'WER' an Erroneous Yet Admirable Spin on Lycanthropy

Directed by: William Brent Bell; Runtime: 89 minutes
Grade: C

The concept of a defense attorney representing a legendary monster from the annals of horror sounds more like the setup for a comedy bit than the framework for serious gore and terror. Yet, that's precisely what co-writer/director William Brent Bell devises with WER, a shrewd low-budget indie that aims to retool those tattered werewolf tropes into a fresh look at the mythology, through a lens of practicality and skepticism towards superstition. Beginning as a warped crime drama and the lackluster woes of a prior relationship built within case involving a shaggy hulk of a suspect, it descends into a brutal, vicious depiction of the rage provoking a supernatural beast, justifying and humanizing the man underneath the fur. The build-up isn't without snags, from dubious case procedure to the disposable relationship bickering that frequently overstuffs genre films, but a palpable air of mystery and fear engulfing the suspect gives WER the unsettling attitude needed to hold interest until things get grisly.

Following the murder of a vacationing father and young son in France, with the mother left in critical condition, police placed their sole suspect, the enigmatic and intimidating brute Talan (Brian Scott O'Connor), into heavily-protective and vigilant custody. That's where the film picks up, with the media already hot on the story's trail as French police chief Pistor (Sebastian Roche) tries to contain the situation. Fortunately, attorney Kate Moore (A.J. Cook) was looking for a challenging high-profile case before being assigned to Talan's defense. Along with her research assistant, Eric (Vik Sahay), and her physician ex-boyfriend, Gavin (Simon Quarterman), Kate delves into the medical and social history of the rattled suspect. She discovers a kinder streak underneath his statuesque, hairy build, slight as it may have been during their conversation, fueling her drive to discover more about him. Little does she know that Talan's actually a ticking time-bomb, and that her noble efforts of fair treatment could unleash a beast back on the streets.

Initially, WER operates more like a solemn murder-mystery procedural than a conventional werewolf flick, hinged on the audience's awareness of Talan's condition while nobody else involved in the investigation suspects something of the supernatural. Atmospheric touches like security cameras, news broadcasts, and a home-video recording of the murder itself give the film a found-footage eeriness, but later on that gives way to standard handheld filming akin to gritty crime dramas, not playing by any rules about when and how to drop alternate-perspective footage into the situation. It's an appropriate mix of styles while Kate's weaving through the police station and sleuthing for details on her client, though they get interrupted by the vaguely-significant personal drama between she and Gavin, an unnecessary relationship conflict that distracts more than it enriches the characters' depth. Thankfully, this becomes barely more than a footnote during the intensifying investigation.

Brian Scott O'Connor's ominous presence as Talan becomes the driving force in WER, whether he's silently and rigidly sitting in an interrogation room or struggling against police custody. The actor's rumbling voice -- sparsely used as it may be -- and deceptively calm demeanor again plays into that clever angle William Brent Bell has devised: the empathy shown to him by Kate and her team looks like they're gallantly going to bat for what could be a ostracized gentle giant, yet we're in the know about what his hulking, hairy presence has bottled up inside him. Analyzing his nature, his "medical condition" and the historical source of his rage, for the sake of his defense becomes the backbone to the film's renovation of the werewolf mythology, overcoming the drab relationship sub-plot by giving Kate's team this not-so-mysterious mystery to unravel. The upsurge in tension can be sluggish with the knowledge that a bad moon's rising, but it's sporadically spiced up by how Talan's hazardous nature lashes out at their research.

WER could've feasibly stayed on the path of a supernatural crime-thriller, but William Brent Bell shoves its progression into standard gruesome horror territory at the halfway point, where everything we're expecting of an entry in the genre breaks out. The film relies on dull, cliche knee-jerk scares -- pigs running, glass shattering, bats flying -- and a dubious progression of Talan's medical examination to get the shock aspect into full gear, but the film's transformation into an unsettling depiction of the feral madness of werewolves gives it some slack to drop in those inane conventions. A few pretty brutal displays of carnage exhibit a stronger bite than expected from its budget, ultimately offering both gory tension and a edgy glimpse into the mental process of coping with the supernatural fury. While needless bombast and questionable shifts in its own werewolf lore culminate in a messy conclusion to Talan's narrative, the rawness throughout the manhunt, and the emergence of another of his kind, offers enough visceral satisfaction to roll with the punches.

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