Werewolves: A Sordid History with the Beast

Werewolves: A Sordid History with the Beast

February 1, 2015 0 By Jeff Fountain

With vampires taking a big part of the spotlight for the last ten years or so, there hasn’t been a lot of love for my furry friends. Sure, there have been a few exceptions but even then, they always seem to play second fiddle to their blood sucking rivals.

My guess is that there is just not enough love to go around. Werewolves do not possess the lust or romanticism that seems to surround vampires. They are portrayed, with good reason, to be a much more brutal and savage beast. They will not toy with their prey or give some long winded speech about why they do what they do. No, they kill without mercy and with brutal efficiency.

The first werewolf movie I ever saw was the 1941 classic The Wolf Man. When you have a movie with Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi, it’s a pretty good bet it will be good and this one was no exception. This was quickly followed by 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man. With both Lugosi and Chaney Jr. playing the star monsters, this was even more fun than The Wolf Man. Great acting and some great set design.

In fact, Chaney was so good in the role as a wolf man, he was brought back for two more big monster movies in the 40’s, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Chaney’s portrayal of the character was the foundation of the plot for these two movies. However, the quick rise of popularity of this hairy beast did not sustain itself for long.

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In the late 50’s, two films came out that gave hope to reviving our hairy friend. The Werewolf (1956) and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) brought a different audience to the subgenre of werewolves, but once again it was a fleeting interest. Even Hammer films, famous in the fifties for it own vision of the monster themed movies, could not solve the werewolf dilemma. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) was a bust for Hammer films and they never made another werewolf movie again.

This looked the end for the wolf in monster movies. Interest died out and not much was done to try and spark the subgenre into action. In fact, wasn’t till the 80’s, especially in North America, that the wolf awoke from its movie land slumber.

In 1981, director John Landis gave us not only a groundbreaking werewolf movie, but an excellent horror movie as well; An American Werewolf in London. The transformation scenes were realistic, graphic and unlike anything seen on film before. It won makeup effects master Rick Baker an Oscar and set the bar very high for all those willing to follow. Maybe most important of all, werewolves were now cool and this movie served as a launching pad for the subgenres popularity.

You could say 1981 was THE year of the werewolf. Two more excellent and influential movies also came out that year, Wolfen and The Howling. While Wolfen took the more serious tone, The Howling followed An American Werewolf in London with its great tone of humor to go along with the blood and gore. The Howling actually spawned many sequels, but none of them could capture the heart and humor that made the original special.

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Acclaimed filmmaker Neil Jordan was the next to tackle the mythos of the werewolf and did so in a very creative way with 1984’s The Company of Wolves. It was a very different look at the subgenre, melding together elements of both horror and fantasy in a way never seen before.

The success of the eighties continued the following year with Silver Bullet. This story, taken from the Stephen King novella Cycle of the Werewolf, was certainly not in the groundbreaking category, but did continue the trend of the werewolf rebirth.

In the later part of the eighties, after parodies Teen Wolf (1985) and Teen Wolf Too (1987) came out, the mythos and mystique of the werewolf seemed to die out again. With the exception of a few less than stellar attempts such as Wolf (1994) starring Jack Nicholson and the sequel An American Werewolf in Paris (1997), is was a bad time to be a werewolf. Indeed, the horror genre in general seemed to suffer in the nineties, flailing about wildly like one of its own victims, trying desperately to find its way.

Eventually, the nineties came to a merciful end. Without missing a beat, the werewolves began to take their revenge on the past decade with 2000’s Ginger Snaps. It was a different spin on an old story that would spawn two sequels.

Perhaps one of the more underrated films in the world of the werewolf would come out two years later, that being 2002’s Dog Soldiers. A great mix of action and story telling, this movie unfortunately went largely unnoticed except by the hard core horror and werewolf fan.

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With the danger looming of werewolves beginning their downward slide into total disinterest again, CGI came to the rescue in 2003’s Underworld. With slick, computer generated lycans (the new hip term for werewolves) and the monster vs. monster conflict between lycans and vampires, the mythos was once again brought into the light. With Underworld becoming a franchise of now four movies and counting, werewolves began to draw more interest from the movie studios.

Then in 2008, a popular book series was turned into a five movie money making juggernaut that put teen girls hearts a flutter and made hardcore werewolf fans cringe. From 2008 to 2012, the Twilight series brought more attention to werewolves (and to a lesser extent, vampires) than longtime fans ever thought possible. However, instead of rejoicing, fans of the subgenre watched as their beloved werewolves became poor CGI heartthrobs, running around the screen half dressed to the delight of millions of girls all over the world.

It is still a debate whether this has done more harm than good. In 2010, a remake of The Wolfman was made and while it was a decent effort, it barely broke even. Is this because it was a poor movie, or that it was ignored due to the Twilight invasion that was still going strong?

Acclaimed screenwriter David Hayter’s directorial debut in 2014 was Wolves, and while not a groundbreaking movie it did have some interesting content that gave me hope for werewolves in the future.

The subgenre that is the werewolf is now, once again, at a crossroads. With the Twilight movies now over and no new Underworld movie set to be released, there is a void again that needs to be filled. Maybe its time to cut back the CGI and try and mix the old up with the new, a sort of grafting of ideas to make one really new and different take on the subject. After all, the werewolf has lived through so many times of darkness and despair, there is no way this can be the end.

Can it?