The fall and rise of the werewolf in cinema

With WolfCop out now on disc, Ryan takes a look at how werewolf myths have faded in and out of cinema history...

It might seem strange, from our interconnected, know-it-all 21st century perspective, that people really did once believe that werewolves existed. Legends of wolf-men date back to antiquity, but really began to bite into society’s fear centres in Europe of the Middle Ages.

Take, for example, Peter Stumpp, a 16th century man whose strange story was related in a pamphlet published shortly after his death. A resident of a small town in Cologne, Stumpp claimed to have been given a belt of wolf skin by the Devil, which when worn, gave him the ability to transform into a wolf. In this form, Stumpp said he’d killed and eaten a dozen or so people over the course of 25 years – crimes described in grisly detail in that old pamphlet.

Stumpp’s claims were, however, more than a little suspect. He’d confessed to the crimes after a lengthy and hideous bout of torture, and history doesn’t record whether he explained how, while in his wolf guise, he managed to get the enchanted belt back off again without opposable thumbs. No matter: Stumpp was brutally executed a few days later.

Although the sincere belief in werewolves dwindled with that of witches and other such diabolical threats after the Middle Ages, its legend persisted and transformed in the literature of the 19th and the cinema of the 20th. The werewolf’s first appearance in film – a 1913 silent film called, predictably enough, The Werewolf – is sadly lost to history, the last remaining cans of film having burned in a fire at Universal in 1924.

Ad – content continues below

Later in the century, Universal made two more werewolf movies: the first a flop at the time of release, the second a horror genre-defining hit. The Werewolf Of London came out in 1935, and relates the story of a British botanist named Wilfred (Henry Hull) who is bitten by a werewolf while exploring in Tibet. Wilfred cuts a sympathetic figure as he attempts to repress his lycanthropy by consuming a rare breed of Tibetan plant, and later locking himself away from society when his urge to kill becomes too intense to control.

In many ways, The Werewolf Of London was a proving ground for The Wolf Man, released in 1941. It once again featured effects makeup by legendary artist Jack Pierce – using, in fact, a makeup design originally designed for Werewolf Of London – and also features a central character who becomes a werewolf through no fault of his own. This time, it was the great Lon Chaney Jr who donned the makeup, playing one Larry Talbot, who leaps to defend a young woman from a lupine Bela Lugosi and is bitten in the process. Like the protagonist in The Werewolf Of London, Larry simply can’t control his inner beast, and is ultimately killed by his father after taking a bite out of several villagers. 

This was the golden age of Universal’s monster movies, with Chaney’s Wolf Man joining Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Mummy in the studio’s unholy gallery of bankable creatures. But years of increasingly cheaply-made sequels and comedy appearances (such as Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein) gradually diminished the werewolf’s hairy gravitas.

The beast found a new life outside Universal. The cheaply-made B-movie I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957), for example, starring a young Michael Landon, brought the legend to a younger, happening 50s audience, and was a surprise hit – made for around $100,000, its box office return amounted to something like $2m.

This low-budget shocker, directed by Gene Fowler Jr, might hold the key to the werewolf’s lasting cultural appeal. In the Middle Ages, the werewolf was a genuinely frightening figure, a formidable manifestation of evil. It made sense, in a Europe in which ordinary wolves were still thriving and a potential threat to unsuspecting travellers, that a real-world threat should be given a supernatural dimension. Interestingly, humans capable of shape-shifting into other deadly threats also appear in other cultures. India, for example, doesn’t have wolves, but it does have tigers, and the were-tiger is its own version of the myth. 

The werewolf’s portrayal in the movies of the 20th century was rather different. Lon Chaney Jr’s incarnation was an ordinary man, transformed into a slavering beast not through some dalliance with the Devil, as old Peter Stumpp was supposed to have been, but because he was bitten. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, The Wolf Man (and its lesser-seen predecessor, The Werewolf Of London) is a decidedly Victorian story: that of a buttoned-up man suddenly losing all his inhibitions after a brush with the supernatural. In an era of strict social order, sordid tales of the id run amok, like Jekyll And Hyde, Dracula or the countless stories published in penny dreadfuls, offered a guiltily enjoyable escape.

Ad – content continues below

In I Was A Teenage Werewolf, Landon’s Tony Rivers is depicted as an aggressive, hot-headed high school kid before he’s even begun to sprout claws – when he becomes a werewolf, the results are predictably violent. After a bloody rampage, Tony is ultimately shot by a pair of law enforcers. Teenage Werewolf reads like a kind of salutary warning to the youths of the 1950s: keep your rebellious streak in check, kids.

The transformative aspect of the werewolf legend has provided writers with a rich metaphor to play with. Just as adolescents have to put up with the strange, bewildering and sometimes painful change from childhood to adulthood, with all the new body hair and mood swings it can bring with it, so the werewolf suffers its own change into something hairy and unrecognisable. It’s a rite of passage speeded up for the camera.

Although werewolf films continued to be made through the 60s and 70s (see Hammer’s Curse Of The Werewolf – with Oliver Reed as the werewolf – for one great British example), it was the lycanthropic films of the early 1980s that really made an impression on a wider movie-going public’s imagination. Cult directors John Landis and Joe Dante brought us two such films in the same year -1981 – and it’s fascinating to compare their individual approaches. In Landis’s An American Werewolf In London, a US backpacker (David Naughton) and his friend are attacked by something toothsome while exploring the moors of not-so-merry England. The latter is horribly killed, but the former survives – only to make an uncontrollable transformation on the next full moon. Landis’s film is gory, violent and viciously funny, with ground-breaking effects by Rick Baker – all building to a bleak and abrupt conclusion. 

The Howling is similarly full-blooded, its humour similarly dark. In it, reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) heads to a commune to recover from a traumatic encounter with a serial killer. There, a psychologist insists that those at the retreat “unleash their inner beast” (the shrink being a nod to a similar character in I Was A Teenage Werewolf, one of numerous horror in-jokes peppered throughout the film). Little does Karen know that he means this literally.

Although radically different in many ways, both An American Werewolf In London and The Howling play up the sexual angle of the werewolf in a way that wouldn’t have been allowed under the old Hays Code: they make plain the once implied link between lycanthropy and repressed sexual desire – something that was also made plain in Neil Jordan’s dreamlike The Company Of Wolves (1984).

The werewolf went mainstream in 1985, with Teenwolf providing a vehicle for rising Hollywood star Michael J Fox. Taking its inspiration from I Was A Teenage Werewolf, the film again related the wolf-man myth to the growing pains we all experience as a teenager, this time playing up the bawdy comedy angle – like many teenagers, Fox’s character is fearful that he’ll be ostracised because he’s different, but finds his werewolf status actually makes him a more interesting person, or better at basketball at any rate. The werewolf becomes a benign symbol of youthful awkwardness and how it can be overcome.

Ad – content continues below

Looking back over the history of werewolf movies, it’s easy to trace a curve of interest as it rose and fell in and out of favour with writers and filmmakers. The reason for this, surely, is that simply regurgitating the established elements of the werewolf mythology – the moonlit transformations, the pentangles, the inevitable death by silver bullet – simply isn’t enough on its own. Sure, B-movies like Project Metalbeast (1995) and the numerous Howling sequels are entertaining enough in a trashy sort of way, but like the vampire and zombie legends, the werewolf needs a fresh slant, a metaphorical hook on which it can hang.

Ginger Snaps, the Canadian horror released in 2000, felt so fresh because it told the teen werewolf story from a young woman’s perspective. Mike Nichols’ 1994 film Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson, was at its most interesting when it was using staples of the werewolf legend to weave a pointed satire about machismo in the workplace.

This is arguably why werewolves fade in and out of pop culture: it’s when a filmmaker or writer uses the creature in a way that is fresh and exciting that it really catches our collective imagination and becomes something more than just another horror flick. Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) was so memorable because it fused werewolves with the war film to create a hairy, very funny action horror comedy. Werewolves also cropped up in the Underworld franchise and the Twilight saga – the latter casting the old myth as a romance about love conquering a divide between ordinary and supernatural beings. 

One recent film has also found its own spin on the werewolf story: director Lowell Dean’s low-budget horror comedy, WolfCop. Although at first glance another B-movie with a familiar, toothsome creature at its centre, it once again applies its own stamp to the werewolf story, even as it pays homage to the genre conventions set in place by The Wolf Man way back in 1941. Here, the transformation is seen as a blessing as much as a curse.

Unlike The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot, Lou Galou (Leo Fafard) isn’t an ordinary, decent man, but a lazy, morally bankrupt alcoholic with no interest in doing any police work. His transformation into a werewolf sees him revitalised: still worryingly fond of liquor, certainly, but now intent on catching criminals and positively bursting with supernatural energy.

WolfCop’s the latest example of how the werewolf legend survives through being reworked and retold. As long as there are people around to create them, tales of shape-shifting wolf people are sure to be around for many centuries to come.

Ad – content continues below

WolfCop is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 13th October.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.