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Game of Werewolves
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by Jay Seaver

"Fine werewolf fare that's no game (seriously, there's no game at all)."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: First, forget that stupid English-language title; writer/director Juan Martínez Moreno hates it (there's no game involved) and hopes whoever picks it up in English-speaking territories just goes with "Lobos de Arga". Instead, focus on what a really great horror-comedy this is - so good that including "comedy" in the description really seems to discount how well Moreno recaptures the feel of classic monster movies, with tons of atmosphere, horrible curses, and practical effects that may not always be seamless, but certainly get the point across.

Tomás Mariño (Gorka Otxoa) was praised for his first book, but writer's block has hit something fierce, and when he is invited to the small town where he was born for a ceremony honoring him, he figures some time in the country might be good for his muse. It's nice to see old friend Calisto (Carlos Areces) again, too, although his agent Mario (Secun de la Rosa) arriving isn't quite so great. Except it turns out that it's less a "ceremony" than a "rite" - a werewolf has been lurking in the woods for decades, and only the blood of a male Mariño on the hundredth anniversary of his turning will reverse the curse.

It's a rare horror-comedy that works well on both sides of the hyphen, but Lobos de Agra does better than most. First, it is genuinely funny; "Vito" is an early nominee for "best supporting canine" and the banter between the guys feels just right. There's no obligatory and rote love story to drag the movie along a predictable route - in fact, Mabel Rivera is the most prominent woman in the cast, and she plays Tomás's grandmother Rosa - but writer/director Juan Martinez Moreno doesn't drag the movie into crude and sexist areas either. Once the stuff with the wolfmen starts, Moreno adds a good deal of twisted comedy to the banter, and generally does a good job of playing against genre tropes and cultural prejudices.

Lobos works pretty well as a monster movie, too. The opening exposition is delivered over some bloody, good-looking comic book art, and Moreno opts to create his monsters almost entirely with make-up and other practical effects. There's a fair amount of blood and mayhem, but never to the point where the audience takes it for granted. When the threat escalates later in the movie, Moreno does a pretty good job of not suddenly making what was a real danger ten minutes ago easily dispatched. The film's also got atmosphere by the truckload; it's most directly an homage to Paul Naschy's Spanish werewolf films, but the feel is similar enough to Hammer or Universal monsters flicks: Ready to make the audience jump, but more enamored of the mysterious countryside than trying to one-up other movies on gore.

No single element is head-and-shoulders above other genre movies, but this is the sort of movie that works well as a unit. The same is true of the cast; Otxoa, Areces, and de la Rosa each give appealing, amusing performances - it's particularly cool that the heroes, for all their goofiness, all give the impression of wanting to do the right thing without the audience needing justification for that - but they're at their best when two or three are on-screen and working off each other. They're good enough as a group that actors who might otherwise be stealing scenes - Manuel Manquiña as Tomás's treacherous uncle, Mabel Rivera as the unflappable grandmother, and Luis Zahera as the cop who is not nearly as useless as the character would otherwise be - wind up being smoothly absorbed into the ensemble.

Maybe "Lobos de Arga" is less scary than than exciting, but it's not often a comedic creature feature manages that. This one's funny and has plenty of legitimate thrills, making for a crowd-pleaser no matter what name it plays under.

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originally posted: 09/08/12 12:57:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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