A Very Brief Introduction to Werewolf Films
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.
-Words by Curt Siodmak, The Wolf Man (Universal Studios, 1941)
Everyone loves a good werewolf film, right? This month I’ll be celebrating everything lycanthrope, from legends and urban myths to a punctuated summary of my favorite werewolf films throughout the history of cinema. For starters, let me define the sub-genre by saying that werewolf films are a branch of horror films that feature a shape-shifting entity or entities that transform from human to wolf. That’s my purest definition.
Note I didn’t say beast or monster. When Dirk Benedict transformed by way of John Chamber’s makeup into a King Cobra in Sssssss (1973), or Faith Domergue becomes a vengeful cobra in Cult of the Cobra (1955) they didn’t become werewolves. They became snakes. Nor did Mr. Hyde or Simone Simon in Cat People (1942) become werewolves. She of course became a panther in Cat People, a film that expands on the Robert Lewis Stevenson tale about good and evil.
Dracula is a bit of a paradox -he’s a vampire, but has lycanthrope tendencies. At one point in Dracula (1931), at Carfax Abbey, Bela Lugosi actually changes into and runs away as a wolf! Werewolf? I guess he is, but I consider Dracula the definitive vampire narrative. Even the silents got in the act, with Graf Orlak (Max Schreck) changing into a hyena in Nosferatu (1922). I don’t consider Nosferatu to be a werewolf film. In Werner Herzog’s superb remake (1979), Klaus Kinksi’s Count Dracula changes into a pack of rats!
There are plenty of other pseudo-werewolf films. Robert Clarke’s The Hideous Sun Demon (1959), has similarities to werewolf cinema. In a clever spin, it is exposure to sunlight (not the full moon) that triggers his transfiguration into the title b-movie character. I consider that film a creature feature all the way. No werewolves here!
I’ll offer my opinion also on wolves, werewolves and wolf men. There’s basically three forms of werewolves: 1) the upright bi-pedal wolf-human hybrid (e.g. Oliver Reed in Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf, 1961); 2) the wolf-like quadruped beasts with fast reflexes and animal locomotion (An American Werewolf in London, 1981); and true wolves that were once humans (Bela Lugosi in The Wolf Man, 1941 or the shape-shifters in Wolfen, 1981). There’s a forth group, not high on my list, that are created in a computer, and are usually an amalgamation of the first two types. The key to a great werewolf film is not special effects (although it helps having an effective monster), but story. In the next few posts I’ll summarize my favorites from the 30’s and 40’s.