[Special Feature] Where Are All The Great Werewolf Movies?

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The werewolf is the most under-appreciated and misused of all of the classic horror creatures. Sure, we get all kinds of movies with werewolves in them, but more often than not those films seem more concerned with mentioning werewolves and then showing some bizarre half-assed approximation of them. Like they’re checking off a box on a list.

Obviously one of the most recent and popular misuses of the werewolf would be in the Twilight films, but dissecting those is like taking candy from a baby and I don’t want to spend too much time on it. Suffice to say – they look more like foxes, transform in the daytime, communicate via telepathy and are generally pretty lame. They’re also prone to jorts, which makes them almost like Native American Incredible Hulks who turn into dogs instead of big green guys.

But it’s not up to some teen franchise to carry the torch of one of our best monsters. That falls under the stewardship of actual horror films. So why do most of them drop the ball so badly? Incompetence certainly plays into it and is probably the biggest factor, but there’s still a lot of people with actual talent out there missing the mark. Why?

One of my theories is that too many of these movies seem overly concerned with adding a unique spin or futzing with the rules. I’m not saying there’s not room for that – any genre should be open to reinterpretation. But there are so few great “classic” werewolf movies that maybe we should concentrate on getting a few more of them under our belts. I think that needs to happen before we can expect any spin or subversion of the genre to have any real impact, because right now we’re spinning and subverting something with such a decentralized compass that it just feels random. For example, if you’re going straight into your Nazi Demon Werewolf movie without even exploring some of the inherent possibilities the creature’s metaphor, you’re doing it wrong.

Let’s talk great werewolf movies. And why The Howling might not be one of them. Head inside for more.

I was having dinner with a friend last night and he also felt that everyone’s rush to abandon the “rules” of the mythology is actually what’s breaking some of these movies. In the case of this creature’s mythology, the “rules” are kind of what make it so cool. And if you’re not inventive enough of a filmmaker to find something new to say within the construct of at least a few of those parameters, you might have a problem. Or you might be lazy. Obviously being beholden to every single rule can be constricting – but you should at least try to stick to the moon thing. It’s a perfect ticking clock if used properly.

And again – more importantly – these movies should explore the possibilities the metaphor has to offer. The primary uses that come to mind are exploring sexuality, exploring anger, and exploring irresponsibility in general. And the repression thereof. So much of our lives is given over to trying to contain our urges so that we fit into societal norms. We’re animals who are asked repeatedly to be something other than what we are in the name of manufacturing an identity for ourselves. Why don’t more of these films tackle the concept through this lens? It’s an almost guaranteed way to connect with the audience and yet it’s routinely ignored in favor of needlessly more elaborate conceits.

I should also get something out of the way. I’m not a huge fan of upright bipedal “Wolf Men” and this piece may hold some kind of subconscious bias against those films, which may be heresy to some of you. It’s not a make or break deal for me – if it has a good story then I’m fine with it. But it’s just not my aesthetic preference and I don’t find them scary at all. It’s a design that implies that there’s some kind of human reasoning within the animal, and I think it diminishes the impact. So be aware that some of the great bipedal works may just not have registered with me.

That being said, like any reasonable human being, I obviously acknowledge George Waggner’s 1941 Lon Chaney starring The Wolfman as a classic. It’s a great film that really helped cement the concept of lycanthropy in the public’s consciousness. And I’ll take it over the regal, fey Lycans of Underworld any day (I once heard someone regard the Underworld franchise as being “Downton Abbey” with werewolves and vampires, a comment I think sums up the ridiculousness of that series nicely – though I admittedly had fun with the last two installments). But it’s something I appreciate more than enjoy, and I rarely watch it.

So, aside from The Wolf Man, what are the great werewolf movies?

Hands down, John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London is the best. It’s better than The Wolf Man and it’s heads and shoulders above everything else. Sure, it ditches a lot of the mythology (no silver bullets, that’s for sure) but it holds on to what it needs in order to tell its story. Aside from having the single best design in the creature’s history (courtesy of Rick Baker), it’s also a rich, funny, moving and unique film that works in every way. The tonal shifts are masterfully executed. The characters are incredibly well drawn. The violence is terrifying. Its use of the werewolf myth to explore David’s ill-fated journey into manhood is appropriate. The whole film is such a singular artistic statement and it’s beyond impressive. Aside from being my favorite werewolf film, it’s one of my favorite films. Period.

And sadly, it would probably never get made today. At least not by a studio. Something with that much nuance and tonal ambiguity would be absolutely strangled in the development process. Can you see a modern studio exec allowing Landis to cut so jarringly from our dead, naked protagonist to the upbeat strains of Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Moon”? In 1981, Universal released An American Werewolf In London In 2010, they released The Wolfman remake. That seems to be where their head is at these days (though they might reconsidering in light of the latter film’s underperformance). The only drawback to being such an avowed fan of AWIL is meeting people who somehow think you’re talking about An American Werewolf In Paris. Speaking of – if you want to talk about what’s wrong with werewolf movies, look no further than that disaster.

But AWIL was so long ago. What’s the last really great one? I’d have to say it’s John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps. Even though the makeup and werewolf design is sort of lacking (from what I’m assuming are budgetary reasons), it makes such a great use of the werewolf metaphor that it’s almost embarrassing to watch any of the other lycan-centric movies that have come in its wake. Some of the performances are a little shaky, but the film is such a complete exploration of the myth that it recovers nicely. It also doesn’t hurt that its central story is also compelling. The frayed bonds of sisterhood as explored by Emily Perkins’ Brigitte and Katharine Isabelle’s Ginger are so fully realized that they carry you through some of the film’s rougher patches near the end.

Silver Bullet is also pretty good and makes nice use of the internal werewolf conflict by making the villain a preacher, but it’s not a particularly nimble film and it doesn’t stick with you in the way a great movie should. The Wolfen takes a good look at how feral wildness can emerge in urban decay, but gets bogged down in too much mumbo jumbo (though jogging Gregory Hines is amazing in it). I actually really like Mike Nichols’ 1994 film Wolf with Jack Nicholson. It has a lot to say about midlife crisis, empowerment and virility. But it’s more satisfying as a drama than a genre piece.

And from there it’s a bit of a steep decline. Joe Dante’s The Howling is a fun movie with a pulpy script by John Sayles that is completely undone by a few key moments. The ending is way too broad and campy, and the same goes for the Christopher Stone sex scene in the forest. Rob Bottin’s effects during Robert Picardo’s transformation are pretty amazing, but I’m not sure why people say it rivals the transformation scene in AWIL. In AWIL the pain of the the character is felt so palpably I start getting nervous several minutes before the scene even starts. In The Howling it just kind of happens and it takes forever. Also, why doesn’t Dee Wallace just run away? She’s not backed that far into the corner. I almost hate talking this way about a movie of Dante’s because I love so much of his work, but this one just doesn’t hit the mark for me. In fact, The Howling loses me once we meet the denizens of the retreat early in the film. Also, I feel like the thematic heft of being werewolf is kind of fragmented by the whole conspiracy angle.

Maybe I’m myopic, but that’s about it from me. What else am I missing? Dog Soldiers? In The Company Of Wolves? Let me know below!

 
Source: Bloody Disgusting
  • Radicalex

    Sure I’m gonna get some hate for this, but I never liked The Howling or An American Werewolf In London (or Dog Soldiers, while we’re at the whole iconoclasm thing). The Howling was too dull and, as you stated, overly silly, and while I was captivated by AAWIL’s first 15 minutes or so, I also found the rest of that movie dull and couldn’t relate to the characters or really care about them. I am fond of the first Ginger Snaps, though.

    My favorite werewolf flick, and coincidentally one of my favorite horror films, is Blood Moon (or Wolf Girl) from 2001. It’s an introspective, hypnotic character-propelled movie that ends with a sense of deep tragedy and mournfulness. The characterization is strong, you pretty much get a free ticket to a freak show included, and there’s Tim Curry.

    I haven’t seen Silver Bullet or Wolfen, but I do want to check those out.

    • EvanDickson

      No hate from me. This is where you can say whatever you want. I’ll have to check out BLOOD MOON.

      • Benatar01

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  • FreddyKrueger13

    Me and my friend were just talking about how werewolves get the short end of the stick when it comes to movies and its a real shame because they are such great creatures with so much potential, some upcoming werewolf movies that sound interesting (to me at least) are Growl and Gladiators vs Werewolves: Edge of Empire.

  • http://www.facebook.com/buffyangel808 Ethan Steers

    Dog Soldiers and Ginger Snaps are the best. I’m honestly not a huge fan of American Werewolf in London. I just don’t feel like it aged well, especially since I saw it for the first time in the past few years. I think a lot of the reason The Howling and AWIL get so much love is part nostalgia. Also, the effects can really kill a werewolf movie so a to of low budget new ones look crappy and it takes you out. Underworld had great looking werewolves, but I guess it’s not a werewolf movie.

    • EvanDickson

      Oddly enough I thought nostalgia would help THE HOWLING for me. Not so much though!

  • yuckyoctopus

    Bad Moon isn’t as awful as it could be. It has one of my favorite werewolf designs in it.

    • yuckyoctopus

      And any Eric Red involvement is something I’ll never push aside.

      • EvanDickson

        I dig Eric Red.

    • VanceMelbourne

      Wow. I was just thinking the exact same thing when I read your comment. Just re-watched Bad Moon recently, and it does have a great wolf design.

  • Rusted

    AWIL is without a doubt the best. Silver Bullet is a good little flick and I quite like The Howling. There’s my top three that this sub genre offers.

    • VanceMelbourne

      Busey’s great in Silver Bullet!

  • http://www.facebook.com/digital.larissa Larissa Thomas

    Ginger Snaps 2 is one of my favorite movies of all time. I actually think it outdid the first one, which I also love. Love #3 too. If you haven’t seen the second one you’re missing out on an awesome/disgusting group masturbation ses’.

    Big Bad Wolf is probably the funniest/grossest werewolf movie I’ve ever seen.

    I know a lot of people hated the AWIL “sequel” – American Werewolf in Paris, but there are a few parts that make it pretty spectacular, for example the whole restaurant to graveyard scene.

    Did anyone watch Wolf Lake (tv show)?

  • Danny-E

    I have read 3 great werewolf scripts in the past month. 2 are comedies and one is just badass and cool. They really need to make the badass and cool one. Very violent and hip.

    • VanceMelbourne

      Are they posted anywhere online where we can read them? Just curious, I’d love to read some spec werewolf stuff.

  • CountOrlok

    What about Werewolf of London (1935)?

  • tszillav1.5

    A great little no- budgeter from the late 50′s simply called The Werewolf, and the classic I Was A Teenage Werewolf both deserve a little love, as well as the puppy-dog looking werewolf of 1943′s Return Of The Vampire.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000078380389 Joshua Kelly

    Dog soldiers definitely deserves to be in there. American Werewolf in London over The Howling any day. Also, 1992′s Dracula, the wolf design is pretty killer in that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Horrorfiend Michael Juvinall

    Great article, I do not totally agree with everything you say, but great nonetheless. The Howling and AWIL are both neck and neck for me, with the slight edge going to The Howling. I’m waiting for someone to make a werewolf film the way that I would make it, a classic old-school, scary, monster movie. I actually love the Universal 2010 remake of The Wolf Man. Such incredible make-up by Baker. Let’s not forget about Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf, great story based on Guy Endore’s ‘Werewolf of Paris’ novel. Leon’s struggle with his duality was quite refreshing with true love keeping the beast at bay. Also the werewolf mythology in COTW was never used before or since. A child born on Christmas day, begat by his mother’s rape by a feral man, great stuff!
    Let’s keep werewolves in the spotlight, i’d like to see werewolves get their due like Zombies have now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/donald.mabry.3 Donald Mabry

    No mention of the tv series Werewolf that was on back in the ’80′s? That show was the sh*t!

    • badadam

      Hear hear! I keep waiting for someone to figure out the licensing issues and get that series the DVD transfer it deserves. Just like I keep waiting for a PS3 port of Zombies Ate My Neighbors. IT WILL HAPPEN.

    • EvanDickson

      I’m just now remembering that show. I loved it!

  • Mako

    For me… the best werewolf movie is THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. It not only takes the little red riding hood mythos and turn it into a girls’ fantasy of how a girl becomes a woman… but it has one of the more creative and horrific werewolf transformations on screen. Rounding out my top 3 would be GINGER SNAPS and AWIL. Most other werewolf movies I find kind of boring and lacking any depth.

  • Vamp59

    Saw a great Werewolf pic up at Dead by Dawn a month ago. A spanish movie called Lobos de Arga. Very funny and pretty scary. Great non CG werewolves. Well worth checking out.

  • EvanDickson

    Great responses guys. I now have a few more movies to check out!

  • cswood

    I liked this article, which is why I think it also answers its own question. The werewolf mythos/rules are too constrained. It appears one night a month and has no real agenda like a vampire so all you really have to play is the character’s dread of when he/she will turn next (which can be good, but clashes with today’s “more/better/faster/sooner” mentality towards moviemaking).

    The only way I see to make a good werewolf movie that a studio won’t strange in its crib is to change the full moon rule (blasphemy I know, but hear me out).

    I’ve long thought of writing a werewolf horror script that is more like, say, Cat People (or The Hulk in a sense). What if the person uncontrollably changes into a werewolf upon feeling intense rage or having sex? And they can’t change back until they have feasted on human blood?

    If you’re sticking to the “full moon” rule just because it provides a timeclock then why not just make a new timeclock?

    I also thought it would be a cool idea to make someone a “carrier” of the werewolf disease where they don’t turn, but if they swap fluids with someone else they could infect them. Then it’s like it becomes an STD.

  • A_Farewell_To_Arms

    As someone who as a whole doesn’t particularly care about the werewolf genre. The last two werewolf movies I saw were actually really good. the first being dog soldiers which I found to be really good def. worth watching. and the wolfman with lon chaney which I also found to be very good even thought the effects are sooo goofy

  • Grime

    Dog Soldiers is the best werewolf movie period.

  • jdscissorhands

    I love the Company of Wolves. Much better than the Howling (even though I am abig fan of Joe Dante…)

  • Saturns-Monolith

    The movie sucks, but the book is hands down my favorite werewolf tale of them all. It’s called “The Beast Within” by Edward Levy. They need to remake that and make it amazing. Or they need to make David Morrell’s “The Totem” into a movie. Otherwise there’s only Dog Soldiers and AWIL.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003721641237 Jamar Rivalbeast

    What about Bad Moon directed by Eric Red? It’s a good werewolf movie in my opinion. The werewolf costume design and transformation scenes are pretty tight!.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003721641237 Jamar Rivalbeast

    Another werewolf movie from the past that’s pretty good is Project: Metabeast, starring Kane Hodder (Jason) as the werewolf.

    http://youtu.be/iHBa8tZZ02g

  • http://www.facebook.com/AdamPaquette88 Adam Paquette

    I love American Werewolf in London. American Werewolf in Paris is garbage. The Wolf Man remake was decent but it gets so much hate… Not really a huge werewolf guy myself, but American Werewolf in London is so well done.

    Fuck Twilight!

  • DBZEROGRAVITY

    AWIL remains the best… Bad Moon is pretty decent too. Seems a lot of people are split on the Underworld movies but I love them (maybe because I’m a big fan of the Matrix too). I’d really like to see a werewolf film with some substance again. My wife, on the other hand, likes the Twilight stuff. And those movies have convinced the world that vampires and werewolves are a bunch of pussies. So we may have to wait a while before another good one comes out

  • St.Anger

    American Werewolf in London is my favorite.

  • Fantomas-2.0

    The portuguese metal band Moonspell have a wicked video, Lickantrope, with a creepy werewolf
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKhmbUQIvSY

    • Darkness69

      Ha, Moonspell, they’re great, saw them in 2006. Awesome live shows!

      • Fantomas-2.0

        I saw a show of Moonspell a few years ago,they were opening for Soulfly and Cradle of Filth, and they tottaly stole the show!
        See the video Lickanthrope,I left the link below.The video pays homage to American Werewolf in London, From Dusk Till Dawn,Company of Wolves,etc (and El Topo is holding his son in the bar), its awesome!

  • drmb1990

    A little film that isn’t all that well known, Werewolf Hunter. It is actually quite good for what it is imo.

    • wolffearpain6336

      I forgot about that movie, that was pretty good. It actually surprised the hell out of me.

  • DarkestKnight

    I’m gonna get a lot of flak for this but I actually like Wes Craven’s Cursed. sure the special effects aren’t that good but its a fun time waster and the whodunit of the evil wolfs identity is fun if a bit predictible. If you watch it nowadays you can watch it as a 90′s post scream movie and forget that it came out in 03. also I like the Teen Wolf Tv series. The pilot wasn’t great but the rest of the story was well done, the acting was good and you never knew where it would go next and its coming back for a second season!

  • http://www.facebook.com/gabbi.cordero Gabbi Cordero

    great article. thank you for respecting the metaphorical value this Universal Monster has to offer. “exploring sexuality, exploring anger, and exploring irresponsibility in general. And the repression thereof.” i couldn’t agree more. oh and fuck twilight

  • VanceMelbourne

    I’m about as big a werewolf enthusiast as you’ll find, and yet I never stopped to think about how few truly good ww movies there are… Which is astounding to me. Thanks for the great article, Evan.
    I think part of the reason I’ve been satiated by the status quo of ww movies is that I hold Ginger Snaps and AAWIL (I’m coincidentally wearing the t-shirt right now) in very high regard. I absolutely LOVE Ginger Snaps for exactly the reasons mentioned in the article, and AAWIL scared the living shit out of me as a kid. I was haunted by the warning ‘stick to the road, keep clear of the moors, and beware the moon’ (which is incidentally written on the back of this shirt which makes me pleased as punch).
    For a long time I considered GS to be the werewolf movie to end all werewolf movies. I’m Canadian and probably a little bias, but I thought it made such clever use of the metaphor, that any ww flicks that followed would just be monster movies.
    It took this article to make me take GS off the pedestal.
    And Evan’s absolutely right. We’re trying to put a new spin on something that hasn’t gotten a good spin of any kind.
    So as the largest horror community on the web, I hope somebody here at BD gets to work on the next great werewolf story. Evan mentioned the full moon cycle as a great ticking clock mechanism in any werewolf movie. I would also like to point to the iconography of the full moon itself. Nothing can consistently send a chill up my spine like when the clouds part to reveal that yellow moon and that howl goes up… Gets me every time.

    PS- I’m giving Dog Soldiers another chance tonight in the spirit of this article. I’m ashamed to say I fell asleep the first time around, though it was no fault of the movie’s. I didn’t rush out to see it again because I didn’t know it was held in such high regard. But it seems to be the best represented on this thread after GS and AAWIL.
    I’m psyched to watch a good ww flick! I’ll report back.

  • FreddyJ.Myers

    I like The Howling. Although I wouldn’t call it Bone-chilling, its spooky and has a sufficiently creepy atmosphere. I thought it was witty (such as everyone eating Wolf chili and reading Howl) and Dee Wallace is my second favorite scream queen (behind the immortal and awesome Jamie Lee Curtis) and I had the pleasure to meet her at the Mad Monster Party in Charlotte, NC. This also is one of the few occasions where the film is better than the book (the book being a cheap ripoff of ‘salem’s lot without any development or pacing or skill in writing). AWIL was a little too comedic for me, although it was still a great film with a seriously amazing transformation.

  • wolffearpain6336

    I know everyone will hate my opinion but hear it goes. First I agree that the two legged wolf man does not do anything for me. I like the morph into an actual beast. Even in Silver Bullet the wolf was scary looking and I think it is severely underrated. That scene with the fireworks really puts a lot of fear in you. As for AWIL, great transformation scene however that movie has NEVER did anything for me. I found it very dull and I actually dont like the way the wolf looks in the end. I felt Paris could have been better but the CGI did a number on it. I did like the story but it wasn’t a great movie by any stretch. Ginger Snaps and all the sequels were great movies. I really felt for it and the wolf wasn’t bad at all for such a low budget.
    Now for my favorite and the one I will catch a lot of what the hell over. The Howling was great movie to me. I loved that transformation and while you don’t feel the pain as in AWIL, it actually freaks me the hell out watching that. I loved the whole coven thing and how the doctor was trying to get the wolves to band together and leave people alone. I always felt if there were werewolves that they would form packs because of how separated from humanity you are. Also as a side note, the new Howling was actually pretty good and under rated. I felt it had a nice story and while a little predictable it was good all around.
    I really feel this genre has so many fans with so many opinions that every time a movie is made no matter how much love it gets there is just as much hate. You got your fun werewolf movies like Dog Soldiers and more serious like Silver Bullet. There are just so many takes and studios cant seem to put it together how to get a great movie. Unlike other classic monsters the design of the wolf and the transformation make or break it. Instead of focusing on the struggle the beast goes through they just show them as mindless killers when they really aren’t. I have been reading werewolf books recently and they are better at capturing this. Just hope these movies make a comeback one day so I can laugh at Draculas fangs.:-D