Werewolf movies have been a part of the horror film pantheon since 1935, When Universal released "The Werewolf of London." Since then, lycanthropy has appeared on the silver screen countless times, and been presented in many different ways.
Werewolves in movies usually deal with themes of the bestial nature of man being freed to its most dangerous extent, with a person afflicted by the curse grappling with the consequences of that murderous rage being unleashed.
Since Halloween is around the corner, I thought it might be nice to look closer at a few of the more interesting werewolf films ever made.
4. "The Wolfman" (1941)
Although "The Werewolf of London" is the real grand-daddy of werewolf films, it was not hugely popular, possibly because it seemed too similar to "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which preceded it in 1931. No, when most people think of early werewolf movies, it's "The Wolfman" that comes to mind. Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, an American who returns to his ancestral home in Wales to try to reconcile a strained relationship with his father, a member of the local gentry.
While visiting, Talbot meets a local woman named Gwen, who he promptly develops romantic feelings for. She works at a local antique shop and sells him a silver wolf tipped cane, that she claims represents a werewolf.
The subject of werewolves comes up a lot in conversation with various villagers throughout the film, and many of them recite the same poem:
"Even a man who is pure in heart, And says his prayers by night, May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, And the Autumn moon is bright."
Catchy. I was always amused at the movie's suggestion that lycanthropy seems to be a seasonal affliction, striking victims during the Fall.
Soon after all of this, Talbot is (wouldn't you know it) bitten by a wolf while trying to intervene in an attack on a female friend of Gwen's. He kills the creature with his walking stick, and a gypsy fortune teller named Maleva reveals to him that it was really her son, a werewolf. She not-so-conveniently lets Talbot know that he will also become a werewolf since he was bitten.
And so it goes. Talbot does indeed transform into the Wolfman and stalks the village, killing as he goes. Understandably, his new status as a cursed lycanthrop wears heavily on the guy. He fortunately doesn't have to worry about it too long, since he attacks Gwen in his Wolf form, and is then beaten to death by his own father with his own werewolf cane. Talbot Sr. then watches in horror as the dead Wolfman changes back into his son before his eyes.
"The Wolfman" is slow in parts, like a lot of the very old horror films tend to be, but it's the first really important werewolf film, and the one that so many subsequent ones used as a template. It also established a lot of the "rules" that werewolf films continue to use.
It's got a few strange elements that don't really work for me - I never understood why the werewolf that bites Talbot is in the form of an actual wolf, but Talbot himself transforms into the iconic Wolfman - standing on two legs, looking a bit goofy as a particularly hirsute guy with a dog nose. And for a Welsh guy returning home, Larry Talbot sure seems fully American, as do several other people in the film. But "The Wolfman" has some great scenes and atmosphere, something the early Universal horror films were good at - the foggy forest looks great, and the gypsy village scenes are very cool.
3. "Cat People" (1942)
It's not exactly a werewolf movie, being about women that turn into panthers, but it shares much with the genre, and is rightfully considered one of the best early horror movies ever made. It's certainly one of the finest about people shape shifting into predatory animals.
Irene Dubrovna is a Serbian born fashion designer living in New York City. She has an odd fascination with panthers, but despite that, agrees to marry a handsome engineer named Oliver. On her wedding night, Irene has foreboding thoughts that something bad will happen, and refuses to sleep with her husband. Soon after, she becomes jealous when she sees him sitting with his pretty assistant, Alice, who has confessed that she loves him.
Strange things begins to happen. Sheep are killed by something leaving behind bloody cat prints that turn into a woman's shoe prints, and Alice is stalked by an unseen creature in a swimming pool scene that is rightfully famous.
At the end of the film, Irene enters the big cat cage at the zoo, allowing herself to be killed, wanting her curse to be over.
As far as I know, "Cat People" is the first film linking female sexuality to a form of lycanthropy, and has to be one of the first films where sex plays such a pivotal role in a monster movie. It's also beautifully and hauntingly shot, and is now considered one of the best early horror films ever made. Rather than show viewers some silly looking cat person with fake ears and hair glued to her face, the film makers chose to instead rely on shadow and the fear of the unseen. It works, and "Cat People" is a great film.
2. "The Howling" (1981)
Almost 40 years passed between "Cat People" and this Joe Dante-directed film. I realize that there were some good/interesting werewolf films during that time period, but for the most part, the majority of them were pretty derivative of the Wolfman template. In the early '80s, that changed. Partially due to huge advances in special effects technology, and also because a new generation of film makers began to spin modern versions of the werewolf myth, which seemed old fashioned up until that point.
1981's "The Howling" was one of that new breed of werewolf films, and while not perfect, it's a pretty fun ride.
Dee Wallace plays Karen White, a Los Angeles news anchor who is traumatized by an encounter with a serial killer named Eddie Quist. On advice from her psychiatrist, she and her husband travel to The Colony, a sort of rural resort/commune, where he treats certain patients.
The place is full of characters, including a sexually aggressive witchy woman named Marsha, who quickly tries to seduce Karen's husband, Bill. When he resists, Bill is attacked and bitten by a wolf creature while walking home. Later he returns to Marsha's cabin, and they consummate the affair, turning into wolves as they have sex.
Lots of weird things begin to happen, and it becomes obvious that werewolves are plentiful in The Colony. I'll leave the rest of this fun film for people to see for themselves.
"The Howling" has several things going for it. The screenplay was written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante, who had collaborated earlier on "Piranha." Like that murderous fish epic, "The Howling" has a subversive dark humor running through it, and is quite clever in lampooning some horror and werewolf movie conventions. The film also benefits from the casting of character actors like Slim Pickens and Dick Smith.
But by far, the strongest assets of "The Howling" are the groundbreaking special effects by Rob Bottin. While some of the effects are uneven (some puppet werewolves look odd, and there is a ridiculous and obviously animated sequence) the special effects work of Bottin looks convincing and amazing. Eddie Quist's transformation scene, and the completely frightening bipedal werewolves look great, a game changer from the old fashioned optical effects that were used for transformations previously. There's one transformation late in the film that looks lame, more like a Pomeranian than a werewolf, but for the most part the effects here were stellar.
The only other gripe I have is with Dee Wallace. I've never liked her acting much. She always seems so emotionally unbalanced that I find her unpleasant to watch.
"The Howling" would probably be considered the best modern werewolf film if not for one other...
1. "An American Werewolf in London" (1981) 1981 must have been "The Year of the Werewolf", because "An American Werewolf in London" came out mere months after "The Howling" was released. Not to oversell this one, but it is the perfect werewolf film. Directed irreverently by John Landis, and having a charismatic cast including Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, and David Naughton, AAWIL perfectly bridges the old school werewolf mythos into the modern era. I won't spoil the plot for anyone who has not seen this film, but it's the best of its kind, and nothing has really touched it since. In short, two young Americans are backpacking through England, and are attacked by something horrific on a foggy night. One is brutally killed, and the other injured. He wakes in a London hospital some time later, and is soon visited by the mutilated (but jovial) ghost of his dead friend, who gives him the bad news: they were attacked by a werewolf, and David (the survivor) will turn into a werewolf on the next full moon. Jack (the dead guy) is cursed to wander limbo until David is killed, ending the werewolves' curse.
Things go from bad to worse, and I'll leave it at that.
This film almost perfectly balances extreme horror with humor, something many people have tried, and usually failed at. It also has the best special effects in a werewolf film ever. Rick Baker won an Academy Award for his execution of the film's effects, and for good reason. They are completely convincing. This film is the first time a complete on-screen transformation is shown from beginning to end, and it's breathtaking. The werewolf is a demonic looking four legged creature, and David's transformation from a bipedal human looks convincing and agonizing.
"An American Werewolf in London" trumps "The Howling" because it's just an overall better film, less uneven, and the effects raised the bar even higher, basically redefining what was acceptable in a film like this. It's one of the best horror films ever made, and definitely worth seeing.
There are a lot of good werewolf films out there, and this list only scratches the hairy surface. I could've easily added at least ten more. Honorable mentions go to films like:
"Ginger Snaps," "Curse of the Werewolf," "Dog Soldiers," "Silver Bullet," and "The Company of Wolves," but these four are a great way to spend a few evenings when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright.