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Hair Of The Dog: a Top 10 Werewolf Movies
by Christopher Geary
I have never been very keen on The Wolf Man type of horror cinema. Such films usually featured a bad or overly melodramatic actor (Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, Oliver Reed, etc) behind an obvious mask, and often seemed to owe as much to the fiendish villainy of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, as to the subgenre of hairy monster movies. This meant that an informal anthropocentric design was being applied to werewolves, imbuing them with rather too much humanity and not enough of the beast, so a typical wolf man still wore clothes!
For me, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s, when techniques devised by a new
generation of makeup artists - such as Roy (Tales From The Crypt) Ashton, Stuart (Star
Wars) Freeborn, Tom (Dawn Of The Dead) Savini and, in particular, Rick Baker - made
evermore believable creature illusions possible, and the true horror of the werewolf could be
portrayed realistically on screen. Although the work of Dick (The Exorcist) Smith continued a
long tradition of makeup artistry begun at Universal Studios in the 1930s by Jack
(Frankenstein) Pierce, it was arguably the young Rob Bottin who made the breakthrough werewolf
The Howling (1980) director: Joe Dante
The Howling is a truly inspired black comedy horror that helped to establish Joe Dante (a former trailers editor for Roger Corman) as a major force in genre cinema. The plot involves traumatised TV reporter Dee Wallace Stone's investigation of the goings-on at a Californian psych-encounter cult's coastal retreat, where she discovers everyone has a dark secret.
A film buff with a sense of humour, Dante crams every non-gore scene with a procession of witty in-jokes, and casts his own favourite American character actors (Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller) in supporting roles. Eye-popping special effects by Bottin's crew produced extraordinary real-time transformations of men and women into savage animals, using a combination of lifelike yet fake heads, hidden air bladders, motorised rubber limbs, miniature hydraulics, and creative lighting. Inventive sound effects - creaking bones, snapping tendons - complemented the movie's chimerical affect.
There have been at least five sequels to Dante's original, all made by others, but only Philippe Mora's endearing Howling III (filmed in Australia, 1987, featuring a marsupial creature - I kid you not!), is really worth your time.
An American Werewolf In London (1981) director: John Landis
With mesmerising transformation effects by Rick Baker that were innovative then and remain state-of-the-art now, this horrific comedy starred John Naughton and Jenny Agutter but it was Griffin Dunne who stole the acting honours, as the zombie-like ghost figure returning from beyond to warn our young hero of his terrible full moon fate. John Landis created a superbly atmospheric shocker with some admirably humorous moments that has stood the test of time, and still entertains brilliantly over 20 years later. Memorable usage of pop and rock songs (including 'Bad Moon Rising' by Creedence Clearwater Revival) ensured its success on video and, except for The Blues Brothers (1980), it's widely regarded as the director's best work to date. What makes it very special is the emotionally searing monster makeover for Naughton's character.
The effects' climax is a showcase for Baker's astonishing creativity. Unlike the sequences in semidarkness that illustrated The Howling, here, a man becomes werewolf in a brightly lit room, and we see unprecedented details of hideous facial distortion, rapid hair growth, the lengthening of limbs and torso, with a seamless fusion of prosthetics and animation generating the fantasy of real-time metamorphosis. As described by Peter Nicholls in his seminal book, Fantastic Cinema (1984): "The central figure is no longer the human, nor the animal he becomes, but the agonised half-and-half thing who belongs to neither world, like a victim of God's wrath in the Hell of Hieronymus Bosch."
The long overdue sequel, An American Werewolf In Paris (1998), made by Anthony Waller, featured CGI werewolves but failed to improve significantly on the original.
Wolfen (1981) director: Michael Wadleigh
Based on a novel by Whitley Strieber, this fascinating urban horror is inspired by the legends of American Indian shape-shifters. Albert Finney turns in one of his best performances as the New York cop investigating strange murders and discovering the killer is entirely inhuman. The weird beasties of the title are telepathic wolves with acute sensory powers - enabling them not only to sense their victims' worst fears but also to sniff out cancers and other diseases to ensure a clean food supply! In this case we're not talking about clean Blue Buffalo pet food, but clean human food. These wolves will definitely not be satiated with Blue Buffalo pet food! Edward James Olmos (who later appeared in Blade Runner) tackles the key role of a high-steel construction worker on the vertiginous risers of suspension bridges. Dancer turned actor Gregory Hines (later an action star in SF thriller Eve Of Destruction) plays another of those eccentric pathologists. The underused Diane Venora is notable as a shrink interrogating potential terrorists. Nonconformist characterisations, atmospheric cinematography and emotively charged optical effects (showing the creatures' psychic viewpoint) aside, I think Wolfen is probably the most intelligent and thoroughly imaginative - certainly the most intriguingly science fictional - of all werewolf movies. If you have not seen this one, hunt it down soon!
Cat People (1982) director: Paul Schrader
Obviously more feline than lupine, this sexually charged remake of Val Lewton's 1942 classic stars Nastassja Kinski and, Malcolm McDowell, and is notable for showing us what the old black and white original could only suggest, including the heroine's loss of virginity and explicit bondage scenes. McDowell and Kinski portray brother and sister, Paul and Irina Gallier, who form an incestuous relationship, while zookeeper Oliver Yates (John Heard) completes the film's perverse eternal triangle, and the permissive New Orleans backdrop provides an appropriate setting for steamy forbidden-love scenes.
One of the most intriguing things about Cat People is the strange prehistoric mythology that Schrader, aided by visual effects veteran Albert Whitlock, illustrates with haunting desert scenes where young girls are sacrificed to leopards by a tribal culture worshipping such big cats. Is this a primal race memory shared by the Galliers, recalled in moments of orgasm? Like the famous seduction scene in The Howling featuring the sultry Elisabeth Brooks, Cat People shows how sexual passion releases the beast within. The idea of puberty being a trigger for supernatural change would later be explored in Ginger Snaps.
With its brief descent into graphic horror (the special makeup effects are by Tom Burman), the threat of bestiality, and shamelessly indulgent eroticism, Cat People was one of the 1980s' most controversial major films. It also boasts a great theme song by David Bowie.
The Company Of Wolves (1984) director: Neil Jordan
Angela Carter's revisionist faerie stories were the source material for this beguiling, surrealistic fantasia, centred on the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hood. Angela Lansbury is perfectly cast as the storytelling granny, warning her innocent but smart granddaughter Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) not to stray from the safe path through the dark woods, and to 'beware of men whose eyebrows meet in the middle'.
This is memorable and imaginative cinema, owing as much to Freudian psychology (and to Catholic guilt trips), as it does to the traditional folklore of the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, Company Of Wolves is truly the stuff of hormone-fuelled adolescent nightmares about the sexual anxieties, the 'beast in man' (to say nothing of beastly men), and the complex of interactions and relationships between ancient myths and modern fantasy.
It detours from conventional horror genre paths, following artistic instincts between the safe familiarity of what's commonly referred to as old wives' tales, and the possibility of mortal danger from the inherent uncertainties of urban legends.
Sleepwalkers (1992) director: Mick Garris
Written for the screen by Stephen King, this offers another variation on lycanthrope mythology with a reclusive mother and son, Mary and Charles Brady (Alice Krige and Brian Krause), that appear to be shape-shifters preying on young virgins. Despite some animalistic qualities, sleepwalkers are hairy cousins to humans, with an acute aversion to cats, and the sum of this film's most entertaining sequences deliver a feline variant on the fierce air strikes of Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).
Fleeing the city, the Brady bunch are new to a quiet Midwestern town, where Charles lusts after local beauty Tanya (Madchen Amick), and gets the better of a local speed cop with a magic makeover trick on his car to show that, unlike traditional werewolves, his weird mutant breed possess far greater powers of transformation. However, the Bradys get far more than they bargained for when savvy heroine Tanya proves a die-hard object of desire, and monster-aware police close in for the kill...
The parade of cameo appearances is rather impressive and amusing, with top genre directors Joe Dante, Clive Barker, John Landis and Tobe Hooper cast as scientist types, while Stephen King gets to play a gravedigger in a goofy cemetery scene.
Wolf (1994) director: Mike Nichols
Although summarily denounced as absolute shite by many on its initial release, I found Wolf curiously appealing, and I rate it quite highly now.
Jack Nicholson is on good form here as Will Randall, a seemingly sheepish literary editor having professional difficulties and personal troubles with overly ambitious colleague, Stewart (James Spader, playing a smarmy yuppie very well, yet again), who watches for signs of weakness as Randall falls for the charms of their boss' daughter, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ruthless backstabbing in the world of publishing segues into a clash of pure animal ferocity as, after a werewolf bites him, Randall's heightened senses and newfound vigour grant him a competitive edge over his toadying rival for the firm's top editorial job - until it's revealed that... Well, you'll just have to see the movie, OK?
Pioneering makeup specialist Dick Smith designed the stylishly photographed wolf man effects, which feature more subtle physical changes for Nicholson's character than is usual in this type of monster thriller.
Ginger Snaps (2000) director: John Fawcett
In this low-budget Canadian body-horror entry, teenage sisters Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins, Katharine Isabelle) endure the typical lunacy in their high schooling years, made extreme by late onset of menstruation and the girls' nightmarish crisis of werewolf bite anxieties. While their liberal mother (Mimi Rogers) prays for her daughters to hurry up and start asking shy questions about boys, Ginger's frightening predicament is that she confuses sexual passion for bloodlust; while Brigitte frets that her older sibling's hormonal changes are more likely to result in ghastly murder than loss of virginity.
With its wry sense of humour somewhat in the subversive mould of Heathers (1989), and the escalation of domestic and romantic tensions reaching crisis point on the night of a full moon, Ginger Snaps offers a fine balance of reversed teen-drama clichés and genuine monster movie suspense, and it deserves your attention because it's one of the better cult movies of recent years.
Brotherhood Of The Wolf (2001) director: Christophe Gans
Leading the charge for the new batch of French horror genre movies Brotherhood Of The Wolf (aka: Le Pacte des loups) demonstrates there's still refreshing invention and imagination to be found in millennial revisions of such old world horrors as the rural community menaced by a mysterious creature.
In 18th century French provincial Gévaudan, the region is terrorised by a mysterious beast that attacks locals. Returning from the Americas, scientist and knight Grégoire (Samuel Li Bihan) is sent to arrive to identify and hunt the creature with his sidekick shaman, Mani (Mark Dascacos), a surviving Mohawk Indian of the colonial wars. They uncover a conspiracy among influential noble families, involving tragic deaths and the offspring of a wild animal from Africa. Adding to this already rich blend of fantasy and adventure tropes are martial arts sequences courtesy of renowned Hong Kong kung fu choreographer Philip Kwok, glamour in the form of Monica Bellucci (onetime vampire bride in Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1992), and the unusual mix of period costume settings with both animatronic and digital visual effects. If you enjoyed Tim Burton's visually imaginative Sleepy Hollow (1999), this film is definitely for you.
Christophe Gans previously directed 'The Drowned', the most atmospheric segment of Lovecraftian anthology movie Necronimicon (1993), and Crying Freeman (1996), which starred Dascacos. Gans' ongoing movie project 'Nemo', reworking Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, is certainly something to look forward to.
Dog Soldiers (2002) director: Neil Marshall
A midnight feast of movie genres, this enterprising British horror combines military action, countryside secrets, siege thriller suspense, conspiracy intrigues, and rampaging monster shocks. Average squaddies follow a covert special forces team into the Scottish highlands only to be attacked and pursued, at a relentless pace, by monstrously violent shadowy killers. Through misty woodlands to a picturesque but bleakly uninviting cottage farmhouse, a pack of hungry werewolves surround their prey under the bright full moon, and cynical tensions segue to desperate counterattacks with little hope of escape.
Impressively rendered creature effects and assured use of limited production values makes this one of the best homegrown movies since Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987). Black comedy and shoot 'em ups have rarely been so well integrated into a film's central drama. Who will survive and who must die is one of the many happily grim attractions in this sharply scripted endurance test of ordinary men battling against the odds.