Horror films go through cycles but there’s one cycle that we’ve ignored for too long and it’s time is due. Let’s return to the howl in the night at the light of the full moon.
We’ve had the vampire renaissance with Twilight, True Blood etc, we’ve had the zombie apocalypse with Dawn of the Dead, World War Z, TWD, etc, we’ve had the ghosts and witches and demons of The Conjuring, Paranormal Activity and Insidious franchises, but when was the last time we had a decent werewolf flick ? Where’s the werewolf resurgence ?
It’s high time we had something with a little more bite in it.
The best werewolf movies aren’t just horror flicks but are often about the wild nature part of us inside, breaking free. They’re about embracing our true carnal sensual natures and leaving our civilised shells behind. Many werewolf films deal with themes of sexual awakening, physical or emotional puberty, some are ‘coming of age’ films in a gory disguise.
They are also about the beasts inside men contrasted with the actual beasts that roam the countryside.
Perhaps it’s the costly commitment required to do justice to the visual effects necessary to render werewolves properly. A makeup and VFX budget of a decent size, and artisans of some considerable skill are needed to make the transformations work, but it doesn’t mean your film has to be a multi-million dollar affair. Some of the films I’ve listed below were made on low budgets [ 2.3 million pounds for Dog Soldiers, The Company of Wolves was pulled off for USD $2 million, WER and Late Phases are both low budget films ].
Some werewolf films go with the full wolf version [they change into a four legged beast], others with the classic man-beast but most films will have ‘the transformation’ scene, made famous by An American Werewolf in London. But transformation or not, the basic requirement is a well acted, good story with interesting visuals.
With that in mind I’ve compiled a list of the best werewolf flicks I’ve seen or heard of. You’ve gotta check out these titles :
1] The Company of Wolves – directed by Neil Jordan, made in 1985. This is a fantasy-horror take on the Red Riding Hood tale that has not been bettered. It deals with the coming of age and sexual awakening of Rosaleen and her attraction to the darkness that dwells in the forest. Full of visual metaphors, and motifs and dream like sequences. This was the film that announced the visual poetry of famed Irish film director, Neil Jordan. He’s one of my personal favourite directors of all time. He went on to film powerful dramas that dealt with Irish nationalism, but every so often he would revisit his fantasy beginnings. In between directing ‘Michael Collins’ and ‘In the Name of the Father’, he did a fantastic version of Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’ that controversially cast Tom Cruise as the flamboyant vampire Lestat – a casting choice that surprisingly worked. I love The Company of Wolves to the nth degree – it’s still so potent. [The trailer doesn’t do it justice but I’ve put it here nonetheless].
2] Wolf – directed by Mike Nichols in 1994. This is an underrated werewolf film that has Jack Nicholson perfectly cast as the titular wolf. It’s the underappreciated, urban working man going through a midlife crisis as he discovers his wild side after a chance animal encounter and uses his new abilities to succeed. With James Spader and Michelle Pfeiffer rounding out the cast – it’s definitely worth a look. Mike Nichols may not be a natural hand at this genre, he’s known for his humanistic dramas like Heartburn, the Graduate etc, so Wolf was a real change of pace for him. But he did pull it off because he concentrated on well defined fleshed out characters. And you gotta love Jack Nicholson, right ? He’s clearly having fun in this trailer :
3] American Werewolf in London – directed by John Landis in 1981. This film is THE ultimate werewolf movie of all werewolf movies. Basic plot concerns two American college students who are attacked backpacking through Britain. One survives, the other one dies but returns as a spectre to warn his friend that he’s going to change into the beast that attacked them. Mixing comedy with rather shocking body horror transformations sequences for it’s time – this film has not dated. And it has real bloodcurdling scares. Where do I start – the perfect structure – the humourous beats, the bloodcurdling wolf sequences. And last but not least – the best transformation scene of all time – for which we can thank legendary makeup artist and practical VFX magician, Rick Baker. And you know what – it hasn’t been beaten.
4] Wilderness – directed by Ben Bolt , made in 1996. Based on a novel, this show was made into a two and a half hour mini series, and re-released as a 100 minute movie. Both versions are good but the longer version is preferred. One of the few female werewolf tales ever made, this made for TV film – a UK production, looks anything but that – it’s evocative and mysterious and has vivid performances by Owen Teale, Amanda Ooms as the were-woman, and Michael Kitchen before his Foyle’s War days.
The plot concerns a disturbed young woman who tries to convince her lover that she’s a wolf, and her psychiatrist is sure he’s discovered a new complex that will make his name. When she moves to a retreat in Scotland, the true natures of all three individuals become apparent.
It’s a very different movie to your mainstream werewolf tale – more symbolic than a straight-out gore fest but it stays with you. If you can get a hold of this [it’s hard to find anywhere] – do. It was wonderful storytelling.
5] Ginger Snaps – directed by John Fawcett in 2000, this is an unashamedly feminist werewolf flick that has become a cult classic. Female werewolves are rare indeed, and the few entries made are amongst the best in the sub-genre. The plot concerns two death-obsessed sisters, who are outcasts in their suburban neighborhood, that must deal with the tragic consequences when one of them is bitten by a deadly werewolf upon hitting puberty and getting her period. The analogies between the monthly change brought on by the moon, and the monthly curse of femininity are strong, as is the examination of the sisterhood vs the patriarchy, the desire to conform vs individuality. But political and thematic themes aside, this is a damn good werewolf film, and more importantly a good film – it combines a teen horror flick and a coming of age story to produce something richer. Check it out now !
6] Dog Soldiers – directed by Neil Marshall in 2002. This was his directorial debut. The man turned out to be a major genre talent – he’s directed The Descent [one of the scariest horror films I’ve ever seen], and several episodes of Game of Thrones, including the famed Blackwater episode. Dog Soldiers is a hell of a debut film and an unusual take on the sub-genre – it’s a soldier movie too. The plot is this ; during a routine night time training mission in the Scottish Highlands, a small squad of British soldiers expected to rendezvous with a special ops unit, instead find a bloody massacre with a sole survivor. They then come under attack themselves and are forced to retreat to a farmhouse and wait it out till the full moon disappears at dawn. Stranded, and with no communications or backup, up against monsters beyond their training, can they survive the night ?
The VFX are a bit messy but they still hold up, and the pacing hits you like a freight train and never lets up. The actors are first class – Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham, and Sean Pertwee [who clearly has a love of the horror genre as he’s tackled quite a few] – and they brashly pull off the horror and black comedy elements with gusto.
7] Underworld 1 & 2 only – Directed by Len Wiseman in 2003 and 2006, respectively. Wiseman also has a talent for the fantasy-horror genre. Witness his direction of the Sleepy Hollow and Lucifer pilot episodes. But this was his feature debut and he knocked it out of the park ! Underworld is sexy, stylish, action packed and compelling. It became a franchise but while this vampires vs werewolves saga started on a high note and with an even better sequel, every film after the first two is a case of diminishing returns. Michael Sheen is a classy werewolf and let’s not forget bass baritone voiced actor, Kevin Grevioux as Raze, his second in command. The man has the deepest voice in the business. If there was a real god of thunder he’d sound like this guy. And he’s a helluva werewolf. He also was one of the writers of Underworld – so he’s a multi-talented guy. Most people will only think of Kate Beckinsale in a skintight PVC catsuit but these two films do a very good visual depiction of werewolves. I only wish we’d had more characterisation of their fighters but we at least get the marvellous Michael Sheen and even a germanic actor as a werewolf scientist. Beckinsale and Bill Nighy fill out the main vampire roles. The werewolves here are probably the best visualisations I’d seen in recent times. The first film did a good mix of practical VFX and CGI, the sequels, alas, became CGI reliant.
8] The Brotherhood of the Wolf – directed by Christophe Gans in 2001. This film is literally one of my favourite films of all time. But hang on a minute, Gita, the Monster of Gevaudan turns out to be something more than a mere Wolf so why is this film on this list ? Well, there’s plenty of wolfs in this film that are symbolic for the grace of nature vs the cruelty of man. And for a great section of the film, it is implied that the beast is a monster-sized wolf. There are monsters in this film, and it’s not just the beast of Gevaudan that is the problem. The beast within man is a big theme here in a film replete with many big resonant themes. I know, this is not technically a werewolf film so I should exempt it from this list, and I’m grasping at straws to justify it’s inclusion but, damnit, it deserves a mention. And it does deal with wolves.
And here’s the theme song from the film. Both the song and the film are absolutely gorgeous. If I only ever made one feature film as rich, gripping and multi-layered as this, I’d die happy.
9] Late Phases – directed by Adrián García Bogliano, in 2014 . The VFX might be low budget but they keep the monster shots subtle, the acting is good and the story is rock solid. A blind ex-Vietnam veteran in a retirement village is up against a werewolf who is terrorising the residents and killing them off, but who is the wolf, and how do you stop something if you can’t see it. The film has some strong themes on how we marginalise elderly people, and it got selected for the very competitive SXSW Film festival at the time – so it’s definitely worth checking out.
10] WER -directed by William Brent Bell, made in 2013 – this is a found footage werewolf film that is much better than it has any right to be. A gentle giant of a prisoner , Talan, is accused of multiple murders. But defence attorney, Kate discovers he harbours a terrible secret. And then Talan escapes. Can she help him before it’s too late ? Can they stop him ? The ending is a bit of a mess but this film has atmosphere in spades and a great tense buildup, and good acting. And yes, this director has some shockers on his resume but this one of his better films, and proof that he has talent if not consistency.
11] HOWL – directed by Paul Hyett, made in 2015, is another British entry on this list. The Brits do really know how to do these things right. A bunch of passengers on a train get stranded in the forest when the train derails from what they think is a bear attack. That is until they hear the howling. As the power runs out and the night wears on, they have to survive and escape the fanged and clawed menace that is stalking them and picking them off one by one. There’s some complaints that the wolves aren’t very wolf like but I appreciate that they tried to go for a different look than the hair-suit.
Also the characters are a bit stock standard but they are played by good actors who make the whole exercise compelling enough. And with actors of the calibre of Sean Pertwee, Ed Speleers, and Elliot Cowan involved – it’s a decent entry that’s worth the watch.
12] Bad Moon – made in 1998 by Eric Red – this film gets a bad rap and the critics tore it up at the time, but it’s being reassessed today as it did some things right. It’s actually much better than the reviews would lead one to believe, and genre lovers have rediscovered it since. It’s a movie told from the point of view of the family dog, a German Shepherd called Thor. Uncle Ted has moved back to the wood cabin with his sister’s family to recover from a traumatic attack in Nepal. But the family dog, Thor, suspects that something is very wrong with Uncle Ted. The werewolf effects are good, the acting is solid and the story has a unique perspective.
The trailer for this film is terrible so I thought I’d post one of the scenes instead :
13] Silver Bullet – directed by Dan Attias, made in 1985, it is based on the Stephen King novella Cycle of the werewolf. Silver Bullet has a wheelchair bound boy, Marty, trying to outwit a cunning werewolf that is terrorising the small valley community. It got panned at the time but a re-watch reveals some half-decent scares, a rocking over the top instrumental-synth 80s soundtrack, a great cast who all nail their roles with conviction including charmingly dishevelled high-as-a-kite Gary Busey, Megan Follows – she of the Anne of Green Gables fame, and Terry O’Quinn from LOST, and , of course a fine lead performance by tragic child star, Corey Haim. This film has a lot in common with The Goonies and Gremlins in tone, so it does entertain but it doesn’t scare the pants off you. It’s either cheesy genius or scare-satire in disguise. I’m tempted to put it in the craptastic category below but the cine’ and the soundtrack and the performances elevate it to something better than that. The beginning narration however is heavy handed, and the music does too much signposting in the movie. I’d love a director’s edition that removed the narration and toned the music down during the stalking scenes. Still watchable though.
Now for some truly craptastic werewolf films that are worth a watch for B-grade cheesy entertainment value : Big Bad Wolf – has a talking werewolf who kills off the kids in an isolated cabin leaving only a nerd and his girlfriend to escape the carnage and try to avenge their fallen comrades. The step-father wolf is played by Richard Tyson of Kindergarten Cop fame and Two Moon Junction. It’s one of those ‘so bad it might be good’ kinda films. Don’t believe me ? Then watch the trailer where you can cringe and guffaw at the same time :
Wolves – a 2014 film with Lucas Till [from X-Men First class, and the rebooted MacGyver series], plus Khal Drago himself, aka Jason Mamoa, looks like a hot mess. A lone werewolf wanders into a rough country town on the outskirts that is run by a powerful werewolf gang. It’s fast paced and with some decent action sequences even if it feels like a Teen Wolf tv series ripoff.
[Note: I did not mention the Howling and any of the Howling sequels because frankly – they’re crap. The creature effects are interesting but the story is a mess and each sequel was another level of awful. I’m also not including any old Lon Chaney flicks or Black and white attempts from the era of ancient film, because they really don’t hold up now. There are great black and white horror flicks from the Classic Hollywood era but none of those are the werewolf flicks that were made then. And yes, I will stand by that argument. Try watching one if you don’t believe me. They are corny and cheesy as hell.]
Also didn’t include The Wolfman with Benecio Del Toro – who is aptly cast but the film is poorly directed. Some good visual sequences are washed out by a really bad story with a rushed third act.
I don’t mention the Michael J Fox, Teen Wolf flicks which are fun but not horror flicks at all.
Is there an Australian werewolf film ? I won’t go into the derisible Howling 3 – The Marsupials – because it’s a train wreck in what was already a shit franchise.
The closest we get to a decent entry is a short film ‘Overtime’ by Aussie writer-director, Craig Foster. Overtime deals with overworked Ralph who urgently needs to get home – before the full moon rises. Can he get out of the office before his secret endangers his colleagues and his job ?
You can look at the trailer here:
It’s promising, and I do hope Craig Foster will get the chance to follow up with a werewolf feature one day.
I also know that upcoming director, Heidi Lee Douglas has done a female beast short film where the lady is infected by a Tasmanian Devil, of all things [hey – the Tassie devil is probably the closest thing we, in Australia, have to a wolf , apart from the Dingo – so I’ll count it in the were-beast film sub-genre for now. I’ll also happily welcome any Dingo-transformations that anyone wants to have a gander at. They might be laughable but they can’t possibly be worse than Howling 3]. Her short film, Devil Woman, will be released onto the festival circuit later this year.
But in the meanwhile Australia has no runs on the board in this sub-genre. Maybe we think werewolves are a European thing ? While we have no wolves in this country, we certainly have a strong contingent of European immigrants who’ve brought their myths and traditions with them. Is it too hard to imagine an immigrant werewolf ?
They say every creative trend relates to a trend in the world – zombies are about how we’ve lost hope in humanity because we’ve trampled nature and caused ruin for our species in the process, ghost films are about our fear of the unknown, vampires are our fear of mortality.
But a werewolf film is about the monster on the inside. We’re living in an age where there’s so much material abundance, and yet there’s cracks in the fabric of society, exposing our convenience is a thin veneer hiding deep discord and stress. And in a time where our leaders have shown to be capable of terrible human rights abuses, and selfish, callous behaviour, and where our society is being questioned about it’s narcissistic, self-obsessed nature – perhaps it’s time for a film about the monsters in us. And which monster is more visceral than the wolf ?
So maybe it’s time we tackled a werewolf film. Something that touches on the themes of social discord, and the struggle with the beast within. We’ve proven we can do good zombie films, decent haunted house flicks, maniac serial killer films. So does anyone out there want to unleash the wolf ?