It’s New Year’s once again, a time to celebrate humanity surviving long enough to make one more lap around the sun. Instead of doing this by spending time with family and friends, I decided to spend my time hunched over the computer waxing poetic about werewolf movies.
I did something similar last year, compiling a list of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes. My reasoning then was that Twilight Zone marathons are a New Year’s tradition for a lot of folks (including myself), so it would be totally appropriate. My reasoning this year? Well, um… I already made a list of my favorite vampire movies, and ever since then I’ve wanted to do a list of my favorite werewolf movies.
I like talking about werewolves. Sue me.
If that’s not good enough for you, then how about this: January 1st is one of of the 12 nights of Christmas (a period which runs from December 25 until January 6; not to be confused with “The 12 Days of Christmas,” which is an irritating Christmas carol). In German folklore, it is said that a child born during the 12 nights of Christmas is cursed to become a werewolf. Boom. There you go, there’s your werewolf connection.
Also it’s Wednesday. And Wednesday starts with a W, just like “werewolf.” So there.
“Out by sixteen or dead in this scene, but together forever.” That’s the pact made by semi-suicidal sisters Ginger and Brigitte, who abhor the monotony of “normal life.” For them, nothing is scarier than the looming inevitability of puberty, no fate more hellish than the hormone-fueled melodrama it threatens. Thus, when Ginger’s first menstrual cycle kicks in, it’s nightmare enough. Too bad it just so happens to coincide with the full moon. Too bad the smell of blood attracts a certain lupine predator. Too bad Ginger gets bit. As her sister’s body and behavior both undergo a drastic metamorphosis, Brigitte begins to suspect there’s more at play here than just coming-of-age growing pains.
Though neither the first film nor the last to use lycanthropy as a metaphor for burgeoning sexuality (hell, it’s not even the only example on this list), rarely has it been done this well. Ginger Snaps is not only a brilliant deconstruction of werewolf mythology that explores themes of female adolescence and alienation, it’s also a heartbreaking tragedy about a once inseparable bond of love slowly disintegrating into loss and loneliness.
Werewolves on Wheels
Now is that a title, or is that a title? On the opposite end of the respectability spectrum from Ginger Snaps, Werewolves on Wheels exists for no other reason than to cash in on the biker gang and occult horror cinema trends of the 1970s. Unashamed of its meager ambitions, this flick embraces the tropes of both genres wholeheartedly, enthusiastically distilling them into a heady batch of 666 proof moonshine.
Played largely by actual honest-to-hog bikers (as well as “Eve of Destruction folk singer Barry McGuire!), the Devil’s Advocates make for a motley crew of hellraising outlaws, burning daylight and rubber alike on the dusty desert blacktop, stopping only to guzzle booze, drop acid, and, uh, read tarot cards. When night falls, they stop to make camp outside an abandoned church, which is coincidentally crawling with devil-worshiping cultists (natch). Before you can say “Hail Satan,” the bikers find themselves on the wrong side of a black magic ritual, one-by-one falling to the denim ‘n’ leather skinwalkers in their midst. All this, and a trippy guitar soundtrack that accompanies some serious psychedelic cinematography! What’s not to love?
Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf
As befitting of a mythic archetype that’s existed for as long and across as many cultures as the werewolf, folklore offers up a seemingly endless list of different ways of becoming a lycanthrope: being bitten, being cursed, selling your soul to the devil, eating human flesh, etc. Some folks simply never had a chance. Some folks’ only sin was being born. Nazareno Cruz, for instance, had the rotten luck of being a widowed woman’s seventh son. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal, until the day he falls in love with a blond beauty and the devil himself comes calling. If Nazareno denies himself this chance at romance, the devil will make him rich. If not, the circumstances of his birth will turn him into a beast and his soul will be bound for hell.
A loose adaptation of the Argentian myth of Lobizón, Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf is not well-known outside its native country, despite being Argentina’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category for the 1976 Oscars. That’s a shame, because this is truly transcendent filmmaking. Moody and meditative, the picture becomes a kind of cinematic tone-poem with its oodles of atmosphere and beautiful surrealist imagery (a good chunk of the film actually takes place in the very hell that Nazareno is bound for). Its rare for a werewolf movie to embrace such an ambitious arthouse aesthetic. Rarer still for that approach to work. But work it does, and what it works is wonders.
The Wolf Man
Hardly a surprising selection, but nonetheless an essential one. Though not actually the first werewolf movie, The Wolf Man is nevertheless the prototype for all cinematic stories of lycanthropy to follow. Arguably the saddest of all Universal Monsters, the blue-collar likeability of star Lon Chaney, Jr. in the role of poor Larry Talbot makes it all the harsher when Talbot discovers that he himself is the inhuman killer prowling the forests at night, preying on innocent townsfolk. Even worse is that the only “cure” for his condition is death (a peace constantly denied him, as evidenced by Chaney reprising the role in no less than four sequels).
While it establishes much of modern werewolf lore, this alone does not make The Wolf Man a true classic. Instead, that status is guaranteed by director George Waggner’s dreamy fog-shrouded set-pieces, screenwriter Curt Sidomak’s tight and often poetic script, FX pioneer Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup design, and a top-shelf cast that teams Chaney with Claude Raines, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, and “Queen of the B’s,” Evelyn Ankers.
If The Wolf Man was too “safe” a recommendation for you, try this on for size: Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bête might very well be the only motion picture boasting a graphic depiction of werewolf ejaculation. At least it’s the only one I know of. Though unsurprisingly controversial at the time of its release (the film was heavily cut in most countries and came dangerously close to be prosecuted as obscenity in the UK), those who dismiss La Bête as just a collection of scandalous provocations are missing out.
Based loosely on Prosper Mérimée’s 19th century novella Lokis, itself a riff on Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast (coincidentally first popularized via an abridged adaptation written by Mérimée’s own great-grandmother!), La Bête is an erotic adult fairy tale about a contentious arranged marriage between a beautiful young heiress and the disfigured, socially stunted son of a scheming marquis. Discovering a local legend about a half-human half-animal creature that once terrorized the countryside, the heiress finds herself increasingly drawn to her brutish betrothed and haunted by sexually charged nightmares in which she is ravaged by the aforementioned creature of myth. In the end, however, her own animal urges might be more than a match for both man and beast. If you’re wondering if this is basically just porn, the answer is yes. If you’re wondering if porn can be art, the answer is again yes. La Bête is both.
While vampires have enjoyed a diverse bounty of characterizations—from luxuriant castle-dwelling sex-symbols and hardboiled film-noir gumshoes to trenchcoat-clad post-Matrix kung-fu fighters and gaudily-garbed comic-book superheroes—the humble werewolf has often been relegated to two modes: the uncontrollable bloodthirsty beast and the luckless sad-sack who is, well, doomed to become an uncontrollable bloodthirsty beast. Not so in Kibakichi, Tomo’o Haraguchi’s horror/fantasy/action hybrid set in medieval Japan, wherein the title character is a wandering swordsman who just so happens to also be a wandering wolf-man.
Eschewing realism, seriousness, and even good taste in favor of pure unadulterated entertainment value, this flick takes the traditional chanbara genre and pumps it up to outrageous anime-influenced extremes. It’s not enough that our hero is a katana-slashing wire-fu shapeshifter samurai; Haraguchi throws in all sorts of craziness, including anachronistic machine-gun shootouts and a bunch of rubber-suited demons plucked right out of yokai folklore. Sometimes less is more. Other times more is more. This is one of the latter times.
With a title as straightforward as Werewolf Woman and a director like Rino Di Silvestro (Women in Cell Block 7, Deported Women of the SS Special Section) at the helm, you’d think this would be a fairly run-of-the-mill exploitation creature-feature. You’d be wrong. Though it liberally cribs imagery from traditional skinwalker flicks and also makes use of a typical revenge-film structure during its final act, as a whole Werewolf Woman is a different kind of beast entirely.
More psychological thriller than fur-flingin’ monster mash, the titular character (played with disturbing ferocity by the underrated Annik Borel) is convinced she’s a lycanthrope, frequently bedding men only to tear their throats out afterward. Did she really inherit the shapeshifter gene from some long-ago descendant burned at the stake for werewolfism, or is this all just a delusion triggered by her deeply buried childhood sexual-assault trauma crashing headlong into her own natural urges as an adult woman? Some might argue this isn’t a “true” werewolf movie, but Di Silvestro walks the tightrope of ambiguity just right. Despite its low budget and copious ham ‘n’ cheese (this is 1970s grindhouse fare, what do you expect?), Werewolf Woman stands out as a psychosexual sleaze-cinema gem.
An American Werewolf in London
Behold, the single greatest werewolf transformation scene ever immortalized on film! While special-effect legend Rob Bottin deserves credit for the bladder-based make-ups he used in the earlier released The Howling, just a few months later the equally legendary Rick Baker would raise the bar to a whole ‘nother level in An American Werewolf in London. Filmed entirely in harsh light (in contrast to Bottin’s transformations, which were partially in shadow) and using an entire FX shop’s worth of cutting-edge techniques, never before had a beast-man’s birth been realized with such torturous detail.
Facial features distort. Flesh stretches. Bones snap. The sight of it is unforgettable even in a picture already loaded with memorable moments, from the horrifying (the shockingly brutal nazi-werewolf dream sequence) to the tender (the doomed romance between leads David Naughton and Jenny Agutter) to the hilarious (the frequent visitations from Griffin Dunne’s increasingly deteriorated quip-happy ghost). An American Werewolf in London is a rare animal able to juggle a variety of moods without ever losing its gravitas. Just like The Wolf Man, this was never not going to make the list.
The Howling II
Speaking of The Howling, Joe Dante’s tale of a resort-dwelling shapeshifter cult is itself a damn good werewolf movie, even a great one. But this isn’t a list of the “greatest” werewolf movies, it’s a list of my personal favorites werewolf movies. So while the 1981 original is probably technically a better film, it’s the campy 1985 sequel that truly deserves mention here.
In what feels like a the result of some producer taking a completely unrelated script and hastily replacing every use of the word “vampire” with “werewolf,” The Howling II (AKA The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf AKA The Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch) sees a bored-looking Christopher Lee on a quest through Transylvania to slay the centuries-old Queen of the Werewolves, played by grindhouse goddess Sybil Danning. Lots of lasers, exploding eyeballs, and hairy lycanthrope threesomes ensue. ProTip: Stick around for the end credits, where some new-wave band you’ve never heard of belts out the surprisingly catchy Howling II theme song while a greatest-hits clipshow of the movie you just watched plays onscreen (one infamous shot of Danning doffing her top is hilariously repeated no less than 17 times).
The Werewolf Vs. Vampire Woman
While Lon Chaney, Jr. will always be pop culture’s alpha wolf-man (and deservedly so), eternally snapping at his heels is Spain’s homegrown creature-feature icon, Paul Naschy. Naschy not only starred in but also wrote, directed, and produced dozens of horror films, spanning from the late 1960s until his death in the early 2000s. Of all the characters he portrayed, however, none is more beloved than long-suffering lycanthrope Waldemar Daninsky, essayed by Naschy in no less than 12 movies. My favorite of these is The Werewolf Vs. Vampire Woman (also known as Walpurgis Night, Werewolf Shadow, Night of the Bloody Witches, The Black Mass of Countess Dracula, and about a hundred other titles).
A brooding monster-mash steeped in gothic eroticism, occult imagery, and gratuitous gore, this film affects you in a way I can only liken to getting stoned while listening to a playlist of drone metal and old Halloween sound-effects records. And snarling at the center of it all is Naschy, imbuing Chaney’s tragic lupine archetype with a muscular savagery sure to leave even the fiercest Universal Monster quaking in terror.
The Company of Wolves
Unlike vampires, who have a canonized literary legacy dating all the way back to the 19th century contributions of John Polidori and Bram Stoker, werewolves have their roots more in folklore than in fiction. Simply put, fewer werewolf books exist. Which means fewer classic werewolf books exist. Which means fewer movies based on classic werewolf books exist. It’s notable that, unlike the Dracula and Frankenstein, Universal’s The Wolf Man was not based on a work of preexisting literature but was instead created whole-cloth for the screen; much of today’s popular werewolf mythology—the full moon, the vulnerability to silver, etc.—owe its codification to The Wolf Man.
I’m not here to talk about The Wolf Man, though. I’m here to talk about one of the few werewolf movies that actually is based on a great work of literature, and which is in turn pretty damn great itself. Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves adapts several stories from The Bloody Chamber, a collection of revisionist fairy tales by Angela Carter. The result is a lavish, lyrical, lycranthrope-laden anthology. The main narrative, a twist on “Little Red Riding Hood,” sees a young girl visiting her forest-dwelling grandmother, who relates a series of surreal and sexually charged parables about the beasts which lurk inside of men. The question becomes: What sort of beasts lurk in women? Like the aforementioned Ginger Snaps, The Company of Wolves is an allegory for sexual awakening. However, it benefits from a much greater scope and a intentionally artificial, ethereal aesthetic that proves equal parts menacing and mesmerizing.