Game of Werewolves Review
Hold onto your sombreros … coz fur is gonna fly!
Roaring its lupine way onto UK Blu this Halloween season comes the first of a talon-slash of lycanthropic thriller-chillers that includes Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (which I will be taking a look at soon) and the steelbook 2-disc version of Neil Jordan’s awesome The Company of Wolves (which I will be taking another look at!). Spain’s cult acclaimed Lobos de Arga, or Attack of the Werewolves in the UK, or Game of Werewolves in the US, giving it that cute little riff on HBO’s Game of Thrones, is a rip-snorting frenzy of hairball antics set in a small rural village that gets overrun with the beasties when a gypsy curse turns full circle and comes round to bite practically everybody on the bum. Made with its rabid tongue tucked deeply into its shaggy cheek, this paella-flavoured spin on the mangy old myth amiably follows the pungent scent of other wolfish horror-comedies such as the immortal classics of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, as well as the mini-masterpiece of Dog Soldiers, but it really prefers to run wild with the more slapstick pack of chortling slaughterfests like Evil Dead II, Shaun of the Dead, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, Black Sheep and, inevitably, Strippers vs Werewolves.
It’s a crowded field all right, but Attack has considerable charm and enough of its own engaging personality to shine through the coarse, wiry fur that often fills the screen, and to become a delicously tasty little morsel on the splattery smorgasbord of the werewolf genre.
Made by Juan Martinez Moreno, who wrote and directed the film, Attack tells the tale of Tomas (Gorka Otxoa), a struggling writer, who returns home to the isolated village of Arga, a Galician province on the Pilgrim Trail that he left fifteen years before, in order to claim the old family mansion that he has inherited. Given the freedom of the hamlet, ostensibly because he is a local who has made something of himself (the truth is he can’t sell a damn thing … and the real reason that he’s been welcomed back is actually far more sinister), he wanders around what amounts to a Spanish equivalent of American Werewolf’s haunted Yorkshire enclave of East Proctor oblivious to that fact practically everybody there wants him dead. We learn, in a gorgeously vivid 2D comic-book introduction, that the village was once ruled by a sadistic marchioness whose lily-livered weakling of a husband could not provide with a son. Then, when a caravan of performing gypsies arrives, she sees the potential of a solid, macho seed in the dynamic young knife-thrower in their ranks. Having him seized and dragged back to the mansion, she lashes him to the bed and rapes him! Knowing that the deed has been successful and that she now has a son within her, she has all of the gypsies massacred, including the knife-thrower. But, before she dies, the knife-thrower’s wife issues a bloodcurdling curse upon the marchioness and the villagers – that on his tenth birthday, the boy she gives birth to will become a ferocious werewolf, and bring evil and death to the area.
The curse can only be lifted if the seemingly immortal beast eats one of its descendants on the hundredth anniversary of that fateful tenth birthday … which just happens to be when Tomas comes back to the place he once called home. Day One of his return is full of cute, though weird reunions … these country folks aren’t quite what the Madrid-based Tomas is used to, but it all seems fairly kosher. Tomas and his yappy little dog, Vito, seem happy to settle in. And then everything suddenly turns into The Wicker Man as Tomas opens the front door to a gun-toting, torch-wielding mob of people he thought were his friends and relatives. Led in a solemn procession to that big spooky old barn that had unearthly noises emanating from behind its suspiciously padlocked doors, he finds that the original werewolf has been trapped down in the catacombs beneath it, fed on a diet of stray pilgrims for decades, and that he is to be its long-awaited, destiny-flavoured supper.
Yoikes! It’s enough to make even Rambo Scooby-Doo his pants!
So much for the red carpet treatment, eh?
But, in a novel twist, there is a secondary curse that will kick into action should this foul clause not be strictly adhered-to by the last chime of midnight. The villagers, themselves, who are hell-bent on eradicating these vengeful gypsy depredations that have plagued them, have no idea what this malicious fallback hoodoo entails … but when things go wrong with their plans, as things invariably do, and Tomas is comically saved from his own sacrifice by his former best friend Calisto (a brilliant Carlos Areces), along with his idiotic publisher, Mario (Secun de la Rosa), who just happened to pay a visit at precisely the worst possible moment and ended-up on the same menu as tapas, they all find out the hard and hairy way, and Arga becomes the Spanish werewolf central.
Add to this trio of reluctant werewolf-slayers Tomas’ resourceful, gumption-filled Aunt Rosa (Mabel Rivera), who knows a thing or two about the family tree, and a resilient copper (Luis Zahera) who has been left stranded in the village after his irresponsible partner has shot up their car and radio by mistake, and you’ve got a recipe for a rule-bending on-the-hoof spoof of monstrous proportions.
Myth collides with mirth, and the gory giggles blunder along with cheerful abandon. But the inspired thing here is that the funny bits are genuinely funny – even laugh-out loud funny – and the scary bits are actually pretty hair-raising.
Buenos dias, fur-ball!
Spainhas quite a long heritage of cinematic werewolfry. Well … by that I mean that they have the late great Paul Naschy, a veritable one-man pack of loopy loup-garou shenanigans, whose noble scratchings as the heroic wolfman Waldenar Daninsky have been gracing flea-bitten Drive-ins since the late sixties, and would surface on crusty videocassettes in the UK to face the rather unsporting wrath of the censors during the rabid Nasties fiasco. I am certain that the squat little monster from Madrid, the Spanish answer to Lon Chaney Jnr., would approve of his countryman’s lupine pursuits. Mind you, we need to remember that Hammer Films had a stab at clawing the castanets first with their lurid and controversial 1961 chiller-thriller, The Curse of the Werewolf, with Oliver Reed as the accursed lycan ... and it is probably from this classic yarn that the enthusiastic Moreno drew a lot of his inspiration, as both feature a terrible wrong committed against a Romany who then begets a son to commit atrocities in justified revenge. Things do get a little more out of hand in this turbulent tale of tails run-amok, though!
Opting to go for the tall, muscular bipedal werewolf – which is always the best and the scariest depiction, if you ask me – Moreno’s monsters are silver-grey and imposing, with blazing red satanic eyes. In fact, if you know your lycanthropic literature and the lyrical legends hailing from the mistier, more superstitious corners of Europe, this is actually the quintessential look of what has long been the cinema’s archetypical wolf man. One famous old incantation was set to conjure up a demonic wolf-spirit, nude and grey, with blood-red feral eyes, who was supposed to bestow the gift of werewolfdom to the summoner. Moreno’s critters look just like this. CG is brought into play in some very rare instances of the beasts jumping onto, or plunging off roofs, as well as during a most unusual facial morphing, and this is naturally a refreshing stance in a genre positively harassed by pixel-animated entities. Neil Marshall adopted the fantastic use of haunch-like stilts for his squaddie-chomping howlers in Dog Soldiers, with lithe and nimble dancers giving them life beneath surprisingly beautiful Lassie-dog heads, and Joe Johnston allowed monster-maker extraordinaire Rick Baker to smother Oscar-nabber Benecio Del Toro in tufty fur, a latex snout and puffed-up muscles in his lavish, but ill-thought-out remake of The Wolfman. Pretty much all the werewolves who have poked their muzzles out of the silver-screen in recent yearsbesides these grizzled examples have been CG creations. The lamentable lupines of Van Helsing, the Underworld series and, most agonising of all, the neutered Twilight films have brought the genuine fearsomeness of the creature into severe and risible disrepute. As is more often the case than not, we need something physical and genuinely there in-camera when it comes to convincing us that a big brutish monster is on the offensive. Moreno certainly understands this and strives to gets it right. And I would say that he succeeds. To a degree.
The enemy of this old-school style is, of course, over-exposure, and Attack certainly enjoys amassing its monsters for us to admire in unashamedly long takes. Moreno often fills the screen with his bestial brethren, adopting a more is more approach that may be heart-warming for creature-lovers like me, but also dilutes their eerie effectiveness. From the chest up, these guys are extremely intimidating – more akin to the bench-pressing physique of the brute in Big Bad Wolf than the elongated stature of those seen in The Howling – but the costumes have the unfortunate effect of making them rather more cute ‘n’ cuddly if you cast your eyes lower down. Big rounded thighs and far too much fur around the feet make them look a little too, well, fluffy. They have a very uniform look, too. All except for Tomas’ Uncle Evaristo (Manuel Manquina), the dubiously self-appointed village priest and head thug, who sports his, wait for it, dog-collar, for a little while until he receives a nasty wound to distinguish him from the rest of his wolfish flock. I like the costumes, but they do have an off-the-peg sort of quality.
Plus, Moreno falls for that now stale device of having his horrors frequently just stand there and roar at their intended victims, with their arms held wide as though they are hefting a couple of large invisible pumpkins. Having one of them do this would be okay, but he has dozens of the buggers forming up like a troupe of furry flamenco dancers all doing it in unison.
It’s a fur-flinging fiesta!
What really comes across well is that the cast are having a whale of a time.
This is surely aided by the fact that the film is intentionally designed as an ensemble piece. We may have initially empathised mainly with Otxoa’s Tomas, but he pretty much accomplishes nothing, gets belittled all the time and ends-up battered and bruised and minus a few digits. De la Rosa’s conniving opportunist Mario is equally dumb and boisterously stupid but he, like Otxoa, has acres of charisma. And Areces is terrific as Calisto. Looking like a cross between the drummer from The Killers and the exasperated Spanish waiter from the 80’s TV sitcom Duty Free, he is not only the gormless fall-guy of the ragtag bunch of fugitives but, quite brilliantly, he comes across as the brains of the unit, too. He affects the first rescue that saves Tomas and Mario from getting eaten-up. He comes up with the escape-plan. And, best of all, he discovers a way of counteracting the curse – well, one of curses anyway. Without Calisto’s valiant yet half-witted endeavours, the film would grind to a grisly halt after half and hour. He is an idiot, though. I love the way that the script spins a traditional sheep-worrying joke upon its woolly head when a secret is divulged about Calisto’s misspent adolescence. And this age-old chestnut gets further mileage when Tomas taunts his friend with a seductive bleat at a moment when the two of them should really be keeping very, very quiet. It is also Calisto who reveals the most compassion when it comes to a certain unusual member of their thrown-together band of survivors, offering charity, sanctuary and protection when everyone else’s instincts are to simply pull the trigger. Thus, in a neat flip on convention, he becomes the unlikely main saviour of the piece.
But their comic interaction is infectious and the glue that holds the whole thing together.
In a dazzling feat of genre celebration, the movie gets the balance between chuckles and shivers just about right without falling into farce or parody. In fact, because of the great offbeat characters and the genuine sense of queasy humour, the nastier moments work really well too, establishing a real anything-goes approach. Torch-lit prowlings down in the warren beneath the old barn tickle the hairs on the back of the neck, especially when something large hidden beneath an old sackcloth suddenly rouses from its slumber, and a sequence when the local landlord goes to investigate a noise downstairs actually gave me a severe case of the creeps. Marvellously, Moreno is able to expand upon this as the frightened wife he left upstairs awaiting his return gets a visit from a much larger and hairier patron than is usual … although part of her husband still comes back to kiss her goodnight!
But instead of merely accepting that there is a curse upon the village and leaving this as the film’s main device, as many filmmakers would do, Moreno allows his hapless and argumentative protagonists to try and defy its potency and defeat its evil. The gypsy’s hex doesn’t state, as Calisto quite correctly points out, whether the beast has to eat all of Tomas, or just a little piece of him to cease its diabolical influence. This creates a terrific set-piece of pure gallows humour and even purer finger-chopping slapstick, made all the tastier by a dash of oregano and garlic, and all the more beautifully ridiculous with the intervention of a hungry Vito sticking his nose in. Never has flipping somebody the bird been a more appropriate reaction to such a gruesome tactic.
The banter between the three is terrific, although I will say that the English subtitles possibly mangle the timing of a gag or two … and a couple might even get lost in translation.
The action comes thick and fast too, and with a fair degree of invention. These werewolves are nothing if not exuberant. They bound and lope and leap and spin with probably as much aplomb as those performing gypsies who caused the whole damn thing in the first place. That they are mostly stuntmen won’t come as much of a surprise. A stand-off in the middle of a street as the full moon rises is both tense and hugely amusing – and possibly a wink to the cool, but ridiculous, scene in The Howling when Dee Wallace simply gawps mesmerised as sex-killer Eddie Quist transforms over four minutes into a seven-foot-tall werewolf. There is an inspired means of escaping the clutches of a lycan via a desecrated grave and the carcass of a long-dead corpse. Then there is the road-chase that sees the adrenalized auntie playing Mad Max with a horde of pursuing mutt-faces, but just savour the cracker-jack timing that Tomas makes to save poor sky-flung Vito, making the crucial catch even sans a couple of his favourite fingers. There is a smart little beat when two armed watchdogs standing guard outside the barn suddenly realise that it has all gone quiet … too quiet. Nobody utters the clichéd line, but it is wonderful to see them both come to that same apparent conclusion and then look at one another with their hackles raised.
Despite a severed noggin here and an eviscerated corpse there, the movie isn’t particularly bloody, though what little bit of viscera we do get is put on gleeful display.
One possible problem is that Moreno’s narrative can’t help but descend into repetition. The final third is like a siege-hopping tour of the village, with our gaggle of unlikely heroes getting holed-up in various locations before being forced into another running battle with the ever-growing battalion of monsters. Personally, I enjoyed the almost ceaseless conflict of it all, but I can see how some viewers might find the lengthy final stretch a bit tedious. This said, I’ve seen the film a few times now, and with different people on each occasion, and I can happily report that everyone seemed to heartily enjoy the blend of quips and rips.
Vampire, werewolf and zombie flicks have pretty much run the gamut of what’s possible now. There have been the great ones, the naff ones, the revisionist ones, the teen ones, the straight-to-DVD ones, and even the TV ones. So finding something fresh amongst the charnel house of genre’s most expendable fiends is about as commonplace as putting your foot in rocking-horse muck. Now, Moreno’s mutton-chop movie is hardly original, but it definitely sticks out from the flesh-gnawing crowd because it is an absolute riot of hirsute hilarity, and its focus upon a bunch of inane, inept and actually quite indestructible heroes is both rib-tickling and touching. As daft as it all is, you do care about these dunderheads. The film has a nifty premise and it takes a couple of sweet little deviations from what you expect of it but, at the end of the day, there’s nothing here that is unique apart from its winning and addictive sense of fun.
I’m a die-hard werewolf fanatic as many of you reading this will already know ... but this doesn’t mean that I just adore any old shaggy-dog story that comes along. I already knew that the movie had gone down well on the festival circuit – it brought the house down in Edinburgh - yet I still had my fingers crossed that this wouldn’t just be another sheep in wolf’s clothing. But I had a ball with it.
Hokey title aside,Attack of the Werewolves is damn fine entertainment and much, much better than it sounds. It probably plays best with a crowd of like-minded genre-fans, but there is certainly wit and atmosphere and action to spare with this unruly addition to the pack. It will make you laugh, and it will give you a couple of shivers, and, if nothing else, it keeps the spirit of Paul Naschy’s wolfman obsession alive and growling, which is sure to warm the cockles of many an aficionado’s ghoulish heart.
Special mention must also go to the great lenticular slip-case that features one of the werewolves on the prowl, and really projecting out at you from the gnarly woods. Very nice!