The James Clayton Column: The well-dressed Wolfman meets Mary Poppins

Why did James Clayton, on viewing The Wolfman, start thinking about Mary Poppins instead?

I was watching Benicio del Toro bounding across the rooftops of London in The Wolfman when suddenly – supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! – I got a flash of Mary Poppins. No, not that kind of flash you filthy-minded rapscallion, you. Mary Poppins is a proper, respectable childminder who’d never be so unprofessional as to get caught in a compromising position.

Anyway, del Toro’s Lawrence Talbot is explicitly hirsute and having gone through ‘the change’ and broken out of the asylum he scales the heights of the British capital howling out for blood. Eerie mist and full moon luminescence aside, the sequence sent me flying back to childhood memories of supernannies and chimney sweeps tap-dancing across the roof tiles for a cheery musical number. For a split-second, it’s just like Step In Time.

The most entertaining musical number in Mary Poppins makes cleaning fireplaces for a living look like loads of fun. It’s enough to make you ignore all those careers advisors and society’s expectations and go for a dead-end manual job where you get your hands dirty. As long as you get to leap around with the best-choreographed Cockneys around on your lunch break, who cares if you’ve got no prospects and business is bad in a world of gas fires?

Upon seeing a shadow of the spectacular Mary Poppins song-and-dance number in The Wolfman, I got sweet fantasy images of werewolves linking arms, chirpily howling “hairy paws out, step in time!” and skipping over London’s poshest properties. It’d be the most exciting musical werewolf action since Michael Jackson turned on his girlfriend in Thriller.

Ad – content continues below

It also made me realise that having a lycanthrope as a childminder would be far better than being under the supervision of Ms. Poppins. How can you trust a woman whose reflection won’t even stick with her? The mind boggles when you begin to think what Scary Mary could’ve stashed in that bottomless carpet bag.

Not only is the woman suspicious, supercilious and absurdly pious, she’s also a fraud. Until she can turn herself into a supernatural creature, she has no right to advertise herself as “practically perfect in every way”. Instead of trying to deconstruct such a paradoxical statement, let’s just observe the fact that the idealised matron/evil bag lady par excellence doesn’t have fangs and impressive body hair. Lawrence Talbot does, ergo: Wolfman is superior to the conceited self-appointed High-Empress of the Nursery.

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down? Nah, what Jane and Michael Banks needed was the threat of monstrous metamorphosis hanging over them. Terrified that their nanny is going to turn and tear them to shreds, they’d clean their room without any fuss or prissy attitude. With Dick Van Dyke’s jugular savaged (bad Cockney accent silenced!) and the idiotic George Banks petrified into being a semi-decent parent, the presence of a lycanthrope on Cherry Tree Lane instead of the preposterous Poppins would’ve made everything much better.

What’s more, we’d get to see a werewolf wearing a pretty frock, and what could be cooler than the sight of a supernatural feral beast togged up in historical costume? In fact, I’d champion the insertion of a well-dressed werewolf into all dreary period dramas to bring a bit of bloodshed and beastliness to proceedings.

Not enough people get violently maimed in Merchant Ivory movies and Mr. Darcy surely deserves to be disembowelled. Therefore, I say put a hybrid monster in a lady’s hat and a prim petticoat and unleash them on the most insufferable bores of blockbuster aristo-dramas. Stylishly attired, the cursed creatures would sweep aside the class system with a few powerful paw swipes and provide some gore amidst all the high society tedium.

And why shouldn’t werewolves wear smart clothes? The least they deserve after being assaulted and condemned to a condition from which there is no cure is the opportunity to at least try and keep up appearances. Ever on-guard for the full moon and anxious that they’ll eat the faces off their nearest and dearest, they can do without the worry that one day they’ll wake up in a public place completely naked.

Ad – content continues below

Werewolves don’t just need clothes, in my very humble opinion, to spare their humiliation but also because it hammers home the essence of the lycanthrope curse. These are liminal beings, caught in hybrid limbo between human and animal, both aspects eternally locked in a battle for supremacy within one conflicted body.

To clearly illustrate this quandary, the Wolfman has to wear clothes. Human paraphernalia ensures that half of the nature hangs on even when the beast has its day under the influence of the full moon. As long as vestiges of civilisation – namely the afflicted individual’s everyday apparel – remain, then the beast is not totally animal. It symbolically retains something of its humanity through the trappings of clothing.

If the werewolf doesn’t keep, say, his shirt or trousers, then he or she is pretty much just a generic wolf. It’s easier to empathise with anthropomorphic animals, so having your lupine protagonist in a distinctive outfit is crucial if the wolf is to have a personality or be a character the viewer cares about.

Just as some horror flick purists start spitting bile when they see a zombie running (corpses should shuffle, not sprint), I’d argue that werewolves who shed all the gear when they undergo metamorphosis aren’t true lycanthropes. By stripping off they’re debasing themselves and undermining the very thing that makes them exceptional supernatural specimens.

Considering the cursed individual now caught between being human and beast, the characters of The Wolfman ask several times: “Where does one begin and the other end?” That’s the whole point of werewolf movies and fantasy movies in general. The lines are blurred and clear distinctions are eroded. That is why, in my view, werewolves need clothes. If they don’t have at least one item of clothing clinging to their body – even after the most visceral of transformation sequences – then the intrinsic ambiguity of the whole thing isn’t adequately represented on screen.

If I can’t make a living as a singing chimney-sweep, then, I’ll devote my energies to the good cause of werewolf fashion. The lycanthropes of the land deserve the chance to look in the mirror and feel good about themselves, rather than just be harangued by Mary Poppin’s rogue reflection.

Ad – content continues below

James’ previous column can be found here.