Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on January 10, 2002, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
Genre fans might understandably sit through the first hour of Brotherhood of the Wolf wondering, “Wasn’t this supposed to be a monster movie?” Give it time.
Working from real-life events in 18th-century France and a screenplay by Stéphane Cabel, director Christophe Gans cleverly finds a way to build a solid historical basis for his movie while allowing himself the freedom to place strictly fantastical elements in the midst of it. The movie follows naturalist Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), who arrives in a provincial French village under siege by a mysterious creature that is preying on its women and children. King Louis XV has dispatched a group of soldiers who are getting nowhere in their quest to capture the so-called Beast of Gévaudan; Fronsac has been sent in to lend his expertise, though he spends just as much of his stay mingling with the local gentry and making time with both local lass Marianne (Emilie Dequenne) and sultry prostitute Sylvia (Monica Bellucci).
So far, it’s all what one might expect from a French entry in the cinefantastique: attractive young performers and wizened screen veterans (including Phillipe Nahon of I Stand Alone), costumes ranging from bedraggled peasant gear to upper-class finery and attractively burnished photography by Dan (Nightwatch) Laustsen. The horrific angle is downplayed, limited to the discovery of a couple of savaged bodies, with the only prominent out-of-the-ordinary element being Mani (Mark Dacascos), Fronsac’s Iroquois companion. He’s on hand to add a spiritual side to the hunt for the Beast, and to indulge in a couple of martial-arts brawls of a type likely not practiced by either the French or Indians in the 1700s.
At about the film’s halfway mark, as in reality, a large wolf is captured, and all involved (save Fronsac) are happy to pin the slayings on it and celebrate the end of the Beast’s reign of terror. At this point, the film’s narrator comes on to suggest that what we have just seen is the way the history books tell the story, and that the truth that follows was covered up.
Then a big CGI monster shows up and tries to eat half the cast.
Though the film could use some trimming in both its first and second sections, it is Gans’ achievement that he injects enough of a sense of fantasy into the realistic opening half, and vice versa in the latter half, that the mix doesn’t seem ungainly. Unlike a film such as Crimson Rivers, which sacrifices a sense of national identity to the demands of international acceptance, Brotherhood bears the scope and technical wizardry of a Hollywood epic yet still feels very French. Certainly the period setting and corresponding attention to historical detail helps; you won’t find a would-be U.S. horror blockbuster being set during, say, the Colonial period.
Gans, who contributed the best segment to the H.P. Lovecraft omnibus Necronomicon, also demonstrates the chops to create genuinely frightening sequences, particularly the Beast’s midfilm attack on a peasant girl, and choreographs big action setpieces with consummate skill. (He also, unfortunately, indulges in too much de rigueur fast cutting during the martial arts scenes.) In addition to Laustsen, he has gathered a fine team of international collaborators, including production designer Guy Claude Francois, Evil Dead series composer Joseph LoDuca (contributing his best score yet) and the monster makers at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Their Beast, which resembles a cross between a wolf, The Relic’s Kothoga and a suit of armor, occasionally belies its digital origins but nonetheless conveys a true sense of life and menace.
While the characters ultimately remain subordinate to Gans’ visual mythmaking, the cast is uniformly well-chosen and convincing. As his is the most physical role, Dacascos not surprisingly makes the strongest impression with his Mani of few words; Le Bihan lends Fronsac a sense of dedication and heroism, even if his own martial-arts stunts in the final act stretch even this story’s well-suspended disbelief. Rivers’ Vincent Cassel scores as a one-armed nobleman with a chip on his (remaining) shoulder, while Dequenne and Bellucci are a nicely contrasting pair of heroines. The latter is also the subject of one of Gans’ most playful visual tricks, as the image of her naked body on a bed morphs into a snow-covered mountain range.
Even if the film could stand some trimming, it’s encouraging to see Universal Focus releasing the movie to Stateside theaters uncut and subtitled, evidently devoted (unlike a certain other “major independent”) to presenting overseas fare in intact form. It’s another step toward breaking down international cinematic genre barriers, one that will hopefully be rewarded with American fan enthusiasm. “Hollywood-style” it may be, but as French fare goes, Gans’ big-scale flight of fancy is certainly more satisfying and entertaining than the synthetic, tedious shock value of the likes of Baise-Moi and Trouble Every Day.