Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

A little while ago I lamented the lack of modern-day horror movies filmed as period pieces. It seems that the rich superstitions of the past, coupled with the lack of technology back then, would make period horror flicks a no-brainer. Yet, because I think horror fans are continuously underestimated, the studios keep pumping out horror films that feature a bunch of modern-day teens fighting for their lives against a masked killer. Those kinds of films are all good and fun, but sometimes I want a film that delves deeper and has some history behind it.

Enter Christophe Gans’ 2001 film, The Brotherhood of the Wolf. Based on the true story of the “Beast of Gevaudan” that terrorized the French countryside during the reign of King Louis XV, Brotherhood is an extraordinary film that not only shows us the terror of people that feel completely unprotected and vulnerable to a monster, but also shows us how superstitions, religion, beliefs and lack of technology of that time influence people’s assumptions of just what the beast was. It also manages to mix a straight-up monster tale with a period drama and adds some amazing Kung-Fu action as well!

In the film, the French region of Gevaudan has been terrorized by a wolf-like creature that likes attacking women and children. The beast has eluded any attempts at capture, so King Louis XV sends his naturalist Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) to investigate reports of the beast and hopefully aid in killing it. Fronsac is accompanied by his “blood brother” Mani (Mark Dacascos), a Mohawk Indian who rescued Fronsac during the Seven Years War in America.

Through many hunts organized by the nobles of the region, Fronsac tries to discover exactly what the beast is and how it can best be killed. He is startled to discover evidence that proves the beast is not merely a large wolf, but something much more sinister…and that a man might be somehow controlling the creature.
As Fronsac is coming to his conclusions, he also begins to fall in love with Mariane De Morgangias (Emilie Dequenne), daughter in the affluent and influential family. Yet, he continues to visit prostitute Sylvia (Monica Belluci) until Mariane’s brother Jean-Francois (Vincent Cassel) alerts his sister to Fronsac’s infidelity.

With Fronsac being distracted from the hunt for the beast by thoughts of Mariane as well as his unusual findings suggesting that the beast is not a wolf, the King sends in his own lieutenant to dispatch the creature. The lieutenant kills a fairly large wolf and claims it to be the beast to appease the King and then coerces Fronsac to go along with the lie. Defeated in both hunting for the beast as well as in love, Fronsac returns to Paris and the King forbids him from ever returning or speaking of Gevaudan.

When the real beast strikes yet again, Fronsac defies the King’s orders and returns to the region to prepare for one final hunt…but nothing can prepare him for the true horror of what he finds.

Brotherhood of the Wolf is an absolutely stunning film in all respects. From its beautifully-filmed action sequences to the acting to the plot, it is as close to perfect as can be! The first thing I noticed about the film was the jaw-dropping cinematography, by Dan Laustsen. Each and every scene is just beautiful, whether it’s Fronsac inspecting a woman’s body laid out on fallen autumn leaves in the shallow end of a pond or it’s a shot of the tree-covered countryside swathed in snow. The film is just gorgeous! Director Gans certainly has an eye for the dramatic, especially in his exciting action sequences! Whether it was horses racing through the forest or Mani taking on a group of ruffians, the direction by Gans was near flawless and lets us see everything that was happening. I also appreciated how in a few scenes the action was slowed down so we could see it in all its glory! Simply breathtaking!

The story, written by Gans and St├ęphane Cabel, was fantastic as well! I really loved how almost all of the characters (with the exception of Mani) actually did exist in real life and how the first third of the film is faithful to true events. The story also isn’t a traditional “werewolf” tale, though it makes short mention of the possibility, instead taking a more intriguing path as to the genesis of the creature. I also enjoyed how it encompassed aspects of different genres like drama, romance, horror, action, martial arts and period piece. This worked marvelously well and made it feel like a more complete story.

The characters were also all fantastic, and we can never be sure who to trust or who to suspect. The intrigue between characters really helped to heighten the tension of the film. The actors all did a phenomenal job of bringing their characters to life, especially considering the large cast! Samuel Le Bihan was stunning as the swashbuckling Fronsac and Vincent Cassel put forth a very memorable performance as the suave yet creepy Jean-Francois De Morgangias. Monica Belluci added a mystical, noble air to her character of the prostitute Sylvia while Emilie Dequenne added some spunk to her innocent character of Mariane De Morgangias. I also enjoyed Mark Dacascos in his physically-demanding role of Mani, especially in his amazing fight sequences!

The action sequences, as I’ve already mentioned time and time again in this review, just left me speechless. Whether it was someone fighting off the beast or Mani fighting a gang of ruffians or Fronsac’s final battle, I just couldn’t rip my eyes away from the screen! And these action-sequences aren’t that far and in-between either…they happen pretty often throughout the film and it’s just a thrill watching every single one of them! The martial arts Kung-Fu action used works surprisingly well in Brotherhood and I think the way these scenes are shot make them an appropriate fit into the context of the film. The glimpses of the beast also work very well, letting us see a bit more as the film progresses, but never quite revealing just what it is until the end of the movie.

I could wax poetic about all the merits of Brotherhood of the Wolf, but for time’s sake I will cut it short! Brotherhood of the Wolf is an exciting, luminous film that left me in awe. I am a sucker for period horror films, and this is certainly one of the best (if it isn’t THE best) I’ve ever seen. It utilizes its setting for optimum effect, using the superstitions of the 18th century as well as a true story to build its premise, then adding dashes of martial arts action and its own conclusions as to the identity of the beast to round out its awe-inspiring tale. If this review hasn’t convinced you to run out and watch it, let me reiterate by saying – GO! Watch it NOW!

Available from Amazon!

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