Saturday, February 19, 2011

Top 13: All Time Best Werewolf Movies

by Nickolas Cook

Welcome to another Black Glove Top 13 list, brought to you by our staff of true-blue Horrorheads. One of our favorite monsters in horror cinema is the good old standby since the silent era of film, the Lycanthrope, commonly known as the Werewolf, although, as proven by our Top 13 list from our April 2010 issue #10, in which we listed 13 of the greatest and oddest were-creatures in cinematic history, it’s easy to see why the hirsute shape shifters aren’t the only shifters to worry about in the dark of the night, when the moon is full...
But this month we’re going to list our Top 13 All-Time Best Werewolf movies. You may see plenty of familiar and unsurprising movies on the list, especially if you’re a Horrorhead who grew up in the 80s. But I think you might also find a couple of films on our list that will surprise you, maybe even leave you wondering why we chose them over other werewolf films.
What you will not see on this list are crap-fests like “Van Helsing” (2004), or the “Underworld” shit-o-rama series (2003-2009). And you certainly will not find terrible attempts at sequels, such as “An American Werewolf in Paris” (1997), or the latest in a long line of dried up, moronic remakes, such “The Wolfman” (2010), or movies that rely mostly on CGI effects over honest, imaginative animatronics, puppetry and makeup special effects. Movies so badly done that a true Horrorhead can only cry out in anguish: “Oh, Jack Pierce! Where are you?!”
But, of course, Jack Pierce is dead. Has been since 1968, a year before I was born. But his legacy lived on into my childhood and he became a sort of special effects hero to me and a whole new generation of Monster Kids in the 70s and 80s (and if you don’t know what a Monster Kid is, then stop by here and check out some of the most famous ones who are doing the good work of keeping the legacy alive: Monster Kids Forum. Jack Pierce helped create a whole new generation of special effects artists in 70s and 80s Hollywood, including such famous artists as Stan Winston, Tom Savini, the great Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and others, who became special effects heroes to millions of horror fans with their work in several of the movies which appear on this month’s Top 13 list.
Why are special effects so integral to the ‘werewolf’ movie?
Well, quite simply, since Pierce’s classic special effects work in the original 1941 “The Wolfman”, the transformation scene has become the major scene in every werewolf movie. Needless to say, some have done it better than others, and some have even managed to carry the scene with a subtly that transcends the need for big money special effects. But the unfortunate fact is that too many have just plain sucked at it and these films leave the audience anything but terrified.
Some of the movies on the list will reflect the transformation scene’s importance to the genre.
Others will reflect their cultural importance to the genre, an unconscious social and moral symbolism, which helped steer modern horror cinema down new avenues.
And still others…well, they made it on the list because of their personal importance to me and most of The Black Glove Staff. Even though they might not have the razzle dazzle of big studio productions, or even the social significance as described above, they meant a great deal to me and other horror fans.
Unfortunately, because of list constraints, we had to leave off a few great genre films- “Wolfen” (1981), “Ladyhawke” (1985), and “Monster Squad” (1987)- and even one awesome music video, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983), because they were tangential choices at best and didn’t really have enough werewolf in them to make the list. So think not that we forgot them; we just had to make hard choices to keep the integrity of the list intact.
But enough about what didn’t make our list. Without further ado, please enjoy The Black Glove’s Top 13 All Time Best Werewolf Movies (by year of release).

1. The Werewolf of London (1935)

The handful of silent films featuring werewolves notwithstanding, such as “The Werewolf” (1913) and “Le Loup Garou” (1923), this is the first big studio production featuring our hairy monster of the night. Universal Studios used part of the historical legend of the lycanthrope for this film, and had two of their big males actors, Warner Oland and Henry Hull, both of which would go onto bigger screen roles than “The Werewolf of London”, to tell the story of a brilliant, but egotistical, young botanist who travels to Tibet in search of a legendary flower with extraordinary lunar properties. But he’s not the only one searching for the flower in the high snowy mountaintops; Hull encounters a savage stranger who attacks him, leaves a nasty bite and the inevitable curse. Once back in London, Hull tries to stop his transformations and subsequent bloody murders by extracting the juice of the lunar flower during the full moon. Unfortunately that’s also when he turns into a werewolf, which makes wearing a lab coat sort of difficult, to say the least.
Oland, who turns out to be the savage stranger from the Tibetan mountains who is also a werewolf, tells Hull that part of the curse is that he will "kill the thing he most loves”. Which makes Hull’s wife pretty nervous.
Not to spoil the film, but it takes the inevitable tragic turn, as you can imagine.
The transformation scene does nothing to herald the truly genre classic special effects work of our next movie on the list.

2. The Wolf Man (1941)

Now this is THE classic werewolf movie of all time. Written by famous Hollywood genre writer and screenwriter Curt Siodmak (spelled several different ways in the credits of the literally hundreds of movies he wrote), this is the one which created the rules of lycanthropy—namely silver bullets, pentagram in the palm of the hand of the next victim, and the full body transformation during the full moon.
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., son to famous special effects/actor Lon Chaney, this tells the tragic story of Larry Talbot, who comes back to the family castle after the death of his older brother, where his father hopes to hand over the Barony to him upon his own death.
During a moonlight stroll with his romantic interest, poor Larry is bitten by a gypsy werewolf (played by Bela Lugosi, after his classic roles with Universal Studios were already on the downslide), and soon he’s howling at the moon and attacking anyone stupid enough to go out into the night without a crucifix and silver bullets.
And as with most werewolf films, this also takes the tragic turn by film’s end, but with this one Chaney’s performance (maybe the best of his career) lends it an emotional weight that most werewolf movies don’t have. This is truly a must-see classic of the horror genre, let alone the werewolf sub-genre.
One of the big sales of this film is the transformation scene, created and produced by the legendary special effects artist extraordinaire, Jack Pierce. This set the bar for all special effects in werewolf cinema to follow.

3. I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

This film is famous for a couple of reasons. First of all, it starred Michael Landon, who went on to star in two well-known family friendly series, “Little House On the Prarie” (1974-1983) and “Highway to Heaven” (1984-1989). But this little ditty from American International Pictures (a studio that made its living producing and distributing cheap, socially and culturally opportunistic movies for teen audiences) is anything but family friendly. Landon plays an angry teenager who can’t keep out of fights at his high school. When he’s turned over to the local doctor for treatment, the evil doc, played by genre great Whit Bissell, hypnotizes him into letting his inner beast out. And before he knows it, poor young Landon is getting all furry and randy, and begins to go after his rock n’ roll lovin’, soda sippin’ teen friends, killing them off when he’s under the doc’s hypnotic influence. But beyond the all the growling and salivating, this is also a film about teen rebellion, symbolized by Landon’s propensity to get all hairy and violent whenever he loses his temper. It managed, along with dozens of other 1950s AIP movies, to touch a social nerve and has become a cult classic.

4. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Next up, we finally get to the first of the foreign films on our list, Hammer Films Productions’ “The Curse of the Werewolf”. In the 60s, Hammer was the king of horror. They re-launched all those old classic Universal monsters, and along with AIP, managed to keep the horror light burning. Their particular vision for the new improved werewolf was this 1961 film which borrows from Guy Endore’s 1933 novel, “The Werewolf of Paris”. Oliver Reed plays the offspring of an insane beggar who rapes a mute servant woman. Orphaned, he is taken in by a rich family and raised as their own, but when he reaches adulthood, the curse strikes and he begins to transform into a werewolf who savages the unlucky local villagers and their cattle. This is a richly filmed period piece, set in 18th century Spain, and filled with wonderful colors and production details that only Hammer could pull off. The transformation scene isn’t as important as the final look of the werewolf, which looks nothing like any Lycanthrope before, with Reed’s huge build, covered in dark gray fur and blood encrusted lips, jagged teeth and pointed ears. Unlike the other classic monsters that Hammer made various sequels for, they never did another werewolf film. Although they followed the logical psychological line and made quite a few Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde films, the human werewolf without fur.

5. La Marca del Hombre-lobo (The Mark of the Wolfman) (1968)

There’s only been one actor like Paul Naschy (aka Jacinto Molina), and there’s only been one werewolf like the Count Waldemar Daninsky. At his death in late 2009, Naschy had played the antihero werewolf in no less than a dozen films, and appeared in dozens of other horror films. He was a highly respected actor/director/writer/producer in his home country of Spain, and has gone on to become a cult icon in the industry. This is his first appearance as Daninsky, in which Naschy played the tragic Count who is bitten by a fellow werewolf. After killing innocent villagers during one of his transformations, he desperately seeks aid from two specialists, who unfortunately for our well meaning Count happen to also be vampires. Yeah, the Spanish love their monster mashes, and didn’t think anything of throwing just about everything but the kitchen sink in their exploitation flicks. But if you dig a little deeper, there is always a social and cultural symbolic examination going on. You might have to push a load of cheese out of the way to get to it, but it’s there, nonetheless. For instance, some critics have remarked that “Mark of the Wolf Man” is in essence about the then current struggle of the lower and middle classes against their aristocratic overlords in government and especially the Catholic church. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. All I know if I have a damn great time watching Naschy in any movie, but me and all his other fans will always love him best as the poor cursed Count Daninsky.

6. The Werewolf vs. The Vampire Woman (1971)

This is another Naschy werewolf masterpieces, but it transcends all of the other Hombre Lobo films purely on its ambient mixture of slow dream like beauty and terror. The cinematography is still to be admired, even if some people might not care for the acting and production values. You have to at least hand it to the Spanish horror filmmakers of the 60s and 70s: they knew what worked (for instance, see Amando de Ossorio’s The Blind Dead series for that same strange mix of dreamlike terror and beauty). And while many might even say the transformation scene isn’t much better than any of the other Daninsky films, this one still manages to look better than most of the other 70s exploitation horror films involving werewolves (see “Werewolf of Washington” (1973) and “The Beast Must Die” (1974))This time Count Daninksy must battle an ageless vampire queen, while also falling in love with a stranded young woman who becomes his true love for the next hour and a half on screen. That is until she must kill him, as foretold by the legends (borrowed, by the way, from Siodmak’s Universal monster movie rules). This is one hell of a great old fashioned horror film, which tries to straddle the Gothic and the urban at once. Another reason why this movie deserves healthy recognition from Horrorheads around the world.

7. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

And this is when Hollywood began to get damn serious about their horror. You might even say this is when Hollywood began its systematic suffocation of an entire genre of cinema which always worked best when there wasn’t a lot of money to be had and cast and crew had to work hard to make their product believable. Despite what we can now historically see as the beginning of the end with such professionally made fanboy films as “An American Werewolf in London” (and our next film on the list), one still has to hand it to director John Landis and special effects artist Rick Baker for bringing werewolves into the limelight and treating them a long dormant respect, missing since the days of Universal’s monster movies.
When two young American men find themselves hiking during a full moon across the moors, they are warned by the requisite torch wielding villagers against such foolhardy travel arrangements. But being silly, arrogant Americans, they decide to do so anyway. Of course one of them gets bitten by a werewolf and becomes a werewolf himself. This is part comedy and part horror, a mixture which Landis handles very well (he should, having been previously the director of both “Animal House” (1978) and “The Blues Brothers” (1980)), using gore to help both the comedy and the horror in equal measure. But the true star of this film is Rick Baker’s special effects work. An incredibly physically detailed transformation scene that had never been attempted before actually makes you HURT to watch it. Flesh stretches, bone cracks and reforms, hair rips its way out of human skin. It truly must be seen to be believed, and until the advent of shitty CGI effects in every fucking scene in every fucking horror film, this was the bar for all other effects artists to rise to. It was the scene which drove all other horror to the special effects breaking point.

8. The Howling (1981)

That same year, another ground-breaking werewolf horror film was released, this one directed by Joe Dante, with a wryly humorous, but wholly respectful to classic horror, script written by none other than the great John Sayles (and if you don’t know who he is, get off your butt and rent his movies—all of them).
This one plays with genre expectations and blows them away. Again, the special effects have a lot to do with why this movie is to be respected in the genre. Special Effects guru Rob Bottin must have seen what Baker was doing for “An American Werewolf in London” and decided he had to try and top him. It was damn close. Again, Bottin takes the physically detailed and painful to watch route for his transformation scenes, making the viewer squirm in empathetic agony.
When a young female reporter is attacked and nearly raped and killed by a mysterious serial killer, she is sent to a remote woodland getaway with her husband to receive treatment from a famous psychologist. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that there’s something else stalking the woods than her mild psychosis. This time, there’s more than one werewolf. There’s an entire community of them, led by a sexy wolf bitch who wants to make humans their cattle.
Sadly, I just couldn’t find my way to including its first follow up, “The Howling II: Your Sister’s a Werewolf” (1985), simply because it was so bad…but the kind of bad we Horrorheads are always looking for in the genre.

9. The Company of Wolves (1984)

This is without a doubt the most unusual and the most literary of all the werewolf movies ever made. Based on Angela Carter’s short fiction, director Neil Jordon created an ambient fairy tale sense to this collection of vignettes that go to make up the movie, with its wraparound story of a young girl and her sometimes sinister grandmother, who likes to tell her scary tales of beastly men who stalk and eat young girls. The movie floats back and forth between the lines of nightmare and dreamland, at times giving the viewer gore and terror of the dark, and at other times sending the viewer into wispy, pastel colored shadowland of half remembered scenes of childhood. A place where trees grow into twisted shapes and hold the darkness of the forest close to their bosom A place where sunsets linger forever just on the periphery of vision and clear water runs from high mountains into perfect blue streams through the forest primeval.
Jordon takes his time with the scenery, allowing the camera to linger across the shadowed landscape. The various transformation scenes become more bestial with each new vignette, until by movie’s end, we have a full fledge canine leaping across the screen. The movie should have at least been nominated for an Oscar, if for nothing more than the cinematography. Highly recommended to those who claim horror films can’t be terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

10. Silver Bullet (1985)

Based on Stephen King’s (did you really he wasn’t going to make it on this list?) novella “Cycle of the Werewolf” (1983) this is one of the better of the 80s adaptations of his works, despite the many detractors. I guess somewhere along the way it became fashionable to cut down the man who helped make the genre a worldwide success.
In any case, this film somewhat successfully mixes coming-of-age story with straight up horror and then some. Starring one of the Coreys (Corey Haim, to be exact, who would also turn up in one of the most famous vampire movies a few years later, “The Lost Boys” (1987)), this is the story of a small town plagued with bloody murders by a mysterious killer. Haim plays a handicapped young boy who accidentally discovers the identity of the killer, and the fact that he’s not human. He finally convinces his sister and booze soaked loser of an uncle, played by Gary Busey, of the veracity of his impossible story. But unfortunately he doesn’t manage to do it before the next full moon and soon they’re trapped inside their home while the werewolf killer tears the house down to silence his accusers.
The special effects are good, but nowhere near as sophisticated as the transformations in “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London”. But, of course, with King it’s story that counts most and that’s what makes this one a classic of the genre. There’s heart and horror aplenty.

11. Wolf (1994)

The only film of the 1990s to appear in this list. Mainly for two reasons: first, it was a fairly shitty decade for horror, as diminishing returns and Hollywood cornholing finally signed horror’s death certificate around the same time Wes Craven decided that the genre deserved derision in the form of “Scream” (1996); secondly, there weren’t very many werewolf movies in the entire decade. “Wolf”, a big studio horror film, with all that money could buy, including stars Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, and director Mike Nichols. The problem is that when you have that kind of money being thrown at the screen, it usual means it’s going to be made for the lowest common denominator. Fortunately for we horror fans, Nichols was well aware of that danger and kept his film mature and emotional. It’s basically a male menopause story with hair, but Jack makes it work.
When book editor Nicholson is bitten by a mysterious wolflike creature one dark night while driving home, he finds himself soon developing some very aggressive tendencies and hypersensitive senses, more animal than human. And when the first full moon rolls across the sky…well, you can guess the rest. Unlike most werewolf movies, this one doesn’t trade as heavily on the tragic part of the monster’s destructive nature, and gives us a fairly upbeat ending. Also, this plays up the positive parts of the emotional and physical changes wrought by the curse.

12. Ginger Snaps (2000)

This is easily the best werewolf movie to ever come out of Canada. And maybe the best of the last 20 or so years. It’s a symbolic take on the curse, but this time from a maturing young girl’s perspective. Just as she is coming of age, and all those scary changes are happening to her body (including Mother Nature’s own curse), she is bitten by a werewolf one night and begins her slow emotional and physical transformation, until she literally becomes the beast she really is inside. This may be one of the hottest werewolves you’ll ever see, but don’t let that fool you. This is one hell of a graphic and gory film. It doesn’t mince on the dark side of the curse, but also doesn’t try to make out the creature to be some misunderstood thing. Ginger welcomes her dark side and the change. She has no problem killing anyone who pisses her off, including her sister, if the mood hits her. She is the animal by movie’s end.
Again, this movie has lots going for it. It shouldn’t be missed.

13. Dog Soldiers (2002)

A modern action werewolf movie that doesn’t suck?
Director Neil Marshall’s debut film was like a horror bomb in a genre that looked as if it was long past dead. If you love werewolves, then you MUST SEE this movie. It’s a modern day classic.
It’s a testosteronic rollercoaster ride, with badass semi auto machine gun locked and loaded soldiers vs. blood thirsty werewolves in an isolated dark wood. Marshall keeps the characters streamlined, while giving us enough emotion to make them realistic and human. He also knows the value of dark humor and throws a few sick jokes and gory sight gags in the film to keep you grimacing and laughing all at once.
The werewolves are, believe it or not, for the most part lifesize puppets and animatronics—something that by 2002 were just about a thing of the past. Love this movie, folks. The future of werewolf movies has a lot to live up to after this one.

--Nickolas Cook