The psychedelic (sort of) folk legend Michael Hurley’s most famous song (well, if you can actually call it famous) is about a werewolf. “For the werewolf/Have sympathy/Because the werewolf he is someone/Just like you and me,” he sings. Hmm. Later, he hears a werewolf crying: “Nobody, nobody, nobody knows/How much I love the maiden as I tear off her clothes.” So, you know. Werewolves. Problematic.
But the most populist rendering of a Wolf Man does portray him as someone just like you and me…an ordinary person just like you and me (albeit one unfortunate enough to have inherited a curse via wolf bite). Larry Talbot in the 1941 The Wolf Man was played by Lon Chaney, Jr., as a kind of earnest lug, mortified at his new condition but scared to face the silver bullet. In the 1948 comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Talbot, stlll played by stalwart Lon, says to Lou Costello, “I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but… in a half-an-hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf.” And Lou responds, “Yeah, you and 20 million other guys.” So misunderstood.
Similarly, in John Landis’ mayhem-packed 1981 An American Werewolf In London, David Naughton’s David not only gets the curse, but receives regular visitations from his now-undead best friend Jack (the unforgettable Griffin Dunne) advising him to kill himself. David may be a little fratty, but he’s a good guy overall and he’s got a new lease on life via a love affair with nurse Jenny Agutter. So much to live for. And yet. As with the vampire film, the werewolf movie is freighted with fatalism. It’s worse for these creatures than it is for blood-suckers, too; while there’s not yet been a werewolf movie in which a lycanthrope dies of old age, at least vampires have immortality going for them until they meet up with a stake or broad daylight. Hence — with the exception of, what? Teen Wolf? — werewolf movies can be unusually glum. But bloody. Here are five with something extra.
(Stuart Walker, 1935)
It was this, and not the more famous The Wolf Man, that was the first werewolf picture of note to showcase the dread disease of lycanthropy, as any loyal reader of the big-in-the-‘60s magazine “Famous Monsters of Filmland” could tell you. Some of those readers would argue that it’s a better picture than The Wolf Man, too, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, given the rushed conclusion of the iconic movie that introduced Lon Chaney, Jr. as the hapless Larry Talbot.
Iconography aside, Werewolf of London has a strong storyline: Henry Hull, a hearty botanist explorer in the grand colonialist mode, endures a bite from a mysterious beast while charting Tibet mountains. Back in England, a mysterious man warns him he’s cursed. And so he is. The movie adds good atmosphere (those desolate London streets!) and man-into-beast transformation effects that were state-of-the-art in their time, combining the expert makeup of Jack Pierce with stop-motion/dissolve photography to change Hull’s face before your eyes. Some variants of this method are still often used for similar effects. And it’s the movie that provided the title for the Warren Zevon hit song that Warren Zevon came to be very, very sick of.
(Terence Fisher, 1961)
Who better to play a particularly enraged young werewolf than young Oliver Reed, the British actor and hellion who even in his lightest roles always seemed up to something untoward. This generally engrossing picture is heavy going in its initial scenes, as it outlines one of the ugliest werewolf origins of any movie — a jail cell rape is involved.
Set in 18th century Spain, the movie partakes in the infrequently-worked mythology that a child born on Christmas day is destined to become a werewolf. Weird omens at the baptism suggest these future troubles. Reed himself doesn’t turn up until 45 minutes in. But he sets to brooding right away. The transformations and bloody nocturnal attacks soon follow. The unusual werewolf makeup, by Roy Ashton, gives Reed a more ferocious look than any prior Wolf Person, and the actor makes the most of his terrifying appearance.
(Paul Arnett, 1974)
The British production shingle Amicus was a mini-studio that set up a rivalry with Hammer, the outfit responsible for almost as many vintage classic horrors as Universal. Best known for their anthology horror pics — effective, down and dirty landmarks like the first Tales From the Crypt and the surprisingly outre Asylum (both 1972) — they went out with a bang with this novel werewolf picture, with accents both innovative and cheesy.
The innovative? It’s a werewolf whodunnit: in Agatha Christie/Most Dangerous Game fashion, a quirky rich guy (who’s also a great hunter) hosts a weekend in which his guests have to figure out who in the party is a lycanthrope — before said beast wipes them all out. The cheesy bit is the “werewolf break” near the picture’s end, which invites the viewer to reason things out. (The director hated it.) The score by Douglas Gamley is a little too bouncy as well. But the cast is great — Calvin Lockhart plays the quirky rich guy (a role that at the time wasn’t customarily given to actors of color), and Peter Cushing, Charles “It’s just a jump to the left” Gray and Michael Gambon are along for the festivities.
(Joe Dante, 1981)
Director Joe Dante is one of the most impish and innovative of genre benders, and he always packs his fantasy and horror pictures with outlandish gags and knowing film references. This picture, co-scripted by John Sayles, is no exception. Oodles of supporting characters are named after classic werewolf movie directors, Allen Ginsberg’s book Howl is seen, and Dick Miller reprises a classic Roger Corman character. But this is one of Dante’s most somber efforts overall. Dee Wallace’s lead character is never not in trouble; first she’s menaced by a serial killer, then traumatized when he’s killed in her presence; her unctuous therapist (played by Patrick MacNee of The Avengers TV fame) sends her off to a trendy recovery retreat…which turns out to be a breeding ground for werewolves. Here there are lycanthropes of all genders, and honestly the equity is not a comfort. It all builds to a furious finale that mirrors that of The Wolf Man, with Marshall McLuhan-redolent “medium is the message” madness thrown in.
(Neil Jordan, 1984)
Director Neil Jordan, who cowrote the screenplay to this multi-faceted contemplation of “Little Red Riding Hood,” was getting awards for his published fiction well before he began making films. For this, his second feature, he worked with Angela Carter, a creative dynamo of genre fiction and magical realism. So is this an early example of “elevated horror?” We should say not. Rather, Jordan and Carter take the poetry that has always been inherent in the genre — go back to Edgar Allan Poe and check it out — and put it at the forefront of this movie, without sacrificing scares, or denying the sensationalistic aspects that walk hand in hand with oneiric beauty in the greatest horror. Also the closest thing to an art film featuring Angela Lansbury. Beware the monobrow huntsman!
Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews new releases at RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny. He is the author of the acclaimed 2020 book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, published by Hanover Square Press.