Welcome to Psycho Drive-In’s 31 Days of Schlocktober celebration! This year we’ve decided to present the ABCs of Horror, with entries every day this month providing Director information, Best-of lists, Genre overviews, and Reviews of films and franchises, all in alphabetical order! Today brings us W is for Werewolves!
Werewolves have been a pop culture staple for generations and, just in case you don’t know, there have been a lot of werewolf movies over the years. And so, when approaching this article rather than attempting to chronicle every werewolf film ever made I instead decided to cherry pick several out of each decade to try and chart out the trends the werewolf genre has gone through since its inception.
After multiple viewings it’s obvious that the origin and specifics of the legend, silver bullets, wolfsbane, ect. are relevant only to the degree in which it affects the plot. Many core elements of the essential story, however, remain constant adaptation after adaptation.
Along with being an unpleasant human being from the start, once he becomes a wolf man Doctor Glendon actually retains most of his intelligence. The extent is vague but he is smart enough to unlock doors, flee when he hears police sirens, and hide his transformation under a heavy coat when he goes out. While this is an interesting take, it also casts the protagonist in an unsympathetic light. The amount of planning and the very specific nature of each of his victims makes it unclear if he’s really compelled to kill or just an unusually hairy serial murderer.
Lon Chaney Jr. famously plays the main character, to the point where most references cite the lead actor rather than the director. He’s not the most charismatic and comes across more as a big child than anything else however; this pays off once the tragic elements of the werewolf curse start getting played up. Chaney spends most of the movie horrified and anxious, convinced he’s going through a mental breakdown after killing a wolf only to have it transform into an old gypsy man when the police arrive. When he finally becomes fully aware of his condition, he desperately begs to be turned over to the police before he can hurt anyone. In the end to protect the life of a young woman his own father must beat him to death with a silver-handled cane.
So here we establish that the werewolf is essentially a tragic character, unlike his monster movie compatriots, Frankenstein, Dracula, or the Mummy. There is no cure for lycanthropy and so once that fateful bite occurs the human side is slowly swallowed by the wolf and the hero is faced with the fear that loved ones will inevitably become victims. Death is the only way out and so a tragic end is inevitable, usually with the werewolf meeting death at the hands of someone he loves.
The undertones here are fairly obvious, the idea of being consumed by the spirit of a wolf acting as a stand in for the darker side of human nature. Violence, jealousy, and lust are all at play in these movies as the brutality of the werewolf threatens the safety of the civilized world.
If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time discussing just these two movies, the answer is simple. What may, at first, simply have been attempts to capitalize on the success of Universal Pictures have, after years of repetition, created a distinct structure and cannon to the Werewolf film. As a result these movies are incredibly formulaic, at least for the first twenty to thirty years after The Wolf Man.
This is not bad, necessarily, and I am a big fan of genre movies. A lot of the fun involves immersing yourself in a particular tone and style of storytelling while at the same time being able to go in and pick apart the differences from one story to the other based on things like time period and director. That said, if you’re looking to dig into this particular genre it might be good not to try watching everything all at once in chronological order…the way I did.
Aside from a few notable deviations, the werewolf formula stays pretty strict across the board. I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957) combines werewolves with juvenile delinquency, laying the seeds for things like Teen Wolf in 1985. There are several other “wolf man” style movies that come out in the 1960’s, notably the 12 film del Hombre Lobo series starring Spanish actor Paul Naschy or films like Curse of the Werewolf. Many of these films are well made but not terribly distinctive, preferring to call back to the classics of the 40s before werewolf films start to fizzle out in the 1950s.
In contrast, The Howling, which also entered theaters in 1981, abandons the formula to focus on the undertones of repressed violence and sexuality present in earlier films. Here our hero is a woman, Karen White, a reporter who survives a violent brush with werewolf and serial murderer Eddie. Suffering from post-traumatic stress Karen and her boyfriend are sent to recuperate in the least relaxing vacation spot ever, an isolated commune full of creepy rednecks. It is interesting that here the werewolf is clearly a villain, yet in true, seedy 80s fashion a lot of time is spent showing how great being a werewolf is. You basically live forever, transform anytime you want, and get to have tons of sex, as we find out when Bill, Karen’s mustachioed, health-nut boyfriend, is bitten and transforms into a red blooded meat-eater with a super-charged libido.
Both film’s found strong audiences and would spawn multiple sequels, An American Werewolf in London in particular becoming a hit at the box office. With renewed interest from both Hollywood and general audiences a wave of new, modern takes on the old story kept werewolves on the silver screen through the decade. In the 90s and into 2000 we see werewolves take an interesting new turn. Once again the face of horror changes with slasher movies and the like making knife-wielding psychopaths, zombies and demonic possession the standard go to. More traditional werewolf horror films like Bad Moon (1996) flop and though some adopted the style of the times, few broke out of the circles of low budget horror to reach broader audiences. By this point, however, werewolves have become so firmly engrained in the public consciousness that instead of disappearing they simply migrate to other genres.
In 2004 Dog Soldiers tells a surprisingly engaging story where six British soldiers are pitted against a pack of werewolves, waiting out the full moon in an abandoned farmhouse. You could easily write it off as Aliens with werewolves and a lower budget but there is a decent theme in there about dehumanization in the military and the psychological effects of war. These get built up a bit in the first half and then completely dropped at the end when shit just gets stupidly, wonderfully over the top.
Its poor reception put the kibosh on any major releases focusing exclusively on werewolves but I wouldn’t worry about it too much. At the moment they are lurking on the edges of low budget horror and the werewolf’s return to theaters seems inevitable.