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.

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Halloween Goodies for Freaky Folks

Carve your pumpkins and boil your cauldrons, Halloween is nearly here!

I’m starting your October off the right way by sharing handy compilations of horror films, spooky documentaries and general scary paraphernalia. Get comfortable and be prepared to be scared!

Hours of Halloween Horror:

I scoured YouTube for all the free horror films I could get my filthy hands on, and this is the result!

Nostalgia Critic’s “Stephen King” Reviews:

Take a trip down nostalgia lane and watch the Nostalgia Critic look back on the best (and worst) of the Stephen King adaptations – without the rose-tinted glasses.

A Study In Scares

Analysis of the horror genre, movie theories and reflections on the art of the scare.

Ultimate Halloween Playlist:

Themes from horror films, assorted popular spooky tunes and songs to get you in that autumnal mood.

Upcoming Horror

Watch the trailers for the latest horror films debuting in the dark half of the year.

 

Hope you enjoy the playlists (but, like, get some fresh air too)!

Review: “IT: Chapter One” (2017)

Warning: to avoid spoiling the plot for you, I have changed the font colour of any spoilers so that you won’t immediately see it. Spoilers are contained in yellow parentheses like [this] – if you would like to read the spoiler, simply highlight it with your cursor.

“And now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown!”

I saw the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It yesterday. I’ll confess: I haven’t read the book nor seen the original mini-series (a heinous crime for a horror fan), but in a way, I’m glad that I went in without any expectations. Misery by Stephen King is one of my all-time favourite books, but when I finally got around to watching the film adaptation, I found myself nitpicking at tiny changes to the material. I’m grateful that this wasn’t the case with It.

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I was incredibly impressed with this film. It struck a beautiful balance between subtle psychological horror – it wasn’t afraid to leave the scares implied or ambiguous – and balls-to-the-wall gore. [Six-year-old Georgie having his arm bitten right TF off within the first 10 minutes springs to mind.] I’m not particularly a fan of blood and guts; it’s why slasher films have never appealed to me. Nothing in the film felt gratuitous to me. Even Pennywise, who could have been taken way over the top and way too far, was a perfect match for the tone. With his ruff and pantaloons, Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is more like an antique doll than Tim Curry’s grease-painted nightmare. He’s more childlike, which makes it even more horrifying when he reveals his true form [and his jaws gape with sharklike teeth]. I’m also not a fan of horror films that lack the money shot, if you’ll pardon the phrasing – the moment when the monster is finally revealed, after snippets and glimpses throughout. It’s why I never found Freddy Krueger particularly unsettling. I knew what he looked like before I’d even watched the film; there was no suspense. I want some build-up. We see Pennywise a lot in this film and, if I’m honest, my principles got blown out of the water and I didn’t care. Dude was terrifying.

It also managed to be endearing in a way I didn’t expect. The child actors are all excellent – I sometimes find films in which children are the protagonists a little bit cringeworthy. Such a lot can go wrong, but every single one of the Losers (as they call themselves) are sincere and believable. It’s as much a coming-of-age film as it is a horror flick. It’s about bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood, the awkward inbetween that is adolescence. [Pennywise, or It, is a tainted, twisted version of the far more innocent clown and it seems to be the loss of innocence made manifest.] The Losers are all overcoming unique challenges, but they share a profound sense of uncertainty. I appreciated the depth to which we got to see their lives and empathise with them. My only criticism would perhaps lie with Richie, the wisecracking wannabe-Casanova of the group. Don’t get me wrong, he’s hysterical and the young actor playing him (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame) has impeccable comedic timing which would rival that of an adult comic. I just felt as though I’d seen very little of his home life [in comparison to the trauma we see affecting the others], although perhaps that was intentional – maybe he hadn’t got much of one to speak of. More Richie, please!

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The film also captured a great 80s vibe. It was giving me a hint of The Goonies, and seeing the kids cycling along the roads strongly reminded me of the holy water scene from The Lost Boys too. It had that same kind of dark humour – frightened, foulmouthed adolescents, what’s funnier than that? I love films with a throwback aesthetic: if it’s done properly, it can be transcendent. And It absolutely was.

A sequel has been neatly set up. This film takes place during the protagonists’ childhood, and the second film will return to them as adults [when the creature reappears after the requisite 27 years and they are forced to fight Pennywise again], splitting the plot of the book and mini-series into two separate halves. I’m very much looking forward to it.

 

Spooky Semana: 29/08/17

Spooky Semana: a week (ish?) in which I saw a higher-than-average frequency of spooky sh*t.

Wednesday 23rd

While cooking at a voluntary project I’m involved in, we ended up chatting about what we wanted at our respective funerals. The general consensus was no black attire would be permitted at any of them and the music for the service would need to be eyewateringly inappropriate. “My Heart Will Go On” if the cause of death is cardiac arrest, “Wind Beneath My Wings” if it’s a hang-gliding accident.

Thursday 24th

Not necessarily ~spooky~ but a new tarot deck arrived in the post! I ordered the Wild Unknown after deliberating and lusting after it for months… finally I caved. It’s beautiful – the card stock is just right, although the cards are bigger than I’m used to, and I’m finding the imagery a wee bit challenging. But all in all, a lovely purchase and a nice reward to myself after my exam results.

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Friday 25th

My brother and I wound up binge-watching BuzzFeed Unsolved. I’ve been disappointed in BuzzFeed’s previous videos dealing with tarot, mediumship and other aspects of parapsychology – they’ve either seemed sensationalised and insincere or they’ve been sceptical to the point of making the viewing experience uncomfortable. The couple of tarot videos they made really misrepresented it. However, Unsolved is fantastic – Ryan is a believer, Shane is a sceptic, and they chat about cases and go on wacky investigations together. It’s great. Catch the latest episode here.

Sunday 27th

Taylor Swift dropped the music video for her new single Look What You Made Me Do, the first from her upcoming album Reputation. Taylor Swift might not be a name that you associate with the content of this blog, but the opening to the video was near-terrifying. The music video opens in a cemetery, as a zombified Taylor crawls out of a grave marked “Here Lies Taylor Swift’s Reputation”. The lyric video is equally dark, with its angular style, serpentine imagery and red/black contrast. Watch the music video here.

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Thanks for the nightmares, Tay-Tay.

Monday 28th

Michael O’Shea’s horror-drama The Transfiguration is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and major digital platforms. You can take home the tale of an isolated boy obsessed with vampires who starts to blur the line between his real life and his bloodthirsty fantasies. I stumbled upon this film by chance in a sponsored Facebook post and, having now watched the trailer, I can’t wait to sink my fangs into it.

Watch the trailer below:

Tuesday 29th

Two of my favourite drag queens, Katya Zamolodchikova and Trixie Mattel, released Part 2 of the “Death” episode of their web series UNHhhh on Monday and I’ve just caught up. In the episodes, they discuss their fears about death, their thoughts on the afterlife and, OH HONEYYYY, they design the most sickenin’ funerals possible. Watch Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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Hope you enjoyed this round-up of my weird week! Sorry for the lack of posts recently – I’m hoping to get back on top of my pile of drafts soon and crank out some new content!

Why “The Witch” is the best horror film of this century

It’s a bold statement to mark any film out as “the best” in its genre. What makes a film superior to all others? There’s no formula for greatness, no checklist, but perhaps the strength of The Witch lies in the fact that it is anything but formulaic. It’s a horror flick, a coming-of-age story, a historical drama and a tale of man’s fight to overcome nature. Any other film with such a broad spectrum of characteristics might have felt cluttered or confused. But the intent of The Witch was not to be all things to all people, only to be the director’s faithful vision of the paranoia of New England’s early Puritan settlers.

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And it is painstakingly faithful, from the clothes to the dialect. Even the buildings and sets were constructed using traditional 17th-century methods, and it was shot utilising only natural daylight and candlelight. Every detail is meticulously designed to immerse the viewer. I remember seeing it last year at the cinema and being thrown for a moment when it ended – it was like we had travelled back in time. After 90 minutes spent with these characters, you understand what it felt like to be adrift in a vast wilderness, at the mercy of forces beyond understanding. In a touching scene, the protagonist Thomasin finds that her brother Caleb can’t remember what it was like to have glass in the windows; you come to understand their homesickness for the shores of England and their dwindling faith in God.

The film culminates with the statement that “This film was inspired by many folktales, fairytales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources.”

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I think this plays a profound role in the film’s atmosphere. The conversations between the characters feel authentic; the stakes feel appropriately high. The witches of this film are neither charming and inoffensive, nor are they evil in a cartoonish, contrived way. They are viewed through a Christian lens throughout much of the film – they sign the Devil’s book and he becomes their master, they shapeshift into animals and beautiful temptresses. They are exactly as early modern Christians believed them to be. However, there is a parallel drawn between the patriarchal religion of the family, under which Thomasin is silenced and subservient, and the amoral, animalistic freedom of the witches. They represent those things which mankind will never conquer – the natural world and death. If civilisation, law and dogma are coded as masculine in this film, then the feminine is the wilderness which lingers on the periphery.

Everything in this film is supposed to make you feel uneasy by hearkening back to your ancient psyche, to your ancestors. In the final scene, the witches gather at the behest of Black Phillip, a goat who is revealed to be an incarnation of the Devil. The scene bears a striking resemblance to the paintings of Francisco Goya. I’ve included Aquelarre (The Witches’ Sabbath) as a comparison, but you could argue that another of his works El Gran Cabrón (The Great He-Goat) is another possible inspiration.

On the most basic level, it is simply a well-constructed horror film. There are no glaring plot holes, no plotlines are left dangling and it doesn’t rely on cheap jumpscares. I can only think of one instance where a loud noise/impact is used to provide the scare; the rest of the film is devoted to the building of eerie tension. With a soundtrack of dissonant scraping string instruments and intermittent creaks and rattles, it’s the kind of film that will have you looking over your shoulder as you watch – just in case.

I’ll argue fiercely with anyone who calls this film “boring”. I think it was brave of the cast and crew to make it, because it is so distinct from the mainstream horror genre.

That’s why, so far, it’s the best horror film of the 21st century to grace the screen.

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You Should Research…

Maybe I’m preaching to the converted, but, for intrepid internet investigators, there’s nothing better than finding a new myth, legend, haunting or crime to research. In fact, you’d be surprised how many authors and filmmakers take their inspiration from real life anecdotes and sightings, which is what we’re going to explore today!

Where did your favourite horror films have their origins? Which nightmarish case inspired your favourite book? Let’s find out.

 

If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you should research…

Ed Gein, Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgeway. Thomas Harris, the author of Silence, based the modus operandi of the antagonist Jame Gumb (AKA Buffalo Bill) on those of six different killers. Ed Gein’s influence is probably the most prominent and arguably the most disturbing; he also fashioned a “woman suit” out of the skin of his victims. Like Bill, Ted Bundy would pretend to be injured, often using crutches, in order to lure in the women he attacked.

 

If you liked Red Dragon, you should research…

Dennis Rader, or the “BTK Killer”. BTK stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”, which was Rader’s signature. Again, Thomas Harris has noted that Francis Dolarhyde (“The Tooth Fairy”) was partially based on Rader. At the time when Harris was writing Red Dragon, the BTK murders were still unsolved and he was consulting with FBI agent John Douglas, who had worked on the case. In both the book and its film adaptation, Dolarhyde believes he is being driven by his alter ego, the Great Red Dragon. Rader claimed to have been influenced by a force he referred to as “Factor X”. Just for your peace of mind, Rader is currently serving 175 years imprisonment, with no chance of parole.

 

If you liked The Witch, you should research…

Early modern witch trials, especially: the Pendle Witch Trials, the Salem Witch Trials and the Basque Witch Trials. These three cases took place in very different countries and were rooted in very different cultures, but they are all indicative of the impact of Christianity and Puritanism, which is present in the film. The Pendle Witch Trials took place in Lancashire, England in 1612. Eleven people went to trial at the Lancashire assizes – only one was acquitted. Interestingly, a key witness was a little girl, Jennet Device, who went on to accuse her entire family of being witches. She shares the surname Device with the witch Anathema Device, from Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The book also features Anathema’s ancestor, Agnes Nutter, whose namesake Alice Nutter was executed at Pendle Hill. The Salem Witch Trials were carried out in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, whilst the Basque Witch Trials took place 84 years earlier in 1609.

For a more in-depth look at why and how witches were identified and punished, research the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Malleus Maleficarum.

 

If you liked Jaws, you should research…

The Jersey Shore shark attacks. Between 1st July and 12th July 1916, four people were killed and one injured along the coast of New Jersey. During a record heat wave and a polio epidemic, thousands flocked to the beaches, disrupting the natural balance. To this day, scholars and researchers are uncertain as to the species of shark involved in the attacks, with suggestions ranging from a great white to a bull shark.

 

If you liked Dracula (in any of its incarnations), you should research…

The Highgate Vampire. In 1970, reports began to circulate that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in north London. Two years earlier, newspapers recorded that a grave had been desecrated. The perpetrators had arranged flowers in a circular pattern and, finally, driven a stake through the heart of the corpse. The media storm came to a head in March 1970, when two local men, David Farrant and Sean Manchester, decided to lead rival ghost hunts in the cemetery. Each was determined to find proof of his own theory about the supernatural phenomena. Their feud continues to this day.

The Vampire of Croglin Grange. In Cumberland, England, between 1875 and 1876, the Cranswell family – two brothers and a sister – were harassed by an undead creature. The family left for Switzerland and, upon their return, the creature reappeared. The two brothers followed it into a vault in the nearby cemetery and shot it dead. The local legend was recorded by Augustus Hare in the 1890s, although the truth behind his tale was later disputed. Croglin High Hall and Croglin Low Hall are real locations, but Croglin Grange appears to have been Hare’s own invention.

 

Thank you for reading! If this proves to be a popular post, it might inspire a sequel.