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.

31_silver-bullet

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.

Advertisements

Lunar Files #3: La Bête du Gévaudan

This is the third installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

Nearly 300 years ago, the mountains of southern France were home to a predator unlike any creature its people had encountered before.

Between 1764 and 1767, the people of the Gévaudan region (now modern Lozere) lived in constant fear of a creature said to be as large as a calf. The Wolf of Chazes, or The Beast of Gévaudan as it later came to be known, claimed the lives of an estimated 113 people – most of them women and children.

The first attack occurred in the summer of 1764. A young woman herding her cattle in the Mercoire Forest in Langogne saw the creature approaching her, but, fortunately, her herd managed to drive it away. Not long after, a second girl was found slaughtered near Langogne; in the town of Les Hubacs, 14-year-old Janne Boulet fell victim to La Bête. The people of the region continued to find the bodies of cattle and their fellow villagers alike, until, unsurprisingly, theories abounded about the creature’s origins. Was it a wolf? A hybrid? Or was it a creature of an altogether different kind – a werewolf? So many brutal maulings were occurring that the people believed there was a pair of beasts, or even that La Bête was hunting with a litter of young.

Gevaudanwolf

18th-century engraving by A.F. of Alençon

It became clear that the beast favoured easy prey – lone men and women tending livestock and children. Its modus operandi was striking too; victims who were not entirely devoured were often found decapitated and the creature was said to unusually aim for the head rather than the legs or throat (which would be expected of a large predator).

In 1765, the king’s personal marksman Antoine de Beauterne was dispatched to the region to deal with the beast. However, his hunt was preceded by a showdown between La Bête and a teenage girl, Marie-Jeanne Valet. Marie-Jeanne was crossing a river in the woods when she spotted the beast approaching her from behind. She plunged a homemade spear into the creature’s chest and it retreated, holding its paw to the wound. The young girl’s bravery made it into Beauterne’s official account of the events. Eventually, in September 1765, Antoine de Beauterne led a group of 40 local men on a hunt for the beast in the woods of Pommier. He successfully shot an enormous wolf measuring six feet long. Following the death of this wolf, the attacks ceased.

Temporarily.

In the spring of 1767, the beast seemed to have risen from the dead and a second hunt which is believed to have culminated in the death of La Bête was funded by a local nobleman Marquis d’Apcher. Jean Chastel, a farmer and inn-keeper, shot the beast at Mont Mouchet on 19th June 1767. Writers of the time later introduced the idea that Chastel’s fatal shot was completed with a silver bullet of his own making, a concept which lent itself well to contemporary portrayals of the beast as a supernatural entity. La Bête was stuffed and embalmed, going on display around the country. When it reached the king, it had begun to decay and reek. What happened to the beast’s remains is unclear – some records state that the body was burned, others maintain it was buried.

811199582001_5300095664001_5300082543001-vs

Memorial to Marie-Jeanne Valet (Philippe Kaeperlin, 1995)

Without the remains, we may never know exactly what slaughtered peasants in Gévaudan in the 18th century, but modern biologists, natural scientists and animal behaviourists have proposed numerous theories. The most common suggestion is a wolf – wolves were certainly common across central Europe at the time – but it’s important to consider the context. These people lived off the land and wolves would have been a regular sight at the foot of the French Alps, so it is unlikely that they would mistake a wolf, even a large one, for some kind of unnatural predator. A popular suspect is the striped hyena, which would explain the markings survivors claimed to see on the beast’s fur. Exotic animals from Africa were a spectacular addition to the menageries of the wealthy, so it is a distinct possibility. Another prime candidate is the lion. Descriptions of the beast – the tuft at the end of its tail, the dark stripe along its back, the reddish fur – would be consistent with a young male lion. Furthermore, lions attack larger prey by jumping on the victim’s back and throttling them (cutting off their oxygen). This might explain details such as the creature’s preference for attacking the head first.

More than 200 years later, La Bête du Gévaudan remains culturally relevant and is a draw for tourists in what is now Lozere (Gevaudan is no longer the name for the region). You can find the monument to Marie-Jeanne Valet in Auvers village, along with Maison de la Bête (House of the Beast), a museum dedicated to artefacts from the case. In Saugues, there is the Musée Fantastique de la Bête du Gévaudan (Fantastical Museum of The Beast of Gevaudan) and you can find another monument dedicated to Jean Chastel in La Besseyre-Saint-Mary. The beast was even the focus of a feature film Le Pacte des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf), which portrays the beast as a lion garbed in armour by its human master, and it is depicted as a werewolf in the TV series Teen Wolf.

If you find yourself in the countryside of Lozere one day, remember that, once upon a time, a man-eater stalked its unlucky prey in those beautiful rolling hills. Remember the legacy of La Bête.

For more:

The World of the Werewolf

Shapeshifters are a constant in human culture, especially the belief in humans with the ability to transform into animals. The most popular of these is the werewolf.

But how far back into history does the belief in werewolves go? Where did this idea originate? And what does the idea of the werewolf say about us?

Let’s start with the etymology. Most of the terms we associate with this creature are essentially compound words. The word werewolf is derived from the Old English werwulf, which is in turn related to the Middle High German werewulf. The “were-” prefix simply means “man”; the term can be literally translated as “man-wolf”. This template appears in Old Frankish as wariwulf, in Anglo-Norman as garwulf and in Old Norse as varúlfur. Another commonly-used term follows the same structure. The word lycanthrope comes from the Greek λυκάνθρωπος (lukánthropos), again meaning “wolf-man”. Lycanthropy can refer to the act of transformation or the ability itself.

WeirdTalesv36n2pg038_The_Werewolf_Howls-624x723

“The Werewolf Howls”, Mont Sudbury (published in “Weird Tales”, 1941)

In Histories, the Greek writer Herodotus recorded that a tribe of men with the ability to turn into wolves roamed Scythia, and in Satyricon (a work of prose dating from circa 60AD) by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the character Niceros tells the story of his friend who became a wolf. They were walking in the woods when his friend had the sudden compulsion to remove all his clothes, urinate in a circle around the pile of garments and then flee into the woods in the form of a wolf. However, many early werewolf tales of the Classical world had a recurring theme – the consumption of human flesh and the consequent punishment for such a transgression. In the myth of Lycaon, the king of Arcadia has his own son killed, cooked and served to Zeus, in order to test the god’s omniscience. To punish Lycaon for the crimes of murder and cannibalism, Zeus turns Lycaon into a wolf. The Roman author Pliny the Elder also writes of a man who turned into a wolf after tasting the entrails of a child, but returned to human form ten years later.

Perhaps the association between werewolves and great cultural taboos, like cannibalism or infanticide, is what made alleged werewolves such prime victims for early modern moral panics in Europe. Before the fourteenth century, the belief in werewolves was not widespread, but in the wake of the witch trials, so-called “werewolf panic” took root and “werewolfism” became a common accusation in witch trials. Furthermore, werewolves were deeply entrenched in the pagan traditions of Scandinavia and Germany; you might be familiar with the Viking berserkers, warriors who wore animal skins in order to take on the fierce traits of the creature, channeling the animal’s spirit. Early Germanic tribes had their equivalent, the Tierkrieger – literally “animal warriors”. What better way for the church to inspire loyalty in the flock all across Europe than by portraying a physical manifestation of the old pagan ways as the ultimate enemy?

berserker woodcut from 1872

Copy of a woodcut depicting a berserker (1872)

The best known examples of werewolf trials took place in France and Germany during the 16th and 17th centuries. Gilles Garnier was a reclusive hermit living in Dole, France. In his testimony, he said he had recently married and found it difficult to provide for his new wife. While out hunting in the forest, a spectre had materialised and given him an ointment which would turn him into a wolf to make it easier to hunt. At trial, he confessed to having murdered and eaten four children between the ages of 9 and 12. He was arrested after a group of workers witnessed him eating the body of a dead child. Garnier was burned at the stake in 1573, following the testimonies of more than 50 witnesses. A later French example – that of Jean Grenier – took place at the turn of the 17th century. In 1603, 14-year-old Grenier was accused of kidnapping and murdering infants, and claimed to have been initiated into devil worship by his friend. A young woman had been assaulted by a creature in the woods; Grenier claimed to have taken the form of a wolf in order to maul her. Seven years later, he was visited in prison by the demonologist Pierre de Lancre who said Grenier had grown long, sharp teeth, could only howl like a wolf and would eat his own filth.

One of the better documented German werewolf trials was that of Peter Stumpp (or Stumpf), a farmer accused of witchcraft and lycanthropy. Known as the Werewolf of Bedburg, Stumpp stated under torture that he had practised witchcraft since he was twelve and had been given a magic belt as a gift from the Devil. He believed that the belt enabled him to become a wolf. He confessed to killing and eating fourteen children and two pregnant women, as well as the women’s fetuses. One of the children was his own son. In 1589, Stumpp was executed by having all his limbs broken on the wheel and then being beheaded, along with his daughter and his mistress who were both flayed. Stumpp’s story was the inspiration for the song “The Werewolf of Bedburg” by Macabre, and he is referred to in The Exorcist: “Well, there’s William Stumpf, for example. Or Peter. I can’t remember. Anyway, a German in the sixteenth century who thought he was a werewolf”.

werewolf attack woodcut lucas cranach elder 1512

Woodcut of a werewolf attack, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1512)

It makes sense that our ancestors’ fears should manifest as a wolf, as wolves were far more numerous across Europe in the past. The wolves of England were hunted to extinction during the reign of Henry VII, but the last wolf in Scotland is believed to have been killed in 1680. However, the wolf population of mainland Europe continues to grow; excluding Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, there are 12,000 grey wolves across 28 European countries (relevant study here). The difference is that we now understand the behaviour of wolves and modern lifestyles mean we are far less likely to clash with local wolf populations.

The werewolf of today has been relegated to the realm of fiction, but for our ancestors it was believed to pose a very real threat – not just to their physical safety, but their spiritual and moral integrity too.

My sources, where you can find out more:

Lunar Files #2: The Cannock Chase Werewolf

This is the second installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of werewolf (or wolf-like  creature) cases.

Cannock Chase is an area of dense woodland and countryside in Staffordshire, England. A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it encompasses 26 square miles of land.

I’ve visited on several occasions and I can testify to its beauty. However, if local folklore is to be believed, Cannock Chase is home to more than just flora and fauna.

Stories of a werewolf lurking in the vast expanse of forest have circulated since at least the 1970s. In 1975, a group of paranormal investigators witnessed a “snarling beast” rearing up on its hind legs before heading into the bushes out of sight. According to a supernatural survey, the Fringe Weird report, the Chase has been the setting for 20 encounters with an unknown wolf-like creature.

Over three decades later, the Stafford Post published an article in April 2007 with the input of the West Midlands Ghost Club. WM Ghost Club stated that they had received dozens of calls from people with strange stories and spooky sightings of the beast. An early report was that of a local postman, who saw what he believed to be a werewolf near the German War Cemetery on the site. At first, he assumed it was a large dog, but as he got closer, it stood up on its hind legs and fled. A second report from a scout master detailed a similar incident. He also witnessed some sort of canid prowling near the bushes; he too thought it was a peculiarly big dog. When he got into his car and slammed the door, the creature rose to its full height on two legs and ran into the trees: “It just looked like a huge dog… it must have been about six to seven feet tall. I know it sounds absolutely mad, but I know what I saw.”

According to the Stoke Sentinel, in June 2006, a lupine creature was seen dodging traffic on the M6, a main motorway here in England. More chilling is a tale related by the unnamed journalist: a 17-year-old in Eccleshall allegedly sold his soul to the Devil via a ouija board in order to gain the ability to transform into a werewolf. He later committed suicide by stabbing himself to death. This was in 1975, coinciding with the first werewolf sighting. Unfortunately, the reporter did not disclose a source.

Among the reports from residents in the vicinity of Cannock Chase, the war cemetery is a recurring location of sightings, leading some investigators to suggest a supernatural connection. On the other hand, there are multiple proponents of an alternative theory, based on the geography of the Chase and past cases of animal mutilations, that the so-called werewolves are a subterranean species emerging from the old and disused mines in the area and surviving by hunting deer and small wildlife.

Whatever you believe about the alleged werewolf of Cannock Chase, you might join me in vowing not to go wandering through the woods alone, under a full moon.

Further reading:

Lunar Files #1: The Michigan Dogman

This is the first installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of reported werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

Wexford County in Northern Michigan has a population of around 35,000 people, but it seems that one inhabitant – the focus of a legend which dates back at least 130 years – is more sinister than you might expect. Said to tower at seven feet tall, the creature is a terrifying combination of man and canine. It has the head and claws of a canid but the torso of a man. It gazes upon its prey through amber eyes and howls a piercing human scream. According to the myth, which is said by some to date back to early Odawa settlements in the Manistee area, the Dogman is a creature of habit that hunts in ten year cycles.

The first recorded Dogman sighting took place in 1887, when lumberjacks working in rural Wexford County caught sight of a bizarre creature with the body of a man and the head of a dog. In the following decades, more and more witnesses reported seeing something unnatural out in the woods along the Manistee River. In 1938, in the township of Paris, a young man called Robert Fortney was attacked by five wild dogs while fishing. The horrific part of his testimony was that one of the dogs stood up on two legs to maul him. The creature – or creatures – was seen by witnesses throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

It is easy to get caught up and carried away with these sinister sightings, but it’s worth noting that much of the publicity and continued media interest the Dogman receives today should be attributed to The Legend, a song recorded by local DJ Steve Cook of WTCM Radio in 1987 – the centenary of that first account. It was intended as an April Fools’ prank, a treat for his loyal listeners, and he has stated that the beast in the song “was kind of an amalgamation of all these creatures I’d heard as a kid and heard stories about.” However, what began as a joke became a sensation. The radio station received dozens of calls from people claiming to have encountered a creature like the one described in the song. It was then that Cook decided to investigate further and realised just how far back into history the stories went.

In 2007, a film, widely referred to as The Gable Film, surfaced. Upon first viewing, it appears to be a home movie, featuring clips of a man chopping wood, a dog running in the woods and a child playing. However, the final 20 seconds show a strange lumbering creature on all fours approach the cameraman. The beast appears to collide with the cameraman and a flash of teeth is shown, then the video cuts out.

The film was eventually discovered to be a hoax. On a TV series called Monster Quest, Steve Cook explained how the film was made, adding that the supposed creature was actually an actor in a Ghillie suit.

In a way, the popular image of the Michigan Dogman as it exists today belongs to Steve Cook. Those reports and accounts, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, might never have been connected without him. He considers himself a sceptic, because he’s seen the legend evolve – people have taken the tale inherent in the song and, perhaps, blown it out of proportion. Maybe the fame of the song has caused some bias among alleged witnesses.

Then again, Cook accepts that the legend is “an avenue” for people to explain sightings that they might not otherwise understand. There is still a lingering sense of fear in interviews with witnesses, as seen on documentaries like Monsters and Mysteries in America. The terror that people felt – whether or not they truly faced the Dogman – makes the final line of The Legend especially eerie. What if there is some truth behind Steve Cook’s simple tune about a local myth?

And somewhere in the northwoods darkness a creature walks upright
And the best advice you may ever get …
Is don’t go out at night.

 

For more about the Dogman: