A stylish and atmospheric thriller.

When I saw the trailer for this film, I figured it for another lame-ass werewolf movie. Being a fan of lame-ass werewolf movies, I naturally decided to see it. To my pleasant surprise, the story turns out to be based on the Beast of Gevaudan legend, and rises far above the average monster-on-the-loose shocker.

Two enigmatic strangers (Samuel Le Bihan and Mark Dacascos) arrive in 18th century Gevaudan, France to hunt a mysterious animal which has been dining on the local townsfolk. From the opening sequence in a torrential downpour, we can sense this film is going to be something special. As Le Bihan casually looks on from horseback, Dacascos dispatches a group of thuggish militiamen with kung fu moves that would make Laurence Fishburne proud. Not only is the fighting style deliciously anachronistic for the setting, but it lends a mystical air to the heroes reminiscent of the opening scenes of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans.

In the first half of the film, director Christophe Gans creates a taut and atmospheric horror tale amidst the barren forests of the French countryside. As winter descends, falling snow lends a dream-like quality to the proceedings, creating beautiful imagery in scenes otherwise laced with peril and suspense. When Le Bihan and Dacascos visit a brothel, it actually seems like an inviting place to hang out – a warm and cozy respite from the chilling terror gripping the village. There Le Bihan meets prostitute Monica Bellucci, who promptly stabs him affectionately with a knife. (If all prostitutes looked like Bellucci, there’d be no need for marriage.) The scene ends when the camera dissolves from the outline of Bellucci’s bare breasts into a tracking shot through the snow-covered hills of the region. It’s a graceful transition from the erotic warmth inside the brothel back to the cold reality of something sinister lurking outside. Plus, it’s just a neat shot.

As you might expect, Gans doesn’t show us the monster in the early scenes, instead relying on fleeting glimpses here and there to whet our appetites. Unfortunately, when we finally get to see the beastie in all its glory, it’s a bit of a letdown. Although animatronics were used in a few closeups (courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), the majority of the scenes are accomplished with digital effects. And boy does the monster look like a digital effect – similar to the creature in The Relic, perhaps less in appearance than in the unnatural way it moves.

From the beginning, the film implies the beast is a product of its times. Le Bihan is shown to represent the voice of reason, as he recognizes a woman thought to be possessed is actually having an epileptic seizure. Later, the narrator will intone, “The world which made the beast was dying away,” inviting the interpretation that the beast was as much metaphorical as a real entity. It’s interesting to contrast this film with Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, of which it initially resembles. In Sleepy Hollow, voice of reason Johnny Depp attempts to reconcile the events to scientific principles, only to discover that he’s dealing with something for which science has no explanation. Here, Le Bihan adopts a similar approach, only he is ultimately proven right.

Gans also adds considerable density to the plot with some twists in the latter half of the film. On one hand, this makes the movie more complex than just another “creature on the loose” flick. On the other, some of the revelations decrease the scariness of the monster. The sudden upswell of story doesn’t ruin the movie, but at times it becomes so action-oriented you’ll think you’re watching a Rambo sequel. Let’s put it this way: any time the hero paints his face prior to going into battle, it’s a sure warning sign you’re skating on the edge of schlock. I would have preferred it if Gans had used less action and instead maintained the eerie mood established in the beginning. Fortunately, the film emerges scarred but not defeated for the experience.