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Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Werewolf: The Wolf Man

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/29/2016 – Werewolf: The Wolf Man (1941)
Directed by George Waggner

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night;
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Like vampires, werewolves as a concept have existed for hundreds or even thousands of years though unlike them, there really is no definitive werewolf text the way vampires have Dracula and Carmilla for example. The closest werewolf literature has is 1933’s The Werewolf of Paris. Even that is predated by a number of werewolf films such as 1913’s The Werewolf (the first Universal monster movie) and the earliest extant example 1925’s Wolf BloodThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also has many similarities to the genre and it seems like most film adaptations have no clue what to do with Mr. Hyde wo they wind up making him rather werewolf like in appearance.

Werewolf cinema as we know it however began in 1935 with Werewolf of Londonand more famously today’s movie six years later and I will discuss more below. Unlike his other Universal monster brethren Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, werewolves haven’t been nearly so well served by time. Sure, a large part of it is that the makeup is complicated and hard to make as convincing as those others, but there really isn’t as much to do with the basic story and not having a nearly as famous text hurts. It got the requisite AIP treatment in the terrible I Was a Teenage Werewolf and the Hammer treatment with Curse of the Werewolf which by most accounts is decent but never spawned a franchise.

The twin 1981 classics An American Werewolf in London and The Howling (lets ignore Wolfen) seemed to mark a change and with their awesome special effects the 80s were a bit of a werewolf era at least in terms of movies being made. The problem is most of them were either terrible (such as Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf and all its fellow sequels and the two Teen Wolf movies), largely disregarded (The Company of WolvesSilver Bullet), or merely part of an ensemble (The Monster Squad). The genre was hit harder than most with the “You is a waerwelf” of Werewolf, the quickly forgotten sequel American Werewolf in Paris, and Wolf. The early ‘00s offered a brief glimpse of hope with the best werewolf movie (and one of the all-time great teen films) Ginger Snaps and its mediocre sequels Ginger Snaps Unleashed and Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning and the solid Neil Marshall directed Dog Soldiers but it was not to be. Instead the werewolf was ever further relegated to vampire support (Buffy the Vampire SlayerUnderworldVan HelsingTwilightBeing Human, and What We Do in the Shadows) with even Wes Craven whiffing hard with Cursed. His solo efforts at the turn of the decade being the huge flop The Wolfman, the Teen Wolf series no one was asking for, and critical punching bag Hemlock Grove. 2014 wasn’t nearly the 1981 the genre needed with Wolfcop and Late Phases getting pretty mediocre reviews.

But back to The Wolf Man. Lon Chaney Jr., of Of Mice And Men and son of a man best known for his many performance under heavy, grotesque makeup. While he had appeared in dozens of films in the decade prior it was his start at Universal with Man Made Monster and The Wolf Man that turned him into the go to man at the company (starring in films as different characters in all three of their other major horror franchises) and made his a horror icon. While the wolf man only got one solo feature, he was an integral part or even star of the team up films Frankenstein Meets the Wolf ManHouse of FrankensteinHouse of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The supporting cast also includes Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, and Dracula himself Béla Lugosi as the gypsy fortune teller.

The film serves as an origin story for the wolf man, Larry Talbot. Talbot comes home 18 years after he left following the death of his brother and makes up with his estranged doctor father played by Claude Rains who seems to specialize in astronomy. Ultimately it is his father who winds up protecting him and legitimately seems care about his son though his help is misguided and only makes the problem worse since he doesn’t believe him. He seems to think he’s in a psychological horror film, not a supernatural one.

A still human Talbot sets about the town, attempting to romance an engaged shopkeeper, and spending time with her and a friend Larry gets bitten trying to defend a woman from a wolf and the film does not take long to get here. He kills the wolf with a cane he purchased earlier (topped with a silver werewolf) but all they find is Béla dead with his cane near the body. This sets off both the discovery by Talbot of the various rules of the game (every werewolf is marked with a pentagram, a man bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf, a werewolf can only be killed with silver) as well as his decent into madness over fear of turning (and later of turning again), guilt over accidently killing a man (and later another) and not a wolf, and the attempts of others to either accuse him directly of murder or convince him he’s merely crazy.

The first time he turns is a great sequence as his legs start getting harrier through crossfades, we see them completely turn, cut to him walking across the foggy ground, pan up, and we get our first look at the wolf man. I have no clue why Béla turns into a full wolf and yet Talbot only turns into a hybrid but I’ll at least chalk it up to maybe he gets more wolf like the more time passed since the transformation (and any blame in this regard directed to the sequels) but more likely it is just to hide the reveal longer in the movie. There are a couple other issues I had such as why the heck did he give away the pentagram protection almost immediately. It may not have helped but it was worth a try and he clearly believed everything was true. Also, that’s not a pentagram appearing over your heart dear, it’s just a star.

The film’s not perfect but it’s still damn good. I’ve mentioned before that I eat up the films with this kind of gothic atmosphere and full of fog and it’s equally true hear. The transformation scenes may not be able to match the quality of certain more modern ones but they do great with what they have (both turning into and from a werewolf) and the design is iconic for a reason. Larry Talbot is a truly tragic figure. He comes back to his own and is able to reconcile with his father and yet he seems so doomed from the start. He does nothing wrong (well aside from the trying to steal from a woman from the man she’s set to marry) and yet he’s cursed with something he can’t control and causes him to commit heinous deeds. Dr. Jekyll is punished for his sins in experimentation by turning into a monster, but all Talbot did was try to save an innocent, a task which he failed at like he does everything else.

Bonus Episode #36 – Cannibalism: We Are What We Are (2013)
Directed by Jim Mickle


There’s really two parts to the cannibalism genre. There’s the cannibal film, a largely Italian movement of low budget, controversial, mostly disregard “abducted by savage natives” films that started with 1972’s Man From the Deep River, was typified by Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox and fell out of fashion with 1988’s Natura Contro. These later inspired Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno and arguably the Western Bone Tomahawk.

There’s also the more well-known just general depictions of cannibalism though I’ll restrict it to just horror (sorry Suddenly, Last Summer, SPOILERS Soylent Green, END OF SPOILERS and Delicatessen). Unlike most subgenres there is far from a unifying tone or history with cannibalism ranging from a minor part (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) to the central premise of the killers Blood Feast. While a few precode films such as Doctor X and some early adaptations of Sweeney Todd dealt with it, it wasn’t until the release of the aforementioned Blood Feast and 1967’s great Spider Baby that it started to reappear. The ‘70s in turn gave us the first and classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre film, the original The Hills Have Eyes, and Cannibal Girls which is mostly known for being Ivan Reitman’s (StripesDave) second film.

While the ‘80s gave us the enjoyable Motel HellC.H.U.D., and the hilariously bad Microwave Massacre but Manhunter’s Hannibal Lecktor is the real contribution of the decade. While deservedly overshadowed (with the name fixed to Hannibal Lecter) by Anthony Hopkins’ performance in Silence of the Lambs (one of my favorite movies period and the one that made the character the definitive cannibal) and that of Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal it was still a solid movie. Aside from Silence of the Lambs, the ‘90s were also home to the well regarded Ravenousand Trouble Every Day. The new century saw new and superior versions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (in that it was fine) and The Hills Have Eyes, the Wrong Turn movies (the second one is surprisingly good, the first is decidedly not however), the fetus eating of Dumplings (an extension of the short from Three… Extremes and its sequel The Woman, the aforementioned Bone Tomahawk, and of course this movie, We Are What We Are.

We Are What We Are is a remake of a 2010 Mexican film which is generally regarded as inferior (don’t look at me, I haven’t seen it) and is from the director of Mulberry Street (which I didn’t care for), Stake Land, and Cold in July (two films I really liked). The story tells of a religious man dealing with grief and refusing to eat after his wife passed leaving him with two daughters and a son. But really it’s the daughters who are forced to care for him. While this has all the set up for a mediocre indie movie, not to mention a local doctor (played by Michael Parks) dealing with his grief over a missing child, SPOILERS these are of course all tied together since the family are cannibals and are responsible for the missing child’s disappearance. END OF SPOILERS

The two basic stories slowly converge as we deal with the doctor’s investigation and the trials of this family. While it is a fairly backwoods setting and the family maintains a very conservative manner of dress, the film refreshingly doesn’t emphasize these traits the way most cannibal films do. It’s just where the film takes place and the viewer can draw their own conclusions about it. It does raise the question though unintentionally of how a small area doesn’t notice 30+ people disappearing over the past couple decade even if they aren’t from the same town. I guess that’s just treated as normal especially since as implied by the journal being read by one of the daughters SPOILERS their yearly religious ritual seems to date back to at least 1782 in this family and the mother has died of a disease that only existed in a tribe known for practicing the occasional cannibalism as part of their culture. This ritual apparently being keeping a woman chained up only to kill her with a tiny ballpeen hammer, marking up her body with lipstick, chopping her up, and then cooking her and serving her to the family. END OF SPOILERS

The film is slow and deliberate heavily relying on atmosphere and for the most part it really works. The film looks great and the performances, especially by Bill Sage as the father, the two girls (including Julia Garner from Grandma) and Parks all have a powerful subtlety. It even manages to throw in some moments of real humor such as SPOILERS the scene of the father trying to stop all the bones of their victim from floating away and of course the fantastic conclusion as the daughters kill the father by biting into him like zombies and consuming his flesh in a scene that seems to come almost out of nowhere but was incredibly satisfying. END OF SPOILERS It’s far from a perfect film and it threatens to stall out a number of times, but it looks good and all comes together nicely and I rather enjoyed it.

Bonus Episode #37 – Natural: Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
Directed by James Cameron


The original Piranha was one of my favorite films of the month so it was only fair that I finally got around to another movie I’ve wanted to see for a long time, it’s sequel. This is of course not owing to its supposed quality, it’s because this is director James Cameron’s first film. Cameron was the special effects director hired to replace the original director and rewrite the script. Still, Cameron’s impact on the film was fairly slight due to a meddling producer, being fired after two and a half weeks, and not being allowed to help with editing.

Set in Jamaica with a cast of largely white people in prominent roles (don’t worry, plenty of black people get to die), the film to its credit does actually follow up the plot of the original SPOILERS when the piranhas escaped into the ocean. END OF SPOILERS It gets much less credit because it tries to retcon in some experiments with splicing in the DNA of flying fish despite no mention of this last time. So really, the original is merely a background event as we follow the mistakes of another scientist on the project being accidently released. Also gone is the humor (well intentional, okay successful intentional humor) and horror.

As hinted before, this time the piranhas fly and is as hilarious as you expect. The original got a lot out of its limited budget and the piranhas looked good even if they were clearly just props on sticks. This time there is no such luck as the piranhas are just pathetic. Then again a flying piranha bursts from someone’s chest like well a chestburster from Alien so all is forgiven. I loved the effect of one mostly eaten body trying to crawl out of the ocean and in general the film does the after attack shots well but that’s the extent of the compliments this film will get out of me.

Even this early it seems apparent that Cameron loves underwater scenes and diving to sunken ships. From the opening scene we get a tone of shots of people swimming around and through single sunken boat SPOILERS later revealed as the place the piranhas escaped from. END OF SPOILERS This scene of course featuring a woman who quickly sheds her clothes and a man wearing a speedo which hides absolutely nothing who decide to have underwater sex, which seems remarkably impractical even before the piranhas show up but I’ll spare you musings on why.

From there we are introduced to a far too extensive cast of dullards with too many unnecessary storylines including the normally awesome Lance Henriksen (who would later be famous for his role in Cameron’s Aliens among other things) as the asshole father and the only vaguely interesting characters coming in the form of a man and his son who dynamite fish, the one way to make fishing interesting. The villain is a boring knockoff of every “mayor from Jaws” type character who seeks to keep the beach open to benefit his hotel. The satire/parody from the first film has turned to sad attempts at thievery. There’s also the annoying romantic subplot where the biochemist sleeps with the female lead ostensibly to keep her quiet but does seem interested her and tries to help without breaking too much protocol and I’m bored already.

There are random scenes where the music just overwhelms everything else, not in a poor mixing way, just in that they drop the sound and crank the music. A helicopter hits the water and explodes instantly. The flying fish literally fly as opposed to anything vaguely related to flying fish. It’s just a dumb, very bad movie but at least it is courteous to mostly be an adorably dumb and not an awful watch.

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