TOP 5 WEREWOLF MOVIES
New Werewolf film Bad Vibes is due for release soon. Produced by John Landis and Elijah Wood (swiftly becoming a horror-hound himself), Bad Vibes is set in the 60s and chronicles the hair-raising adventures of hippy rock-band, Sunrise Majesty.
To celebrate the return of the werewolf movie – and particularly Landis’ involvement in the sub-genre – Alex Smith would like to present his Top 5 Werewolf Movies.
Let’s begin with the movie which started it all – the original 1941 The Wolf Man, directed by George Waggner. Unlike Frankenstein and Dracula, The Wolf Man and his particular mythology originated in film. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak conceptualised everything; how the curse was carried from one werewolf to another, his aversion to silver and its connotations to the church – a melted silver crucifix forming the best bullets. Siodmak conceived of it all, even the oft-quoted, “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.”
Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry Talbot, the unlucky everyman befallen by the curse – bitten by a werewolf during an attack on a friend. Afflicted with lycanthropy every full moon, it takes his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) to end his suffering. The film is grounded by terrific performances from the two leads, aided by a top-tier supporting cast. It is beautifully photographed and showcases the talents of make-up maestro Jack Pierce and special effects wizard, John P. Fulton.
Next on our list is Wolf ; Mike Nichols’ contemporary retelling of the werewolf mythos, starring Jack Nicholson. Like The Wolf Man this film grounded its supernatural story using top-calibre talent, both in front and behind the camera. Mike Nichols needs no introduction, having directed The Graduate, Catch-22 and Silkwood, amongst many others. Despite being his only horror film, Nichols would legitimise the character in a film which was both dramatic and scary.
As put upon publisher Will Randall, Nicholson was joined by a stellar cast, including Michelle Pfeiffer and James Spader. In a variation on the formula, Nicholson turns wolf-man every night until the full moon, at which point he turns fully, from man to beast.
1981 brought us two classic werewolf movies – first on our list is The Howling. Adapted from the book by Gary Brandner, this Joe Dante thriller pitted news journalist Karen White (Dee Wallace) against serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) and his pack of lycanthropes. Having survived an altercation with Eddie in the opening act, Karen is offered sanctuary at Dr Waggner’s health retreat (Dante named many of his characters after famed horror-movie directors). Under strict orders from the doctor, Karen takes refuge at the retreat along with her husband – only to discover a full quota of patients with links to Quist and his carnivorous, lunar activities.
As one of the all-time great scream-queens, Wallace excels in the role of Karen White. She is ably supported by real-life husband, Christopher Stone (as husband Bill), Patrick Macnee (as the aforementioned doctor) and Dante stalwarts; Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller.
Rick Baker was originally set to pull make-up and effects duties, until Landis snagged him for AN American Werewolf in London. Baker’s protégé Rob Bottin took over on The Howling, creating a fabulous transformation sequence and a biped-style monster Baker would have been proud of.
In 2002 Neil Marshall made his directorial debut with Dog Soldiers. A team of soldiers are dropped into the middle of the Scottish Highlands for a routine training exercise. What begins as a team-building weekend away for Her Majesty’s finest, soon turns into a fight for survival. Discovering a mutilated military team mere hours after they’ve been dropped, the soldiers are thrust into a supernatural fight to the death with a pack of territorial werewolves.
For a low-budget debut feature, Dog Soldiers was hugely ambitious. Milking his budget for all it was worth, Marshall and his crew created fine-looking monsters and multiplied their number through economic camera work. A single farmhouse was used to great effect – particularly when the pinned-down soldiers have no alternative but to bust through walls and smash through floors to evade the beasts. Luxembourg doubled for the Scottish Highlands, working to dazzling effect – beautiful during the day and bewildering at night. The little-known cast do a great job of creating camaraderie within their troop. Each member is clearly defined, with their testosterone-fuelled banter evoking many a chuckle.
An American Werewolf in London tops our list. The best-ever werewolf movie, the best comedy/horror movie and frankly one of the best movies of all time! American Werewolf was the second werewolf movie to be released in 1981 and pips every other movie on this list to the post for shear originality and jaw-dropping execution.
Written and directed by John Landis, American Werewolf tells the story of two young American friends, Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton), who find themselves in North England, hiking across the Moors. After a brief interlude at local pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, Jack and David find themselves lost and helpless against a terrifying animal. Jack is slaughtered but David survives. While recuperating at a London hospital, David is visited by a zombified Jack, threatening him with supernatural tales and a premonition that David will, himself turn in to a werewolf on the next full moon.
The film is widely known for its breathtaking transformation sequence. There’s certainly nothing that comes close, even by today’s standards – why they continue to use CGI instead of prosthetics is beyond me! Rick Baker excels with his creations and rightly won the Oscar for his efforts the following year. Like few other comedy/horror films, American Werewolf doesn’t skimp on the horror elements. Baker’s make-up throughout is chillingly gruesome. The score is unsettling and the sound design leaves little to the imagination.
Landis’ characters are hugely likeable, even when they’re dead! Jack and David are firm friends and play off one another nicely. Jenny Agutter is deeply compassionate (despite her growing concern) as David’s nurse/girlfriend, Alex. John Woodvine is steadfast as Dr Hirsch and the patrons of The Slaughtered Lamb are suitably secretive and suspicious.
Landis peppers his film with his own unique sensibilities. This includes a fantastic moon-themed soundtrack, porn-film within a film, See You Next Wednesday (hilarious) and director cameos – take a bow, Frank Oz!
In short American Werewolf is a thrill-ride of the highest order – a film which continues to deliver to this day. Like every movie on this list it treats its monster and subsequent mythology with respect and plays its scares straight and as authentic as possible. There are certainly laughs to be had, but never at the expense of its subject.
I can’t recommend these films highly enough, especially American Werewolf. If you haven’t seen them before then you’re in for a treat. But beware the moon – and stick to the road!