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!