A face looms out of the darkness. The teeth are razor sharp. The face itself is badly in need of a good barber armed with more than a Philips electric razor; this face needs shears and maybe a machete. The ears are pointed. The eyes are as red as a student’s after a 12 hour session in the union, followed by a game of vodka roulette. The breath would stop dead a hyena (and they all have to lick the alpha dogs arse don’t forget).
This is the werewolf, and he is looking at you in the mirror. The werewolf is you.
That’s why we love him so much.
Werewolf movies rock. Werewolves rock, full stop. They are the baddest of all the traditional horrors from film. They have none of the romanticism of the vampire. There is none of the shambling, bumbling lack of finesse you find with the mummy. There is not the emotional and mental struggle you get with the monster of Frankenstein’s invention. The werewolf is not a hidden evil, like the unseen menaces of Paranormal Activity or an in-your-face version, like what Regan McNeill turns into in The Exorcist. Yet, nor is he a brain-dead monster, one of the walking dead, right out of the central casting department at the George Romero School of Walking Home Pissed Through the Bad Part of Glasgow. The werewolf is much more than all of them.
The werewolf is the monster within us all.
The vampire saga is about sex. I’ll cover that at another time, but it’s a self-evident fact. The vampire is Freud run absolutely riot. The legend itself resonates with sexual imagery, and everything about it is loaded down with that. Even the small stuff is important, right down to the fact that vampires don’t like garlic. I mean, who has ever gotten laid after eating the stuff? I would wager not even Warren Beatty has tried that one …
The werewolf story is about the duality of man. It’s about the beast within. The werewolf Is us because every single one of us is two people, one passive, one aggressive. The earliest example in modern literature, The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll an Mr Hyde, isn’t technically a werewolf story, but stripped of the furry face, the transformation, the full moon and the lore, the werewolf story is purely and simply that of a man who lets the animal out.
The earliest werewolf movie most of us have seen is, of course, The Wolfman, starring Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jnr. The oft repeated poem from that film still resonates through the lore.
“Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf
When the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.”
Therein lies some of the legend, and reveals the werewolf for what he is; the exact opposite of the good man, the subconscious monster let loose. These ideas were explored fully, to the greatest possible extent, an extent never mastered, in The Howling, Joe Dante’s crazy take on the novel of the same name (which is absolutely bollocks, in comparison to a movie which is just fantastic on every single level.)
In the film, Karen White, a television journalist, is hot on the trail of a serial killer who the press has nicknamed Eddie the Mangler. He has contacted her, as a possible confidant, and they arrange to meet. She is wearing a wire, but it malfunctions, and she winds up in a backstreet porn store, in one of the private viewing booths, watching a grainy porno (which Joe Dante himself made, filming it in his own garage!). It’s here she has an experience with Eddie, an experience which leaves her badly frightened, in shock and unable to remember ….
The police burst in and shoot Eddie just in time, but Karen’s memory remains blank to every detail save for the occasional flashback, each becoming progressively more frightening. Finally, she goes to see a friend of hers, a doctor of psychology, who recommends she take some time off, to visit a retreat he has created in the mountains, a place where she can remember what happened and find her way back to recovery.
It’s this woodland location which becomes the scene for one of the coolest horror films ever made, as the Colony proves to be a specially established werewolf community where the monsters are trying to un-learn their feral nature, and be more human … something that has mixed results.
The movie is brilliant because it reveals the werewolf through the prism of insanity. Eddie the Mangler, AKA Eddie Quist, was a resident there, and was unable to control his animal urges, to the extent he became a serial killer. His sister, Marsha, is there. Her own animal urges have turned her into a nymphomaniac. Other residents at the Colony have gone mad at the struggle between the beast and the man, whereas others appear in control.
An American Werewolf in London, released at around the same time, it’s considerable achievements marring The Howling‘s box-office impact, sees David Naughton’s quiet, sensitive American tourist, who’s best friend is killed by a werewolf whilst they are walking the moors of Eastern England, become a sexual dynamo after being surviving the attack, the downside of which is that he too has no control once the monster is unleashed at the rising of the moon. Both films use a good deal of humour in telling grim stories; indeed, John Landis, who directed An American Werewolf in London, claims he got some of his best writing jobs after doing the screenplay. The Howling can be viewed as one great big in-joke from start to finish, with even the names of the characters referencing the great werewolf films of the past.
Teen Wolf, and films like it, I trust need no explanation, as the wolf comes out as the ultimate symbol of adolescent angst, allowing nerdy characters to become cool, allowing the weak to become strong and expressing the change from child to adult, which we all go through (some more quickly than others) in an interesting and different way. Those movies are as filled with allegory and symbolism as any vampire movie; awakening sexual urges, hair growing in new and wonderful places and mood swings all being the norm.
Another movie which does not hide the nature of the werewolf legend is Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and James Spader, and, indeed, this is the movie which has the greatest claim to exploring the werewolf legend as a construct of the id. Jack Nicholson begins the film a weak-willed loser, unable to spot the duplicity of others, unable to find the guts to get his career or life back on track, and unwilling to take a stand even when he knows he should. When he runs into a wolf on the road one night, literally, and is bitten, he finds, hidden in him, something he never even knew was there, “something wild within; an analogue of the wolf”, and embraces the changes, becoming a new man as he finds he can still surprise himself and the people around him.
In many ways, it’s the most romantic take on the werewolf story, making the transformation from man to beast something we root for, even as we know it most likely comes with a price.
TV, too, has explored the werewolf, most notably in True Blood, which takes the side of modern fiction like The Howling over that of the tradition movies, of which Wolf can be said to follow in the footsteps of. In True Blood, The Howling and most modern incarnations, the werewolf does not need a full moon to change, unlike in the classics. Yet whereas Wolf follows a number of the traditional conventions, in its case, as in with True Blood, the nature of the man dictates the nature of the beast, making the wolf’s natural advantages over man into a kind of allegory for the proper use of power; Nicholson, in Wolf, is not the killer who has been terrorising the city, as we find out later, and nor are all True Blood’s wolves creatures of evil.
There are other movies, of course, which show the werewolf as a simple one dimensional creature, like Dog Soldiers, where you don’t even see the fabled transformation, and which merely present the wolves as implacable creatures of the night. (The design of the monsters in Dog Soldiers is right out of The Howling, whereas Jack’s Wolf is right out of the movies of old, and the creatures from Wolfen, a different kind of werewolf film entirely, and a classic of the genre because of it, are probably inspired by the monster from The Beast Must Die – a marvellously hokey movie which deserves a remake – and in turn inspired everything from True Blood to Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, a British film, utterly barking but brilliant at the same time – and another film which reveals the werewolf to be no more than the human subconscious allowed free reign. These werewolves are just classic four legged wolves, albeit driven by a human intelligence.)
There is something fundamentally cool about werewolves, something wonderful about the idea that each of us is two people and that one of them is capable of all the things the every-day one is not. He, or she, is braver, smarter, more capable, able to wield what the doctor in Wolf tells Nicholson is the essence of the beast within; “Power without guilt. Love without doubt.”
This is why I love the werewolf sub-genre. This is why I can’t get enough of it. This is why I hope that future werewolf related releases will understand that the werewolf is only truly frightening if he is what he’s traditionally been … the face in the mirror, in dire need of a shave.”