Warning: this article contains some gory images, as well as potential spoilers for the films discussed.
It’s no secret: I love werewolf films. It might seem like a strange niche of the horror genre to be particularly interested in, but films about werewolves deal with the human psyche in a very specific, primal way. Unsurprisingly, the concept of a human turning into an animal – or some beastly hybrid – opens up fascinating discussions about human nature. How civilised are we? How successfully can we override our basic instincts? And what would it take to tip us over the edge into animalistic brutality?
Alongside the psychological aspect, I always look forward to seeing how each individual film chooses to interpret the werewolf and why. I can forgive a lot of narrative failings if the werewolf of the film is distinctive in the way it’s depicted. There’s no real chronology in terms of how werewolves are shown on screen, although I would argue you’re more likely to see a CGI werewolf in the 21st century than in the 20th (for obvious reasons). In a way, I find that disappointing – I’m a sucker for the costumes of horror’s yesteryear and I’d much rather see a valiant attempt at an interesting werewolf costume than a CGI construction. I don’t hate CGI by any means, but I’m always pleasantly surprised when a horror film doesn’t take that route.
Early cinematic werewolves were much more human-like, primarily due to the technical constraints of the time. The very first Hollywood film to feature a werewolf was Universal Pictures’ Werewolf of London (1935). This was followed by their much more successful – and now iconic – The Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Chaney Jr.
By today’s standards, the make-up FX naturally seem simplistic, but the visual effects used in The Wolf Man were deliberately more complex than in Werewolf of London, taking up to six hours to apply. Both these werewolves place on the more human end of the spectrum and are easily recognised as 1930s – 1940s designs. As the genre evolved, filmmakers took more creative liberties with werewolf anatomy, but I’m quite fond of both of these. I don’t necessarily find them scary; however, I think the genre owes a lot to them.
The 1980s saw a boom in the werewolf genre with the release of An American Werewolf In London (1981), The Howling (1981) and its slew of sequels, The Company of Wolves (1984) and somewhat lesser-known offerings like Silver Bullet (1985). It’s important to note the more tongue-in-cheek werewolf films of this period too, such as Full Moon High (1981) and Teen Wolf (1985). An American Werewolf In London shares something with both of these – the portrayal of the werewolf as a sympathetic protagonist, a slave to the curse who we are encouraged to pity. However, where the werewolves of Full Moon High and Teen Wolf have more in common with the werewolf designs of the early Universal Pictures films, the titular American werewolf is definitely more wolfish. There’s barely a trace of David left by the time the transformation is complete.
The Company of Wolves – one of my favourite films – is also firmly planted in the “wolf” camp. Although there are plenty of in-between scenes, at the end of the transformation there is no difference between the human-turned-wolf and an ordinary wolf (they admittedly used Belgian Shepherd dogs for most of the filming). This is deliberate; it lends itself to the fairy tale environment that the film cultivates and blurs the line between the “real” world we see at the start of the film and the “dream” world within which most of the action takes place. Then you have the beasts who sit somewhere in the middle. In Silver Bullet, the adaptation of the novella Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King, Reverend Lowe’s werewolf form is bipedal but nowhere near as human as in The Wolf Man. The design is more reminiscent of a bear for me, but you can judge it yourself. The werewolf of Silver Bullet is also portrayed fairly sympathetically – we never find out the origins of Reverend Lowe’s curse in the film, but there’s a particularly good “nightmare” scene in which we see how troubled he is by it.
The Howling also favours the bipedal, “upright” werewolf. I’ll be honest – of all the werewolves analysed in this article, this is the interpretation I find creepiest. I think the transformation is gruesome and the werewolves themselves are freaky-looking in a way none of the others are. You might disagree, but something about the way they’re designed unsettles me and I can never quite put my finger on what it is.
The werewolves of The Howling could be distant cousins of those depicted in Dog Soldiers (2002). The Dog Soldiers werewolves are probably my favourites in all of cinema, because they’re just such an interesting visual choice. They’re quick, tall and seemingly quite slender, but they have tremendous brute strength. We don’t see a lot of them until towards the climax of the film – throughout the majority of the runtime, we see brief flashes of them, often hidden by shadow. It makes the later scenes in which we see them fully even more shocking. Their heads are more wolflike, but their bodies are an even mix of wolf and human. Reiterating what I said earlier, I really do prefer these types of werewolves to the CGI creations used in films like the Twilight franchise. There’s just something quite nostalgic about the costumes and prosthetics for me – I appreciate the craftsmanship that went into making them and they hearken back to a time before complex computer design.
In 2000, Ginger Snaps showed us an entirely different type of werewolf. I like this design too. Ginger Fitzgerald doesn’t fully transform into a werewolf until the end of the film, but the build-up to the final transformation is beautifully constructed. Ginger Snaps is a great teen horror flick and one of my personal favourite films. Ginger’s “curse” coincides with her menarche and the whole film serves as a really interesting allegory for female puberty and sexuality, in a similar vein to The Company of Wolves – in fact, I often recommend both of them at the same time because I think there’s a lot of thematic common ground.
The most recent release I’ve watched was Howl (2015). Fun fact: Howl was directed by Paul Hyett, who had previously worked on the SFX for Dog Soldiers. I’m glad they chose to do something starkly different with the werewolves in this film – they’re distinct from the Dog Soldiers werewolves but have just as much impact. There is some use of CGI, but I didn’t find myself as distracted by it as I have been in other examples. The werewolf designs are much more human, although not quite to the same extent as the very early examples from the 1930s. I won’t spoil the plot of the film, but the twist is insane and the ending is both satisfying and deeply unsatisfying.
Although they are by no means horror films, I think it’s worth discussing the werewolves of the Twilight saga. I’ve always found the CGI in these films incredibly distracting – it’s just not integrated well with the live-action sequences. The werewolves here are not particularly creative; in essence, they are just larger versions of ordinary wolves. I was a big fan of Twilight when I was in my early teens and I especially liked that Stephenie Meyer had constructed a “culture” for both vampire and werewolf society. The “fantasy culture” idea has been done better – Darren Shan’s vampire books are a fantastic example because they go into so much detail about vampire society – and we could have an extensive discussion about her appropriation of Native American ideas and traditions, but I still think the invented history and mythology behind the werewolves (and obviously the vampires) is probably the strongest part of the whole franchise. The werewolves of Twilight are much more sympathetic than earlier examples and I credit Twilight considerably with starting the cinematic trend of the “sexy monster” – or perhaps taking the idea of a sympathetic monster and
dumbing it down and sexing it up removing all the subtlety from it.
On that note, I’d like to conclude by briefly summarising the evolution of the cinematic werewolf. It hasn’t been clean and simple. Depictions haven’t neatly evolved from humanoid to more lupine, from unsympathetic to sympathetic, from one-note to complex, in the way you might expect. Ginger Snaps and Dog Soldiers were released just two years apart in the early 2000s and they take drastically different viewpoints. The werewolves of Dog Soldiers are animals – they are motivated by a desire to kill and devour. They are not particularly complicated, layered characters. Ginger Fitzgerald, however, is a much more complex character. The audience is encouraged not only to be scared of her but also to be scared for her.
Like many movie monsters, that’s the beauty of the werewolf as a plot device. They are us and them all at once. They can be deeply human, flawed in a way that produces pathos, and they can just as easily be deeply inhuman. In every new werewolf film, it’s always interesting to see which way the balance will tip.