What is it that so appeals to me about the lusty lycanthrope? Shit, I think I just answered my own question: the werewolf is a creature of the basest, most primal lusts — the lust for killing, the lust for sex, the lust to protect its territory, the lust to consume warm, bloody flesh — each something clearly identifiable and understandable as the needs of an animal, something wild and untamed that garners its power from nature itself, rather than denying the natural order by being some reanimated corpse with an agenda. Vampires, for all their elegance, are a mostly bunch of aristocratic, poncy douchebags who most people forget are fucking corpses, and corpses are not exactly known for their pleasant bouquet. I always get grossed out whenever I see some horny suckface putting the moves on a hypnotized, heaving-bosomed cutie who's oblivious to his reeking charms, and while the actual bloodsucking can be read as metaphorical Osh-Osh, I'm way too literal-minded for that and can't help but picture Count Douchebagula's fetid member about to go to work in the Good Place. "Yecch," to say the least (although I've gotta admit that Frank Langella's Dracula was a pretty sexy guy).
The rapaciousness of the werewolf is far less steeped in treachery and mystical date rape tactics than that of the velvet-caped revenant. No less deadly or without quantifiable side effects, certainly, but far more honest in the way of a dog who dislikes you for no apparent reason taking a chunk out of your ass. The werewolf’s all about the indomitability of nature, and vampires, zombies, and other such critters fly in the face of that, which is perhaps what gives them their power, the threat of the expired refusing to be dead as we understand that state of being, and that animate expression of death seeking either to mind-control us, feed on our lifeblood, or feast upon our living flesh to fuel their aimless, undead march.
The werewolf, on the other hand, is as uncontrollable and unpredictable as a natural force while also being a fusion of “civilized” humanity with the primal, and seldom can the two find a harmonious middle ground. The typical protagonist in lupine lore does not embrace the loss of control that accompanies the transformative gift and instead seeks a cure, or, since treatments for lycanthropy are apparently few and far between, they seek death but can’t work up the gumption to off themselves, either from the urge for simple self-preservation, or through some aspect of their curse that also seeks to stay alive. Any way you cut it, the tales of those thus afflicted seldom end well, and that may also be a key to their appeal: a person unwittingly thrust into a supernatural state of great power and animal drives that they can’t hope to comprehend or master, often losing themselves to their lupine side and becoming perceived as a thing of evil, by others and themselves, only to face an inevitable and tragic end that scars the lives of their loved ones.
I can totally relate to that, having done some pretty out of control shit over the years, but I groove on the wolf more for its potential for a connection with the natural world in a way that man has long ago left behind. In legendary tales of werewolfism it’s a frequent given that the shape-shifter has full control over his actions and the moments of transformation, and is not merely a slave to the influence of lunar cycles. Imagine the freedom in that state, the sharpness of the senses, the supple power of a beast built for mastery of its environment, the innate hunting skills of a born predator, and the ability to return to one’s place within human society with the ease of doffing an overcoat…
That would simply be awesome.
So I’m fascinated with all tales of the wolf-folk, be they works of prose, comic books — the standout in that medium would be Alan Moore’s classic SWAMP THING issue with “The Curse,” a story that examines the connection between the lycanthropic cycle and the menstrual cycle — or movies, and speaking as a lover of such stuff I’m here to offer you a guide to the essential cinematic works in the field. And one thing that surprised me while coming up with a list for this piece was how few truly good or even notable werewolf flicks there are, so when you see a good one cherish it and let me know about it in case of the unlikely chance I may not have seen it.
THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)
The first of Universal’s werewolf movies, this one’s interesting today mostly as a curiosity since it really doesn’t grip the viewer as earlier entries in the studio’s legendary horror cycle did. You read and hear about Universal’s versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy again and again, but Henry Hull’s turn as the unfortunate Dr. Glendon is often overlooked due the film’s wildly uneven script that frequently loses sight of its own point (the werewolf) in favor of “local color” character bits that were more appropriate in THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, both films steeped in a certain fey campiness. Other than its historical significance, THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON is notable for Dr. Yogami — white guy Warner Oland in one of his many portrayals of an Asian — a scientist who covets the rare Marifisa Lupina plant, s specimen found by Dr. Glendon that provides a temporary cure for lycanthropy, a condition that Yogami passed on to an unsuspecting Glendon during the attack that gets the story rolling. Yogami is a thoughtful man, but his need for the cure overrules his morals and makes for a terrific performance.
THE WOLF MAN (1941)
The template for most werewolf flicks to follow, this was the last truly great film in the Universal horror cycle, and screenwriter Kurt Siodmak’s script introduced many elements into the lore of the werewolf that we now take as rote, namely the silver bullet thing and the strict adherence to the full moon connection rather than merely a nighttime or willed occurrence. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot became an iconic character for his hangdog manner and anguish over his homicidal case of five o’ clock shadow, returning in several sequels and spinoffs, but none of those have even an ounce of the strong story meat found in this initial installment. Oh, and if the sequels are any indication, being a werewolf pretty much renders you immortal, so you’d better get used to an existence of tearing out people’s throats and waking up naked and confused in some strange part of town (although Larry always wakes up clothed, yet sans footwear).
And as you probably noticed in these sensationalistic publicity stills, there's definitely a correlation between sex and violence in this film since Larry's doomed to kill his fiancée. Hey, back in the days you couldn't get away with a werewolf rape scene — you'd still have a hard time with that one even now — implied or otherwise, so titillating stills like these were about as questionable as it got.
I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957)
A couple of lapses into hokey, overage juvenile delinquent movie territory notwithstanding, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF offers up a fun and mildly creepy metaphor for the horrors and pains of adolescence, and wouldn't be the last lycanthropy flick to tackle that theme. Michael (BONANZA, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE) Landon stars as a J.D. with an irrationally explosive temper who undergoes prescribed psychiatric treatment in an attempt to curb his hair-trigger aggression, only to end up in the “care” of a mad psychiatrist who uses hypnotic regression to send him down the evolutionary chain to become an actual werewolf whenever he hears bells (how a werewolf fits into mankind’s evolutionary tree I won’t even begin to theorize). The poor bastard goes on a killing spree before his doom, and the film contains one of the most effective werewolf-on-the-hunt moments in film: the werewolf prowls his high school after hours,
ending up in the gym and encountering a girl practicing moves on the uneven parallel bars. As she executes a move that inverts her visual perspective, she comes face-to-face, upside-down, with the slavering monster.
Terrified, she falls to the floor and attempts to escape, but no dice.
Not a great movie, but definitely worth at least a one-time viewing.
THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)
Surprisingly the only werewolf flick to come out of the venerable Hammer Studios stable, this one stars my man Oliver Reed as Leon, the result of a forgotten dungeon inmate’s rape of a mute serving girl, an unwanted child born on Christmas day while his mother dies bringing him into the world. Since a child sharing the birthday of Jesus is “an insult to heaven,” Leon’s doomed from the start, and as he grows up he exhibits behavioral and physical traits that mark him as a werewolf in the making, and then he falls in love with a girl betrothed to another…
Tragic all the way, it’s interesting that Leon’s troubles come not from being bitten or from some Satanic pact, but from the fact that little baby Jesus apparently has birthday attention issues.
THE HOWLING (1981)
The first of 1981’s back-to-back landmark wolf-out flicks, THE HOWLING strays a bit from the source novel but is a terrific horror story nonetheless. When a TV new reporter agrees to meet a stalker/serial killer in a scurvy porno emporium, she witnesses something so traumatic that she succumbs to amnesia. Her therapist (Patrick MacNee of THE AVENGERS) sends her to “the Colony,” an upstate Californian retreat where he works with an odd assortment of patients. Once there, things take a turn for the truly weird, and to say more would ruin things for those who haven’t seen it, so I’ll just shut up right here and now.
Loaded with in-jokes for the horror movie junkies in the audience and bolstered by Rob Bottin’s excellent werewolf designs and effects, THE HOWLING stands as an exemplary entry in the genre that is not to be missed. Plus, the flick earns special points for the late Elizabeth Brooks as Marsha,
the nymphomaniac sister of the serial killer who’s enough to cause a line to form of guys who couldn’t wait for her to put the bite on them. "AAAAWWOOOOOOOOO," indeed! And you have to love the Germans for coming up with a poster campaign for the film that features werewolf rape as its main image:
I mean, talk about lurid!
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
Rearing its shaggy head four months after THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON upped the lycanthropic ante by having a studio budget, picturesque UK locations, the toothsome and talented Jenny Agutter, and FX badass Rick Baker on the makeup/creature effects, so how could it lose? Frankly, it didn’t, and over twenty-five years after the fact it still vies with THE HOWLING for top position in the hearts of most werewolf mavens (hell, I paid to see it three nights in a row when it came out!). David Naughton and Griffin Dunne are two American tourists trekking on foot across the British countryside who, against the advice of the creepy, tight-lipped locals, wander off the roads and into the moors where they fall prey to…well, you have a pretty good idea if you’ve read this far into this post. Dunne’s character doesn’t survive the attack, while Naughton awakens in a London hospital under the care of a mouth-watering nurse (Agutter), and is visited by the mangled corpse of his best buddy. His buddy warns him that he’s now a werewolf and must kill himself before the next full moon, but if Naughton had killed himself the movie would have been about twenty minutes long and pissed off an audience that came expecting some righteous monster action, so you can guess the rest.
Very entertaining and engaging from start to finish, some find its blend of humor and horror to be somewhat jarring and as a result feel that film is deeply flawed by a schizophrenic tome, but I totally disagree with that assessment; THE HOWLING is also quite amusing — admittedly, provided you get the jokes — but no one ever bitches about it being a mess, so I guess you’ll just have to judge AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON for yourself. And it gets extra special points for Griffin Dunne as Jack, the most cheerful mangled and steadily decomposing corpse you’ll ever see.
Griffin Dunne as Jack: if ever there was a supporting role that completely steals the film it's in, this is it.
This story of a middle-aged man's werewolf-bitten transformation from a fading light at a big publishing house into the literal alpha wolf greatly appealed to me for being pretty much what might have happened if THE WOLF MAN's Larry Talbot embraced lycathropy as the gift that it could be, but its blend of low key horror and romance didn't sit well with everyone. I recommend it, but don't check it out in hope of finding major scares, gore, or even a spectacular transformation sequence despite Rick Baker again lending his skills to the proceedings. Jack Nicholson's werewolf is very much a throwback to the hairy guy in slacks and a button-down shirt prevalent in werewolf movies until the special effects kick in the ass of 1981, and while Jack's look has it's detractors I must admit that it takes me back to the days of CREATURE FEATURES watched on my old B/W televison when I was little, only in a mildly R-rated version.
GINGER SNAPS (2000)
This Canadian entry is proof of what can be done with a low budget and a hell of a lot of talent and intelligence. Drawing once more upon the lycanthropy/horrors of puberty theme, GINGER SNAPS deals with two uber-morbid and very close high school-age sisters, a pair of creepy misfits who, like good old Carrie White, have yet to have their first periods. The older of the two, Ginger, finally starts her menstrual cycle, but has the misfortune of that event coinciding with local animal attacks that turn out to be the work of a particularly savage werewolf. The monster catches her newly bloody scent and, in a scene intended to look and feel like a rape (according to the film’s co-scriptwriter), mauls the living shit out of her. Ginger survives and in no time flat begins to exhibit a hitherto unseen level of aggression, both socially and sexually — keep in mind that lycanthropy is a communicable disease — to say nothing of such undeniable signs of wolfing out as getting furry in odd places, her teeth becoming more suited to tearing flesh, and the tail that she’s sprouted from out of nowhere. Her younger sister realizes what’s happening, and sets out to cure her sister, and if that doesn’t work…
One of the rare werewolf movies from a female perspective, GINGER SNAPS is highly recommended for its genuine scares, well-handled lycanthropy/puberty metaphor, and its wicked DeGRASSI HIGH MEETS THE HOWLING sensibility. And the first sequel’s actually pretty good!
DOG SOLDIERS (2002)
A gene-splicing of werewolf movie conventions and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, this is one kickass mamma-jamma! If GINGER SNAPS is the “girls” werewolf movie, then DOG SOLDIERS is its testosterone-fueled analog, and Jesus H. Christ is it fun! A bunch of soldiers on maneuvers in some UK backswoods realize they’re being hunted by a pack of very big, very nasty werewolves, so they hole up in a remote house and wait for sunup while attempting to weather an ultra-violent lycanthropic siege.
That’s pretty much it, and it reminds me of what I would have come up with, playing with my G.I. Joes in the backyard when I was eight, provided Hasbro had made an adventure set that included werewolves. Sheer adrenalin and spewing gore set this one in the top ranks of the genre.
Plagued with production nightmares that made it take forever to make it to the screen, CURSED is not a great movie by any means, a fact that wasn’t helped by the studio cutting most of the gore and violence to ensure a PG-13 theatrical release. Well, I didn’t even think of wasting my cash on that version and instead waited for the unrated DVD, but the movie is still pretty pedestrian if not for the following items of note:
- Christina Ricci as a girl about to become a werewolf. What’s not to like?
- The spectacular sight of Shannon Elizabeth being torn in half at the waist by a ravening beast.
- A very funny sequence involving a female werewolf who takes umbrage at being called “fat.”