which is quite possibly the case, and I own that. However, I’m sitting there watching all of this play out and I’m in raptures about it, totally and completely entertained and pleased in my experience, and if that be the case, well I’m more than okay with all style and little substance, provided the style is as bounteous and well crafted as is the case here. *Great* looking film, if not a great one overall.
Who loves the Hugh Jackman Van Helsing flick? I know plenty who hate on it pretty bad but they’re looking at it from too serious a perspective. This comes from Stephen Sommers, the same horror filmmaker to bring us stuff like The Mummy, Deep Rising, GI Joe and the 90’s Jungle Book with Cercei Lannister. This guy is in the industry to make films for fun and if you were expecting the subtlety and restraint of horrors like the source material he draws from well, jokes on you. His Helsing is a splendidly entertaining cornucopia of horror mythology given a juiced up boost of contemporary style and plenty of gothic, mist soaked atmosphere.
Jackman’s Van Helsing ditches the creaky old man archetype for something more virile and torqued up, careening around London like a steampunk Indiana Jones and sporting enough gnarly gadgetry to take on Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman in one film, which coincidentally he does. He’s sort of half sanctioned by the government but the London police force resents his far out methods, especially in a stunning opening romp as he chases Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (a scene stealing Robbie ‘Hagrid’ Coltrane) across rooftops and edifices like a supernatural parkour death match. Then it’s off to Transylvania to do battle with the big bad Vamp King himself, played to melodramatic, emo perfection by Richard Roxburgh. There’s a loose plot involving Dracula wanting to use Dr. Frankenstein’s corpse revitalizing technology to bring his unholy offspring to life, and as such his work poisons the land, pisses off the locals and prompts sexy monster hunter Kate Beckinsale to call for Helsing’s help. It’s an off the rails theme park ride of splatter effects, wild performances and extended chase sequences all over the land. Jackman makes a stalwart antihero, while Beckinsale looks amazing in leather and is surprisingly convincing as an Eastern European. David Wenham provides comic relief cast against type as Van’s trusty clergyman sidekick and the cast is rounded out by Shuler Hensley as The Monster, Elena Anaya, Will Kemp and Kevin J. O Connor as Igor in a cool black and white prologue that serves as the one sequence paying homage to these horror roots.
This was never going to be an awards season darling but it’s nowhere close to as bad as people say. Any film that has all three iconic monsters in it (plus quite a few others too) is going to have a lot to juggle and will just feel chaotic by default, but Sommers handles the pandemonium quite well and knows how to spin an absorbing popcorn yarn. There’s plenty of drop dead gorgeous landscape cinematography given the appropriately macabre touches, monsters running all about the place to give horror fanatics their fix and enough action to spawn a whole video game franchise. My favourite part is where Dracula’s babies finally hatch in spectacularly gooey fashion from Alien style eggs and start swarming the landscape like demonic infant bats. That sequence alone is worth the price of admission and showcases the kind of gung-ho, all or nothing spirit of horror adventure filmmaking offered here. Love this film.
Hollywood loves it’s dark, R rated takes on classic fairytales and Little Red Riding Hood has gotten the treatment a few times, the latest being an ill advised, awful attempt with Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman. To cleanse the pallet of that mess you could check out the gorgeous, creaky, atmospheric hidden gem that is Neil Jordan’s The Company Of Wolves, a lyrical, mesmeric take on the folklore that combines traditional elements with nastier psychological subtext and some terrifying werewolf mythology with effects so gooey they make The Howling look like Balto.
Somewhere in a drafty English countryside manor a young girl (Sarah Patterson) tosses and turns in her sleep as some unknown force beckons her from outside the walls. As we are literally drawn into her subconscious while she slumbers we see her exist in a dream world, living in an enchanted forest with her parents (Steven Rea and Tusse Silberg) and sister. Also with them is her persnickety granny, played with plummy mother-hen fussiness by the great Angela Lansbury. Granny warns her not to venture too far outside the village because werewolves have been sighted, and that the worst kind of wolf a young girl can encounter is one whose fangs are hidden on the inside. This is of course an apparent theme that would fit right in in today’s cultural climate and could teach people a bit about subtlety and restraint when exploring the subject matters. She’s just at that stage between childhood and adolescent that is confusing, alluring and oh so dangerous, and the film uses the fairytale elements to uncover something darker and closer to home lurking beneath. It’s also just a fantastic werewolf flick too, there’s stories within stories told by Lansbury and you can really get lost and swept up in this fantastical world like the dream it ultimately is.
Jordan is a director who clearly cherishes the complexities and challenges of the medium, not one single film he’s released has felt hollow, compromised or candy coated for the masses. This one has absolutely knockout production design, creature effects that will have you covering your eyes (that poor crying toddler when buddy turns into the wolf) and a musical score by George Fenton that’s achingly melodic and threatening in equal doses. As much as all this style is on point though so too are the themes and substance in storytelling, carrying a dense weight that justifies all the visual grandeur. This feels like an important film, albeit absorbed through the scattered prism of a breathless, sweaty nightmare because after all, it is all inside a dream. Until it’s not. One of the best horror films of the 1990’s, nab a Blu Ray if you can but they’re probably scarce. Oh and watch for a diabolical cameo from Terence Stamp too as the Devil himself.