There are a lot of monster movies in the world, and I realized that it would be fun to do themed Monster Mash binges. I decided to start with werewolf movies, of which there are a surprisingly high number, many of which are available for viewing on Amazon Prime Instant Video. Yay! Let’s start with a classic.
The Howling (April 1981)
A surprising number of werewolf movies are based on books. Joe Dante’s 1981 film The Howling is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, published in 1977. Dante is known for films that mix horror with a dose of black comedy, such as Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
The Howling is a very fun movie. The main character is Karen White, played by Dee Wallace, a TV news anchor who survives an encounter with a vicious serial killer named Eddie Quist at the start of the film. Quist is shot dead during the encounter…or is he?? (Spoiler Alert: he isn’t). Following the encounter, Karen and her husband Bill are sent by her therapist Dr. Waggner to the Colony, which is an experimental resort community in the countryside where Waggner sends patients for treatment. As a side note, Dr. Waggner was played by the late, great Patrick Macnee, a man who defined the word “dapper.” Macnee died in 2015 at the age of 93 and the world is a much less classy place without him.
Dr. Waggner’s intentions are less than therapeutic, however, as it turns out that everyone at the colony (including Waggner himself) is in fact…a WEREWOLF!! These include Eddie Quist, who is very much alive, and Quist’s werewolf transformation sequence is the movie’s crowning achievement. It takes about four minutes and the effects work still holds up today. The werewolves look hairy and smelly. They have long, spindly, clawed hands, pointy triangular ears and bulbous yellow eyes. They’re awesome.
The effects were done by Rob Bottin, a special makeup effects wizard who I’ve mentioned in previous posts when I talked about The Thing, Mimic, and Deep Rising. He’s also worked on Total Recall, RoboCop, Fight Club and Se7en, among many others. The plot of The Howling is nothing to write home about, but it’s an entertaining and creepy ride with fantastic makeup effects. It was followed by a whopping seven sequels, which I’m not going to watch because apparently (and unsurprisingly) they’re all pretty bad.
The Howling has a great ending, with Karen, after being bitten by a werewolf during the film’s climax, turning into a werewolf herself live on TV and then being shot and killed by her friend Chris. The movie then cuts to a bar where the patrons debate whether what they just saw was real or special effects. We then see that Marsha Quist, one of the werewolves, has survived. She orders a burger (rare, of course) and the end credits play over footage of the burger being cooked while upbeat jazz music plays.
If all that isn’t enough, then you should probably also be aware that this movie has a werewolf sex scene. If you’ve read all that and still don’t want to see this movie, then I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do for you.
Wolfen (July 1981)
Wolfen is another film that is based on a book. The book is The Wolfen by Whitley Streiber, published in 1978. Out of all the movies I watched for this post, Wolfen was by far my least favorite. It’s boring as hell. With a two-hour running time, it’s also the longest of the werewolf movies I watched, and it felt like it had the least going on.
The argument could be made that Wolfen isn’t even about werewolves. The Wolfen turn out to be Native American wolf spirits, I think. They’re not actually people that turn into wolf creatures. This was disappointing to me, especially since it takes most of the movie for this discovery to be made. There’s very little action and not much suspense.
The movie starts with a wealthy couple and their bodyguard being gruesomely murdered. NYPD Captain Dewey Wilson, played by Albert Finney, investigates the case. Finney seemed bored in this movie. He doesn’t emote much, and I don’t think he smiles once in the entire film. Edward James Olmos is also in the movie, and may or may not be a shapeshifter? It’s unclear, but there is a weirdly long scene where Olmos runs around naked on the beach in front of Finney and howls like a wolf, and Finney doesn’t seem to find this particularly strange.
I like the idea of a movie being based around police investigating murders that turn out to be supernatural in nature, but this movie just didn’t do it for me. Its pace is downright languid, and there are long stretches where dramatic music is playing while nothing interesting is happening. I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t “get” this one. Maybe it was too artsy for me. Maybe I had the wrong expectations. Whatever the case, I did not enjoy Wolfen.
An American Werewolf in London (August 1981)
As you may have gathered, 1981 was a big year for werewolf movies. An American Werewolf in London was the third high-profile wolf movie of that year, and hoo boy, they saved the best for last. An American Werewolf in London is the best werewolf movie ever made, a stone cold classic that has aged like a fine wine. I am going to be effusive in my praise of this wonderful film, so if I sometimes slip into profanity, I apologize for my French in advance.
That being said, An American Werewolf in London is a goddam masterpiece. It was written and directed by John Landis, best known for classic comedies like Animal House and Blues Brothers. It stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as David Kessler and Jack Goodman, two American friends backpacking across Europe. David and Jack have a relaxed, easy chemistry and it is immediately easy to believe that they have been friends for years.
They’re backpacking through the moors in Yorkshire and stop for the night at a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. The patrons give them a frosty reception, so David and Jack decide to leave after being warned by the pubgoers to keep to the road, stay off the moors and beware the moon. David and Jack promptly ignore these warnings and are attacked by a wolf-like creature, which mauls Jack to death and injures David, before it is shot dead by the locals, who have had a change of heart and decided to go out after the hapless Americans.
David wakes up in a London hospital a few weeks later and learns from the police and his doctor the official story that David and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic. David insists it was a large dog or a wolf of some kind, but no one believes him. David is visited by Jack, who appears to him as a reanimated, mutilated corpse. Corpse-Jack tells David that they were attacked by a werewolf, and that David is now afflicted with the curse of the werewolf and will change at the next full moon. Jack urges David to kill himself to prevent him harming anyone, and also to free Jack from being cursed to roam the earth in limbo.
David doesn’t believe him, and moves in with his sexy nurse Alex Price, played very enticingly by Jenny Agutter. I don’t know why Jenny Agutter was never a Bond girl in the 80’s, she was sexy as hell. David and Alex begin a romantic relationship, and David ignores further warnings from Jack, who looks more rotten and decayed each time he appears. At the full moon, David turns into a werewolf and goes on a killing spree.
But just saying “David turns into a werewolf” is putting it far too simply. The transformation sequence is the best werewolf transformation ever put to film. It looks downright incredible, and is 100% practical, with no computer effects. It’s flawless. Upbeat music plays during the scene, which contrasts beautifully with the horrific and painful metamorphosis David undergoes, as his bones crack and his limbs contort themselves in unnatural ways, scraggly hair grows all over his body, his mouth and nose elongate, his teeth and nails become razor sharp, and his eyes turn a sickly yellow. David screams horribly the entire time, and the viewer is left thinking, Damn, it would SUCK to be a werewolf and have to endure that. Not only does the transformation look incredible, it also makes you sympathize with the character.
The masterful effects were done by Rick Baker, a now-retired effects genius who worked on dozens of films over a career that spanned from 1971 to 2014 and won seven Oscars. He was originally going to do the makeup effects on The Howling but left that film to work on American Werewolf, leaving the job to his protégé Rob Bottin. Bottin did fantastic work on The Howling but Baker’s work on American Werewolf is second-to-none. It holds up to this day and will look every bit as good 20 or 30 years from now. Absolutely classic stuff. Baker’s work on Jack, who looks grosser and more zombie-like with each appearance, is also nothing short of amazing.
John Landis remains best known for comedy, so it should come as no surprise that American Werewolf is frequently very funny. I had to pause the movie a few times because I was chuckling so hard. When a little boy tells his mother, “A naked American man stole my balloons,” hysterical laughter is the only response. There are many other riotously funny lines, like when David tells zombie-Jack “I will not be threatened by a walking meatloaf!” and David’s attempts to get arrested once he realizes he is in fact a werewolf, when he runs up to a London police officer and starts shouting things like “Queen Elizabeth is a man! Winston Churchill was full of shit! Shakespeare’s French!” that had me laughing my ass off.
But aside from its enormous entertainment value, American Werewolf has great characters. David and Jack are immediately likable, and David is easy to sympathize with. I liked nurse Alex and was rooting for her and David, and the film’s ending, where Alex tells wolf-David she loves him just before he’s shot to death by the police, is surprisingly moving. The performances are great across the board and David Naughton is a hoot, and you’ve got to give him credit for having the guts to do the hilarious scene where he runs around the London zoo completely naked after waking up in the wolf cage the morning following his first killing spree. The soundtrack is full of ironically upbeat songs with names like Moondance, Bad Moon Rising, and Blue Moon. I love this movie so much.
American Werewolf was followed by a belated sequel in 1997 called An American Werewolf in Paris which I would have watched for this post but it’s not on Amazon Video so I couldn’t. But from what I understand I’m not missing much, since that film’s reputation is not very good. But it’s a minor loss, because An American Werewolf in London is fucking awesome. It’s funny, sexy, gory, tense, well-acted, and has incredible special effects. It’s the kind of movie that makes me happy to be alive, because movies like it exist.
Fucking great movie.
Silver Bullet (1985)
Silver Bullet is also based on a book. This time, it’s the Stephen King novel Cycle of the Werewolf, which was published in 1983 (King himself wrote the movie’s screenplay). If you’ve never heard of Cycle of the Werewolf, I’m not surprised because it’s more of a novella than a novel (or a “novelette” as the movie’s credits put it, although I’ve never heard that term before). The book is all of 128 pages long, and of those 128 pages, only 54 have actual text on them (I counted).
Each of the book’s 12 chapters takes place during a different month, on that month’s full moon, when a resident of the small town of Tarker’s Mills meets a grisly end. The book even has illustrations from comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson, and is basically a gory picture book.
The movie follows the book’s (admittedly thin) story pretty closely. The protagonist is Marty Coslaw, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair to get around. In the book he’s 10 years old, and in the movie he’s closer to 13 or 14, and is played by Corey Haim, who died in 2010. Marty is a likable protagonist who doesn’t let his disability define him. In the movie, he has a motorized wheelchair called Silver Bullet that was made for him by his Uncle Red, played by Gary Busey.
The werewolf attacks are obviously the best parts of the movie and are quite gory. There’s a decapitation in the first five minutes so you know you’re in for a good time. The makeup effects that create the werewolf are also pretty good, and the obligatory werewolf transformation sequence is well done, although not as good as An American Werewolf in London or The Howling.
The werewolf turns out to be Reverend Lester Lowe, the town priest. This gives a layer of irony to the scenes that show the Reverend officiating over the funerals of people he killed as a werewolf. The werewolf is a more convincing villain than Lowe himself, since the movie doesn’t give any background regarding how Lowe became afflicted with lycanthropy, so the reveal of the werewolf’s true identity doesn’t have much impact.
Silver Bullet is still an enjoyable creature feature though, with well-executed werewolf makeup effects and solid performances. It’s not particularly scary and is very much a relic of the 80’s, and all the clothes and hairstyles are universally hideous. These days it’s one of the more obscure entries in Stephen King’s film oeuvre, but it’s still worth checking out, even though you could probably read the book in about the same amount of time it would take to watch the movie.
Bad Moon (1996)
Bad Moon is yet another film based on a book. This time the book in question was called Thor, written by a guy named Wayne Smith. I hadn’t heard of the book or the movie before I started looking for werewolf movies to watch, and since the film is only 80 minutes long I decided to check it out. Thor is a German Shepherd, and apparently much of the book is told from his perspective. He is fiercely devoted to protecting his family, which in the film consists of Janet Harrison and her son Brett, who is around twelve.
Janet is surprised when she hears from her brother Ted, whom she hasn’t heard from in a while. He invites her and Brett over to have lunch with him and tells them that his girlfriend broke up with him. She invites him to stay with them for a few days, which he reluctantly accepts. However, Ted is being less than truthful with Janet, because in the first scene of the film we see Ted’s girlfriend killed by a werewolf and Ted himself is bitten before he blows the monster’s head off with a shotgun. As a result, Ted is now a werewolf.
Thor the heroic German Shepherd immediately senses something is off with Ted, and one night follows Ted into the woods where he discovers that Ted is a werewolf. But because Thor is, you know, a dog, he can’t warn his family of the danger they are in. Ted becomes aware that Thor is on to him, which sets up the main source of tension in the film.
I like this setup a lot. It’s a unique take on the traditional werewolf story, and the dog gives the best performance in the film. Michael Pare and Mariel Hemingway are both good as Ted and Janet, but the dog steals the movie. I read that three dogs were used during filming, the main one was a dog named Primo, who must have been incredibly well-trained. His reactions are spot-on and everything he does is entirely believable. It’s extraordinary that the filmmakers were able to get such a convincing performance from a dog. Somebody give Primo a Dogscar (you know, like a Dog Oscar).
The werewolf itself is mean-looking and ferocious, and the gory killings are quite brutal. The movie had to be edited down to an R-rating after it initially received an NC-17, so there is some serious gore. While the werewolf looks good, Ted’s transformation sequence is disappointing, since it uses unconvincing computer effects.
The movie is short, but the brief running time means that there is no wasted space in the movie and that everything there is there for a reason. Bad Moon is inessential werewolf cinema, but it’s still entertaining and worth checking out for the award-worthy canine acting and cool-looking monster.
Dog Soldiers (2002)
Dog Soldiers is aptly named. It follows a group of six British soldiers on a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands, where they encounter a vicious group of lycanthropes and end up trapped in a remote farmhouse fighting for their lives. The film was the writing and directing debut of Neil Marshall, an English director known for his ultra-gory action and horror films, such as The Descent, Doomsday, and Centurion. He also directed two of the most action-packed episodes of Game of Thrones, “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”.
Dog Soldiers was a low-budget production, and it shows. The movie has a grimy look and mostly takes place in a single location. This works to the movie’s advantage however, because Dog Soldiers is the scariest and goriest film I watched for this edition of Monster Mash. Marshall is a crafty director who knows how to build suspense and tension with limited resources, and the werewolf attacks in Dog Soldiers are visceral and intense. My heart was pounding by the time the film ended.
The other films I’ve written about here have been gory, but Dog Soldiers substantially ups the gore factor. There are gallons of blood, viscera, and body parts. Dismemberment, decapitation, disembowelment: you name it, it’s here. Marshall’s films and TV work treat the human body as a canvas to be painted in buckets of red.
It’s not all blood and gore though, the movie has its share of dark humor. Take, for example, one soldier’s last words to the werewolves before they tear him apart: “I hope I give you the shits, you fucking wimp!” The end credits show a bloodied photo of the sole survivor on the front page of the newspaper, accompanied by the lurid headline: “WEREWOLVES ATE MY PLATOON!”
The main characters are played by Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee and Liam Cunningham, all of whom are veteran actors whose names you might not recognize but would probably recognize if you saw them onscreen and heard their voices. The werewolves themselves look good even if their movements look a bit awkward, which is probably why Marshall wisely keeps them offscreen for most of the movie. It’s impressive that the movie maintains such a high level of intensity even though the monsters are rarely seen in their entirety. Horror directors working with low budgets could learn a lot about how to build and maintain tension from Neil Marshall. He’s very clever, despite his tendency to drench the screen in buckets of gore.
So there you have it, six werewolf movies of varying quality. My rankings for them are as follows:
1. An American Werewolf in London
2. Dog Soldiers
3. The Howling
4. Bad Moon
5. Silver Bullet
I had a ton of fun watching and writing about these movies, and I’m excited to do more! Next post is going to be about Ant-Man and The Wasp, so keep an eye out for that later this week.
Until then, remember: keep to the roads, stay off the moors, and most importantly…
…BEWARE THE FULL MOON!!!