by Steve Habrat
Before English director/”Splat Pack” member Neil Marshall freaked audiences out with his 2005 girls-versus-cannibal-humanoids film The Descent, he made what could very well be one of the most entertaining werewolf horror films out there. That film would be 2002’s Dog Soldiers, a low-budget hybrid of Night of the Living Dead, Predator, The Evil Dead, The Howling, and The Wolf Man. Marshall’s Dog Soldiers is far from a flashy werewolf horror film—it doesn’t feature elaborate transformation like we saw in films like An American Werewolf in London or The Howling, and it isn’t particularly interested in commenting on the bestiality lurking in each and every one of us. Despite all of that, Dog Soldiers still unleashes some seriously terrifying werewolves on the viewer and the claustrophobic hopelessness does begin to gnaw at the viewer. It has a dark sense of humor about itself, slipping in a number of sarcastic jokes about the horror taking place around our ass-kicking heroes. It’s also extremely gory, featuring a number of stomach-churning gross out gags that make it very easy for the viewer to understand how Marshall became a member of the “Splat Pack.” You may want to approach this one with a raincoat and maybe even a barf bag.
Dog Soldiers introduces us to Private Cooper (played by Kevin McKidd), who is attempting to pass a grueling test to join a British Special Forces unit. As a final test to join the unit, Captain Ryan (played by Liam Cunningham) asks Cooper to shoot a dog. After Cooper refuses to kill the dog, Ryan fails him and sends him back home. Some time later, Cooper and a unit of British soldiers are taken to the Scottish countryside for a training exercise. Among the soldiers are Seargent Harry Wells (played by Sean Pertwee), Private “Spoon” Witherspoon (played by Darren Morfitt), Private Joe Kirkley (played by Chris Robson), Private Terry Milburn (played by Leslie Simpson), and Corporal Bruce Campbell (played by Thomas Lockyer). Shortly into the exercise, the soldiers find a SAS unit that has been ripped to shreds. The only survivor of the unit is Captain Ryan, who is babbling incoherently about his attackers. As the soldiers try to make sense of the situation, towering assailants leap out from the brush to rip them limb from limb. The group is narrowly rescued by Megan (played by Emma Cleasby), a zoologist on her way to an isolated farmhouse nearby. She takes the group to the farmhouse so that they can regroup and figure out a plan of attack, but the assailants follow them and surround the house. As the unit boards up the windows and assess their resources, they slowly discover that they are up against a pack of werewolves that can only be put down with silver bullets.
Where most werewolf horror films aim high with the special effects and make-up, Dog Soldiers dares to keep much of the elaborate stuff out of the frame. There are no static transformation scenes or lengthy glimpses of the werewolves. Early on, we get to see them only in split second bursts as they charge through the woods towards their next meal. To add extra tension, he gives us black and white POV shots of what the werewolves are seeing, something that called to mind the demonic POV of Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead. Once the soldiers are barricaded in the farmhouse, he circles the house to imply that there is no escape for these characters—at least while the moon is full and high in the sky. As the attacks escalate, Marshall scares us silly with werewolf claws bursting through windows and boards. Eventually, Marshall is forced to shed some light on his towering beasts and they certainly don’t disappoint. They stand menacingly over their victims, slightly hunched with jaws snapping and dripping with strings of saliva. They call to mind what we saw in The Howling, just with less hair and even freakier, if that was even possible. The true beauty is that they are practical and not done with a bunch of computerized fakery. When it comes to the inevitable transformation scenes, Marshall lacks the money to really pull off something eye-popping. Instead, he uses some smartly placed cuts and camera placement that allows the actors to reveal bits of make-up that have been added to parts of their face or hands. The rest is left up to our imagination and it’s extremely efficient.
With the special effects controlled, Marshall uses his story to add another layer of unease. While the premise of the soldiers barricade inside a farmhouse paying not-so-subtle tribute to Night of the Living Dead does send some giddy thrills, he allows the claustrophobia to really keep us gnawing at our fingernails. The ammo runs out quickly, the attacks are alarming cramped, and when a character becomes werewolf chow, our stomachs drop to the floor. Another subtle tribute to Night of the Living Dead pops up in the way that two of our central characters go at each other’s throats. There are twists with certain characters and others mislead our heroes in the fight to destroy the werewolves. There is also the lack of supplies, which forces the characters get a bit creative with keeping themselves alive. Some of these are faintly humorous (the sword, a letter opener, a can of hair spray and a lighter, and a fist fight), but they are all used to extremely gruesome effect. The highlight is easily a fistfight with a werewolf that ends with a one-liner that strikes you like a lightning bolt.
This all leads us to the violence of Dog Soldiers, which really makes you see why Marshall earned a spot in the Splat Pack (some of the Splat Pack members include Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Robert Rodriguez, and Alexandre Aja, among others). There are stomachs ripped wide open, guts dangling in plain view, severed heads flying across the screen, and even werewolf limbs hacked off like butter. It’s a gooey blast that just keeps on delivering for horror fans. There is an added layer of “EWW” since Marshall films most of the action with gritty handheld cameras, which give the film an unshakably raw feeling. As far as the performances go, everyone does a fine job with their roles. McKidd is no-nonsense as Cooper, who is forced to become the groups leader when their Sergeant gets taken out of the game, and Cunningham is despicable as the slimy Ryan, who is up to no good from the get-go. Overall, with plenty of high-octane action, well-placed chuckles, rampaging scares pinning you to your seat, and gasp-inducing gross outs, Dog Soldiers is a must-see for horror fans. It may not have the depth that other werewolf horror films possess, but that certainly doesn’t hold this beast back. Arguably one of the scariest werewolf horror films ever made.
Dog Soldiers is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Considering how popular the classic Universal Studios monsters have become over the years, it’s no big surprise that the studio keeps digging them out of their graves. With remakes of three of their biggest ghouls already on the market (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, and Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy), it makes sense for the studio to update one of their last big name monsters for modern audiences. In 2010, director Joe Johnston released The Wolfman, a CGI heavy update of George Waggner’s haunting 1941 classic that starred Lon Chaney Jr. With two Oscar winners in front of the camera and Rick Baker in charge of the werewolf make-up effects, The Wolfman should have been a smashing success, but there are several elements that caused the film to come out a major disappointment. While The Wolfman drips atmosphere and gothic set design that would make Tim Burton drool, this werewolf offering seems formulaic and misguided. At times it seems to want to be an action movie and the climax features a fight scene that looks like it would have been more at home in The Matrix rather than Universal monster movie. And then there is Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, two award winners who deliver some of the most lifeless performances of their careers.
The Wolfman reintroduces us to Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro), a renowned Shakespearean actor with a traumatic past. When he was just a young boy, he witnessed his mother’s gruesome demise, and in the wake of the discovery, his father, Sir John Talbot (played by Anthony Hopkins), shipped him off to an insane asylum. One evening, John receives news that his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared. Lawrence returns home to Blackmoor where he is met with news that his brother’s body was found mutilated. As Lawrence comes to terms with his brother’s death, he attempts to reconnect with his father and he strikes up a relationship with his brother’s fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (played by Emily Blunt). One night, Lawrence decides to visit a local gypsy that his brother was said to have associated with. While visiting the gypsies, the camp is attacked by what appears to be a giant wolf. During the attack, Lawrence suffers a bite that leaves him bedridden and suffering from horrific nightmares. With the town in hysterics over the violent attacks, Inspector Aberline (played by Hugo Weaving) arrives from London to launch an investigation before more bodies turn up. After being unconscious for many days, Lawrence wakes up and he initially believes he is okay, but when the moon is full, Lawrence undergoes a horrible transformation that turns him into a snarling monster. To make things worse, horrific family secrets come back to haunt Lawrence and new details about his mother’s death slowly start to emerge.
With Johnston kicking things off with the shimmering retro Universal Studios logo, you’d think that The Wolfman would remain a grounded tribute to what Waggner terrified audiences with back in 1941, but you quickly realize that is far from the truth. The opening werewolf attack is appropriately dark and gloomy, but it’s fairly obvious that this film is going to be drenched in rubbery CGI that instantly takes us out of the moment. And that is just the start of it. When blurry werewolves aren’t speeding across the screen, Johnston and Baker are having an extremely difficult time meshing the practical make-up effects glued to Del Toro’s face with the CGI extensions that are there to add some extra menace. We know Baker can do practical, especially after what he delivered with 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, but it seems that Universal urged the filmmakers to cut corners with the practical effects, something that is perplexing when we consider what exactly Universal is remaking. Part of the appeal of the classic Universal monsters is their practicality—the idea that we could almost reach out and touch them. They are unnervingly real, even if we can see some of the lines in their make-up. When the Wolfman starts leaping, slashing, and killing here, it feels more like its playing out in the pages of an old EC Comic. It’s almost an insult to the original film rather than a loving tribute.
While the copious amounts of CGI hold it back, The Wolfman does excel in the set design and costume department. The shots of 18th century London are absolutely exquisite. There is a grittiness to the city shots but there is also plenty of glamour to be found, especially when Johnston delivers a shot of the Wolfman crouched on a gothic gargoyle while howling at the full moon. It’s spectacular and it certainly holds up on a high-definition television. When we get to explore the Talbot manor, Johnston presents a shadowy mansion that you could very well see Dracula prowling around. There are cobwebs dangling from the staircase railing and there are dead leaves scattered about the marble floors. There are closed off rooms with ghosts of traumatic years past and characters peek through the darkness with candelabras in their clutches. The outdoor gardens are tangled vines that died many years ago and the local villages are as muddy and cruddy as they can get. Then there is the insane asylum, which features patients crouched in their cells wrapped in straight jackets. There is an observation room that is a stand in for a massive coffin, a maze that traps in a slew of doctors as they wait to see if Lawrence will really transform into a chopping werewolf. If there is any reason to see The Wolfman, it’s because of the extravagant sets that obviously cost a pretty penny. However, it was disappointing to see Universal remake The Wolfman and not give us a few scenes in a foggy forest. Here, we do get an eerie forest, but it never features the rolling sheets of fog that crept by Chaney’s hairy feet.
What is perhaps the most frustrating part of The Wolfman is just how miscast Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins truly are. Del Toro certainly resembles Lon Chaney Jr., but there is also something faintly hard about the man that prevents us from viewing him as a tragic character doomed to a hellish fate. There are scenes where he seems be settling into the character, but some of the more dramatic moments seem put on. There is never any of the nervous shifting and antsy unease that kept Chaney pacing in his room waiting for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Hopkins is asked to fill the enormous shoes of Claude Rains, who portrayed Sir John as a compassionate but rational man who grapples with the wild story his son tells of a werewolf taking a chunk out of his chest. It’s best not to say too much about his role, but Hopkins seems all to eager to give away the big reveal. Blunt seems to enjoy playing the misty-eyed damsel in distress and mourning love interest. She isn’t given much to do beyond holding Lawrence’s head and skip stones at a local pond, but there is something about her character that you just can’t resist. Hugo Weaving rounds out the cast as Inspector Aberline, the rather bland antagonist out to get to the bottom of the brutal slaying happening around Blackmoor. He dashes around with importance and the unblinking determination carved into his face does do the trick, but we never come to truly like or loathe him.
As far as the scares are concerned, with so much CGI artificiality contaminating the screen, The Wolfman is never permitted to become very scary. Hell, not even the howls send a chill! However, if you’re in the market for some serious blood and guts, then you’ve come to the right gothic castle. Bodies are slashed and bitten into hamburger meat, with guts splattered on the autumn ground. Head’s go flying across the screen, werewolf nails shoot through open mouths, and limbs are sent flying through the air with a thin trail of—you guessed it—CGI blood. The gore is extremely entertaining and it is sort of fun to see Universal embracing such savagery, especially when the Wolfman goes berserk in the streets of London. All the savagery does spiral out of control by the end, as Johnston ends The Wolfman with goofy werewolf brawl that finds hairy beats flying all over Talbot manor. You honestly wouldn’t mind so much if they weren’t doing wiry flips and leaps that would have been more at home in The Matrix. Come to think of it, maybe that is why Hugo Weaving is on hand here. Overall, while Universal showered the project in money, The Wolfman 2010 never dares explore the monsters that can lurk in even the mot mild mannered individuals. It falls victim to what almost every other horror film falls victim to: CGI excess. It’s all to eager to top the original rather than acting as a respectful tribute to a classic.
The Wolfman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Perhaps one of the most visually striking werewolf films every released is director Neil Jordan’s 1984 cult classic The Company of Wolves, a fairy-tale horror film that explores a young girl’s dreamlike journey into womanhood. Based on short stories by Angela Carter, The Company of Wolves is an eerie reworking of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, molding it into a complex look at sexual maturity and the idea that all men are beasts in disguise. At a mere hour and thirty minutes, The Company of Wolves drags in places with its storytelling, but the visual side of the film is never short of astounding as Jordan’s camera explores a labyrinth of gnarled trees, cobwebs, and gloomy 18th century villages. While it is easy to loose yourself in the gothic set design, Jordan also makes sure that he gives you quite a few good scares throughout the film’s runtime. One of the keys to the werewolf horror film is an unblinking transformation sequence, and let it be known that The Company of Wolves features several transformation scenes that will simultaneously gross you out and petrify you for life. To this very day, the effects of the transformation scenes top anything you would see in a CGI heavy blockbuster.
The Company of Wolves begins in modern day, with a young girl named Rosaleen (played by Sarah Patterson) sound asleep in her bedroom surrounded by dolls and stuffed animals. We then enter her dream world, where she is mourning the death of her sister with her parents (played by David Warner and Tusse Silberg) and her Granny (played by Angela Lansbury). A wolf has killed Rosaleen’s sister, and while her parents come to terms with the death, she is sent off to live with Granny in the woods. While at Granny’s cabin, Rosaleen is treated to several cautionary tales about men being wolves in disguise, and she is also warned to stay far away from men whose eyebrows meet in the middle. Granny also warns her to never stray from the path when she is walking through the woods. After a few weeks, Rosaleen returns to her home, and when she arrives she finds that a young amorous boy (played by Shane Johnstone) has developed a crush on her. One day, Rosaleen decides to take a walk through the forest with the amorous boy, but as they wander the woods, they realize that there is a wolf prowling around. Terrified, the two rush home to warn the villagers about the lurking threat. Enraged, the villagers storm the woods to capture and kill the wolf. After setting a trap and pumping the beast full of bullets, they believe they have rid the woods of evil, but a few days later Rosaleen decides to make a visit to Granny’s and it appears that there is still a threat in the woods waiting to strike.
While a good majority of werewolf films ask the viewer to sympathize with the hairy beasts, The Company of Wolves seems to show no compassion for its werewolves. Whether it’s through the cautionary tales Rosaleen hears from her Granny or if it’s the final face-to-face confrontation, Jordan never really offers the viewer a sympathetic monster that struggles with their full-moon curse. In fact, a majority of the male characters seem to somewhat enjoy their monstrous transformations, all of which are pretty grotesque. This implication that all men are dogs waiting to prey on young girls could stem from Carter, who co-wrote the script with Jordan. While the feminist approach does offer food for thought, Jordan manages to milk several terrifying transformation scenes that deliver on the gore while also sending a few shivers. In one tale told to Rosaleen, a young traveler (played by Stephen Rea) marries a young woman whom he abandons on their wedding night. Several years later, the young woman has remarried, but the young traveler returns for his bride. After pushing him away, the traveler is enraged and begins to transform right before our very eyes. In true werewolf horror fashion, the camera rarely cuts away, allowing the viewer to glimpse him pulling strips of skin from his face. In graphic close ups, we see his muscles and bones pulling, grinding, and stretching into the features of a wolf, complimented by horrible shrieks and screams. It’s amazing and the use of practical special effects has allowed the sequence to still stand up.
Equally impressive are the performances, which all keep us transfixed on the stylish drama playing out on the screen. Sarah Patterson’s Rosaleen is sweet and innocent as she snakes her way though a knotted forest prowling with panting wolves. Her final confrontation with Micha Bergese’s huntsman is mesmerizing, emitting female empowerment while also showing a bit of understanding for the threat that has backed her against a cabin wall. Angela Lansbury brings the star power as Granny, a little old lady with plenty of wisdom about what is waiting to pull her granddaughter into sexual maturity. Shane Johnstone also holds a bit of innocence as the amorous boy, who pines after Rosaleen and searches desperately for an opening for a kiss. Stephen Rea flashes a softer side but then turns on us with an evil that will undoubtedly haunt your dreams. Also on board is Dawn Archibald as a vengeful pregnant woman, who tracks down the rich nobleman that abandoned her (there is no fury quite like a woman scorned). There is also Terence Stamp in an uncredited role as the Devil, who sells a mysterious potion to a young boy with some sinister side effects.
Another stand out element of The Company of Wolves is its must-see set design that simultaneously adds an enchanting surrealism and a gothic chill to the film. Almost every single frame plays up the dead forests, snowy graveyards, and quite villages, all of which look like they were left over from a lost Hammer horror film from the 1950s. Jordan doesn’t let the set design and effects do all the heavy lifting when it comes to the scares. In addition to the slimy transformations, the viewer is subjected to a nightmarish opening that finds one character being attacked by giant dolls that have sprung to life inside that misty forest. There is also the tale of the young pregnant girl confronting the wealthy nobleman on his wedding day, a scene that finds the pregnant girl casting spells and turning the dog like guests into wolves—something that is glimpsed through a cracked mirror. There is also the white-knuckle conclusion, with a pack of wolves bursting through the dream bubble and entering the modern world. In their wake they leave shattered glass and trampled dolls, suggesting that innocence has been shattered and sexual maturity/liberation has arrived. Overall, The Company of Wolves is a gothic, eerie, and intelligent take on Little Red Riding Hood. The film’s feminist perspective could have been overshadowed by the moody sets and unflinching special effects, but Jordan manages to keep things stable even when certain places start to drag.
The Company of Wolves is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Just four short months before John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London came ripping into theaters, director Joe Dante released The Howling, a stylish little werewolf horror film with a sleazy side. Lacking the big budget studio backing that Landis enjoyed (An American Werewolf in London was released through Universal Studios), The Howling has earned a respectable cult following over the years. It doesn’t particularly enjoy the mainstream recognition that Landis’ film receives, prowling just under the radar and seeming to relish its cult status. Despite all of this, The Howling is still an immensely enjoyable horror film, and its one that deeply rewards with its semi-veiled winks carefully placed by Mr. Dante. The Howling also enjoys its fair share of blood, sex, and nudity, kicking things off in a sleazy porn theater and ending with a rip roaring showdown between a bunch of pointy-eared werewolves looking to tear sheets of flesh from bone. As if the blood, beasts, and boobs weren’t enough to have horror fans drooling, it’s worth tracking down The Howling for the numerous nods to other horror filmmakers that Dante places throughout his film. You’ll thrill at tips of the hat to two of Hammer’s most famous directors, a handful of Universal Studios directors, and you’ll chuckle at a cameo from the B-movie king himself, Roger Corman. Now how can you argue with all of that?!
The Howling introduces us to Karen White (played by Dee Wallace), a Los Angeles news reporter who has been receiving perverted messages from a serial killer named Eddie Quist (played by Robert Picardo). One evening, Karen agrees to meet Eddie in a sleazy porn theater, but what Eddie doesn’t know is that Karen is working with the police in an attempt to get him off the streets. Before the police can rush in to nab Eddie, Karen catches a glimpse of her stalker’s face, and what she sees seems to frighten her to death. In the midst of all the chaos, Eddie is gunned down by a trigger-happy police officer. Over the course of the next few days, Karen is plagued by horrible nightmares about the encounter, something that deeply concerns her husband, Bill (played by Christopher Stone). At the advice of her therapist, Dr. George Wagner (played by Patrick Macnee), Karen and Bill head off to a secluded town called The Colony. Upon their arrival, Karen and Bill are greeted by a number of locals that all seem to be a bit peculiar. Bill finds himself being seduced by a woman named Marsha (played by Elisabeth Brooks) and they observe the bizarre suicide attempt of an elderly man named Erle (played by John Carradine). Things get even stranger when Karen is awoken in the middle of the night by what sounds like wolves howling. After a wolf-like creature attacks Bill, Karen begins to notice that Bill’s behavior is growing more and more suspicious. To make things worse, Karen’s friends, Terri Fisher (played by Belinda Balaski) and Christopher Halloran (played by Dennis Dugan), discover that Eddie Quist may not be dead after all.
Early on, The Howling resembles a seedy murder mystery—something that would have seemed right at home on 42nd Street. We drift through a sleazy part of Los Angeles, where porn theaters line the street and almost everyone seems like they are up to no good. When the action finally shifts from gritty street fare to woodsy tension, The Howling gets really entertaining. It takes some time for the werewolf action to really kick in, but when it does, it brings some impressive and downright intimidating werewolves with it. These suckers look like they were created by the Devil himself, with their pointed ears, glistening fangs, and towering height. It’s nearly impossible not to find these guys creepy. As if the werewolves weren’t gruesome enough for you, Dante springs a transformation on us that features bubbling skin, bulging eyes, pulsing necks, and bleeding fingernails. It certainly rivals what we saw in An American Werewolf in London, but Dante uses more cuts to mask all the effects, something that Landis wasn’t guilty of. Either way, it is still unbelievably gross and leaves you wondering how the hell they managed to pull that off in 1981.
As far as the performances go, most of the players turn in memorable roles; however, scream queen Dee Wallace really disappoints. Wallace’s Karen is consistently faint, scripted, and almost a bit confused as she squirms over what she saw in the porno theater. When she heads up to The Colony, she gains a bit of strength, but when it comes to her life being threatened, she just backs up against the wall and slightly cringes as a werewolf closes in. She doesn’t even put up much of a fight when she is drug before a several locals just waiting to unleash their inner monsters. She just hangs there until she can be saved. Stone finds a groove as Bill, Karen’s frustrated husband that is slowly being pulled into the arms of another woman. Picardo is sweaty and perverted as Eddie, a serial killer with an even more dreadful secret. He will make your skin crawl as he proclaims to think that Karen has a sexy voice, all while she is screaming bloody murder. Elisabeth Brooks smolders as Marsha, a nymphomaniac that can get vicious in the blink of an eye. Dennis Dugan’s Christopher gets to be the hero of the film, arming himself with some silver bullets to put down the beasts of The Colony once and for all. The appearance of John Carradine as Erle is also a treat, a crazy old coot that is constantly trying to get the attention of those around him.
Considering that The Howling and An American Werewolf in London were released the same year, it’s almost impossible not to compare the two of them. While the films are evenly matched most of the way through, The Howling may come out ahead when it comes to the climax. Where An American Werewolf in London just abruptly ends on a highly emotional note, The Howling is alive with plenty of werewolf action that will have you jumping out of your seat. As if all the silver bullets, exploding cars, burning barns, and snarling werewolves weren’t enough, we are treated to one more surprise before the film can fade to black. When it comes to discussing the rest of The Howling, the film seems to know what horror fans are craving, We are treated to a sex scene that finds both individuals morphing into werewolves, one character digging out a piece of their head to give someone a “piece” of their mind, and there is also a melted face complete with bone and muscle visible (in this department, An American Werewolf in London had them beat). Overall, The Howling is an addictive little werewolf horror movie that tips its hat in inspired and subtle ways to the subgenre. It features some of the coolest look werewolves out there and the climax is a fiery hoot. This is frightfully good fun with a wink.
The Howling is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Before 1981, John Landis was far from a horror director. He hit it big with 1978’s Animal House, a college sex comedy that was all about chugging Jack Daniels and having a good time. He followed up Animal House with 1980’s The Blues Brothers, another comedy smash that seemed to suggest that Landis was sticking to the comedic track. However, in 1981, Landis revealed that he had a bit of range as a director with An American Werewolf in London, a horror film heavy with dark chuckles. As far as the horror side of An American Werewolf in London is concerned, the film isn’t nearly as scary as you’ve been led to believe. Over the years, there have been many lists ranking the scariest films of all time, most of which feature An American Werewolf in London, but the film seems to be a victim of its own hype. Despite not being overly spooky, the film still features several unsettling nightmares that surprise with the sledgehammer-to-the-head extremity and a transformation sequence that still manages to astonish first time viewers. The most charming aspect of An American Werewolf in London is undoubtedly the dark humor that Landis weaves together with his loving nods to Lon Chaney Jr.’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man.
An American Werewolf in London introduces us to David Kessler (played by David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (played by Griffin Dunne), two Americans backpacking through the English countryside. David and Jack decide to rest at a small pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, were they are met with an icy greeting from the locals. As they settle in for a drink, David and Jack notice a five-pointed star carved into the wall, which they immediately inquire about. The locals instantly ask them to leave, warning them to stay on the main road and to beware of the full moon. Confused, David and Jack leave, but they soon find themselves off the path they were warned to stay on. Things get worse for the two backpackers when they begin hearing faint growls and menacing howls circling around them. Suddenly, a wolf leaps at them from the darkness, killing Jack and severally wounding David. Three weeks later, David wakes up from the attack in a London hospital, where he learns about the death of his buddy. Over the course of a few days, David seems to be recovering nicely from the wounds that he received, but when he drifts off to sleep he suffers from horrible nightmares. Things get even more bizarre for David when the deceased Jack comes to visit him in the hospital and explains that a werewolf attacked them. Jack warns David that he must kill himself before the next full moon, or he will be responsible for more deaths. Soon, David is released from the hospital and begins shacking up with Alex (played by Jenny Agutter), a beautiful nurse that he struck up a romance with while bedridden. Things seems to be getting better for David, but the rotting Jack returns to warn him of the beast lurking inside.
An American Werewolf in London begins spooky enough, with a sudden attack that certainly gets the viewer’s heart pounding. As David and Jack wander around a darkened field, growling noises and anguished howls ring out all around them. The misty suspense erupts when a hairy blur comes shooting across the screen to leave our backpacking heroes a shredded mess. Landis manages to keep up the supernatural eeriness with David’s terrifying nightmares, which are all hilariously extreme in their own way. One dream finds a naked David sprinting through the forest when he suddenly leaps at a deer and rips its head from its body. Another dream finds David morphing into a demonic beast in his hospital bed as Alex cares for him. His final dream finds David at home with his family when several monstrous Nazi soldiers come bursting in to gun down everyone in the home. After these impressive little explosions of terror, Landis falls back on his skills as a comedic director, allowing us to find the humor in things like David waking up nude in a zoo after a night of werewolf mayhem. We get to chuckle at David’s attempts to get clothing, all of which are cleverly awkward. There is also some humor to be found in the gruesome visits from Jack, who picks up a Mickey Mouse action figure and makes it wave at David. I doubt Walt Disney would have found that one funny!
With its sense of humor finely tuned, Landis gives An American Werewolf in London even more personality through its make-up effects, which went on to nab an Academy Award. There is certainly no shortage of gore to be found, especially in the final moments when werewolf David causes chaos in Piccadilly Circus. There is a massive car pile-up, which results in bodies being thrown about like confetti over the finale. Buses run over people, heads go smashing through windshields, and a police officer’s head is ripped clean off by David’s fangs. Then there is Jack, who over the course of the film decomposes right in front of our eyes. Early on, his wounds are undeniably vicious as shards of skin dangle from his neck and blood covers about eighty percent of his body, but as the film continues, he begins to turns a greenish color and his eyeballs pop out of his skeletal head. All of this make up work doesn’t even compare to what Landis has planned for us about halfway through the film. As the full moon takes to the sky, we get to see David’s transformation up close and personal. Through Rick Baker’s amazing effects, we see thick sheets of hair poking through the skin, David’s hands and feet stretching into paws, fangs poking through the gums, and his face sprouting a snout. It’s all done through practical effects and only a handful of cuts. This sequence alone makes An American Werewolf in London essential viewing for cinema buffs or those who can appreciate the art of special effects.
As far as the performances go, everyone does a fine job with their respective roles. Naughton is spot on as the freaked-out David, who grapples with how to properly deal with his new curse. Does he end it all or does he find an alternative solution? He’s certainly gifted in the comedic sequences, especially the scene that finds him sprinting through a zoo in nothing but his birthday suit. Dunne hams it up as the talking corpse Jack, a “meatloaf” that drops by every now and then to remind David that something awful is waiting to emerge. Agutter is pleasant as the beautiful nurse Alex, a gal who finds herself quickly falling for the cursed David. John Woodvine is also on hand as David’s doctor, Hirsch, who gets to play detective after hearing David say that it was a wolf that attacked him. When it comes to An American Werewolf in London’s biggest flaw, it is difficult to ignore the abrupt ending, which cuts off on raw nerve emotion. You’d like to see what happens next, but Landis just slams the book shut on us and tells us to scram. Overall, while it favors laughs over screams, An American Werewolf in London is still a shrewd little werewolf horror film. It makes wicked use of music, the special effects will boggle the mind, and it features some marvelously set piece around London. It’s just a shame that the abrupt climax will leave you howling with disappointment.
An American Werewolf in London is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After successfully resurrecting three of Universal Studios’ most renowned ghouls (Victor Frankenstein and his monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Count Dracula in Horror of Dracula (1958), and Kharis the Mummy in The Mummy (1959)), the increasingly popular Hammer Films then set their undead sights on the Wolf Man. In 1961, director Terence Fisher released The Curse of the Werewolf, which found Hammer revamping the howling menace with plenty of candle wax blood and more cleavage than you can shake a furry paw at. Based upon the novel The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endor, Fisher and screenwriter Anthony Hinds (who penned the script under the name John Elder) craft an origin heavy tale that once again put a fresh spin on what Universal had already memorably done with Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941. Moving the action from Paris to Spain, The Curse of the Werewolf reinvents the werewolf lore before finally baring its fangs in the final twenty minutes. Make no mistake, both the origin tale and the characters are all handled with plenty of care, but The Curse of the Werewolf is dragged into mediocrity through a struggling performance from Oliver Reed, one of Hammer’s favored sons, who can’t quite seem to win over our empathy.
The Curse of the Werewolf opens in 18th century Spain, with a raggedy beggar (played by Richard Wordsworth) arriving in a village that seems to be abandoned. After stumbling upon a group of locals in a nearby pub, the beggar learns that the town is celebrating the marriage of Marques Siniestro (played by Anthony Dawson). The beggar decides to travel to the Marques’ castle in the hopes of finding some food left over from the celebration. After being humiliated by the Marques in front of a room full of guests, the beggar is tossed into jail where he befriends the jailer’s mute daughter (played by Yvonne Romain). Many years pass and the beggar, who is still behind bars, begins to slip into madness. After having a nasty encounter with the aging Marques, the mute girl is thrown into prison with the beggar, who proceeds to rape the poor girl. The mute girl manages to escape her torment and makes her way into the countryside where she is discovered by the kind Don Alfredo Coreldo (played by Clifford Evans), who takes the girl in and discovers that she is with child. Upon learning this new, Don Alfredo’s housekeeper, Teresa (played by Hira Talfrey), is appalled to learn that the baby will be born on Christmas day, something that is considered very unlucky by the locals. Several months later, the mute girl gives birth to a baby boy, Leon, on December 25th. All seems normal at first but Don Alfredo begins hearing rumors of an animal that prowls the night and attacks local livestock. After discovering that Leon suffered a nasty gunshot wound while he was “sleepwalking,” he decides to put bars on the boy’s windows, fearing that the boy has been cursed because of his birthdate. Once again the years pass and Leon (played by Oliver Reed) is all grown up and ready to leave home, but his old curse comes back to haunt him when the moon is full.
Like all of Hammer’s other monster rival offerings, The Curse of the Werewolf works hard in separating itself from what Universal Studios had done. Screenwriter Hinds reworks some of the werewolf mythology, suggesting that the werewolf curse is something that one is born with and that constant love and affection can keep lycanthrope at bay. It’s a nice change of pace, but Hinds and Fisher are relentless with their backstory. The origin tale itself takes up over half the film, allowing us very little time to actually empathize with adult Leon and his full-moon transformations. As far as the werewolf itself is concerned, Fisher is patient with his monster, keeping him largely off-screen until the last fifteen minutes of the film when we get to witness him prowling rooftops and scampering through town as villagers light torches and holler for his demise. In true Hammer fashion, the attack scenes in The Curse of the Werewolf are shockingly bloody and violent—the camera lingering on slashed faces and leaking claw marks. It is definitely not something that you would have seen in the Lon Chaney Jr. original from 1941.
While the heavy emphasis on the werewolf’s origin tale tripping the film up, The Curse of the Werewolf is also a bit flat due to the casting of the lead role. There is no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee anywhere in sight, but rather there is Oliver Reed, an actor with leading man’s looks but none of the magnetism that Lee and Cushing radiated. Reed struggles to make his anguish look convincing, his shakes, shivers, and sweats never looking like they are coming from a dark and terrifying place. In the scenes where he isn’t asked to grapple with his transformation, he fares a bit better. He seems like a polite and pleasant young man when he finally departs home and his romance that he strikes up romance with Christina Fernando (played by Catherine Feller) has some deep and passionate moments, but it’s not enough to hold his performance together. The standout of the picture is without question Anthony Dawson as the vile Marques. He only shows up at the beginning but he sure is a nasty and disgusting piece of humanity. Yvonne Romain is sweet and strikingly beautiful as the mute girl who gives birth to Leon. Keller’s Christina is basically the worried girlfriend who strokes Leon’s hair when he falls into one of his sweating and shaking fits. Clifford Evans tackles a grim role with Don Alfredo Corledo, Leon’s father figure who slowly realizes what he must do to rid his adopted son of this awful curse.
Another fumble made by The Curse of the Werewolf is the make-up effects and a certain end transformation scene that features some seriously cheap effects. As far as the overall look of Leon’s hairy werewolf, he looks okay at a brief glance but there is nothing that really sticks with the viewer. It has a vague demonic look, especially when Reed shoots piercing stares your way, but it doesn’t leave the impression that Jack Pierce’s make-up still makes today. The other bumpy moment comes when Leon begins to transform into a werewolf. The viewer is treated to a close-up of the some of the fakest looking hands you have ever seen, the back of Reed’s head as he makes growling noises, and a brief mid-transformation glimpse of his face. On the one hand, it’s understandable considering the film was made in 1961, but there were transformation scenes that were infinitely more frightening that came before this. Overall, The Curse of the Werewolf packs plenty of moments that generate some heart pounding suspense and anticipation, but the story takes way too long to finally unleash full on terror. Then there is Reed, who frankly was miscast in the role of Leon. Despite its flaws, Fisher and Hinds never forget to explore the bestiality of man, even the one’s that seem extremely mild mannered.
The Curse of the Werewolf is available on DVD.