Uncaged (2016)

Uncaged is what happens when you try to mix old school werewolves with modern technology and mix it with an overdose of misguided machismo. It has moments of humor and some decent cinematography on a shoestring budget, but its many faults eventually weigh it down. It’s not that the werewolf story is incapable of modernization – I can give you at least ten examples where it works just fine – but rather that the default themes have become sorely outdated and – much like the filmmaking technology itself – must be revised in order to fit with a changing society.

Let’s start with the base assumption. Traditionally, the werewolf transformation has been a metaphor for the primal, male sex drive that has been constrained by polite society and will eventually break free and run rampant. “Unleashing the beast”, and what not. Later films have changed the metaphor slightly – notably as a metaphor for puberty and female desire in the Ginger Snaps series – but the historical roots remain strong. The “beast” is primal, masculine sexual desire. It can only be contained by noble self-sacrifice – often promoted by a desire to protect a virtuous woman (a Madonna figure) – or by the love of a virtuous woman (again, the Madonna). The beast feeds on nameless strangers and loose women (the Whore), who are usually non-white, and is either aided or encouraged by other male characters. The beast can only come out at night and is weakened by silver. All your standard werewolf lore.

Uncaged makes the connection between sex and werewolves painfully clear – nearly every conversation the characters have revolves around men perusing sex with women. However, the desire is strictly heterosexual and male-focused. Of the few women who appear in the film, none have their own character arcs or agency. Their roles and stories are dependent entirely on the men in their lives. The three female characters each fall into stereotypical roles: the Mother (the mother of one character), the Madonna (Rose, a black woman in an abusive relationship who must be rescued by a white man – she is never sexualized), and the Whore (Crystal, the promiscuous, unintentionally sympathetic hookup of another character). Only one of them – Crystal, the Whore – has any desire or storyline unconnected to men and hers – the pursuit of the farm’s elusive, nonexistent cat – ends up being the thing that gets her horribly murdered. Rose’s entire storyline concerns the varied men in her life who are concerned with her purity – there’s an entire subplot, never fully resolved, about whether or not she was cheating on her husband with one of the werewolf victims. The film ends with Rose getting attacked and infected with the werewolf virus, which could be seen as a metaphor for sexual assault. Notably, it’s the only attack in the film that leaves a survivor – but her life is horribly changed against her will, by men – and she’s stuck at the mercy of a gun-toting man who very well might kill her for her perceived “impurity”.

The entire thing is so ham-fisted that it must have been on purpose, though for the life of me I really can’t imagine why. None of the male characters fit into these archetypes. No one gives a damn about their sexual purity – rather the opposite – and the fact that this sexual drive is apparently leading them to murder people is just…there. Without comment.

So. There’s that.

Aside from its curious views on women, Uncaged has some clunky dialog and unsympathetic character, who commit several murders without showing any particular concerned for the victims – the majority of which are women and black men.

There’s a pattern here. It’s a problem.

The movie has some interesting ideas mixed in along all the racial and gender issues, though there are a few too many plot holes for them to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, even without all the other issues, Uncaged suffers from a bounty of competition in the werewolf subgenre and doesn’t come up with anything creative enough to hold its head above the crowd. Skip this one. It made me feel gross.

 

 

 

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Howl (2015)

So, this one shall be short and sweet. Your basic late night b-movie with some added fun. A late night train gets derailed in a forest and find themselves on the dinner menu of the resident werewolf. Come for the werewolf effects, stay for the surprisingly nuanced character development, and try to ignore Howl’s strange obsession with masculinity. It’s fun if you don’t think too hard about the plot details (train security does not work like that), the monster effects are decent, camera work is excellent, and I like it more than I expected. Howl isn’t going to add anything memorable to the genre, but suspend you disbelief for a while and enjoy the ride.

Try to forgive the first third of Howl for its instance on exploring the protagonist’s adventures in failed masculinity and its decision to kill off all the interesting characters. It’s fun if you don’t think too hard. This one’s on my list for popcorn night. Bring the cheese. This one’s gloriously full of it.

Wer (2013)

Wer opens to a jarring, brutal beat and continues on with the song right until the end. This is a movie that returns to the brutality of the early werewolf legends, cutting out the more recent attempts at humanizing the monster, or making the story more palatable to audiences. Make no mistake, Wer is absolutely relentless in its brutality. To my surprise, I also found it to be well plotted and extensively researched. Despite a few egregious jump-scares, Wer is one of the better werewolf films to be released in the last ten years.

The plot is deceptively simple. An American family has been attacked while on vacation in France. A local man, Talan Gwynek, has been arrested for the crime, all though the evidence is shaky at best, and the local police strangely reluctant to cooperate. The attorney hired to represent Talan is mounting a defense arguing that the family was killed in an animal attack and that Talan was a convenient (and, it turns out, extremely profitable) scapegoat. However, things are never as clear-cut as they seem.

I’d argue that Wer is one of director William Brent Bell’s more thought out projects, though it loses momentum and a lot of its coherence in the second half. For better or worse, Wer does its best work in the first half of the film. The plotting is tighter, the dialog more nuanced, and the tension develops in natural ways.

Though this is not spelled out in the film, the circumstances of Talan’s case mirror those of several historical “werewolf” murders. It’s established early on that Talan is disabled, suffering from undiagnosed porphyria, and has been socially isolated almost his entire life due to the physical symptoms of the disease (limited mobility, excessive hair growth, seizures, etc.). Additionally, Talan’s family is composed of immigrants from Romania, not native Frenchmen. Though Talan appears fairly intelligent and speaks near perfect English, he is not especially educated. It also becomes apparent that his family is relatively poor – with an interesting caveat. While the Gwyneks themselves don’t have a lot of money, their land is extremely valuable, and the surrounding community would benefit greatly if it were to be sold. However, the Gwyneks refuse to do so. This, added with the fact that Talan’s father died under extremely suspicious conditions, gives the surrounding community no reason to love Talan and every reason to want him gone.

In essence, what we have is a poor, socially isolated family in a country that is not especially known for its tolerance of immigrants, surrounded by a community that would benefit financially from their expulsion. The situation resembles the one faced by Giles Garnier, often called the Werewolf of Dole. Garnier was accused and eventually confessed to killing at least four children in 1572. He was found guilty and executed, along with his wife. Garnier was a poor man of limited means, socially isolated, and disliked by his community. It was also possible that he was mentally ill. It also resembles the situation faced by Peter Stumpp, the Werewolf of Bedburg, in 1589. Peter Stumpp was a German farmer, and a fairly well to do Protestant in a time and place where Protestants were not well liked. Peter Stumpp was also disabled, missing a hand from a farming accident. It is likely “Stumpp” was a nickname referring to the injury, rather than his given name. He confessed under torture to killing fourteen children and two women, and was later executed in 1598, along with his entire family.

Now, whether or not these men were serial killers is debatable. Certainly there were deaths that occurred in these time periods, but whether beasts or these specific men were involved cannot be known for certain. Too much time has passed. However, what we can know is that the circumstances involving these two historical cases mirror the fictional case in Wer quite closely. Though this is not spelled out in the film, it’s clear that a great deal of research went into the story.

Curiously, both Giles Garnier and Talan are French. It’s unclear exactly where the events of Wer are meant to have taken place, but I find it significant that they occurred in the same country. For what it’s worth, the film was shot in Romania, likely for financial reasons. Draw your own connections.

To its credit, Wer doesn’t shy away the complicating factors surrounding the case. It’s clear from the beginning that the community stands to benefit from Talan’s conviction – the payoff being in the millions if the family relinquishes the land, which they may have to do anyway in order to pay the legal bills. It’s also clear that Talan’s isolation, disability, and limited social skills leave him in a difficult position; in essence, he’s presented as a tempting target, with few means of defending himself. Additionally, there are the jurisdictional complications with accusing a French citizen (especially one with immigrant parents) of the murder of three American citizens on French soil. The characters deal with these issues as they pop up in ways that allow for natural character development and cohesive world building. In the first half of this film, we have a very clear picture of who these people are, the stakes they face, and how their world operates.

The second half of Wer challenges this a bit. While I’m the last person to be arguing against creating sympathetic villains, Talan’s shift from sympathetic plot device to violent, murderous plot device comes too quickly to be effectively processed, and not enough of the details of his story are wrapped up before the carnage starts showing up. Which is a problem here, because Wer unfortunately lets itself get distracted by the brutality of the gore, and forgets to spend time on the more delicate details of the plot. Now, this move does have its advantages; the scenes of chaos are beautifully and effectively shot and I enjoyed the experience of watching them in the moment. The audience gets pulled into the chaos right alongside the characters, something few movies manage to accomplish. However, Wer doesn’t seem to know how to pull itself back on track and return to more cohesive storytelling after the fact. Too many questions are left unanswered, and none of the character arcs are completed.

I’m also curious about the choice to make Talan guilty of the crimes, despite (or perhaps because of) the importance that Wer placed on understanding his precarious social situation. It’s clear from the beginning that Talan was targeted because he, for various reasons, made for a convenient scapegoat. It’s also left unclear whether or not Talan even understood his own actions, or had any recollection of the murders. Wer establishes that at least one trigger for the werewolf transformation is Talan’s seizures – is he in control? To what extent? The audience just doesn’t know. This complicates the story, as we have no idea if Talan (and everyone else around him) is a tragic victim of his disease, or if he finally snapped under the pressing reality of his situation. Wer made a choice to leave that ambiguous, a move I’m not fond of.

For all its nuance in the beginning, Wer comes dangerously close to falling into stereotypes about disability, immigration, and poverty being directly related to violent and depraved behavior. While I don’t believe this was the intention of the director, the sloppiness of the second half gives the film an unfortunate reading of the situation. As filmmakers, we have an obligation to realize what we are saying with our art, and how it might be interpreted. Fiction has been a way for people to gage the acceptability of their beliefs and actions since the invention of storytelling; the things we say have influence on the society around us, whether we realize it or not. Our stories, even the ones about werewolves, are never without impact. Wer’s use of historical cases complicates this even further.

Was this intentional? Maybe, maybe not. I’d go out on a limb and say most filmmakers don’t create stories with the intent of causing harm to anyone. And on the whole, Wer doesn’t do anything terribly egregious – it doesn’t indicate that immigrants or poor people are inherently violent. However, Wer does fit into a pattern of stereotypes in storytelling that have a historical basis; after a while, these things add up. And they have an impact.

So, what does that mean about the movie? Honestly, that’s up to you. I’ve seen films that are intentionally and blatantly racist, or otherwise harmful to minority groups. Wer is not one of those. It’s a thoughtful, carefully plotted story, and a fun watch. However, the stereotypes it eventually falls into have a long and troubled history, which should be kept in mind. These things shouldn’t prevent anyone from enjoying the film, but it is important to realize that they do have an impact and can – in great enough number – cause harm to real, living people. Stereotypes influence how we view the world, which impacts how we treat people. Keep that in mind.

Technically speaking, Wer takes more than a few risks, blending first person shaky-cams and an aborted, confusing soundtrack to convey the emotional situations that the characters find themselves in. The camera works as a direct indicator of the emotional read of whatever scene it happens to be shooting, instead of an unbiased observer. The soundtrack fades in and out, though this works surprisingly well in Wer.

The musician Brian Scott O’Connor presents a subdued, careful performance of Talan, and surprising amount of nuance given that Wer is apparently his first film. It’s a rare actor that can convincingly portray a nearly silent character for the length of a feature film, but O’Conner pulls it off. Relying entirely on physicality in lieu of dialog is a difficult skill, and one that many actors – however seasoned – tend to struggle with. This role bodes well for O’Conner’s acting resume, should he choose to continue with it. I hope to see him acting again, as he had a great screen presence. That being said, the script doesn’t give him nearly enough to do in the second half, essentially abandoning his character arc in favor of chasing the gore.

In general, Wer has interesting, though flawed, things to say, and it’s a fun watch besides. I very much recommend it, though ask that you give it some critical thought afterwards.