Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Werewolves through the ages

Happy Halloween! Today is a very special day because Night Visions Maximum Halloween Film Festival officially starts today. We've had two special occasions for the visits of directors John Waters and Paul Verhoeven, but the main programme starts today. Whether intentional or not, this year's films feature a small retrospective of Werewolf movies with three films to be displayed, including Joe Dante's The Howling.

Doing a special post celebrating a type of monster on Halloween is beginning to be sort of a tradition here, so what better time to look at our lycanthropic friends. After all, there was a magnificent full moon yesterday.

A werewolf is a creature from ancient legends and has originally been involved in the fear of unknown in nature and the feel that ancient spirits can live on in animals and even possess them. When we fear werewolves, we to some extent fear nature. Thus, the archetype is surprisingly common characters appear all over the world (as do vampires). So it makes sense that this vein has been mined for cinema for years and years. Though there hasn't been a definitive take on the monster (although The Howling, and another werewolf picture made on the same year, come close), they more or less follow similar formulas: A goody two-shoes main character starts to get strange urges, spurts hair and goes out to kill. These werewolf films may not be the best, but they are chosen to reflect on the times on which they were made, which is why they gave weight to different things.

The puberty metaphore is quite clear, which is also why so many werewolf pictures have been made for teenagers. But through the decades there has also been various social changes that have made people doubt whether they are really as civilized as they claim to be. So grab your beast within, wer'e going in.

Werewolf of London (1935)
Director: Stuart Walker

The first major werewolf picture followed on the heels of other 30's Universal horror classics such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Invisible Man. Yet it didn't become as big a classic as them. Why not? Well, for one, the star Henry Hull lacked the charisma of your Bela Lugosis, Claude Rainses and Boris Karloffs. Add that to the fact that he decided not to wear the make up assigned to create a believable werewolf, rather choosing a more modest approach. While that might have been as creepy, it didn't really look all that wolf-like or iconic. Luckily the make up had a chance for another run later on.
The American attitude of the 30's was to isolate themselves from all the war and carnage going on elsewhere in the world, largely because the Great Depression ensured there was enough problems back home. As such, the film reflects isolational views to stay out of foreign places and their businesses. The werewolf curse is caught by a scientist attacked studying flowers in the mountains of Tibet. The beastly ways of the foreigners are contrasted by, what else than Victorian stuck-up British people, that are sickeningly polite and down-to-earth, not giving any space to superstition or fantasy in their lives whatsoever.

The tragedy of the story is that the werewolf's condition keeps him away from his wife, while he stays locked up in rooms in an attempt to control his blossoming rage. This can also be seen as a sort of sexual frustration. The film is not too shabby, although quite theatrical in style, but it's central themes have also been done better multiple times since, which is why it's a little more obscure than some of its peers.

The Wolf Man (1941)
Director: George Waggner

It seems Universal itself wasn't that happy with how The Werewolf of London turned out (although it was a moderate hit). They made another film, this time set on a countryside villa and its dark forests rather than in an urban setting such as London. The themes are more along questioning the power of heritage, and family. Can a son bent on violent outbursts and losing control of his personality be considered a proper heir?Screenwriter Curt Siodmak was a Nazi concentration camp survivor, and his cynical outlook on people and their underlying brutality is reflected on his work. Jack Pierce's original make up designs are unleashed this time with wonderful results.

Lon Chaney Jr. brings great tragedy to the title role, and he is supported by the likes of Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi and Ralph Bellamy. This time the lycantrophy is a curse much like a disease, spreading from one person until the next until the owner is killed. Symbols and various iconic items are emphasized in the story and in the cinematography. The eerie music choices also underline the strange athmosphere and poetic imagery. Poems are in an important role in the storyline as well:

"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."

While the film runs quite predictably, the true and tested Universal style keeps the film afloat. 

I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957)

When teenagers started to spend more and more of their allowance on pop culture, also going to the cinemas, some wise guy had the bright idea to develop popular monster films by adding some teenaged drama into the mix. This film was the first of its kind, and the clear werewolfism metaphor ensures it's well remembered even today. as for the quality, oh brother.
Like many teen pictures at that time, this one is designed to lecture first and bore second. The star Michael Landon is a trouble-making teen, who gets experimental hypnotic treatment. This unleashes the wolf-manners in him, without him knowing it at first. The film builds very slowly and slowly. There's precious few werewolf action and quite a lot more of Landon trying to get answers from authority figures such as parents and doctors on what's happening to his body. The society being prudish, he is of course denied valuable information before it's too late.

Quite boring, but an interesting curiosity of the time. You'll find this is a common theme in this post.

Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Director: Terence Fisher

The British Hammer productions jumped at the chance to do new adaptations of all classic horror tropes from Universal's back lot. But sadly not every film could be their Dracula, and many of their monster films were aggressively average. Among these is the production company's foray into werewolf pictures, which had the good idea of having Oliver Reed play the main role. Sadly, although the role would be one the actor would seem to be born to play, he can do little to salvage the film. For starters, the werewolf looks like this:

Run! It's the sideburns monster!

Hammer's approach was to bring back some of the conservatist themes acquainted with the old horror films, yet up the gore and nudity at the same time. This is a story of a boy who more or less grows up to be a werewolf, and thus can be seen as a metaphor for alcoholism / puberty / sex addiction. Bad habits go in the family, you know. Yet the film is stuffy, too slow unraveling its thin story and has little to be frightened or even feel a bit uneasy with. The transformation effects are of course better than in Universal's films but still look dated today. But the sets, costumes and music are all top-notch. This could've worked better as a no-nonsense costume drama set in the old Spain, than as a werewolf picture.

Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

However, Hammer's classical approach still fares a lot better than the more liberal approach. WWOW is another werewolf movie that seems great on paper is this exploitation pic that had the bright idea to combine then-popular biker flicks to horror movies. Yet rather than to have the goofy fun with the subject the magnificently silly poster implies, the resulting film is a mess in every sense of the word.

The hippie era came to a screeching halt with the Manson murders, and people started to get frightened about Satanist views and youth gangs, such as bikers. At the same time the outsider imago of these groups drew youngsters to cinema seats which explains why a film called Werewolves on Wheels is more about Satanism than lycanthropes.

These bikers are trouble but not enough trouble to lend their shared girlfriend into Satanic sacrifices. But evil monks have set a demon loose, which possesses the lady and turns her into a werewolf whenever it's dark enough that the audience can't see shit happening on screen. On their run from the law across America, the Satanic monster wipes the freewheelers out one by one. No wonder the hippies lost the War for Peace On Earth.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director: John Landis

The later 70's and early 80's are a sort of a silver age of genre filmmaking. Visionary directors found funding more easily and vastly improved physical effects look stunning even today. John Landis's horror-comedy is one of a rare breed that works equally good in both categories. Since the werewolf curse plagues a young man (David Naughton) and happens parallel to him getting acquainted and interested in a nurse (Jenny Agutter), it's not hard to read sexual undertones into this. Hell, one of the key transformational scenes takes place in a porno theater.

Landis has the good sense of showing very little of his central monster until the very final minutes. The goofy wolf-mask isn't near as scary as the bone-breaking and twisting transformational scenes, or the scene where a terrified British gentleman flees the monster in empty and endless subway tunnels, which barely shows the beast.

Today, the film is best known for its painful-looking transformatinal scenes.
Yet at the same time Landis isn't above the surprise nazi zombie attack, undead mauled bodies of best friends past asking for a piece of toast, or a superbly dumb sex film called "I'll call you next wednesday". The final few minutes revel in destruction and explosions, but lack in impact. If they were a little better this would be a full-fledged horror classic. Now it's just a stellar performance and still one of the best werewolf movies ever made.

Wolf (1994)

The 90's saw a boom of "erotic" thrillers. And at that time that usually meant an even more sex- and violence-obsessed American films with perhaps even a quick flash of a nipple. This was due, of course, the scare of AIDS and various other STD's killing straight and gay people alike, as well as the tabloidisized news looking for juicy sex scandals and drowning the media revelling in them anyway. Wolf also followed revisionist horror films such as Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, attempting to update classic stories to scare Generation Xers. As one can see looking at the films today, to little avail. They now seem a bit ludicrous, and clearly products of their time. Jack Nicholson, for instance, still was considered young and virile.

Actually this might just be a more boring, werewolf version of Nicolas Cage's Kiss of the Vampire. Another white-collar worker (played by Nicholson) has a supernatural run-in and his worsening condition makes him act more and more crazy at work. But as a thin yuppie culture parody, it works and he's doing fine. At the same time he fantasizes about sex with about every woman he runs into. He soon gets his wish because his beastlike qualities make women fall for him, but the attraction just may be too fatal for them (see what I did there?).

Cursed (2005)
Director: Wes Craven

Horror director Wes Craven had such a big hit with Scream in 1996 that he has more or less spent his entire career since to try to recapture lightning in the bottle. The same goes (even more strongly) for screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who never really was nearly as clever as he himself thought. He merely put horror movie nerd's thoughts and gripes into his thin screenplays. The hook gets thin after a while. One example is this update with teenaged siblings sharing a deadly crime of hitting a man while driving around at night. But it's OK since he didn't die and was in fact a werewolf. But it's not OK since he attacks them and runs away, giving them all the curse of lycantrophism.

So these teenagers must do the most forbidden thing in their lives to get rid of the curse, which is to kill an adult. Which is all they dream about! Well that and having sex with each other. Which they do, too! Isn't Williamson a hoot? To be fair, there are a few decent jokes scattered here and there to not make this a total waste of time. But it all seems so played out it's a wonder a man as talented as Craven ever bothered.

As for the creation of werewolves it's bad. Horrible, even. With computer effects, all the elegance had completely vanished from horror films. Since you could do transformational scenes in full daylight, there was little of the poetism that worked around the limits of what old technology could achieve. as such, it's also harder and harder to get sucked in the movie's world and care for the protagonists. Since they are chased by bad CGI or rubber wolves all the time, with sound turned UP, there is little suspense. This what horror films have come to. Bad movies have been made in every decade but rarely has the whole genre been so overwhelmed with mediocrity.

Well, actually there is this new Spanish werewolf movie called A Game of Werewolves. But I'll tell you all about it some other time.

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