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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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.

Stephen King's It Trailer screen grab

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!

Movie-Cast-2017

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!

Review: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, Caitlin Doughty

ATTENTION: SPOOKY BOOK RECOMMENDATION!

“Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

– Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

I’ve been watching Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube series Ask A Mortician for a couple of months and I love her work with Order of the Good Death, so I decided to order her (bestselling) book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, And Other Lessons From The Crematorium. I had to wait until my exams finished last week to start it, but that meant I was looking forward to reading it even more.

I’m going to start by saying this book is fascinating – I learned so much about the funeral industry and about crematoriums (crematoria?) and it answered questions I didn’t even know I had about the cremation process. In particular, I didn’t realise how different funeral traditions and norms are in the USA (I’m from England). I honestly devoured it; I haven’t read a book so quickly in years.

However, I think it’s also important to note that you need to keep an open mind for this particular read. This book is a passionate manifesto for death positivity, encouraging people to embrace the more hands-on mourning traditions of the past and to rethink the way we talk about death. If you’re not ready to even consider getting on board with it, it might be worth reading up on Caitlin’s ideas a little bit more so you can read the book in context. Nothing in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is disrespectful or sensationalised, but Caitlin is pretty frank about what happens to the human body (and inside it) in the period between death and cremation. I didn’t personally find the things she discussed uncomfortable; however, that’s a matter of attitude. I find mausoleums and cemeteries to be interesting places and I think the differences between death rituals around the world are intriguing too, so I’m not too squeamish. If you’re squeamish, I don’t think that would make the book less enjoyable, provided you’re interested in the subject.

I’ve dropped some links below if you want to give this book a go – I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in ages. It was funny and tragic and a bit gross in places (one anecdote about molten human fat getting all over her dress springs to mind); I would highly recommend it.

Links

Official site: Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Amazon: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, And Other Lessons From The Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty

Waterstones: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Ask A Mortician YouTube channel

 

 

Top 5 Most Disgusting Deaths From The Campaigns of Alexander the Great

For the past year, I’ve studied two sources about Alexander the Great for my Classics A-Level – The Age of Alexander by Plutarch and The Anabasis (Campaigns) of Alexander by Arrian. Although I’ve mostly been looking at Alexander’s battles and his character, both sources are full of… interesting anecdotes in which Alexander’s enemies (and sometimes his friends) die in brutal ways. Brutal, but morbidly fascinating nonetheless.

So, in order to entertain you by combining my love of weird, gross things with my passion for history, I’ve ranked the Top 5 Most Disgusting Deaths from Alexander’s campaigns.

5. Cleitus the Black, who was only trying to be a good friend

I’ve ranked this fifth because, while it’s not what you might call a creative way to go, it’s actually pretty heartbreaking. Cleitus had saved Alexander back in 334BC at the Battle of the Granicus, slicing off the arm of a Persian soldier (Spithridates) who was about to attack him. You might think that this incident would obviously leave Alexander indebted to him.

You would be wrong, because this is Alexander the Great we’re talking about. What better way to reward your friend for saving your life than murdering him with a spear six years later? Cleitus took issue with Alexander’s “Medizing” – his adoption of Persian customs – and the famously short-tempered king responded to criticism by killing him.

Cleitus did manage to get one sick burn in there before he was stabbed, reciting a line from Euripides’ tragedy Andromache: “Alas, what evil customs reign in Greece!”

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“Alexander Kills Cleitus”, Andre Castaigne

4. The Macedonian Hostages at Tyre

In 333BC, Alexander embarked on a siege of the island fortress of Tyre, which lasted for seven months. The island was out of range of his siege artillery, so Alexander and his engineers had to rely on technical innovations and new strategies to attack it.

Tyre was not only an island, but it was an island with fortified walls of about 150ft. This presented problems for Alexander; however, these walls were ideal for the Tyrians to make a show of strength and make their rebuke of Alexander’s negotiations clear… by throwing Macedonian ambassadors off them in full view of Alexander’s army.

In the long term, this was not a wise decision. When the Macedonians eventually broke through the walls, they had grown tired after the long siege and were ready to have their revenge for the deaths of the hostages. An estimated 8000 Tyrians were slaughtered and a further 30,000 were sold into slavery.

3. Calanus, the fiery philosopher

Alexander met the elderly philosopher Calanus while in India and was impressed by him, especially by an analogy Calanus made using a piece of animal hide to advise Alexander on effective governance (new party piece, anyone?). Calanus subsequently joined Alexander’s entourage on their return journey to Babylon, but fell ill along the way. At Susa in 323BC, the dying man decided he would cut his own suffering short via self-immolation – burning himself alive.

Arrian writes that there was “a solemn procession” accompanying Calanus to his funeral pyre, although in Plutarch’s account, there was a raucous drinking party in his honour. Knowing Alexander, I’m tempted to go with the latter option. Either way, Calanus went out with a bang, or at least a nice crackle (I’m so sorry).

Fun fact:  Calanus’ final words to Alexander before he went to his pyre were allegedly that they “(would) meet again in Babylon”. Alexander later died in Babylon. Spooooooky.

2. Anaxarchus, philosopher and gobshite

Anaxarchus was one of two key philosophers in Alexander’s entourage who fought for his attention. The other was Callisthenes, who was implicated in a conspiracy against Alexander and arrested. Following Callisthenes’ arrest, Anaxarchus became the favoured philosopher, despite having views which conflicted with Alexander’s own – he was sceptical of Alexander’s status as a demi-god and had a theory of infinite worlds (an early variant of the parallel universe idea), which upset Alexander because he had not yet conquered even one world.

The philosopher finally met his demise at the hands of Nicocreon, the tyrant of Cyprus, in around 320BC. He had insulted Nicocreon once during a visit by the Cypriot leader to Alexander, and Nicocreon clearly took offense. Anaxarchus was pounded to death in a giant pestle and mortar (don’t worry, I don’t know how they managed that either).

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My artistic interpretation of it.

Honourable mentions:

Callisthenes – Anaxarchus’ rival philosopher. Allegedly died of “excessive corpulence” in prison, which is paradoxical but also a horrific mental image. Imagine it. Go on. Gross, isn’t it?

Batis – a eunuch (I don’t know why this information is supplied to us by the authors) and the ruler of Gaza, a settlement Alexander encountered on his way to Egypt. After the city’s capture, Alexander had Batis attached by his ankles to a cart and dragged round the city’s perimeter several times, à la Hector in The Iliad.

The People Who Drowned In The Desert – in 325BC, Alexander decided to make his way back to Babylon by crossing the Gedrosian Desert. Arrian relates the difficulties of this journey in his account. On one occasion, heavy rainfall – they were crossing during monsoon season – made a stream burst its banks next to their camp, resulting in a huge loss of life. The majority of those who drowned were women and children rather than members of Alexander’s army.

And one close-call (spoiler: he doesn’t die) – Stephanus, a boy known only for being remarkably ugly but astonishingly brave, who allowed himself to be set alight with naptha as an experiment for Alexander’s entertainment. He survived but was badly burned. And that’s how he earned the nickname Disco Inferno.

1. Bessus, the one that (nearly) got away

Bessus was a relative of the Persian king Darius III. After the Battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander defeated Darius for the final time, Darius escaped but was kidnapped by Bessus and his accomplices. Bessus declared himself king and fled with his hostage, which was followed by a lengthy pursuit by Alexander across the empire. By the time Alexander caught up with them, Darius had been murdered and abandoned in the back of a wagon. Such a nondescript demise for his arch nemesis was not what Alexander wanted.

When Bessus was eventually captured by Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s companions, his execution had to send a message about the status of a king, suitably avenge Darius to please the people of Persia and get Alexander’s rocks off   demonstrate Alexander’s ruthlessness towards those who would challenge his throne.

There are two stories about how Bessus was executed. In Arrian’s version, Bessus had his nose and lips cut off, was paraded around in a collar and then finally executed. But in Plutarch’s version – the version which places so high on this list – Bessus’ limbs were tied to trees which had been bent over. When the trees were released, the attached limbs were torn off. 😦

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Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed this – please consider liking/sharing!

For more about Alexander:

  • Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander – the funniest book you’ll ever read.
  • Plutarch, Lives: The Age of Alexander (I’d recommend getting this in physical format, but it’s shorter than Arrian’s account so you could probably get away with reading it online. Here’s the contents page and here’s the first section, provided by Lacus Curtius (University of Chicago).)
  • Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great
  • Livius.org, Macedon (masterlist of all their Alexander articles)
  • Ancient History Encyclopaedia, Alexander the Great