The wolfman hasn’t had an especially storied career in the movies, or so goes common thought. Without the gravity of the Frankenstein monster – and the nobility – or the suave power of Dracula, he wound up a sidekick in the Universal pictures, a sad joke (Lon Chaney Jr’s puffy appearance in films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein underlines the actor’s drunken darkness, and that reflected in how we interpreted the Wolfman as well).
But there are good werewolf movies, and not the obvious ones either. The original The Wolfman, John Landis’ funny, tragic American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante and John Sayles’s satiric, meta-fun The Howling get most of the credit. But you can be rewarded if you dig a little deeper.
Dog Soldiers, Neil Marshall’s brutal and intense feature debut, pits a group of unarmed (more or less; they don’t have bullets, anyway) soldiers on maneuvers in the Scottish Highlands against a roving group of tall, fearsome werewolves. Marshall’s wolves are bipedal, supernaturally tall and absolutely terrifying. The soldiers, led by Sean Pertwee (son of third Doctor Who Jon Pertwee), must battle these beasts with their wits, and some are disassembled in spectacularly gory ways. The film is unwaveringly tense, presaging Marshall’s next, supremely scary film The Descent in its commitment to tone.
Just a couple years before Dog Soldiers, John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps used lycanthropy as a metaphor for the pubescence of two gothy Canadian girls. A smart, witty script marries it to the sort of societal commentary and body discourse fellow Canadian David Cronenberg used to truck in (Rabid, The Brood, The Fly), as well as the kitschy philosophizing of Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, The Stuff). Ginger Snaps was followed by two relatively decent sequels.
Speaking of kitschy, The Beast Must Die features the divinely unkitschy Peter Cushing and Michael Gambon among the assembled guests at gloriously ‘70s millionaire big game hunter Calvin Lockhart’s mansion. One of the guests is a werewolf, and it’s up to Lockhart -- and you – to determine which one is causing all the ruckus. A convenient 30 second “Werewolf Break” happens at the climax so you can cast your votes and make a drinking game out of it, if you so choose. Getting there is most of the fun, though, even if it’s a bit dated by this point.
Cushing’s alma mater Hammer Pictures staged The Curse of the Werewolf, with Oliver Reed as the beastly titular character, a wolf sired out of the rape of a young prison girl. Hammer films were at their best when pairing straight-laced Britishisms with lurid colors and images – all heaving breasts, thick, bright red blood and impeccable set design. Given these films’ meager funds, it’s always amazing how great they look, thanks to smart use of dense sets at Bray Studios, shot by the likes of Arthur Grant, who went on to do the smart Satanic cult pic The Devil Rides Out and Hammer’s sole zombie epic, Plague of the Zombies.
While not a straight werewolf picture – instead of a wolf, the main character turns into something resembling a cicada the dog’s been chewing on – The Beast Within has some marginal thrills and a supremely icky timbre. But the transformation effects will do it for the 12 year olds in most of us.
Wes Craven’s Cursed gets a bad rap – to be fair, it mostly just gets ignored – but I think it’s a somewhat interesting film, if only for its unusually varied cast (Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Joshua Jackson, Judy Greer, Portia DeRossi, and in glorified cameos Craig Kilborn and Scott Baio) and slightly funny pro-gay subtext (if you can call it sub-) courtesy of Scream writer Kevin Williamson. It’s passable weekend afternoon entertainment, assuming the fridge is stocked.
For further viewing: The Werewolf of Washington, Werewolves on Wheels, I was A Teenage Werewolf, Brotherhood of the Wolf