THE MENACE IN QUESTION: A man who transforms into a savage beast under the light of the full moon.
THE THREAT: Being torn to shreds by this vicious creature, or worse, becoming cursed like him.
FIRST APPEARANCE: Universal Studios 1941 feature film The Wolf Man.
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
Lon Chaney, Jr., the titular wolf man, loved the role so much that he reprised the character in the several sequels produced by the studio. Since then, the film has gone on to inspire numerous werewolf films (and a few TV shows) in Hollywood.
The rules for this creature have changed throughout different interpretations over the years. However, the main ones consist thusly: a human transforms into a werewolf around the time of the monthly full moon. If a human is bitten by a werewolf and lives, they too will turn into a beast at the next full moon. They will experience a heightened sense of smell and strength, and occasionally crave raw meat. There are three ways to vanquish them: silver bullets, decapitation, and fire.
Between 1942 and 1980 there were various movies released that explored the werewolf legend. I Was a Teenaged Werewolf, Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory, and Full Moon High are a few of the selected offerings of that time. However, it wasn’t until 1981 that we were introduced to two films that would change the face of werewolves in film forever.
The Howling and An American Werewolf in London (both released in 1981) fully explored man’s connection to the beast within, and just why that resonates so deeply with audiences.
The Howling tells the story of news anchor, who in the aftermath of dealing with an obsessed stalker and serial killer, takes some much needed time away at a mountain retreat. During the course of her stay she uncovers the fact that the residents of the colony are actually comprised of werewolves (although, it could be argued that they more resemble shapeshifters, as they can transform at will, even during the day). This film deeply explores the themes of man and beast, and what truly separates the two.
An American Werewolf in London is truly a classic in its own right. Two American friends decide to take a backpacking trip through Europe, and while traveling across the moors, they have a run in with a werewolf who kills one of them and turns the other. This film sticks closely to the werewolf lore that most people are familiar with. David feels new and invigorated after he fully heals from his attack. However, he’s plagued with both extremely graphic nightmares and visits from the victims he’s killed while in wolf form.
Rightfully so, the film went on to win an Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup. Rick Baker’s makeup special effects completely separated this motion picture from the amateurs, and produced one of the most visceral and graphic werewolf transformation scenes to date.
The next two films I’m going to discuss share a similar theme, but are extremely different in tone. Of course, you can’t mention werewolves without bringing up the comedy classic Teen Wolf. For high school student Scott Howard, going through puberty takes on a whole new meaning. Besides the usual growth spurt and deepening of the voice, Scott discovers that he can transform at will, and sometimes involuntarily, into a werewolf (thanks to a trait passed down from his parents).
This would be social suicide for most teenagers, but luckily for Scott, his classmates seem to take it all in stride. This is mainly due to the fact that while he’s in wolf form he turns into a pro basketball player. People don’t seem to mind a little bit of extra hair, as long as he’s winning the school multiple awards and accolades. It also helps that Scott can switch back and forth between his two forms almost effortlessly. In the end, Scott learns a valuable lesson about being true to himself, just in time to win the big championship game.
Ginger Snaps takes the werewolves and puberty metaphor in an entirely different direction. A much darker film, and one of my personal favorites, Ginger Snaps centers on two death obsessed teenage sisters. It just so happens that on the night of her first period, the titular Ginger also gets bitten by a werewolf.
Talk about THE WORST timing.
This film does a wonderful job of showcasing what it’s like to become a woman and transforming into a beast, both literally and metaphorically, once a month. As Ginger’s transformations become more violent her sister, Bridgette, searches desperately for a cure. However, as Ginger embraces her new-found power, it becomes clear that she might not want one.
I also appreciate this film for being one of the few werewolf movies to focus on a female protagonist. Ever notice that this sub-genre is very heavily male dominated? It truly makes more sense for women to be connected with this creature, as there is so much more symbolism between the sharing of blood and monthly phases.
Bianca Nielsen sums up the film’s message perfectly with this quote from her essay “Something’s Wrong, Like More Than You Being Female”: Transgressive Sexuality and Discourses of Reproduction in Ginger Snaps:
“By simultaneously depicting female bonds as important and fraught with difficulties, Ginger Snaps portrays the double-binds teenage girls face. Ginger articulates these ambiguities most convincingly when she explains that a woman can only be “a slut, a bitch, a whore, or the virgin next door.” Ginger is an embodiment of these impossible binaries: she is at once sexually attractive and monstrous, “natural” and “supernatural,” human and animal, “feminine” and transgressive, a sister and a rival.”
Ginger Snaps was released in 2000, and was sadly one of the last werewolf films to rely solely on practical effects. With the rise of computer graphics came the use of CGI creatures, for better or for worse. There were a number of films released in the early 2000s that featured computer animated werewolves. These include the likes of Van Helsing, Underworld, Harry Potter, and Twilight.
In 2005 Wes Craven introduced us to his film Cursed. Starring Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg, the movie was largely panned by both critics and audiences alike. I watched it for the first time recently and actually enjoyed it. I appreciated it for its keeping to the usual tropes of werewolf lore; they even include the use of the pentagram on the hand once you’ve been bitten, known as the “mark of the beast.”
This film also utilized both the use of practical and CGI werewolf effects. I have to say that I prefer the former as, with most early computer graphics, the CGI does not hold up well. I also appreciated the use of female werewolves in the film, as I previously stated that they’re somewhat of a rare commodity in this sub-genre. Also, this film features a werewolf flipping off the camera, which might be one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history. Seriously, if nothing else, watch it for that alone.
As the werewolf genre has progressed we’ve seen the creature shift from scary to sexy. This is most prevalent in the aforementioned Twilight, as well as with the television shows Teen Wolf and True Blood. The werewolves depicted here are mostly of the hunky male variety and are catered to appeal to women.
Speaking of TV shows, the lycanthrope has found a home on our smaller screens as well. This ranges from the short-lived but much loved Big Wolf on Campus and She-Wolf of London; to the critically panned Hemlock Grove and Bitten; to the highly successful Being Human (UK and North American versions) and Teen Wolf.
In 2010 Universal Studios produced a remake of The Wolf Man starring Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. The film was met with mixed reviews and I personally found it to be a poor excuse for an updated version of the classic. The story dragged and the werewolf transformations, which were all CGI, have not aged well. This says a lot, seeing as the film is only a few years old at the time of my writing this. It was also much gorier than I expected it to be. I don’t have a problem with gore, but it started to border on comical, which I’m sure is not what the filmmakers intended.
Due to The Wolf Man performing below expectations at the box office, Universal decided to pass on making a sequel. That didn’t seem to deter them for long though, as its been reported that they’re planning a reboot of the film set to release in 2018. We’ll have to wait and see how that story unfolds.
I believe werewolves and the story of the wolf man have been so prevalent in pop culture due to mankind’s nature to identify with the beast within. At the beginning of time, our ancestors were once considered “feral.” We hunted with our bare hands and ran freely in the wilderness. In our current corporate world of binding garments and politeness, it makes sense that we would want to seek out the animal lurking inside of us.
So remember, when the moon is full and the autumn wind blows, keep your senses alert for a familiar howl in the distance. You never know who might be lurking around the corner. We can only hope that their monstrous transformation doesn’t included horribly dated CGI.
So, who are your favorite werewolf characters? Did I forget to mention a beloved film? Sound off in the comments!
And tune in next week for another installment of Frightening Fables!