Review: Toronto After Dark Film Festival – Game of Werewolves
Game of Werewolves (2011)–or Werewolves of Agra, if one decides to translate its Spanish title literally–is a wonderful homage to not only the great werewolf films of the 1980s, but to the original Universal Studios classics and Hammer versions. The reverence and love that director Juan Martínez Moreno has for the subgenre is made evident in a number of ways. For one, the creature design is clearly inspired by that of The Wolf Man (1941) and An American Werewolf in London (1981), while the use of air bladders to create abnormal bulges during transformation scenes recalls The Howling (1981). And second, the special effects seem to have been done practically–in other words, without computer generated imagery. Even though the werewolf designs are intentionally cheesy, their tangible aesthetic still gives them the sense of presence that CGI mostly still lacks.
The story is pure, glorious cheese. It involves creepy rural villages, ancient curses, and deeply superstitious locals–basically, everything one desires in a fun genre film. Moreno also imparts the material with some welcome humour, most of which is rooted, as it should be, in specific character types reacting believably (in the context of a film about werewolves, anyway) to a unique, confounding, and terrifying situation. One sympathizes immediately with the characters in Game of Werewolves because they are so amiable, pleasant, and funny. This identification makes the proceedings much more enjoyable and light-hearted without ever robbing the film of tension–a difficult accomplishment to achieve. What also helps is the fact that Moreno is able to balance the tone effectively. Game of Werewolves is neither too funny nor too scary. The gore is plentiful and well done, but never sadistic or grotesque. Even a startling sequence in which two are convinced that chopping off their friend’s thumbs will break the curse never becomes too gruesome; the black humour is perfectly modulated.
Furthermore, Moreno shows a great command of rhythm and composition. The film moves at an effective pace, and is consistently involving. Moreno also borrows some stylistics of the filmmakers to whom he’s paying tribute to wonderful effect. Game of Werewolves was shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio–in other words, widescreen. Most directors presently use this format poorly; they will often use too many close-ups or centered framing, taking almost no advantage of the peripheries of the image. The resultant films appear to have been made for television, and not the big screen. Like the great filmmakers who have inspired him, Moreno uses close-ups sparingly, and takes full advantage of the wide image area to create senses of scale and/or claustrophobia (paradoxically), and build tension. But most importantly, Game of Werewolves looks beautiful. The night photography is especially gorgeous (though sometimes a tad too dark), and the rustic charm of the village is captured nicely. Sequences set in a lair below a barn are usually lit only by torchlight, and have an almost palpable stygian quality.
Game of Werewolves proved to be the perfect film to close the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. The same can be said of the short that preceded it. Game (2012), written and directed by Josh MacDonald, begins and ends as a good parody of NFB nature documentaries. In between, the short features Canadian hicks chasing what they think is a woman. It’s tense and really funny, with special effects that are startling and effective. I can’t wait to see more from this filmmaker, and I’m certainly looking forward to next year’s festival.
- David Hollands