Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Wer (2014)

[Beware of spoilers]

The old familiar Wolf Man or werewolf mythology gets a fresh coat of paint in Wer (2014),  a violent, scary and well-made horror film which suggests that many kinds of monsters exist…some firmly ensconced in the world of man, and some existing on its shadowy periphery.

Wer depicts the story of Talan Gwynek (Brian Scott O’Connor), a French giant who is arrested for the brutal murders of an American family, the Porters. A crusading defense attorney, Katherine Moore (A.J. Cook) attempts to establish Gwynek’s innocence, but soon finds evidence of a dark conspiracy involving the police and specifically, Inspector Pistor (Sebastian Roche).

Because there are monsters of different sorts at work in the film, William Brent Bell’s Wer operates on two levels simultaneously, and audiences are asked to reckon with the idea that some monsters are rendered monstrous by quirks of nature (like genetics), whereas other monsters are evil in deed…even though they know better. 

In other words, a werewolf may be affected by the waxing and waning of the full moon (the so-called “lunar effect), but what’s the excuse of a corrupt official on the take?

Wer is a breath of fresh air and earns my respect and admiration in three ways, primarily.

First -- and harking back to the aforementioned The Wolf Man (1941) -- the film attempts to foster some sense of sympathy for a monster whose violence is, ultimately, outside his ability to control.

In particular, a classic of the genre, The Wolf Man, reveals how even a good man, like Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), can be swept away by a dark force “infecting” him, changing his very nature. 

Some scholars have seen a pointed parallel between the spread of Nazism or fascism in the 1940s and the original film’s approach to its supernatural material, noting the similarity of The Wolf Man’s pentagram and the Third Reich’s re-purposing of the Swastika. Delightfully, Wer operates on similarly fertile terrain by comparing and contrasting evils of vastly different types.

Secondly, Wer erects a scientific case for the existence of werewolves or werewolf-like creature, and does so with enough verisimilitude for viewers to momentarily suspend disbelief. The old werewolf stories focus on supernatural matters such as gypsy curses, but Wer brings lycanthropy leaping and slobbering into the high-tech 21st century, both in terms of the film’s quasi-documentary structure and its explanation for Gwynek.

And last but not least, Wer’s third act descends into incredible, balls-to-the-wall violence (mostly sans CGI), and thus presents a remarkable (and bloody) portrait of super-human power. The film doesn’t hold back in terms of its presentation. Prior to the last act, the film plays like a highly-involving police procedural, but following a surprising scene set in a hospital, the gloves come off and the film goes for broke in terms of depicting the violent nature of its beast. It’s been a good long while -- American Werewolf in London (1981)?  The Howling (1981)? -- since werewolves were portrayed in such scary, visceral terms.

In short, Wer is the movie that 2010’s The Wolf Man (2010) should have been and could have been. It might also qualify as the best werewolf movie in ages.  At the very least, it erases the dreadful imagery of the entirely CGI wolves we’ve grown accustomed to in underwhelming efforts such as the Twilight or Underworld movies.

When Henry Porter and his son are brutally murdered in France, survivor Claire Porter reports that an animal-like man is responsible for the crimes.

Almost immediately, the police arrest a local man Talan Gwynek, for the crimes, and hold him for trial. 

Defense attorney Katherine Moore, and two assistants, Eric (Vik Sahay) and Gavin Flemyng (Simon Quarterman) take on the task of defending Gwynek and learn from his mother that he was home sick on the night of the crimes, and that he suffers from a strange genetic condition that renders him incapable of acting violently, or even from moving at a particularly fast speed.

Kate and the others investigate, and determine that Gwynek may have from an acute form of porphyria, a condition which causes photo-sensitivity, neuropathy, seizures and other mental disturbances.

Worse, the team finds evidence that the law enforcement official investigating the crime, Pistor, may have been involved in the government’s land dispute with Gwynek’s family. The family was offered a substantial amount to move off its property, but Gwynek’s father, who died in a mysterious car crash, refused. 

Now, with Gwynek accused of murder, Pistor and the State stand to benefit.

Gavin -- who is accidentally bitten by Gwynek during a struggle at police headquarters -- decides to test Gwynek for porphyria, but the test goes terribly wrong, awakening a monster and sowing bloody chaos in the streets of Paris.

I was pleasantly surprised, while watching Wer to note how the film lovingly updates Wolf Man or werewolf lore with the latest science.

In particular, the film suggests that Gwynek suffers from porphyria, a condition made worse, according to Eric, during full moons because of the “lunar effect.” This effect is a hypothetical correlation between phases of the moon and animal (and human) behavior. 

Now, there are those in the scientific community who dismiss the impact of such lunar effects and suggest that those who have first-hand evidence of it are only demonstrating “confirmation bias.”  Perhaps this is so.

On the other hand, talk to a police officer, emergency room doctor, or psychologist, and listen to what they have to say about the impact of the full moon on human behavior.

I’m not advocating for any particular point of view here, only noting that Wer boasts a kind of surface legitimacy or plausibility, at least. By marrying porphyria with the lunar effect, the film arrives at a plausible explanation for the historical myths of lycanthropy.  Five hundred years ago, someone suffering from porphyria might have been mistaken for an animal, the film suggests. 

Of more genuine interest, perhaps, are the film’s comparisons of different evils.

Gwynek is compelled, literally, to act in an evil fashion by the genetic anomaly that impacts him. His mother claims that he is a gentle boy, for instance. He doesn’t want to do bad things but, because of the coupling of porphyria and the lunar effect, he becomes a monstrous animal, a brutal killer. In the course of the film, however, we see that Talan takes steps to control his transformation when possible, and there is a chair with straps in a secret room in his basement. 

In fact, Gwynek doesn’t fully transform, or go wild, on-screen, at least, until a hospital test causes a seizure and drives him mad. Again, matters are out of his hands, much as they are out of Larry Talbot’s hands in The Wolf Man.

Pistor, by contrast, is an evil man by choice. He is corrupt and ignored evidence (involving the death of Gwynek’s father) for a pay-off.    Similarly, Pistor uses the event of Gwynek’s transformation to attempt to kill the only person in the world who can bring him to justice for his crimes: Kate. He intentionally shoots her in the stomach from a perch on a helicopter, hoping her death will become part of the “fog” surrounding Gwynek’s attempted capture.

And what does Pistor hope to gain by looking the other way and by attempted murder? He stands to get rich.  And the love of money is the root of all evil, right?

In particular, the local municipality wants to use Gwynek’s land as the site for nuclear waste deposits, but his family won’t sell the property. Interestingly, evidence points to the fact that Gwynek’s father was drugged before his death, and that this condition caused the accident. 

Did Pistor drug him?  And if so, that brings up the possibility that Talan was also drugged Pistor and perhaps brought about his werewolf state. Certain drugs could heighten acute porphyria.

In Wer, we see Gwynek commit horrible crimes, and yet we still feel some sympathy for him, perhaps because we know he was dealt a lousy hand by life. Again, this is also Larry Talbot’s situation in The Wolf Man. We know he is the Wolf Man, and that he commits terrible crimes, and yet we can’t quite hate him completely for it.

Wer also involves another werewolf, and though that werewolf acts heroically at first, the film’s denouement suggests that this might not always be the case, and that someone with a more “worldly” viewpoint than Gwynek might actually be a greater threat than he was. 

Imagine someone corrupt, like Pistor, also having the strength of Talan Gwynek.  It’s a scary thought, and the film ends with this kind of hybrid, of two evils -- human and natural -- conjoined in one being. It’s a perfect set-up for a sequel, but more than that, an exploration of the darkest aspects of human nature.

In terms of its structure, Wer is quasi-found footage in approach, one might assert. The film opens with home movie-style footage of the Porter family’s murder. Later, Kate is interviewed for a news program. 
Throughout the film, the editor also cuts to surveillance camera footage at the police station, and also local news footage of Gwynek’s murder spree. Much of the film isn’t found-footage by necessity, including Gavin’s scarifying (and intimate) moment in front of a mirror with a straight-razor.

But the hybrid format functions well in terms of the movie’s thematic approach.  Gwynek is a hybrid too, part man and part-animal, and the truth about his nature bridges that gap, not exactly known or quantified, despite best explanations. The distance between the quasi-documentary-style scenes and the traditional scenes hint at this tension.

Wer is a bloody good horror film, you could say, because it remembers the reasons we love the Wolf Man (and other werewolf stories) in the first place.  It’s the human connection: the idea that genes in some way determine destiny, even if we don’t want them to.

There was a time in the horror genre when many monsters were like Gwynek. They were, by and large: fallen men trying to be anything but a monster, and failing the test due to some personal foibles or clay feet. We may still hate them and be fearful of them as “monsters,” but in the end, we can recognize ourselves, at least a little, in Gwynek or Larry Talbot.  We would rather be like them, perhaps, than like Pistor.

It’s nice to see this old idea given fresh new life in Wer.

1 comment:

  1. Really looking forward to this one. Hard to find good werewolf films, let alone intelligent ones. I am a fan of AJ Cook via Criminal Minds, so that's a plus as well. I am hoping though, that the found footage isn't too shaky. My stomach can take all the gore in the world but bounce the camera around and I'm done.

    Excellent review, as always.