Friday, March 31, 2017

Genre Run-Through: The History of Werewolf Films, Part 2

Welcome back. Last time, we took a look at the historical history of the werewolf, but now we're going into what we usually do here which is go into the films themselves. This post here is about the history of the genre and the major films involved in the launch of the genre.

Our search for the beginnings of the genre takes us to the Great White North, as shockingly the first production involving the creature is not what you may believe it to be. I have a feeling what most might believe it to be, but we rather turn back even further to the silent era as Canada of all places takes the lead with their 1925 effort Wolfblood, a quirky melodrama/horror effort about two rival logging companies at war with each other which becomes complicated when an accident to one of the companies' owners requires a blood transfusion coming from a local mountaineer's pet wolf and the usual lupine activities ensue. Granted, this one is a little hard to swallow in terms of being a true, traditional 'Werewolf' movie as we know it (I personally haven't seen this yet, but a quick glance at the reviews on the linked IMDb page shows quite a bit of time dealing with the logger camp rivalry and the love triangle being the centerpiece of the film long before we get to the werewolf transformation sequence and that doesn't come close to a more traditional offering at all) so it's drama-heavy leanings do overshadow the horror here, but it’s a fine first step.

After this first step, though, it all starts coming a little clearer as the turnover into the sound era gives us our first more commonly-accepted werewolf film. The home of horror in the 1930s, Universal Studios, ushered the first traditional werewolf film in 1935 with Werewolf of London, about a London doctor played by Henry Hull who comes into contact with a strange curse on an expedition to a Tibetan mountainside that turns him into a werewolf when he returns to the city and forces him to come to terms with the affliction. Despite not being as big a hit as other efforts from the studio at the time, this has gone on to become a film whose importance and impact on the genre cannot be underestimated. Due to the first-hand need for turning the character into a wolf/human hybrid at a much earlier time than the previous film, the need for legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce to sculpt the creatures’ look and appearance fostered a common trope with an upright, humanoid look to the beast only to have a slight if still pronounced snout and prodigious hair applied around the face and hands to signify the change into a wolf-like creature.

Beyond this physical work, the film is also noteworthy for introducing several common and readily accepted parts of werewolf mythology even though it’s widely acknowledged that these elements were made up for the film. The instances of a person turning into a werewolf after being bitten or scratched by a wolf on the next full moon after the attack is a trope simply improvised for the film. Last time we saw that werewolves throughout history were commonly shown to be the result of practicing witchcraft and were able to turn into the beast at any time, day or night. This ability to change only at night after a bite or scratch is a complete fabrication but has since gone on to become a part of the accepted norm of the folklore such that nearly every werewolf movie since has adopted. It originated here, though, which needs to be pointed out.

The fact that it wasn’t a huge hit is entirely evident in the fact that it took six years for a follow-up to come, and it’s essentially a wholesale reboot in the grandest style as this leads directly into the undisputed classic The Wolf Man. It still stands the test of time even coming up on it’s 80th Anniversary as the tale of a truly innocent man played by Lon Chaney Jr. corrupted by the power of the beast and turned into a vicious, bloodthirsty beast with the the light of the moon fulfilling the change in earnest, and finally relying on the power of a loved one to put him down for good. Widely claimed as one of the finest horror films in the genre and routinely makes the Top 5 spots in the specific subset of werewolf films as a whole, this holds up as one of the finest efforts in the Universal canon.

What makes the film so impactful beyond it being legitimately enjoyable on its own is the work done to carry the genre along into the future. The original works started in the earlier Werewolf of London, the ability to transform from a wolf bite or scratch as well as the change occurring with the full-moon, were carted over yet slightly updated with the connecting themes brought out with the immortal rhyme: "Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright." This quote has been listed in some sources as an authentic Gypsy or Eastern European folk saying. Nonetheless, writer Curt Siodmak admits that he simply made it up and the rhyme would be recited in every future Universal film appearance of the Wolf Man. Siodmak also claimed that he is responsible for the addition to the canon of the werewolf's vulnerability to silver, and this claim has often been repeated by horror aficionados, including director John Landis. According to legend, however, silver was first used to slay a werewolf in the Beast of Gevaudan, dating from the late 19th century. Novels recounting the legend appeared in the 1930's and featured the slaying of the werewolf with a silver bullet. The Wolf Man was the first film to utilize the silver bullet myth onscreen, though, which is where this claim comes from.

Another prominent aspect here is that the original werewolf designed for London became the design of the werewolf in this film, as the beastly look originally intended for Henry Hull is now the definite look employed for Chaney’s version. These would be repeated throughout the rest of the series in efforts Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and the immortal Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein making for one of the more cohesive and solidly enjoyable franchises.

The enormous success of this film is quite impactful and noticeable, as a slew of imitators emerged in the wake of the films’ release. It’s quite obvious efforts like The Mad Monster, The Undying Monster and Cry of the Werewolf were there to cash-in on the box-office success while it’s easy to see the influence on Cat People in terms of a piece of local folklore coming back to haunt the modern society as well as the effects of the beast emerging through a transformation of one of the protagonists, which was all dropped from the sequel and is more of supernatural drama than a straight-up horror. The further success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman spawned the quickie cash-in Return of the Vampire which again brought the vampire and werewolf together on-screen, but it was obvious a case of dwindling returns saw none of these, bar the Universal franchise and Cat People saw any kind of commercial success. That leaves the lone holdout She-Wolf of London as the last of the cash-ins on the franchise and instead marks the only other film in the decade.

That inevitably lead into the 50s where not a whole lot actually emerged in the genre. A quickie drive-in effort, simply titled The Werewolf appeared in 1956, and a follow-up to the I Was a Teenage franchise with the expected I Was a Teenage Werewolf featuring a young Michael Landon as an angsty teenager who is ingested with a serum and turned into a werewolf who runs loose in a small town. Still, these never did much to inspire much as it became a supporting character in How to Make a Monster alongside the Frankenstein Monster but it’s not important to the film that it’s a werewolf and is instead about a movie shoot so there’s very little about it that even qualifies it for inclusion other than completions sake.

As the 60s emerged, it took the overseas market to finally bring some respectable work for the creature. In Mexico, the legendary comedian Tin Tan offered up a healthy role for the equally-legendary Lon Chaney Jr. in a 1960 spoof of his original Larry Talbot role with La Casa del Terror/The House of Terror, which had a rather odd journey to America as it arrived in the US in 1964 from producer Jerry Warren who took footage from this movie, another Mexican horror effort called La momia azteca/The Aztec Mummy and spliced the two together into a new film called Face of the Screaming Werewolf alongside a few bits of new footage to attempt to make it sensible. Nonetheless, the Mexican original is a stand-out in the genre at the time and provides Chaney with a solid late-career revival of his most famous creation and is most notable as the last time he donned the famous hair and fangs.

Other foreign efforts soon sprang up in the wake of the film’s release. Britain’s Hammer Studios, famous for their resurrection of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, struck first with their own The Curse of the Wolfman featuring Oliver Reed as the son of a peasant girl raped by a prisoner and inheriting the lycanthropic curse which lies dormant when he’s loved and reactivates when he’s deprived of that. A little heavy on the melodramatic side, this still has quite a lot to add to the mythos here with the connection to the lupine activities being held down with the theme of love. Even without the need for silver bullets or special formulas to bring him down, this one really puts an extra emphasis on the creature being controlled and contained in that regard, and it emerges as one of the more intriguing efforts even with its flaws. Still, it did lead to the exploitative Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory which is an interesting time-waster if nothing else.

It took until 1968 for another effort to come forth, but it finally did so with a bang. The immortal Spanish actor Jacinto Molina (or Paul Naschy to his fans), spurned by his years of growing up on the Universal series of films sought to offer his own take on the genre with La marca del hombre-lobo/The Mark of the Wolfman, featuring Molina as a Polish nobleman called Waldemar Daninsky who finds his lineage cursed to undergo lycanthropy for previous misdeeds against a family of witches and forces him to wander the countryside slaughtering the innocent and when he turns to a psychic for help in lifting the curse learns that his charges are actually vampires looking to use him to further their own diabolical plans.

A virtual love-letter to the original films from the 30s and 40s, Naschy had even intended to offer the main role to Chaney one more time who passed on it due to his failing health, necessitating he step into the role himself as the doomed Daninsky. Employing all the familiar tropes established in the Universal series, from the look of the creature to the loved one being the one to finally release him from the curse, the film revitalized the genre and made Naschy an icon in the genre overnight as the success of the film spurned him to usher the Golden Age of Spanish Horror as he had his hand in a vast majority of the classics in the scene and playing every cinematic monster under the sun, from Dracula, The Mummy, a hunchback and many more throughout his career. However, it’s undeniable success spawned a series of films about the creature that lasted from ‘68 until his death in 2009 for a total of thirteen films featured the sympathetic lycanthrope with one of his last roles ending the legacy with Um Lobisomem na Amazônia/A Werewolf in the Amazon. Overall, efforts like La noche de Walpurgis/Werewolf Shadow, La furia del Hombre Lobo/The Fury of the Wolfman, El retorno de Walpurgis/Curse of the Devil and El retorno del Hombre Lobo/Night of the Werewolf helped to solidify his name in the international market offering up the exploits of the character,

Sadly, this output did nothing to diminish the creature’s status as a drive-in staple as the genre was basically ignored for the most part by the major studios as evidenced by the titles Werewolves on Wheels, The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, The Beast Must Die and The Legend of the Werewolf being the only other major titles to emerge in the decade. However, moving into the 80s the genre was at the forefront of the second major renaissance in Horror as they helped to spawn the widespread use of practical, on-set effects that were later to become a hallmark of the films from that time. This was spearheaded by the twin-stylings of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling and are still some of the most beloved titles in the genre. Each has their own specific positives (London has the better characters and action while Howling has more intensity and chills) yet the most important feature to be found here is the groundbreaking special effects work pioneered by both films.

With the exception of Wolfblood and Cry of the Werewolf, every other film that offered an on-screen transformation of the creature through a process known as a time-lapse or a dissolve. Essentially, the actor would go on-set with a few small pieces of make-up applied, whether it be a few splotchy pieces of hair sprouting up around his face, a slightly more pronounced Widow’s Peak in their hair and maybe a slightly elongated set of ears or whatever was used to denote the change, a few frames of footage were shot and the scene was cut. Then several extended pieces of makeup were applied that furthered the specified changes in anatomy (the hair got thicker and covered up more of the face, the fangs started to spring out of the mouth and the ears got both longer and pointier) then they were placed back into the same spot on set and a few more frames of footage shot. This continued on until the process became complete and a normal human was turned into a vicious, snarling, hairy beast out to hunt for human blood. This was the standard and never deviated at all, regardless of effectiveness, for the entirety of the films covered here.

Both London and Howling offered something more, however. With the advancement of rubber prosthetics that could be placed on the skin and then pumped with air, the on-screen effect that emerged was the stretching and deforming of the human body into much different shapes and designs, turning the transformation into a jaw-dropping experience as the humanoid mound of fur that denoted the original wolfmen could now become much more inhuman, a lupine change that offered elongated snouts, exceptionally different claws and fangs and the ability to go into a more canine pose standing on all-fours. They still hold their power to this day, being simply shocking in their concept and flawless in their execution as the sight of people visibly changing and morphing into utterly inhuman creatures remain the stand-out sequences in each film.

Neither film is all that concerned with updating or altering the traditionally-accepted folklore, and in turn, it shows in their adherence to the mysticism offered beforehand. London offers the same tired story of love from another woman to lift the curse, and while Howling tries to point out the fact that werewolves don’t need the full moon to transform and that silver is merely another invention of the movies, the fact that each movie is more remembered for their special effects is what’s to be taken away from here as the fact that these films proved the power of practical effects sees an upswell of films in the decade that utilized the work started here. The list is too numerous to mention and rightly includes many beloved and cherished titles in the genre, from the remakes of The Thing and The Fly to films like Fright Night, Night of the Demons and Evil Dead 2 among numerous others that came about in the decade.

So what was the fallout of this for the genre? Well, in terms of unleashing a flood of titles cashing in on this new craze of werewolf titles, the only real effort from this time-period is Wolfen, a typically different werewolf genre-effort that might not have anything to with the genre as a whole as the tie-in turns itself more into Native American folklore and the Wendigo myth rather than typical werewolf fare. A roundabout title, The Beast Within, concerns itself with the process of a transformation into the creature but doesn’t really show many other similarities to the genre and is more of an outright creature feature anyway. As well, despite their success at the box office neither film is really known for having cash-ins or follow-ups, as London finally got a sequel set in Paris nearly twenty-years later that’s a serviceable effort on its own when not looked at being compared to the original but is clearly a weaker effort.

Howling, though, fared even worse, being a favorite to having the greatest drop-off in quality from an original effort to its sequels as this one nose-dived hard. The first sequel is more renowned for its director placing the singular image of a woman ripping her dress off to reveal her breasts on repeat at least ten times over the course of the finishing credits and could very well be Sir Christopher Lee’s worst film ever. Efforts Three and Four have their charms but it’s still quite clearly dredging the bottom of the barrel; Five is clearly the best of the bunch and comes off rather nicely yet both Six and Seven are just a pure pain to get through, while the reboot was fine if totally underwhelming. More will be told when the franchise comes up later, yet the fact that this one crashed and burned so quickly after reaching such a lofty peak is at least worthy of mention.

Perhaps, that in turn has lead to where we are now, as the modern-day times for the creature has left it strictly rendered back where it was in the 70s, a low-budget staple. Never afforded the same love or care as vampires or even zombies, the genre has now been relegated to the direct-to-video market so even though an effort like Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers or The Wolfman remake will come out those are indeed exceptions to the rule. As well, let’s face facts: they’re supporting characters in the Underworld franchise as those are all about Selene and the vampires.

Now, before we go, it’s also important to note that a few films out there do attempt to try something different with the werewolf formula, for better or worse but are certainly worth a look and at the very least mentioned:

El bosque del lobo/The Wolf’s Forest is a Spanish drama film recounting the trial of one Manuel Blanco Romasanta, credited as Spain’s first serial killer. Indeed, it’s a courtroom drama more than a horror film, but it makes a lot of serious allegations about the curse of lycanthropy in determining one’s own destiny. Don’t know much about it, but a more horror-centered version of the tale, simply called Romasanta, is also available.
The Brotherhood of the Wolf contains a rather incredibly-detailed account of the incidents surrounding the legendary case involving the mythical Beast of Gévaud, one of the legendary werewolf tales from the middle ages.
The Beast of Bray Road appears as a telling of the folklore tale involving the Michigan Dogman which is said to be a werewolf by some experts.
Blood and Chocolate offers up some points relevant to the Rougarou myth rather than focusing on strict lycanthropy.

So, there you go with the history of the creature in the genre. Not an entirely bad showing, and is filled with some hidden gems beyond the expected titles so give it a look and see what else lurks in here. See you next time.