Monday, October 31, 2011

There...there wolf.

Happy Halloween!

Since I’ve already covered the other “big two” Universal Monsters, I guess it’s time to talk about werewolves. Lycanthropes of some form or another show up in almost every culture’s legends.  The were-whatever was usually linked to the most fierce or frightening creature in an area.  The same fears that led to the “Big Bad Wolf” in fairy tales, gave rise to the European werewolf stories.
Why, Mr. Wolf. What a big legacy you have.
The original legends were intertwined with other irrational supernatural fears of the time. The best way to become a werewolf was usually to be a witch first, and use the proper spell to transform. The best way to become a vampire was to be a werewolf when you were killed.  Also the idea that shape shifting into a blood thirsty beast is contagious is a relatively new one.  Old school werewolves tended to eat their prey, leaving nothing behind to inherit the curse except some wolf droppings. (And I’m pretty sure no Dark Age villagers were quaking in fear of the were-turd, or in France, Le Poop-Garou.)

It took Hollywood to really cement the rules of werewolfishness.  Of course Universal was there first with Henry Hull in 1935’s Werewolf of London. 
I'm a wolf, really...grrr 'n stuff.
Oh, that’s not the furry individual you expected?  Even Universal didn’t hit one out of the park every time.  Considering how many actors were ineffectively attempting to portray individuals of another race in this movie, by comparison California’s Vasquez Rocks (or the Gorn Rocks to us Trekkies) makes an acceptable stand in for the Himalayas. More a Jekyll and Hyde tale than a lupine transformation, it would be another six years before they got it right.

Lon Chaney Jr. arrived as the Wolf Man in 1941.  Despite Lon looking more like an angry monkey man with a seventies afro than an actual wolf (yet still more animalistic than Hull), the film, and its predecessor, established many of the modern rules of werewolfery. 

The idea that the change is a curse, and that the beasts actions are uncontrolled wasn’t always a standard part of the legends. This altered the focus of the story from an evil man with magic powers to a tragic figure trapped in a living nightmare. With that foundation, the idea of his being a threat to, and then only being able to be killed by a loved one falls naturally into place.

The connection to the full moon also came from Universal, and not even in the original film.  The poem everyone knows (well, everyone in the rather unusual and monster trivia happy circles I travel in, anyway) went like this in the 1941 film.

Even a man who is pure of heart
And says his prayers by night
Will become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
And the AUTUMN MOON is bright.

The last line wasn’t changed to “And the moon is full and bright” until the sequel. Mr. Talbot’s original transformation was more due to the blooming than the mooning so to speak.

The two Universal Monsters were also an introduction to the idea (due to limited effects at the time, most likely) of the hybrid wolfy-looking man creature instead of a complete transformation to an animal.  Finally, the idea that only silver can harm the beast was also introduced in The Wolf Man. The metal was known in superstitious circles for anti-magical properties, but making it Lykryptonite was new. (This means the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets came before their werewolf killing abilities were established.)

Now with more color and less Jheri Curl.
A 2010 remake of the Wolf Man was done by folks who respected and enjoyed the original.  Embarrassingly, I haven’t seen it.  It has a top notch cast, was directed by Joe Johnston, who rocked the 40’s period in Captain America, and had effects by make-up god Rick Baker.  However, with an eight year old daughter in my life, I’ve fallen way behind in my R-rated horror movie viewing.  I have so many other ways to generate irate letters home from school, why push it? 
That path you walk is thorny...
Besides, could they really replace Maria Ouspenskaya?  Like there’s another Russian actress renowned for teaching comedy who can also play a creepy gypsy?

I’ve always had a soft spot for stories of werewolfitude.  This is not only because whenever there is a full moon I end up with insomnia and one really long hair growing off the top of my ear. (Plus my eyebrows have been called supernaturally evil on several occasions.) Since there is no definitive work to base the stories on (Like Frankenstein or Dracula) it allows for a great deal more freedom and fun with variations on the theme.

The proof of this is that movies made by taking opposite sides of the personality shift came out good. (Note when talking about horror films, the word “good” will be used extremely subjectively.  In general these are stories of individuals who get all toothy and hairy based on local calendar dates, and then eat people.  My “good” may not be an absolute measurement.)  

Who needs a hover-board?
The normal werewolf story is that of a decent person, who becomes a dangerous monster, and how said person goes about dealing with the festivities that the transformation encourages.  However, that doesn’t need to be the case.  Teen Wolf (1985, a banner year for werewolves in the cinema) took the She Hulk approach, where the transformation is limited to the physical skills and appearance.  With the exception of a loss of inhibition, his personality remained the same.  This allowed for a standard “teen learns to believe in himself to the sounds of 80’s rock” type film, following the adventures of a fuzzier Marty McFly.  I hear the remake is trying to capitalize on Twilight popularity. That’ll work…fur always looks better sparkly. (sigh)

Speaking of making fun of Twilight…

The other extreme is by Master of Scaring the Crap Out of Everyone - Stephen King. In Silver Bullet (again, 1985), not only is the werewolf a monster, but the guy turning into it is equally evil, nasty and unpleasant (and not only because he had to embarrass himself by starring in The People Under the Stairs).  This film featured a kid that no one believed to make a “Boy Who Cried Werewolf” tale. Plus any time Gary Busey saves the day with explosives goes in the win column of my book. (And a weird and unusual book it is.)

OK, next time you lead.
Because of their normal dual nature, it’s tough to get lycanthropes to play well with others.  Before getting his well-deserved happy ending, the original Universal classics usually had poor Lawrence Talbot hunting for a cure, getting mixed up with the other creatures, and having the full moon show up conveniently in time for his afroed alter ego to do battle. (Those films had more full moons each month than a Jackass marathon.) Larry spent his daylight hours trying to warn people, with results usually ending up like the following exchange:

Larry Talbot: “You don’t understand, every night when the moon is full, I turn into a wolf.”
Wilbur Grey: “You and twenty million udder guys.”

Much like the source of the above exchange, the best mixing of werewolves and other monsters came from some less than terror inspiring sources.

Hugh Jackman, even studly as a murderous monster.
The Underworld films gang war between vampires and werewolves is an interesting take, but those are more kung-fang movies than classic monster fests. (Not like that’s bad or anything.) However the other Kate Beckinsdale creature feature is where I’m going here. As ridiculous as 2004’s Van Helsing could be (and boy, could it be) the interlocking needs and powers of the werewolf, Dracula and Frankenstein stories made their appearances in the same film make sense…

Or at least as much sense as the living dead, jigsaw puzzle corpses, and people with personal hairy tides can make.

Nards included!
Another silly Universal tribute that introduced the werewolf into the fold well was 1987’s Monster Squad.  The Wolf Man in this film was brought along in beast form by Dracula, and spent his human times, like Wilbur’s friend, trying to warn those in the area in vain. (Obviously, as everyone knows monsters don’t exist.  Strangely, even everyone living in movies, which are full of hard physical evidence of those monsters, knows monsters don’t exist.) Another fun part of Monster Squad is it’s adherence to the “rules” of the Universal creatures.  Garlic hurts vampires, only silver can kill werewolves, the gill man likes Twinkies. (OK, maybe it made up some new ones.)  I find it more impressive when a combination of story elements can be created by using the tools “in the sandbox” rather than creating rules to force everything to fit together.

There are many theories on how legends of werewolfing originated, and there are a couple of films that show events probably closer to what really went on than actual shape shifting.

Amazingly, Finney's hair is not the scariest thing in the movie.
The first is Whitley Strieber’s Wolfen from 1981(an even better year for cinematic wolves, in quality if not quantity). It featured excellent use of suspense and horror, with a stellar cast headlined by Albert Finney. There are brutal attacks, which arouse suspicions of lycanthropic activity. The real culprits turn out to be the next level of wolf evolution. They are normal wolves that act much more intelligently and cooperatively than the standard, setting themselves above humans as the apex predator. It is easy to imagine the intelligence and cooperation of a real pack of wolves catching frightened superstitious folks in the middle ages by surprise. This was especially true when the common view of dumb unfeeling animals was the norm.  The stealth, cunning, and ability to care for each other common wolves display could lead to a village that had withstood attacks by a desperate pack, with no other food source, to assume a human intelligence must be behind the beasts.

Goin' into town!
In another realistic take, Donald Gibb (somewhere between being Ogre in Revenge of the Nerds and a Viking in credit card commercials) played poor Lawrence Malbot, in 1985’s (see?) Transylvania 6-5000. Due to his hypertrichosis, he is shunned and branded a werewolf by the townspeople, even his own mother.  Many monster legends must have surely come from those who didn’t fit into society’s definition of “normal”…  OK, maybe this shouldn’t fall in the “realistic” group, but I had to get this movie (made by DuPont to use money they had tied up in Yugoslavia) in here somewhere. Rudy Deluca (who often worked with Mel Brooks) assembled a bunch of scene stealers in one place to turn out one of my family’s most often quoted films.  Very rarely will one of us do a job without another one imitating Carol Kane saying,

“Do ovah here…now do ovah here…I’m helpin’ you!”  

Watch Michael Richards in this and UHF and you’ll see why I find his performance in (and pretty much the whole series of) Seinfeld to be fairly pedestrian and predictable.  Comedy and horror are much closer than most people admit.

I also came to my absolute favorite film of this group through comedy.  My best friend had cable well before I did, and kept telling me I had to come over to see this movie while detailing the funny parts in it. (This is also how, through a different friend telling me the funny parts, I was convinced to see another flick that became a favorite, Death Wish 3. I feel this says a great deal about my sense of humor, my friends, or a combination thereof.)

Although the spooky dream face gave me nightmares for years, John Landis did imbue 1981’s (more quality) American Werewolf in London with a dark and twisted version of his excellent ability at comedic film making. It delivered equally well on the terror side. The story picked and chose which elements of lycanthropic legend to leave in, and added a few new ones.  The idea that living visions of the beast’s decaying victims continued to haunt his human side managed to equally add to both the horror and humor. (Whether they’re really there or just his mind visualizing his guilt is for you to decide, dear viewer…just don’t call one a meatloaf.) Almost a modern version of the original Wolf Man film, amidst the scares and laughs is a well-made tragedy. 

Somewhere among scenes containing:

- Blood stained Muppet nightmares,
- The line, “A naked American man stole my balloons,”
- And a Rick Baker designed transformation that led to the creation of an Oscar for special effects
We now pause to bask in the awesomeness that is Rick Baker.
One finds the heart wrenching moment of David trying to call his family one last time before deciding to end his own life and protect others from his werewolfocity.

The ending hit on all the emotional aspects of the story in rapid succession.  The monster’s violent rampage through London is stopped by a hail of police gunfire. David’s body reverts back to human form as we hear the woman who loved him sobbing uncontrollably following her failed effort to call to the person trapped within the wolf.  The sounds of crying are immediately replaced, after no transition, with the upbeat doo-wop of the Marcels’ “Blue Moon.” (The third version of the song in the film…they really need to rerelease that soundtrack.)  There was a remake/sequel sixteen years later set in Paris which lacked most of what made the original good…because Hollywood moguls count on the movie goers following titles and using their brains as little as possible. (This is, sadly, why they make such colossal amounts of money.)

You can't handle the tooth!
As long as I'm singing the praises of Rick Baker (again) I should mention 1994's Wolf. Mike Nichols created a very moody atmospheric and emotionally charged story.  Jack Nicholson played the wolf as...

Well, remember his Joker, which was Jack in whiteface? This was Jack in fuzzface.  If you like Jack...then go for it!

While American Werewolf in London is my most favorite lycanthrope film, for all its emotional hopskotchery it is not the most memorable.  That honor goes to one of the entries in the seemingly interminable Howling series.

There are quite a few moments in those seven (mostly direct to video) films, running from quality year 1981 to 1995, (not counting this year’s reboot, with more Twilight homages…goody) that tend to graft permanently to one’s mind for good or ill:

Watching E.T.s surrogate mom turn into a werepoodle on TV after taking John Steed’s vacation advice in the first one
The Marsupials…shape shifters with pouches in Part III (Lykangaroos? Werewombats?)

Deciding to do a more accurate adaptation of the book the original was based on in Part IV

Just knowing Parts V and VI are the high intellectual points of the series, when they’re werewolf films involving a Scooby Doo like who-done-it? and circus freaks

The attempt of Part VII to tie completely unrelated plots from Parts IV-VI together using stock footage, untrained locals as actors, and rubber wolf masks

Yes, all of these will stain my gray matter for years to come, but by far the most memorable was 1985’s The Howling II. (1981 wins.) The subtitle used for more discerning releases was “Your Sister is a Werewolf”; a far more poetic, if less accurate name than the correct phrase:  Stirba – Werewolf Bitch.

Memorable, yes.

Good?  Not by any stretch of the imagination.

We’re talking about a movie which the great Christopher Lee actually apologized to Joe Dante (director of the first Howling) for being in.  That’s the same Christopher Lee who felt no need to explain his presence in Gremlins 2, Attack of the Clones, and The Stupids.  This was a magically bad movie. 

Bad enough, that it wasn’t even memorable for its badness. I can’t recall details about any lousy acting, insane plot, or ridiculous effects that happened.  Nowhere near, “so bad it was good” it was merely just boringly awful. (Though the phrase “werewolf threesome” keeps forming in my mind.)

“But wait”, I hear those few with any -give a rat’s patootie- left.
“Why is it memorable?”

Howling II is the most memorable werewolf film in cinematic history simply for what my dad called:
“The greatest end credits of any film ever made.”

This film starred, (as the appropriately titular Stirba) none other than the queen of the Showtime Wednesday Late Night Specials – Sybil Danning. 
Why, Ms. Wolf. What
During her transformation into the aforementioned Werewolf Bitch, she felt the need to shed her human raiment due to the pain of the transition. (Possibly, she tended to shed raiment pretty freely in all of those Showtime Wednesday Late Night Specials.) Thereby exposed by her shedding was a pair of shining globes that put the full moon to shame. 

While that was fairly memorable…the best was yet to arrive.

During most of the end credits, her transformation (well, the raiment shedding portion, anyway) repeated over and over again.

This of course illustrated some of the central elements to the lycanthrope myth:

Sprouting hair all over.

A normal voice changing to alternate between high pitched howls and low growls.

Muscles and tendons expanding, shifting, and becoming stronger in unusual growth spurts…

In other words, I think I went completely through puberty from start to finish that night.

Not as profitable as a bar mitzvah or confirmation, but a spiritual transformation to manhood none the less.


Bruce Fieggen said...

I was hoping you'd get to 'American Werewolf in London'. Also my favorite.

Jeff McGinley said...

It'll be really hard to top that one. It hit on all the emotional circuts. I think a good werewolf story has to be a tragedy, and getting enough light moments into one so you don't feel down when it's over is tough.