Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E5 – “And The Winner Is…”

Right off the bat, And The Winner Is… is probably my least favourite episode this series. It had a lot of the components I would ordinarily enjoy, but I’ll try to explain to you why this one didn’t work for me. I suppose it’s largely because I guessed the twist considerably early on in the episode, which I don’t think has ever happened before. I’m not someone who particularly takes pleasure in figuring out the plot twist before it happens, because I genuinely like being surprised. That’s not to say it was bad, not at all; Inside No. 9 never is. But I could see the wheels turning throughout and therefore I picked up what was happening well before the big reveal. Maybe it was just a bit less subtle than usual.

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To Have and To Hold was always going to be a hard act to follow – the twist was upsetting and brutal, and it culminated in an even more unsettling resolution. And The Winner Is… is a much “quieter” episode. The humour comes from the recognisable, familiar archetypes in the room and the searing satire of the film industry. It’s still good fun and it’s full of fantastic actors (I was especially pumped to see Noel Clarke – Mickey from Doctor Who if you’re my age – and Zoë Wanamaker), but it’s a very different kind of episode. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed had it fallen in the middle of the series – say, just after Zanzibar and Bernie Clifton‘s Dressing Room – and preceded Once Removed and To Have and To Hold.

Finally: another episode, another wig. How would I describe Reece’s wig in And The Winner Is…? Suspicious, in a word. Again, I didn’t dislike it, but it was a… choice.

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It’s the last episode next week! I’m really excited to see what it will be, but I’m gutted that this series is nearly over. Reece published a distressing tweet that had us all panicking that this might be the end for good, so I’m hopeful that Series 5 will be with us at some point.

Episode 6, Tempting Fate, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 6th February, BBC2.

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Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E4 – “To Have and To Hold”

Sorry this is so late! Spoilers are in yellow parentheses like [this]

And here we have the darkest episode of Series 4, at least so far.

I was really thrown by this one, I won’t lie to you. Once Removed was dark – lots of murder, lots of splatter – but it was in a fairly campy, semi-lighthearted way. I laughed a lot at it. I laughed at some of the dialogue at the start of To Have and To Hold as well, but, as the episode wore on, I started to get more and more uncomfortable. I felt guilty for having laughed at the awkwardness of the early scenes; I suppose that’s the mark of good television. A good episode should make you feel one way or another for the characters.

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This was fucking horrifying. It was, as always, brilliantly written and performed, but I think this might have scared me more than The Harrowing (Episode 6 of Series 1). The Harrowing is scary in a more straightforward way. It has the big spooky house, the creepy unseen entity upstairs and the brave protagonist who ultimately just can’t get away. To Have and To Hold is unsettling in a very insidious, mundane way. I can’t explain why without spoiling it, but it doesn’t possess any of the attributes I listed in The Harrowing.

I think what frightened me most was the plausibility of the plot. Of course it’s exaggerated – that’s the magic of television – but what happens in this episode has more or less happened in the real world, on multiple occasions. [This was obviously not intentional, but it was an interesting coincidence that this episode was broadcast not long after the Turpin children were rescued (their parents were convicted of multiple counts of torture and false imprisonment yesterday).] I don’t know if “suburban horror” is a real genre; however, it’s the term I’d apply to this episode.

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This review series might as well just focus on Reece Shearsmith’s wigs, because I can think of little else at the moment, in all honesty. He had another bizarre pileous arrangement going on in this episode. I wasn’t quite as taken with it as I was with the one from Once Removed, but, still, I approved.

Episode 5, And The Winner Is…, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 30th January, BBC2.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E3 – “Once Removed”

Warning: this review doesn’t contain any major plot points, but I do talk a little bit about the storytelling style and narrative techniques. If you want to watch it totally cold with no prior knowledge, I’d suggest coming back to this review once you’ve seen the episode.

Well, so far in Series 4, Steve Pemberton has ended up on Reece Shearsmith’s lap twice… so there’s that. Just wanted to open with that. I’m not complaining.

We’re halfway through the series! I’m trying not to feel sad about the inevitable end to Series 4; there’s still three more episodes to go, after all. There’s not much to feel sad about, really, because we’ve been blessed with three fantastic episodes already.

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We’ve had such interesting narrative techniques this series – Zanzibar with its iambic pentameter, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room with its pathos-filled slow burner of a story, and now Once Removed with its storytelling in reverse. The episode starts with the story’s end and concludes with its beginning (“reverse chronology” is the correct term for this). I love some quirky chronology – I’ve submitted an essay this week dealing partially with unconventional temporality in a poem by Jorge Luis Borges – so I was hyped when I clocked what was happening. Inside No. 9 never fails to surprise me and this episode was no exception.

Seeing Emilia Fox in Inside No. 9 was a thrilling moment, I won’t lie. I’ve loved her since she played Morgause in BBC’s Merlin and she was wonderful in this (as always). My only complaint would be that she isn’t in it enough, but that’s not really a concrete thing you could fix (it would just have made me personally happy).

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Reece’s wig in this episode was a choice, but not one I entirely disapproved of. It entertained me. I liked it. Miss Thing worked that lacefront and I wasn’t even that mad about it.

This was my favourite episode of this series (so far). It had all the elements that first drew me to Inside No. 9 – it was hysterically funny, genuinely shocking and it had a good bit of blood splattering around, which I’m always here for. Don’t skimp on the blood, ever. I had tons of fun watching it, to the point that I sort of felt bad for my flatmates and neighbours because I was laughing so hard.

 

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Episode 4, To Have and To Hold, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 23rd January, BBC2.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E2 – “Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room”

Brief note: I’m tagging my Inside No. 9 reviews under “horror” because some of the previous episodes have strong horror elements. I don’t really have a “hilarious, heartbreaking, sometimes horrifying comedy anthology” tag, so, unfortunately, episodes like this one which aren’t horror-related are going under the tag just to keep the reviews together.

The single spoiler (or semi-spoiler) in this review is in yellow parentheses like [this]. Highlight it with your cursor to read it.

Wow. So this was… upsetting.

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I remember watching 12 Days of Christine (the second episode of the second series) for the first time and just being blown away by how profoundly tragic and well-written it was. I feel similarly about Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. The episodes with stronger horror influences give me chills of a different kind; the twist can be pretty brutal. But episodes like this one have a different sort of twist. It’s a bit slower, a bit gentler. It gives you chance to really appreciate the pathos of the piece.

It’s more of an “Ohhhh. Oh, that’s sad.” rather than an “OH SHIT WHAT THE FUCK” (I’m looking at you, The Harrowing/Seance Time/The Devil of Christmas).

The plot, very briefly put to avoid spoilers, is that Len Shelby and Tommy Drake, a comedy double-act, have reunited after 30 years for one last gig. Len (Steve Pemberton) is eager to revive their act, but Tommy (Reece Shearsmith) has moved on. And so has the rest of the world: there’s a particularly brilliant scene with “the interview sketch”, culminating in a bit of commentary on political correctness. There’s so much going on in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room – commentary on stardom [(Len’s alcoholism is revealed to be what ultimately drove them apart)], lots of fun nostalgia for a bygone era of comedy and a desperately bittersweet ending.

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My mom and I laughed throughout the episode. My mom cried at the end. (I didn’t quite get that far, but I’m heartless so please don’t gauge anything by my emotions, really.) I think that’s the mark of a good piece of television; it makes you feel something without being gratuitous or taking the easy route.

This review is a bit shorter than the first, mostly because I wanted to establish in that review why I’ve specifically chosen to write about this series. I also simply have less to say about this one. I started watching Inside No. 9 because I love dark humour, so the episodes that appeal to me the most are the ones with something grotesque, something nasty. That doesn’t mean I don’t deeply enjoy episodes like Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. It was sweet, funny and beautifully crafted. A strong episode overall.

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Episode 3, Once Removed, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 16th January, BBC2.

 

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E1 – “Zanzibar”

I know, I know – I promised to stop writing so many reviews, but I just couldn’t resist sharing a few thoughts about Inside No. 9. So here’s what we’ll do. I’ll review this series and nothing else. I promise. No other film, TV show nor book shall be reviewed in this place until further notice.

Zanzibar takes place along a corridor on Floor 9 of the Hotel Zanzibar. The story plays out like a Shakespearean farce, a comedy of errors. As a big ol’ Shakespeare nerd, I was VERY happy indeed. This episode was written entirely in iambic pentameter and, to be honest, I might start a petition for more TV to be written that way. It was immensely cool to have that on my screen and, whatever you thought of the plot, the actual writing was a great technical achievement in and of itself. Both Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (Pemberton being the guy in the t-shirt at the front and Shearsmith being the dude in the suit behind him, below) are fantastic writers. (Yes, they’re often in the episodes too. They write and sing da feem toon, leave ’em alone.) It sounds silly for me, a lowly blogger, to say that, but Inside No. 9 just pushes all the buttons for what interests me. Quasi-horror anthology? On it. Ghosts? Bang on the money. Witch trials? They’ve done an episode on that. An episode with dialogue solely in iambic pentameter? They’re reading my goddamn mind.

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This was the first episode of Inside No. 9 that I watched with my parents. It’s always been something I watched on my own (except for the time I traumatised my brother with The Riddle of the Sphinx, the third episode of Series 3). Inside No. 9 is a strange beast to try and explain to people, mostly because it’s a comedy that isn’t overly concerned with being conventionally funny. When I laugh at it, it’s normally more of a hysterical exclamation of “Oh my god, did that really just happen?!” As is always the case with Inside No. 9, I had no clue what to expect and I wasn’t sure my parents would enjoy it.

Zanzibar happened to be one of the lighter episodes, perhaps even the lightest out of all of them. Just to clarify: “light” in this context does not mean “cheerful and innocent”. It’s still as darkly humorous as ever; often, it’s simply dark. I appreciated that it was a touch more lighthearted – not least because an episode in the vein of The Harrowing (my personal favourite episode, Episode 6 of the first series) would have been a very hard sell to my mother, who hates horror films. If you also want to get your squeamish friend or relative into Inside No. 9, Zanzibar would be an excellent place to start.

 

Overall, I really enjoyed the first episode. It probably won’t ever rank among my favourite episodes (although not classing every episode as your favourite is sort of the point of having favourites) but it was definitely up to their usual standards.

Episode 2, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 9th January, BBC2.

Review: “What We Do In The Shadows” (2014)

Alright, so technically this is a retrospective review and I’m years late to the party, but I watched What We Do In The Shadows for the first time recently and it’s fantastic. I haven’t had so much fun watching a film in ages.

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Everything about it is hopelessly endearing: the characters are well-developed and likeable, the plot is fresh without losing a nostalgic touch and it’s just so funny. I generally prefer a straight-up horror film – at best, the horror-comedies I’ve seen have made me smile or prompted a chuckle or two, but What We Do In The Shadows made me laugh out loud. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic (although I swear I’m not exaggerating), I laughed so hard that it actually hurt. That’s partly due to the dialogue being razor-sharp and subtly witty; however, the things that made me laugh most were all the references. Normally, references to other films just irk me and remind me of classics that I’d much rather be watching, but the jokes were so tightly crafted and beautifully woven into the plot (there’s a particularly good Lost Boys reference which had me wheezing). It dares to imagine what modern-day vampires might get up to and how they would interact with the modern world. What would they think of films like The Lost Boys or Blade? How might they feel about vampire literary tropes? It explores these questions – along with deeper introspections on mortality and being human – without ever becoming cheesy in the way other films have.

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It’s also one of the finest mockumentaries I’ve had the pleasure of watching. It sounds ridiculous, but there were times when I forgot that it wasn’t a real documentary; the tone and style are absolutely flawless. I found myself believing that there could be vampires hiding away and flat-sharing in Wellington. It’s easy to be drawn in by it because it’s so incredibly detailed and the protagonists all have such interesting backstories.

What We Do In The Shadows balanced being a genuinely solid horror flick, a brilliant comedy and a silly, sweet film. I don’t mean “silly” or “sweet” in an insulting way (it’s such a clever film), but it goes all in while fully acknowledging how daft the premise is. That’s why this works and why something like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn’t.

So here’s to What We Do In The Shadows, the best new (at least, new to me) film I’ve watched this year.

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Review: “My Scientology Movie” (2015)

I’m two years late to the party, but I finally got round to delving into Louis Theroux’s documentary on the Church of Scientology, My Scientology Movie (2015). Directed by John Dower, the film documents the attempts of Theroux and crew to create some sort of dialogue with the Church itself – with varying success. The Church refused to participate in the making of the film (in fact, many of their letters to the producers of the documentary are shown within the film itself), so the documentary takes a different approach to most: the filmmakers prodded and poked until they got a reaction. Many of the key anecdotes from ex-Scientologists are re-enacted with young actors and the audition process also makes up part of the film.

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I expected the film to be interesting – as an outsider, I find Scientology to be fascinating and I’ve enjoyed all the documentaries of Theroux’s that I’ve watched – but I wasn’t prepared for how unsettling it is. Throughout the film, Theroux’s interviews are interrupted by unidentified individuals who simply appear out of nowhere, cameras rolling and demanding to know exactly what he thinks he’s doing. It’s genuinely quite disturbing to see the ease with which they track down dissenters, traitors and anyone else they perceive to be a threat to Scientology’s aims. At one point, the main interviewee, ex-Scientology Inspector General Marty Rathbun, is greeted at the airport terminal by three high-ranking Church executives. His footage of their psychologically abusive rhetoric, insisting that the Church doesn’t miss him and that he isn’t living “a real life”, is difficult to watch. As Theroux puts it in the film, “They are behaving in a way that is so obviously pathological—you would think they would realize that other people would see that and think this is a religion of lunatics.” The way Scientology is presented by its followers – a misunderstood, intensive self-help course, essentially – is directly at odds with the reality shown in the documentary. They come off as paranoid, invasive and frequently rather scary.

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A large part of the film focuses on Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, who took over leadership after the death of the Church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. It also deals with allegations of Miscavige’s violent outbursts towards Scientologists such as Jeff Hawkins (another interviewee and ex-Scientologist) and harassment of journalists and defectors from the Church. The footage shown of Miscavige at grand Scientology galas is disquieting too – all dictators worth their salt have a sense of the theatrical, I suppose.

Regardless of how Scientologists come across by virtue of their own actions, it’s a very balanced portrayal of the Church. It’s clear that they didn’t set out to make a film about how “evil” the Church of Scientology is; they simply dive into the oddness of it all. In many ways, it’s an incredibly funny piece of filmmaking. It was referred to in a Telegraph review as “Pythonesque” and I’d have to agree – it almost seems beyond belief. Cars with blacked-out windows, ominous letters and visits from sketchy Scientologist minions are strange things to see in a documentary, but it’s real edge-of-your-seat stuff.

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I’d highly recommend My Scientology Movie. Louis Theroux is on top form, the documentary itself is structured in an unusual and interesting way and I really felt for the ex-Scientologists interviewed (or, at least, for some of them). I got the impression that they understood that they could never really escape. No matter how far they run, the Church will always track them down, learn who they’re fraternising with and what they’re doing. That’s terrifying.

My personal thoughts on Scientology can be summed up in an excellent quote from John Sweeney, a BBC correspondent who was harassed by Scientologist operatives while making a documentary about the Church. In a 2012 article for The Independent, he said of the Church of Scientology: “In the 21st century, everyone has a right to believe in anything or nothing. But not everything that claims to be a religion is a religion. It could be, for example, a brain washing cult.”

My Scientology Movie is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 19 days.

P.S. If you’ve heard nothing from me by next month, you know that they’ve silenced me. 😉

Why “Viy” (1967) Is Criminally Underrated

I initially planned to write a straight-up review of Viy, in the same way I wrote my review of the recent It remake, but I thought about it more deeply and realised that I had more opinions about it than I could pack into a review. A lot of my thoughts on it are not strictly related to the quality of the filmmaking or the narrative techniques – they have much more to do with the atmosphere and the film’s cultural value. Thus, instead of a review, this is more of an opinion piece: an analysis of why I found this film (occasionally) scary but mostly rather endearing.

Spoilers are in yellow parentheses [like this]. The font colour has been changed, but you can highlight it with your cursor if you would like to read the spoiler.

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Natalya Varley and Leonid Kuravlyov in Viy (1967)

Viy (transliterated from the original Russian Вий) was produced by Mosfilm, a film studio still thriving today which produced more than 3,000 films over the course of the Soviet Union’s existence. Adapted from a short story by Nikolai Gogol, it was officially the first horror film to be released in the former USSR. Despite its cultural significance, hardly anyone in the West – besides hardcore horror fans and academics of Soviet culture & history – seem to have heard of it, let alone seen it. It’s such a shame, because Viy rarely receives recognition for managing to be funny, surreal, philosophical and even genuinely unsettling. The barriers that prevent Viy from claiming its title as a classic are myriad: English-speaking viewers don’t seem to be fans, by and large, of having to read subtitles, the surrealism can be baffling if you’re not willing to suspend your disbelief for 80 minutes, the special effects sometimes look dated (although not often) and there’s quite a lot to get your head around culturally. I don’t think you need to be an expert on Russian/Ukrainian folklore or the Eastern Orthodox Church (I’m not) for it to make sense, but you definitely need to pay attention.

So what’s the story? The protagonist is Khoma Brutus, a student at a seminary – a school specifically for theologians and future clergymen – who gets into an altercation with an old witch during his school holidays. Upon fleeing back to school, he discovers he has been summoned to a small Cossack village to preside over the funeral rites of their princess (or princess-equivalent), who asked for him by name on her deathbed. The rites require Khoma to spend three nights alone in the church with her body, reading Scripture to help her pass on to Heaven. As it turns out, she doesn’t plan to go quietly [spoiler alert: the witch he got into a scrap with has taken the form of the pretty young princess and she rises from her coffin each night attempting to violently curse him]. Khoma is forced to use his wits and his faith to protect himself from the demonic forces that begin to encroach upon the church.

Visually, the film is stunning. The special effects are mostly very simple, with lots of practical effects and costumes, which lends the film a timeless quality. I’ve mentioned before that I am exhausted by the saturation of CGI in modern cinema, so Viy is a bit of a treat for a grumpy CGI naysayer like me. The sets, especially the church (I’m obsessed with the church), are beautiful too. In one of the earlier scenes, Khoma and his two friends are looking for somewhere to stay and are wandering over the gloomy fields. There’s a thick mist hovering over the land, reminiscent of the older adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles. That’s the closest equivalent in my own mind – it has that “dark night on the moors” vibe.

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Leonid Kuravlyov as Khoma in Viy (1967)

“But is this Soviet film from 50 years ago actually scary?”, I hear you ask. And my answer is: kind of?

It builds up tension very well, but then it often drags and doesn’t seem to know what to do with the suspense it’s built. I can forgive the people who found it “boring” or gave up on it after about 20 minutes. Furthermore, most of the horror is concentrated in the latter half of the film; Khoma doesn’t actually end up in the church alone with the corpse until almost 40 minutes have passed. There are also some unintentionally hilarious scenes – I don’t think the scene in which Khoma is ambushed by the old hag is supposed to be as funny as it is [although the tone abruptly changes when he starts beating her to death]. I found the humour in the film charming, even if it’s sometimes difficult to work out whether the comedy is intentional or not. I still haven’t decided whether the audience are meant to laugh at Khoma belting a few notes in response to the owls hooting in the distance (but, damn, has the boy got pipes!).

However, there are a couple of scenes which are legitimately chilling. When Khoma’s first night keeping watch over the body begins, there’s no music – all we hear are his own footsteps. It’s eerily quiet and claustrophobic. Khoma is locked in and in the immediate vicinity of a cadaver, so you very much feel that you’re locked in there with him. There are some good jumpscares too; I’m normally anti-jumpscares, but at the time, they were an innovation. [Black cats burst out of nowhere and run across the church floorboards, birds descend from the rafters, a gust of wind blows out the candles he has just lit, and it all adds to the atmosphere.] The resurrected princess is creepy as well. With her long black hair, wide eyes and deathly-pale skin, she’d fit right in with Samara from The Ring and Kayako from The Grudge. There’s a really interesting contrast in that she’s crowned with flowers and is outwardly very pretty, but she’s also screaming curses [and eventually summons a powerful demon to enact her revenge].

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The princess rises from her coffin, Viy (1967)

I think I used the word “endearing” to describe the film earlier and I’m sticking with that description. I found myself feeling quite affectionate towards it by the end. I really like Khoma and Leonid Kuravlyov’s portrayal of him is one of the most charming parts of this film – he’s initially cowardly and quite pathetic, begging not to be forced to conduct the rites, but he pulls himself together. He makes a fine tragic hero. There’s something childish about him and it’s engaging to watch him mature. Most importantly: he’s just an ordinary man. He spends as much time drinking with the local Cossacks as he does fighting demons. He complains about not being able to smoke his pipe in church (he resolves to just use snuff instead). He doesn’t have any supernatural powers and he isn’t on a mission from God; he’s simply a man doing the best he can with the resources he has.

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Khoma sees the body, Viy (1967)

I’m fond of Viy, despite all its flaws – its odd acting choices, its occasional musical outbursts (why does Khoma have to keep singing???), even its glaring tonal shifts. It deserves more hype than it gets. On an academic level, it’s a fascinating peek both into Slavic folklore and into the style of popular films in the USSR in the 1960s. On a personal level, it’s a well-crafted horror film with thoughtful subtext and plenty of philosophy.

Oh, Viy. You’re wonderful, and you deserve better.

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The princess cries blood, Viy (1967)

Wolves On Film: A Visual History Of The Cinematic Werewolf

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.

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Reverend Lowe’s werewolf form, Silver Bullet (1985)

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.