The 2014 werewolf romp WOLVES did not get a wide release, and has a 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. But I got stuck scrolling for a horror movie to watch one night, found it on that ad-supported streaming service Tubi, and remembered it had Jason Momoa in it, so I watched it. And it fulfilled its duties.
I’m sure WOLVES – which is the directorial debut of X-MEN/THE SCORPION KING/X2/WATCHMEN screenwriter David Hayter – was greenlit due to the popularity of TWILIGHT, and viewed with skepticism by potential viewers for that reason. It has minor similarities that I’ll mention later, but it’s a completely different tone, if anything trying to offer an alternative.
It’s the story of Cayden Richards (Lucas Till, MONSTER TRUCKS, MacGyver in MacGyver, and Havok in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and APOCALYPSE), a dude whose perfect life as high school quarterback in a small Texas town goes to shit when he discovers his werewolf side during attempted car sex and is suddenly wanted by the police for the munching of his parents. So he hops on a motorcycle (wearing one of those Tom Cruise style leather motorcycle jackets) and hits the road.
Early in the movie I remembered that Hayter started as an actor, and starred in GUYVER: DARK HERO, which actually has a similar set up. Both are about a young guy who’s cursed with transforming into this deadly thing that he can’t really control, and it scares his girlfriend, and he ends up traveling around looking for answers, trying to help people along the way, in this case by mauling two assholes beating up a prostitute in a truck stop parking lot.
Wait a minute – it’s the Guyver directing MacGyver! How did this happen?
But then he meets Wild Joe (John Pyper-Ferguson, the redneck villain of DRIVE – which was from the director of GUYVER: DARK HERO and had a cameo by Hayter) at a bar, and for a second it turns into NIGHTBREED – crazy dude who understands his secret gives him directions to where the other monsters hide. I like the gag that he shows off by throwing a dart across the bar and making a bullseye, then throws a dart at Cayden before disappearing, and it takes Cayden a minute to notice that the dart hit a map on the wall exactly on a place called “Lupine Ridge.” The implication is obviously that accurate dart throwing is a wolf power, but it would be funny if he just happened to be good at darts and it’s unrelated to being a wolf. Worst possibility: he worked really hard all through his youth to get good at darts, then found out he was a werewolf and gets that automatically.
Anyway, Cayden goes to the town, which seems to pretty much consist of a rowdy bar run by young sisters Angel (Merritt Patterson, Ravenswood, The Royals) and Gail (Melanie Scrofano, SAW VI, NURSE 3D, Wynonna Earp in Wynonna Earp) and a farm run by a nice guy named John Tollerman (Stephen McHattie, DEATH VALLEY, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, WATCHMEN, THE TALL MAN). At the bar he gets stared down by Connor Slaughter (Momoa) and threatened by one of his dipshit flunkies (Adam Butcher, Super Rupert) but then hired as a farmhand by John. It goes without saying that Connor is the leader of a dangerous pack of werewolves and John knows things about Cayden that make him want to protect him.
There’s a certain dorkiness to this movie that I’m sure led to the negative reactions, but that I find kind of endearing. First of all, Till – especially with this hairdo – looks like a buffed up version of that dude Dawson Creek, and he’s playing this loner action hero riding around on his motorcycle, harboring a dark secret, being visually glorified by cool rotating composite shots and stuff. You know, they obviously made him lift weights, and he’s kinda handsome and has this very deep voice, but he looks too young and cleancut to walk in alone to these exaggerated biker type bars he keeps going to. There’s even a comment about it. And then he becomes a farmhand and suddenly he’s wearing sleeveless overalls like a male stripper might wear.
And then there’s the wolf FX. At first we just see claws and some face morphing. Then we get a full on fur suit. But he keeps the clothes most of the time, and even the hair! It makes perfect sense – where would the hair go otherwise? He keeps the hair, grows fur everywhere else. But I don’t remember ever seeing it done quite like this.
And it’s much less animal, more humanoid, than they usually make werewolves these days. It’s kind of a goofy old fashioned Wolfman design, executed on a high level. There’s nothing cheap looking about it, which is also a rarity these days when it comes to smaller releases like this.
The movie takes advantage of Momoa’s menace, but not his big ol’ teddy bear quality, because he plays a straight-up bully for most of the movie. I figured he’d be using his rugged charisma to lure Cayden into his pack (there’s an obvious NEAR DARK influence here), but it doesn’t go that direction. Of course, they do let him be Jason Momoa. What other choice do they have? Jason Momoa does not wear costumes. Jason Momoa wears Jason Momoa clothes. He’s got lots of rings and shit, a western top hat at one point, a leather vest that stays on when he wolfs out (except when he rips it off). He smokes a skull-shaped pipe. I’m convinced he actually owns that. I bet the contacts are the only thing on him he didn’t show up to set with.
And when he fully transforms it’s funny because it’s still Khal Drogo under there, so it’s a huge muscle-wolf. You don’t see those everyday.
Angel special-befriends Cayden and teaches him that he can zip around in corn fields and stuff, that definitely reminded me of TWILIGHT. But the power of TWILIGHT’s horniness is in repression – it assumes the hottest thing in the world is to be really, really tempted to fuck. In WOLVES they immediately wolf-bone in a barn.
It’s also very conscious about not being melodramatic like TWILIGHT. Cayden narrates in the first person, drolly underplaying the fuckedupnesss of his life, like when he says “I’m pretty sure this isn’t normal” when he flips out during a football game, jumps like 15 or 20 feet and crushes a guy’s helmet with his fist. It’s not a comedy, but there are several funny lines and stuff that worked on me. “I need a hospital. Or a… a vet or something.”
Hayter uses an energetic visual style that actually reminds me a little bit of his GUYVER director Steve Wang. The one gimmick I found a little laughable was the three-dimensional photo montage flashback. I guess mainly because they represent Connor being in love with someone with a still of him approaching her with a bouquet of flowers hidden behind his back. It looks like a cartoon. There should be another one where he’s holding a bag with a big dollar sign on it.
It’s an R-rated movie and it’s not without gore. Some arms get ripped off. I guess it’s mostly the sound effects and screams and growls that make the attacks seem vicious, but it doesn’t feel like they’re holding back. The only thing that made me think about censorship is the odd detail that Connor is alleged to have raped someone but all three times it’s mentioned it’s phrased as “taking her by force.” Strange.
Does it ever bother you that people in movies only ever order “beer” in bars, and never a specific type? That happens here and then they very clearly show that he’s given a bottle of Heineken, and I thought it would’ve been more realistic if he looked at a drink list and chose Heineken. But I guess we’re so used to brand names not being mentioned that when they are it feels like overly-blatant product placement. In MIAMI VICE he orders an “Absolut mojito” at one point and that actually is a case where you wouldn’t say the brand name, so it still makes me laugh. In BULLET TO THE HEAD Stallone’s character brings his own bottle of Bulleit to a bar and that was an extremely successful product placement because I honestly never heard of that stuff before but this made it my go-to luxury whisky for real special occasions.
Anyway, they probly had this discussion on the set of WOLVES and decided to stick with “beer.”
This is one of those movies that’s kind of sad because it seems to intentionally set the stage for a sequel that will never happen – he and Angel leave town on the motorcycle with a chart of different werewolf families. Oh well. They’ll always by motorcycling and reading charts in my heart. Godspeed, you wolves.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.