May 12, 2009

Werewolf Movies

When I was a kid, I found werewolf movies unbearably scary. Late at night, I would have sneaked quietly in the living room to watch some movie, say Silver Bullet (1985), and then spend most of the running time with my eyes covered by a sweaty piece of blanket. I was scared of the werewolves even when they were in their "normal" human shapes - there was something wrong about them.

This fright of mine might have had something to do with the mega-impressive poster for The Company of Wolves that hung from the walls of my neighborhood video store, adding fuel to my fantasies every time I'd drop by to rent a VHS. "How did that wolf get in there?" I was thinking. "Is it possible for the man to have eaten the wolf?" I was shocked, my already weak grasp of human anatomy completely shattered by the remote possibility that there could be enough space for a full grown wolf in the adult man's body.

Well, years passed, and at some point I finally watched The Company of Wolves only to realize that I had known it all along as the Little Red Riding Hood story. Nowadays, having read so much additional literature, I also know what the wolf-inside-the-man poster really signifies (Mr. Hyde, please say hello). Does any of it help? No, not at all. I still feel rather uncomfortable with werewolf movies, more so than with any other subgenre, and if you ask me why, the following list is what I would have to offer instead of an answer: 

1. The Company of Wolves (1984)

As someone somewhere said, The Company of Wolves is not really a horror movie but a complex psychologically charged tale about growing up into adolescence. Your preferred analyst - Freud? Jung? - gets an invitation as well, as most of the story is told through dreams that often go in unexpected directions. Brought to the screen by director Neil Jordan along with masterful design and transformation scenes, this movie is rather hard to find but it is a truly unforgettable experience that will change your outlook on folklore fairy tales and scary movies.

2. Howling (1981)

Forget slashers, the Michaels and Jasons of the world. If you want to know where scary movies really were at in the 1980's, just check out The Howling, a film that single-handedly brought back the werewolf to the mainstream, all while presenting a critique on the werewolf tale and some of the media issues that would define the rest of the decade. Forever tied through the special effects department to that other werewolf film that hit cinemas only months later in 1981 (see below), The Howling is slightly weak on characterization but it completely makes up for it with a plot that is both fast-moving and neatly layered, and of course, the transformation scene that would set the standard for ever and ever. Oh, and please disregard those wrecks that pose as sequels - the people behind them have been punished enough.

3. Dog Soldiers (2002)

Dog Soldiers is a beast of the best kind: a tabloid werewolf version of Predator (1987) on steroids! That director Neil Marshall knows what he's doing can be picked up from the start, especially as we get to know the main characters of the ride that follows, the British soldiers sent to a disastrous training mission in the Scottish wilderness. Apart from the frenzied action sequences that run through the second half of the film, what really sets Dog Soldiers apart is the strong attitude and cheeky humor that cut deep through its bones. The film isn't boring for a single second and that last shot is bloody brilliant both in its irony and the double meaning that few people have really picked on - was everything in the film just a retelling of what the guy has said in the paper?

4. The Wolf Man (1941)

a. Before The Wolf Man and Lon Chaney Jr. there were no werewolves in movies, but only hairy men pretending to be werewolves - just check out Werewolf of London (1935) for comparison; b. Before The Wolf Man there was nothing anywhere about silver being used to hurt or kill werewolves, so this is really where all modern stories began; c. "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..." 'Nuff said.

5. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Trailing The Howling by four months, and thus becoming that other werewolf movie of the year, was probably distressing for director John Landis who had worked on this film as a pet project for no less than 10 years. Luckily, non of the tension-behind-the-scenes shows in the final product, and the film won lots of money upon its release, as well as an Oscar for best make up. What's more important, the serious footed horror comedy combo that Landis re-introduced to cinema works really well 28 years later, even as the special effects - as amazing as they were at the time - have aged significantly. However, one thing has always bugged me about the American Werewolf in London: it is a damn dark movie, maybe too dark, given how likable the main character is and how the humor surrounds his tragedy. Should I mention the transformation scene again? :)

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