A Halloween wolf pack: Werewolves on screen

Werewolf of London

You can’t throw a wooden stake without hitting a vampire movie these days. But werewolf movies seem to come in phases, like the full moon. The werewolf’s origin, even on screen, is often shrouded in mystery. We understand from the classics how a man ends up becoming a werewolf but little about how the curse began. Instead, the focus in many of the films, some which are included on the list that follows, is less about how than why. You could say that lycanthropy (or werewolfism) represents the classic struggle between id and ego, propriety and primal instinct.

Some of those destined to sprout hair, fangs, and claws are the victims of circumstance. They didn’t ask to be made into werewolves and rebel against it, often with dire results. But you can’t escape your instinct or suppress it. Eventually, our wild natures assert themselves, one way or another. That’s part of the werewolf’s enduring appeal. They’re so unerringly human, even when they’re not.

In honor of All Hallow’s Eve, here’s a look at some classics of the genre, as well as some that took the concept of lycanthropy in new directions.

WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)

Hollywood’s first mainstream werewolf picture also marked Universal Pictures premier attempt to bring the iconic monster of legend to the big screen. Henry Hull (Babes in Arms) stars as Wilfred Glendon, an English botanist in Tibet who’s seeking a rare flower called the mariphasa. He’s attacked by a werewolf but manages to bring the floral specimen back to London. Approached by another botanist, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), he learns that, once bitten by the werewolf, he’s destined to become one himself and the mariphasa is the only known antidote. Yogami claims to have met him before, in Tibet. Could he be the werewolf that attacked Glendon?

When his attempts to use moonlight to get the mariphasa to blossom have unintended consequences, Glendon’s transformation into a werewolf leads to the death of an innocent girl. His own wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), becomes his intended target, as he instinctively seeks out that which he loves.

Werewolf of London provided famed makeup artist Jack Pierce with his first chance to try out the werewolf look he’d expand on six years later in Universal’s iconic The Wolf Man. It’s well regarded among classic horror fans for its Jekyll-and-Hyde premise, in which a beastly ugliness infects London’s upper class, and its unusual take on the werewolf legend (introducing the rare flower as an antidote). It blends its horrific elements with comedy (in the form of a bickering duo of spinsters). But its lead fails to garner audience sympathy. Unfortunately, Glendon’s lycanthropy merely enhances his more unlikable, selfish traits and mars the experience of the film. Not rated, 75 minutes, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Video Library, Vudu

A Halloween wolf pack: Werewolves on screen

The Wolf Man

THE WOLF MAN (1941)

What makes this take on the werewolf legend an enduring classic is not just its horror but Lon Chaney Jr.’s sympathetic turn as the hapless protagonist, Lawrence Talbot. (Chaney took on the mantle of his father, silent-era horror legend Lon Chaney Sr., star of Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

After the death of his brother, Talbot returns to his family’s English estate and romances an old acquaintance, Gwen, played by Universal regular Evelyn Ankers (The Ghost of Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror).

One night, Talbot attempts to rescue Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm) from a wolf attack and is injured in the process. He learns from a traveling Romani gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya) that the wolf was the gypsy fortune teller Bela (Bela Lugosi in a brief but memorable role) who is cursed to roam the Earth as a werewolf until death releases him. And Talbot, having survived the attack, is destined to turn into a wolf himself.

The Wolf Man is Chaney Jr.’s best-known role and one he’d reprise in the Universal monster mashups that followed, notably Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). He’s likable from the start. In between his bouts of werewolfism, he manages to bring poignancy to his character’s fate.

The Wolf Man features a terrific script from the great Curt Siodmak and a stellar cast that includes Ralph Bellamy, as Talbot’s rival for Gwen’s affections, and Claude Rains as the elder Talbot who refuses to believe his son’s claims that he’s a werewolf, which sets up the film’s devastating conclusion.

The Wolf Man remains one of the most beloved and influential of the Universal horrors, setting the standard by which many newer werewolf movies still abide: transformation under the light of the full moon, a curse passed on by a werewolf attack, and death by a silver bullet or a stick with a silver handle. And who can forget that memorable poem, known to the local villagers, which many a fan of classic horror can recite word for word? “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.” Not rated, 70 minutes, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Video Library, Vudu

A Halloween wolf pack: Werewolves on screen

The Curse of the Werewolf

THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)

Hammer Film Productions’ only werewolf picture is a doozy. It takes the legend, made famous by Universal‘s 1941 film, and gives it a series of twists. First is the setting: instead of fog-shrouded English countryside, we get 18th-century Spain, where Leon (Oliver Reed) struggles with his lycanthropy from birth. Next is the nature of the werewolf curse: rather than an affliction brought on by an attack from another werewolf, Leon’s fate is sealed when his mother dies in childbirth on Christmas Day, proving an old wives’ tale true.

Raised by a kindly scholar named Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans) and his housekeeper Teresa (Hira Talfrey), Leon seems to outgrow his curse. But one fateful day, his despair at the seeming impossibility of marrying a woman of higher station consumes him and the curse reasserts itself. Jailed on suspicion of committing the ghastly murders occurring in town, Leon begs to be put to death. His pleading is convincing, and Reed is intense, playing the troubled Leon to the hilt. It was his first lead role, long before prominent roles in Oliver! (1968), Women in Love (1969), and The Devils (1971).

The Curse of the Werewolf boasts some memorable scenes, not the least of which is the blanket of darkness that overtakes the church at Leon’s baptism, causing the holy water to tremble in the baptismal font, as well as an ending that pays homage to the Universal classic without copying it. Shot in Technicolor, it gives Hammer plenty of instances to trade on the gore its horror films were known for. It’s a solid directorial effort from Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher (The Curse of Frankenstein) and features some great werewolf makeup by Roy Ashton. Not rated, 93 minutes, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Video Library, Vudu

A Halloween wolf pack: Werewolves on screen

An American Werewolf in London

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)

While it’s known for mixing horror with comedy, don’t let that fool you. This is no lighthearted affair but a visceral, bloody horror film full of nightmarish imagery and genuine scares. A banner year for werewolf movies, 1981 featured two of the genres most iconic films: An American Werewolf in London and The Howling (not to mention the underappreciated Wolfen). But director John Landis’ (National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers) take on the legend remains one the genres’ foremost entries.

Two American college students backpacking through England, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) make the unfortunate mistake of straying into the moors after being warned not to by local villagers. Something unseen circles them under the full moon, letting loose bone-chilling howls. Even though you know it’s coming, the creature’s pounce is still a terrific jump-scare. An injured David survives, only to carry on the curse of the werewolf. Jack does not.

An American Werewolf in London isn’t just a good fright film, it’s also supremely entertaining. Landis is no stranger to comedy, and this offering wrings its fair share of laughs from the audience with its dark sense of humor. Dunne’s stolid turn as Jack, who’s destined to roam the Earth as one of the undead until the werewolf line is ended, is a nice twist that sees all of David’s victims similarly afflicted. Jack regularly appears to David in increasingly decomposed states and tries to convince him to kill himself. A hilarious scene shows David’s victims listing all the ways he could do it. But David has a hard time buying that he’s actually a werewolf.

Released from the hospital after the initial attack, David hooks up with pretty nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) and ends up staying in her apartment. He tries, unsuccessfully, to stave off the inevitable, still not convinced he’s a werewolf. He erupts in agony when the change overtakes him, leading to one of most memorable transformation scenes in werewolf movie history. His body contorts, he sprouts hair, his face extends into a snout, his fingers stretch, and he grows claws. It won makeup artist Rick Baker an Academy Award and cemented his reputation as one of the industry’s best effects artists.

All hell breaks loose in Piccadilly Circus after David’s final transformation. Short but sweet, it racks up a high body count in grisly fashion, leading to a decidedly downbeat conclusion.

The film expertly updates the classic English horror setting for the modern day, with nods to the British Hammer horror classics, and includes some hair-raising scenes of suspense, especially when David stalks his prey through London’s empty subways. Rated R, 97 minutes, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Video Library, Vudu

A Halloween wolf pack: Werewolves on screen

Silver Bullet

SILVER BULLET (1985)

Based on Stephen King’s 1983 novella Cycle of the Werewolf, Silver Bullet is a story with heart about the relationship between the film’s narrator, Jane (Megan Follows), and her paraplegic brother, Marty (Corey Haim). Mounting fears of a killer on the loose erupt in vigilante justice as a posse of townsfolk attempt to take matters into their own hands. Despite the warnings from the local minister, Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill), they set out into the woods where three of the men are brutally slaughtered.

As unbelievable as it sounds, the culprit is actually a werewolf. Marty knows that because late one night he comes face to face with the beast. He blasts the werewolf in the eye with a bottle rocket. That simplifies the search: Who has an injured eye?

Thanks to the unmissable eye patch, you’ll see the culprit a mile away, but that doesn’t make Silver Bullet any less entertaining. Set in small-town Maine in the 1970s, this is a story of two siblings who set aside their animosity in the face of adversity and come to rely on each other for survival. They’re assisted by their alcoholic uncle Red (Gary Busey), who enlists the aid of a local gunsmith to fashion a bullet from Jane’s silver cross.

Silver Bullet is a great B movie, with a convincing performance from Haim, who portrays Marty as wide-eyed and credulous. He doesn’t let fear nor his disability stop him from taking matters into his own hands, despite his family’s skepticism about werewolves. It goes for poignancy with its tale of sibling rivalry overcome, but its vicious kills will satisfy most horror fans. Rated R, 95 minutes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Sling TV, Video Library

A Halloween wolf pack: Werewolves on screen

Wolf

WOLF (1994)

Jack Nicholson headlines this star-studded romantic horror entry by famed director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Silkwood). Nicholson plays Will Randall, who is bitten by a wolf after accidentally striking it with his car. After being demoted in his job as editor-in-chief at a publishing house, Randall suspects that his replacement is having an affair with his wife, Charlotte (Kate Nelligan). His anger and frustration take on physical characteristics and he starts behaving more and more like a wild animal. He finds a confidant in Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is the daughter of the rich investor who bought the firm and replaced Will. Laura has no love for her father. She doesn’t believe that Will is a werewolf but does begin to suspect him of murder.

This one adds a nice twist to the werewolf formula by putting the more metaphorical aspects of the wolfman theme front and center. It’s as much an indictment of the high stakes pressures of the publishing industry as it is a horror film. But it still features the classic man-into-wolf transformations, a hallmark of the genre. It doesn’t negate the classic tropes we’ve come to associate with werewolves on screen — the unease of domestic animals around the protagonist, the effects of the full moon, and the means by which man becomes a monster — but they’re in service to a serious-minded look at a man whose thirst for power becomes all consuming.

In Nicholson, Wolf finds a lead character who relishes what he’s become. And the actor can play such villainy with ease. Here, he goes from washed up to a man in touch with his primal instincts, essentially finding strength and prowess in his embrace of lycanthropy. It’s a high concept turn for the werewolf movie that makes it fresh while still playing to our expectations. We want the transformations and the werewolf lore, sure, but a little subtext doesn’t hurt. Rated R, 125 minutes, Amazon Prime, Sling TV, Video Library, Vudu

A Halloween wolf pack: Werewolves on screen

Ginger Snaps

GINGER SNAPS (2000)

Speaking of subtext, here’s a film about growing pains disguised as a werewolf movie, although it’s none too subtle. Despite its themes, it’s also a bloody romp of a horror film. Since they were children, sisters Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle) have been obsessed with death, vowing to die together by the age of 16. During a rash of dog killings in their town, the girls set out to kidnap the dog of a local bully and are attacked by a werewolf. This event coincides with the onset of Ginger’s menstruation, which drew the creature. Soon Ginger succumbs to her ravenous impulses and desires, slowly transforming into a beast.

Ginger Snaps, aside from being a rare instance of a female werewolf, is also unusual in its choice of protagonist, a social outcast. It’s a scathing satire of teen angst that features strong roles for Perkins and Isabelle. (Men are more closely associated with predators like wolves, which may be why we see many more male werewolves on screen.)

In a nod, perhaps, to the first film on this list, the antidote for Ginger’s lycanthropy lies in an extract from the monkshood plant, which Brigitte elicits from Sam (Kris Lemche), a local drug dealer. But whether or not it can be administered before the full moon takes its effect and Ginger’s transformation is complete remains to be seen.

Ginger Snaps is a dark and bloody indie horror that viscerally takes on the view of female sexuality as transgressive. It doesn’t affirm it but makes the confusion around the mixed messages regarding female sexuality palpable. Its protagonists are antiheroes, and it highlights the cruelty and uncertainty that accompanies the years of transition from adolescence to adulthood. Not rated, 108 minutes, Amazon Prime, Video Library, Vudu

A Halloween wolf pack: Werewolves on screen

Underworld

UNDERWORLD (2003)

More action than horror, Underworld takes two of cinema’s more iconic supernatural baddies — vampires and werewolves — and pits them against each other in an epic struggle for supremacy. For generations, a secret war has raged between the vampires and the lycans (werewolves). Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a member of an elite band of vampire assassins.

Learning that the lycans are seeking a medical student named Michael (Scott Speedman) for an unknown purpose, Selene rescues him, and they begin to unravel the mystery about an apparent common origin of lycans and vampires. When Michael, a descendant of both creatures, is bitten by a werewolf (you know how that goes) for the purpose of creating a new bloodline, Selene risks turning against her own coven to protect him.

With stylish visuals, an extensive backstory that expands on the werewolf mythology, and plenty of action, Underworld is like a graphic novel on screen. Rain-drenched, nighttime cityscapes and a desaturated color palette creates a gothic atmosphere. It features a formidable cast of British actors, including Bill Nighy (Love Actually) as elder vampire Viktor and Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) as Lucian, the brainy leader of the thuggish lycans.

Underworld is a slick piece of filmmaking that was a big hit with audiences (less so with critics, who decried its shallow characterizations and general lack of substance). Still, it’s a solid entry in the action/horror subgenre, making it a great companion piece to that other vampire against vampire blood feast, 1998’s Blade. Underwold spawned two sequels and a prequel. Rated R, 121 minutes, Amazon Prim, Hulu, NetflixVideo Library

(1) comment

Bridgette Noonen

No Howling? No Bad Moon? Sigh.

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