Makers of the third movie in the Underworld series, Rise of the Lycans—hitting theaters Jan. 23—say it will feature more werewolves onscreen simultaneously than any previous lycanthrope movie and that it pushes the envelope in the visual effects depicting the transformation of man to wolf.
But how does it stack up against all the werewolf movies of the past? We'll look at that in a moment, but first, a quick look at Lycans.
During a brutal battle sequence screened for press, an army of Lycans storms the vampire castle. Hundreds of werewolves tear across the open landscape, roaring and foaming at the mouth as arrows fired from the castle rip through an unfortunate beast here and there. The coolest part is a Lycan transforming in mid-run, with his pants flying off behind him. Take that, Incredible Hulk!
As with any werewolf movie, the transformation from human to wolf is always a highlight, scrutinized by fans and forever compared to the classic transformations of the past. The second Underworld movie had some decent transformations, but they were generally done very quickly. Producer James McQuaide says the filmmakers this time put more focus on those transformations. "From a purely technical exercise, we tried to make the transformations a bit better than the last one," McQuaide said during a visit to the post-production offices at Luma Pictures in Venice, Calif., on Jan. 7, where SCI FI Wire also got to speak with director Patrick Tatopoulos.
McQuaide adds: "The same [team] did the transformations on the second picture, so they have taken that and built on it. This movie, you will see we have guys on fire transforming. We've got guys transforming to and from werewolves, three guys in one shot transforming. ... We were trying to take these techniques that we developed in the second one and make them even grander somehow."
Conceived as a prequel to the first two movies, Lycans is an origin story revolving around the ancient, bloody battles between the Lycans (werewolves) and the Death Dealers (vampires). Michael Sheen returns as Lucian and Bill Nighy as Viktor, while Rhona Mitra joins the cast as the warrior vampiress Sonja. Tatopoulos, who did the F/X work on the first two movies, directs the third film in his feature directorial debut.
Screen Gems has been rather secretive about the prequel thus far, revealing only a collection of action scenes in the less-than-revealing trailer and choosing not to screen the film in advance for critics.
As for how Lycans measures up against other wolf movies? The scenes we see are exceptionally bloody. Blood spurts into the air as werewolves attack vampires and even attack one another. The most memorable kill scene has two werewolves fighting over a single vampire's body, essentially ripping him in two. In another cool shot, a werewolf tears through a tree-lined forest toward a helpless Sonja. Lucian leaps into the air and comes down onto the Lycan, driving a sword through the top of his head just moments before he reaches Sonja.
The sheer scope of the prequel required more reliance on computer effects. "On the first two movies, you always saw two or three werewolves at a time," Tatopoulous tells the press. "I was obviously forced to go towards CGI [on this movie]. There is no way I could bring in 300 people in suits. I knew from the beginning this movie would have more CGI, but obviously, whenever we could, practical would come into play."
Stacked against the werewolves of past movies, Rise of the Lycans falls somewhere in the middle. The CG transformations are slick, but they somehow feel too quick and are a bit less realistic-looking as a result. Personally, I'm biased toward the practical effects of classics like An American Werewolf in London and The Howling.
From the footage we viewed at Comic-Con last year, Rick Baker's work on the upcoming Wolf Man remake, which merges CG with practical effects, sounds promising, though even Baker was skeptical of full reliance on CG for the transformations.
Let's take a short tour through some of the best werewolf transformations in movie history, from best to worst.
The Wolf Man (1941) The original werewolf classic, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the full-moon-afflicted Larry Talbot. This movie invented the genre, though its cross-dissolves of the transformation are primitive by modern standards. But for the time this was pretty cutting-edge stuff. Although later classics like American Werewolf in London offered major advances in the process, the influence of Jack Pierce's original work is present in all werewolf movies to this day.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) The undisputed classic of modern werewolf transformations. Rick Baker's work set the bar high and hasn't been topped in almost three decades. Perfectly set against the sweet sounds of Sam Cooke's "Blue Moon," this two-minute metamorphosis is still riveting and more than a little disturbing.
The Howling (1981) Often grouped with An American Werewolf in London as the greatest werewolf transformation sequence of all time. The two projects share some uncanny similarities, due in no small part to the fact that Rick Baker was the initial makeup-effects creator on The Howling before departing for American Werewolf. The underrated Rob Bottin, then in his early 20s, took Baker's work as a jump-off point and added his own signature touches to Howling's groundbreaking creature makeup and transformation effects.
Teen Wolf (1985) Before you berate me for including this silly '80s piece of cheese on the list, take another look at the transformation scene. Yes, it is clearly derivative of Baker and Bottin's innovations, but for a low-budget '80s comedy, Thomas R. Burman's work here this isn't that bad. And it's still cooler than Van Helsing!
Van Helsing (2004) Some praised the effects work in this mess of a movie when it was first released, but the glitchy CG work looks dated less than five years after the release. Universal hopes to wash the bad taste from fans' mouths by going in the more classical direction with The Wolf Man in November.
Bonus: The Wolf Man (2009) This bootleg footage from Comic-Con doesn't offer terrific resolution, but it gives you a decent idea of what Joe Johnston and Rick Baker are doing. Speaking with SCI FI Wire, Baker has said that he is mostly involved with the final look of del Toro as the Wolf Man rather than the actual transformation sequences, which will be done with post-production CG as of this writing. We shall see ...