The Werewolf (1956)
The word lycanthropy is defined as a human being having the power of becoming a wolf or of having the power of turning another human into a wolf. Some say that lycanthropy stems from nothing but myth and superstition, yet the belief that a human can turn into a wolf has persisted since the dark ages to this very day. It’s a universal belief. The ancient Romans and Greeks wrote of the phenomenon. There are tales of such happenings in Borneo, Turkey, South America -everywhere. The American Navajo Indians and other tribes tell stories about wolf-men. The legends have persisted from the beginnings of man’s memory of time. Why? Why haven’t these tales died? The tales that say wolf-men roam the earth…
The opening moments of The Werewolf (1956) depict a sick man walking up a street into the field of view. The narrator, director Fred F. Sears, introduces the audience to the mythology of lycanthropy. The setting is a rural town -there’s a local bar Chad’s Place, which plays contemporary jazz/swing, a real estate agency, a Rexall drugstore, a greasy spoon and a Union 76 Gasoline station. This is the kind of environment you see depicted in a 1950’s film of small town America. It reminds me of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, precisely painted in-situ by DOP Sam Leavitt in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1956). Remember lawyers Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) and McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) sipping beers and eating hard-boiled eggs? The Werewolf offers the same rural feel.
The movie was shot in the environs around Big Bear Lake, in the San Bernardino National Forest of California. To me, the town is one of the characters of the film. It helps accentuate lycanthrope Duncan Marsh’s (Steven Ritch) condition. A werewolf running around forested woodland seems more appropriate, and suspenseful, than one in a city. Remember Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)? The film was moved from Kevin McCarthy’s small town to San Francisco. Somehow the paranoia was lost in the update.
The Werewolf is a bit of an anomaly. This is a low-key film that plays to me like a made-for-TV film from the 70’s. I like the story which unfolds like a mystery. The nuclear-fallout vaccine that induces Marsh’s transformation is a novel atomic age twist on the werewolf tale. Steven Ritch is stiff in the lead role, but I can live with that. The werewolf makeup by Clay Campbell (The Return of the Vampire, 1944) is effective, with fangs and nice drool effects, but the transformation sequences are rushed and the dissolves do not properly overlay (the de-transformation looks better). Still, this is one of the better-looking werewolves in film history. In a sequence similar to The Wolf Man (1941) we even see the title monster caught in a spring trap.
The film has a solid cast of familiar character actors. I particularly like no-nonsense actor Don Megowan, who plays the sympathetic local sheriff. He comes from the Clint Walker school of characters -he’s a cowboy; he’s straight forward, authoritative, common-sensical, reliable, and big. You just know the sheriff will get his man in the end.
The Werewolf was competently helmed by veteran actor/director Fred F. Sears (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 1956; The Giant Claw, 1957; The Night the World Exploded, 1957), who sadly, died in 1957 of a heart attack. He was 44 years old.
The Werewolf is available for purchase as The Sam Katzman Icons of Horror Collection (The Giant Claw, Creature with the Atomic Brain, Zombies of Mora Tau, The Werewolf) DVD Set