Halloween evokes imagery of all of the great myths and monsters. Witches cackling on broomsticks, Vampires screeching as they turn into bats and the ominous groan of the ever-loved Frankenstein‘s Monster. But is there anything so chilling as the stop-you-in-your-tracks anguished howl of a werewolf? A man reduced to his most base instincts. An unwilling killer. A victim.
Ever since I was a kid I have wanted to be a werewolf. They have always been my favourite monster and any Psychotherapist worth their degree would probably track it all back to the issues of growing up as an outcast, puny Geek. And they would most likely be right.
I don’t care. Issues or no issues, having the sheer raw ferocity to rend limb from limb always seemed quite romantic to me. Clearly I have missed the subtext of the human cursed, a murderer but not by choice. Maybe I do have issues.
The mythos of the werewolf stretches across thousands of years, with the earliest known descriptions from Greek literature. Men who took the form of wolves for a few days each year, who were transformed after eating human flesh or King Lycaon who was punished for trying to challenge the God Zeus. Very quickly the werewolf myth took on the idea of the curse and a human forced to live with the consequences of their actions.
Come medieval times in Europe wolves were one of the major dangers to outlying villages. And as with all good phobias people developed stories to make it easier to understand, to have someone to blame. And that blame fell on anyone who seemed different. There is a lot of astonishing transcripts still available from the religious courts of the werewolf hunts that tell of innocent men and women killed due to being accused of lycanthropy.
Yet it is in modern times that the werewolf has found its broadest cultural connection. In cities of rules and regulations, of civilised society where emotions are repressed and violence condemned, the werewolf represents the eruption of our animal desires and instincts. The potential to kill. And to enjoy it.
And so we come to the movies. And the glut of werewolf content that has had a constant audience for almost 100 years.
The Werewolf (1913)
The very first known werewolf film was created in 1913 and revolves around the tale of an American Indian woman who transforms into a wolf to seek revenge for the death of her lover. Although the knowledge of this exists the film itself has long since disappeared.
The Werewolf Of London (1935)
There were a scattering of wolf films across the next twenty years but it is Hollywood’s first foray into the genre that needs to be mentioned. Henry Hull plays botanist Wilfred Glendon who is bitten by a creature in Tibet and brings the destruction of the curse back to Old London Town. The film is a classic with the heavy acting and dramatic dialogue of the era, most notable as the werewolf is more man than monster.
Hull plays a version of the character that seems closer to Mr Hyde than later renditions (a complaint from audiences at the time!). His forehead gets hairy, and he sprouts pointy teeth and ears, but he is still dressed in his dapper suit and scarf. The film was a bit of a flop in cinemas but luckily in didn’t completely deter the studios from pursuing the genre only six years later.
Watch the ominous trailer below and catch the briefest glimpse of the monster makeup!
The Wolf Man (1941)
What can I say that you don’t know already? Lon Chaney Jr is regarded as the ultimate original werewolf in this Universal monster classic. The Wolf Man is a tale of a man cursed, as Larry Talbot must deal with the aftermath of being bitten (as always!) by a werewolf in the moors. He battles with the memory of the man he killed when in monster form, fearing the change to come. In the final scenes he even hunts the woman he loves, unable to control the animal inside and is pursued by his father trying to save the girl. A Shakespearean style tragedy.
It is the amazing make up created by Jack Pierce and the cutting-edge-for-its-time transformation sequences that wow-ed moviegoers and placed The Wolf Man on a high podium for all following films to attempt to out do. Effects have gotten better and CGI has meant that the impossible is now truly possible yet few films since have matched this black and white masterpiece (particularly not the recent remake).
SPOILER WARNING – Following is a clip of the death of the Wolf Man and the magical makeup effects of Jack Pierce.
House Of Dracula (1945)
Due to the box office success of The Wolf Man, as well as the Dracula and Frankenstein movies, Universal Studios went monster-mad and began churning out sequels to maximise that old friend ‘profit’. And in exactly the same manner as today, you can guarantee that the more sequels made the less bother went into them.
House Of Dracula was the last of this run of money-makers and what a low point to end on. Continuing to ignore the death of Larry Talbot in the first film, we now find him still trying to track down a cure for his condition. Dracula just happens to be looking for a cure for his vampirism from the same mad scientist and his kooky hunchbacked assistant. Oh yeah, and the Frankenstein monster is in the bottom of a cave that the Wolf Man happens to fall into.
Probably the only fact about this film worth typing is that for the first time the cliched hunchback lab assistant was played by a woman, Jane Adams. She is a sympathetic character and the film does an okay job portraying her personal plight… until she gets her neck snapped by the mad scientist turned vampire.
I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957)
The 50′s brought about a bit of a gap in the genre as sci-fi took over and horror got pushed to the background. It was also the decade that the term ‘teenager’ was coined and society discovered that there was a demographic between children and adults. A demographic that could be marketed to! James Dean, in his very short career, had setup the archetype brooding angst-ridden teen, which American International Pictures decide to marry with the werewolf curse.
I Was A Teenage Werewolf was the turning point for Michael Landon‘s fledgling acting career, cast as the protagonist Tony Rivers who seeks out help from a psychotherapist for his anger issues only to discover that he has become the victim of an experiment that turns him into a monster! Crazy times.
The film ticked all of the usual boxes and had some cool make-up (anyone else spot the precursor to Michael J Fox‘s 1980′s role?). But what made it such a profitable success? For the first time a werewolf movie had targeted a teen audience, and was the beginning of many more to come. Also the violence caused by being a monster was directly linked back to the aggressive tendencies of the human.
I just love these old fashioned trailers. If you want to see more of this awesomeness then look out for the trailers to the spin-offs from this film: I Was A Teenage Frankenstein and How To Make A Monster.
Now we hit the 1960′s and I have to tell you that there is a hell of a lot of production but not much watchable content. Exploitation abounds as the werewolf theme is used and abused to sell cheaply made movies. In addition Mexican, Spanish and Italian werewolf films begin to take off and they create some very strange stories!
The Italian film Lycanthropus (renamed Werewolf In A Girls’ Dormitory in English) has wolves wandering a girls’ school and beginning to pick off the nubile female students one by one. More screaming girls than a Justin Bieber concert.You would not be wrong to use the term ‘schlock’ here. But there is an upside. Amongst all of the murders and close ups of contorted faces, the script contains a murder mystery element that actually does keep you guessing. There are a number of male characters who could be the werewolf and little clues keep swinging you back and forth in your accusations.
Have a listen to this clip… the poor girl seems to be enjoying her own murder rather more than you would expect!
An American Werewolf In London (1981)
I have decided to skip the 1970′s as it was an era of a huge number of pretty crumby flicks, and jumped straight on into the 1980′s – which could be titled ‘The Decade of The Wolf’!
The 80′s brought with it a growing mainstream revival of the horror genre, and in particular, a heavy focus on the dramatic possibilities of the werewolf arc. There are more fantastic films than I have room to write about in this section, so I will mention my two favourites but you should also be aware of The Company Of Wolves, Silver Bullet, Teen Wolf and Wolfen (I’m not going to argue with you. It is about werewolves even if there aren’t any in the film).
This first film needs no explanation. Quintessentially the most famous and most popular werewolf movie ever made (statistics from the offices of ‘My View Of The World’ – the inside of my head) An American Werewolf In London walked the fine line of being both a horror movie and a schlock comedy. American backpackers, Jack and David, get attacked by a wolf on the moors of England. Jack becomes a ghoul haunting David and convincing him to commit suicide before he becomes a werewolf and kills others.
I love this movie. There is no other way to put it. The comedy is hilarious, the effects are awesome and as far as I am concerned it has the best werewolf ever created. If I was being chased through the tube station by something so bulging, so hairy and with such creepy eyes I would never stop running.
And, of course, the best transformation sequence ever:
A sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris was released in 1997.
The Howling (1981)
The very beginning of a franchise of werewolf films, The Howling was a movie equally full of great special effects and a tops transformation sequence. Karen White, a TV anchor woman who has survived being staked by a serial killer, takes time out at ‘The Colony’. But of course things are not what they seem and the colony turns out to be full of werewolves, but ones that can change on a whim. No full moon needed.
What makes The Howling stand out amongst the rest is the way in which it took the usually hidden world of this genre and exposed it for the world to see in a climactic and completely unexpected ending. They are everywhere.
Compare this transformation scene to the last:
Once again the 1990′s had a lot of werewolf films produced (including even more Howling sequels) but very few were up to cinema standard. Except, that is, for Hollywood’s return to the werewolf genre with the Jack Nicholson & Michelle Pfeiffer star studded Wolf.
Will Randall is a high-flying editor who has his job and his wife stolen. Surrounded by the big city Will struggles to cope until he is bitten by a wolf, and discovers that there is an animal inside of him that wants to get out. Wolf goes back to analysing the psychology behind the werewolf persona and its correlation with taking control of your own life, veering away from previous decades fascination only with the ability to kill.
Wolf is a smart film that plays with the conventions of the genre to create a character piece that is a complete contrast to the harried regrets of Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man. Perhaps being the wolf comes with its benefits, even if there is a price to pay.
Here is a little taste of Jack Nicholson and his wolf-y confidence:
Ginger Snaps (2000)
So now we arrive at the decade just gone and once more a glut of werewolf themed movies have risen and fallen. Lots of straight to DVD, a couple that made the cinema but only really two that stuck out as examples of the impact that a smart treatment of the myth can have.
A little Canadian film arrived at the beginning of the new millenia and it was so different, so sassy that you cannot love this movie. Ginger Snaps is the story of two sisters who are outsiders; from their family, from their school, from their town. But when Ginger gets bitten by a big dog the sisters connetion begins to fall apart and Ginger becomes someone else entirely.
What is so smart about this film is the obvious but rarely portrayed similarity between transforming into a werewolf, and a young woman going through puberty. Not only does this allow for some great comedy, but it helps to hide the usually obvious changes of the afflicted in these movies. Hair appearing, a lot of blood, mood swings, aggression, an interest in sex. Is that a horror story or regular growing up?
Great performances, a wonderful script and pretty terrifying effects makes Ginger Snaps one of the stand out werewolf films of all time. It is all of the old cliches presented in a completely new light. Even though there are some light hearted moments don’t be led astray. This is still a horror film.
But here is a very funny scene to watch anyway:
Dog Soldiers (2002)
It seems that it is the new approach that sheds different light on an old subject that has made Ginger Snaps and this film, Dog Soldiers so popular. As the film’s director Neil Marshall said “This is a soldier movie with werewolves” and apart from the opening scene (which has the traditional couple getting killed in the woods) you would have no idea that you were watching a werewolf horror film until the final 30 minutes.
A group of six British soldiers are on a routine exercise in the Scottish Highlands when the find themselves being set upon by unseen assailants. As they are injured and corralled they hold up in a house in the woods, until they find themselves besieged by werewolves.
Again this is a character based script and focuses on the issues between the men and the shifting dynamic of their relationships. It is basically a war fill where werewolves are the indomitable enemy force. And it is bloody scary. Brilliant!
This clip will give you an idea that it is not your ordinary werewolf movie:
And so here we find ourselves in the current day of 2011. What werewolf movie spectaculars have we had to keep our nights haunted? Not much unfortunately. The last decade has seen an all time low in the genre.
A werewolf appeared in Van Helsing (2004) but wasn’t memorable, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Cursed (2005) was basically a werewolf movie but was horrid and the less said about Red Riding Hood (2011) the better. Then there’s also last year’s remake of The Wolf Man, and I’m only mentioning this as a reminder to Hollywood that more often than not they should just leave the original classic alone.
But I have fingers crossed that just around the corner there will be another piece of lycanthrope law to be thrown up onto the big screen in all of its hairy, spittle-covered, howling goodness.
WhatCulture’s 31 Days of Horror 2, a month dedicated to the horror genre in the run-up to Halloween has begun. Check out our articles so far here;
- 8 Actresses Who Tricked You Into Thinking You Saw Them Nude
- 11 Irresistible Movie Moments That Wore Out Your Pause Button
- 100 Things Wrong With The Dark Knight Rises [Video]
- 10 Scenes You Won't Believe You Missed in 2012
- 10 Most Infuriating Movie Cliffhangers
- 10 Major Plot Holes You Probably Missed
- 10 Happy Movie Endings That Probably Had Horrific Consequences
- 12 Ruthless Movie Villains Who Were Defeated By Complete Fools