Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Why ZOMBIES & SHARKS? Well, those are the two things that I’ve had the most nightmares about. It’s the reason I rarely swim in the ocean. It’s the reason I have an escape plan from my apartment just in case of a zombie apocalypse. Now if you’ve ever had those fears or fears like them, inspired mainly by nights upon nights of watching films of the frightening kind, this is the place for you. So look for AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS every Friday for the foreseeable future, horror hounds, where we’ll be covering horror in all forms; retro, indie, mainstream, old and new.
Well, Hollywood’s churning out another tween-targeted horror film with RED RIDING HOOD this weekend and while my pants tighten for Amanda Seyfried and I always like to watch Gary Oldman gnaw on the scenery, my expectations that RED RIDING HOOD will be anything special are pretty low. Though there have been many, many werewolf flicks through the years, finding a good one is sometimes tough. Werewolves just aren’t held in the same regard as zombies or vampires these days and that’s a damn shame. Seems the 80’s were the hotbed for quality wolfy films with WOLFEN, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, SILVER BULLET, & A COMPANY OF WOLVES leading the pack of werewolf films made well. I’m sure I’ll be covering those in upcoming columns and more recent films like GINGER SNAPS deserve a shout out too, but I chose a handful of lycan films through the ages worth howling about that I’d seen or revisited recently for you to sink your canines into.
But before we do, I reviewed THE KILLING OF JACOB MARR last week in this column and it turned out to be one hell of a fun slasher film. The makers of the film contacted me to have me tell my readers that they will be at the Monster Mania Horror Convention in Cherry Hill, NJ this weekend and they’ll be selling signed copies of the film there. So if you read the review, were curious about the film, and either live in the Jersey area or want to plan a road trip this weekend, be sure to check it out.
And now lets howl at the moon with some werewolf films! Enjoy!
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)
WEREWOLF SHADOW (1971)
THE HOWLING (1981)
DOG SOLDIERS (2002)
And finally…CLAP FOR THE WOLFMAN!
CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961)Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Anthony Hinds (screenplay), based on the novel THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS by Guy Endore
Starring Oliver Reed, Yvonne Romaine, Clifford Evans, & Katherine Feller
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Sure, Lon Chaney Jr. is known as the king of movie werewolves, but in my dojo, there’s only room for one performance, that of Oliver Reed’s barrel-chested howling beast in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. I love this film above mostly all others because a) it’s Hammer, so you know it’s awesome, b) it tells the werewolf tale in a different story than just having some lonely traveler being bitten by a werewolf, and most importantly c) Oliver Reed’s ferocious performance as the cursed Leon. The combination of these three elements make this the perfect storm when it comes to werewolf movies.
Front and center the standout in this film is Oliver Reed’s Leon. Reed has a ferocity in his stare that few actors have. He looks like he has a monster inside of him waiting to come out and does so in damn near every performance he ever played. Here he literally is allowed to let that beast out to play and it’s one of his best roles. Though he doesn’t show up in this film until later (I’d say the 30 or 40 minute mark), his time on screen is the standout of CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.
But there are other performances that shine here as well. Yvonne Romaine is one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the House of Hammer and here she plays a peasant girl forced to share a prison cell with a raving lunatic. After being savagely beaten and raped, she is with child. The child grows up to by Reed’s character and the curse of the werewolf is passed down through genetics rather than a bite here. I know rape had been addressed in earlier horror films, but I don’t remember it being handled in such an overt manner as it was in CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. Nevertheless, it is an original take on how the curse is passed from one person to another (one even the recent WOLF MAN with Benicio Del Toro swiped for that remake).
Being Hammer and wanting to distance themselves from Universal monsters, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF’s design for the hairy star is quite different than Chaney’s bulbous wigged version. This werewolf is an imposing bulky beast, not the lithe and gangly animal from Universal’s yarn. Reed’s size and stature makes this werewolf look more like the beast from BEAUTY & THE BEAST crossed with Quasimodo (backed up later in scenes of the monster fleeing from townsfolk to a bell tower). Though they were debatably less successful with their Frankenstein’s Monster redesign, I definitely prefer CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF’s creature over Universal’s WOLF MAN. It’s just more imposing and powerful.
Hammer always does it best for me. I’ve always been a sucker, but this film is tops in my book. I know there were many werewolf films before it, but the savagery of Reed’s performance as Leon, the amazing make-up, the presence of gorgeous Yvonne Romaine, the tweak to the werewolf story, and the full on gothic beauty that accompanies most Hammer films make CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF a tough film to beat. It was the first werewolf film I ever saw and still ranks as one of the best.
WEREWOLF SHADOW (1971)AKA BLOOD MOON, NACHT DER VAMPIRE, SHADOW OF THE WEREWOLF, LA NOCHE DE WALPURGIS, WEREWOLF VS VAMPIRE WOMEN, THE WEREWOLF’S SHADOW
Directed by Leon Klimofsky
Written by Paul Naschy & Hans Munkel
Starring Paul Naschy, Gaby Fuchs, Barbara Capell, & Paty Shepard
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Though I’ve been reading about him and hearing about him since I was a little kid, it wasn’t until recently that I started to appreciate the coolness that is Paul Naschy. Naschy may not be a huge name to Johnny Movie-goer, but he is looked at as a big deal in the halls of horror and in his home in Spain. Think of him as the Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson of Spanish horror and you might understand the presence Naschy has on camera. He’s a man’s man. The kind of guy who grabs a woman and plants a smooch on them and they don’t seek the authorities. The kind of guy who knocks someone out with a karate chop or a single punch. The kind of guy who can sport a mock turtle neck and still not garner guffaws. Naschy was a sizable presence on film. Muscular and broad, who better to embody the horror of man taken to its most primal corners? I’ve seen two of his Hombre Lobo films so far (FURY OF THE WOLFMAN (1972) and WERWOLF SHADOW), but I can’t wait to see more. Naschy made 12 “Waldemar Daninsky” films which featured a man of action cursed by a beast that fights all sorts of monster hunters, occultists, vampires, zombies, and other things that go bump in the night. Sometimes Naschy played the cursed victim; other times he played the snarling villain, and sometimes the noble savage.
I plan on returning to the deep werewolf well of Naschy, but for this column, I’ll focus on one of his earliest and most lauded performances, WEREWOLF SHADOW. With his body cooling in the morgue after his run in with a silver bullet from his previous film, Waldemar Daninsky continues his ferocious killing spree when a mortician removes the silver bullets from the pentagram over his heart, which everyone knows is the mark of the beast. Daninsky soon makes a run for it after carnaging his way through the hospital morgue and two morticians. Daninsky exiles himself to a secluded castle where most of WEREWOLF SHADOW’s action takes place.
The castle Daninsky is residing in has a history with black magic and vampirism. Shrewd horror hounds will notice similarities to Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY as a vampire is resurrected after a cross of silver is taken from her corpse and as it always happens, a virginal cutie cuts her hand on the cross and drips blood into the decayed corpse’s mouth. This awakens a she-vampire who stalks and seduces a pair of women who Daninsky has brought to his home (told you Naschy had a way with the ladies) in true vampire fashion. With the local authorities closing in on Daninsky in hiding and the she-vamp seducing his women, it doesn’t seem like the hairy guy can get a break.
In this film, Naschy definitely plays the cursed soul. His Daninsky is trying to connect with others, but wary of doing so in fear of wolfing out on them. The highlights of this film (and FURY OF THE WOLFMAN, which in my opinion is not as good, but it does feature Naschy lashing out much more savagely as a more central figure to the story) are the scenes of Naschy as the werewolf. Naschy goes all out as the nimble footed, bug eyed, stringy haired beast. Though crude compared to the computer generated morphs of today, with some slow fades and creative cuts by director Leon Klimofsky, between hair applications they prove to be pretty effective. Seeing Naschy lash out toward the camera is indeed a fearful sight with the whites of his teeth and eyes surrounded by black shadows and fur.
The scenes with the vampiress are very haunting as well. She wears this dark veil and with the combination of the dramatic music and some well done slo mo, the scenes of the toothy temptress prove to be scarier than the camp I was expecting. This film wasn’t afraid to dole out the blood and boobage either, making this a somewhat more erotic and visceral feeling film than FURY OF THE WOLFMAN. WEREWOLF SHADOW seems to fall smack dab in between the bright red bloody horror of Hammer in the sixties/seventies and the more visceral tone of Italian horror films of the seventies.
Both Naschy’s 5th Hombre Lobo film (FURY OF THE WOLFMAN) and the focus of this review (which falls into the 4th spot) are products of their age with a lot of choppy editing, mismatched music, and somewhat amateur camerawork, but the appeal lies in Naschy’s conviction as the werewolf. Even without the makeup Naschy is a powerful presence. Here, mixed with a pair of nubile ladies, a zombie monk, a loony housekeeper, and a vampire seductress, Naschy shines as one of the best werewolves ever to howl on the silver screen. I can’t wait to check out more of Naschy’s horror outings in future columns.
THE HOWLING (1981)Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Gary Brandner (based on his novel), John Sayles (screenplay), Terence H. Winkless (screenplay)
Starring Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Belaski, John Carradine, Dick Miller, Slim Pickens, & Elisabeth Brooks
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
It’s debatable, but THE HOWLING is probably the best werewolf film ever made. I say this, knowing that there will be others who will tout WOLFEN or SILVER BULLET or AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON as such. And on some days, I agree that all of those are damn fine werewolf films. But THE HOLWING almost gets it all right, in my book.
I say this after rewatching THE HOWLING for this column and realizing that director Joe Dante seems to be taking this deadly serious one minute, then switching gears and winking to the camera the next. How he can follow an ending so powerful as Dee Wallace wolfs out on camera for the world to see and then follow with an actor winking to the camera and saying a bad pun is beyond me. It’s one of those last moments in a film that almost ruins the entire experience. There are quite a few of these moments in THE HOWLING where some moment of ultra heft is torn asunder by a quirky coincidence that Universal’s WOLF MAN or Loony Toons’ THREE LITTLE PIGS is playing on the television as a real werewolf is attacking someone. It’s almost as if Dante didn’t have the courage to make a serious examination of man’s more primal side, so every time there’s a moment of real fear or depth involving this fascinating theme, he guffaws and reminds the audience that this is just a movie. To me, that proved to be the sole frustrating aspect of this otherwise awesome werewolf film.
I mean, John freakin’ Sayles wrote the screenplay of this one. I’m sure the dingy themes of animalistic sex and violence and man’s psychologically darker side come from his input. Having this film start out as a reporter (Karen White played to perfection by Dee Wallace) confronts her stalker in one of the worst stakeouts ever performed by an inept policeman is some pretty heavy stuff. She meets this heavy breathing stalker in a porn shop back room with a rape movie playing on the screen. This is a grimy scene of absolute abandonment of everything that makes us human played out to perfection. Dante’s camera doesn’t blink as the stalker forces the stalkee to watch this deplorable act on screen, then loses control himself and begins to turn into something monstrous. Upon watching this scene again, I realized that had Dante wanted to go there, he could have really made a film dissecting the animalistic side of humanity and how it’s in all of us.
And for the most part, he does that. There’s a psychologist spouting psychobabble: “repression is the father of neurosis…self hatred.” are the first words of THE HOWLING, followed by the psychologist’s suggestion that Karen take in some nature and go to a retreat called “The Colony.” There they meet quirky and wholesome characters alike, but things start to dog-eared pretty quickly and soon Karen’s husband is scrogging a nymphomaniac she-wolf (played by Elisabeth Brooks) by the fire and the supposedly deceased stalker who she confronts in the beginning shows up for round two.
Though I was disappointed that the heft was lightened most of the time, this is a fantastic film nevertheless. There are a lot of fun little cameos in this film, too. Slim Pickens plays the backwoods sheriff who spits tobaccy, eats beans from a can, and sings out heeds and warnins’ and no-never-minds to the city-folk. John Carradine is a suicidal local old timer. Dick Miller shows up as an occult shop owner who serves as Mr. Exposition and explains the rules of lycanthropy--but it’s Miller delivering his usual gruff charm, so despite the heavy handed way of explaining these rules, it’s still fun to watch.
The effects in THE HOWLING are wholly unique. One of the old werewolf film standbys is the transformation sequence. It’s the point of the film where everything narrative skids to a halt and everyone (screaming woman witness included) stops everything to wonder at the special effects the FX wizard came up with to make this transformation unique from all others. I have to say, the transformation scene in THE HOWLING is impressive. Rob Bottin did a fantastic job of making the central transformation piece unique with clothes ripping, craniums de-and reforming, muscles quivering and expanding. As a spectacle and an example of what your FX team can do, it is a marvel to behold. But as a point in the narrative, it’s excessive and does get a bit ridiculous as Dee Wallace stares and stares and screams and quivers and stares and screams and stares as this vivid and detailed transformation happens over the span of two or three minutes. Not until the very end of the transformation does she act by tossing a jar of acid into the werewolf’s face. I would have beat feet at convulsion one. Later, everyone begins this transformation as the hero easily picks them off with a rifle. Apparently, aside from and allergy to silver bullets, werewolves tend to have these epileptic spasms prior to transformation which puts them in a ridiculously vulnerable spot, and allows the intended pray to a) run off, b) blow you away with a gun, or c) stand and stare like a deer in the headlights. In most werewolf films, c is the most popular option which to me is beyond annoying.
Dee Wallace really deserves credit for shooting for the moon with this role as the lead. She has a wholesomeness that mixes strength with vulnerability that stays consistent throughout the film. Though after everyone knows werewolves exist, it sort of turns into an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/FREAKS ”one of us” typical scenario where everyone seems to be a werewolf, Wallace is the constant that brings a quality of acting to the role that I don’t think many others could have done.
I know I spent a lot of time talking about what annoys me with THE HOWLING, but I guess you’re hardest on the ones you love. There are moments where THE HOWLING teeters on the brink of awesome and debates whether or not it wants to dive in to the well of poignancy regarding a dissection of what separates man from beast, but just at the last minute, it decides to wink at the camera and say “It’s only a moobie” instead. Because of that, THE HOWLING is a classic that I love with all my heart, but frustrates me at the same time.
DOG SOLDIERS (2002)Directed by Neil Marshall
Written by Neil Marshall
Starring Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham, Emma Cleasby, Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
I’d heard good things about DOG SOLDIERS, but had never seen the film until recently. These days, a good werewolf film is hard to find. Either Hollywood is too busy giving zombies and vampires the spotlight to share it with werewolves or folks just aren’t interested in making films about man’s bestial side (the most common theme of these lycanthropy films). The standbys of werewolf films such as the mark of Satan (always a popular theme those Middle Americans eat up), the transformation spectacle (something, as I said before in THE HOWLING review, that skids the narrative to a halt), and the fear of telling a different take on the werewolf story other than the tried and true WOLF MAN tale may have led folks to believe that the genre of horror was stale and stuck in a rut in recent years. Then again, all it takes is a director with real talent to breathe new life into the genre.
Having seen and really liked both DOOMSDAY and especially THE DESCENT, Neil Marshall is a director that raises my antennae when I hear his name. Had I realized he directed DOG SOLDIERS, I may have sought it out sooner. But it did make for a fun surprise. Marshall mixes true military grit with a horrific menace. DOG SOLDIERS is most like ALIENS in that it is a military film that happens to wander into the horror genre midway. I think too many horror films try to be something else, but I think that’s going at it backwards. Marshall sets out to make a war film, then injects werewolves onto the battlefield. By doing this, the audience is thrown for a loop because aside from a little teaser of a monster in a tent at the beginning of this one, for the first half hour or so, this is a straight up army movie. Soon you are so caught up in the badass war games this squad of cool soldiers are playing that you forget that this is a horror film. When the werewolves do arrive, you as the viewer are as surprised as they are.
DOG SOLDIERS is filled with English actors who you’ve seen a million times in a million different movies. They may not be huge names, but you will recognize them by their faces. Sean Pertwee who has shown up in such films as SOLDIER, EVENT HORIZON, and DOOMSDAY stars as Sgt. Harry G. Wells (the leader of the troop) and does a great job as the gruff commander of the unit. Kevin McKidd, who is best known by me as Lucius Vorenus on ROME, but others may recognize him from TV’s JOURNEYMAN and GREY’S ANATOMY, plays Pvt. Cooper, a moralistic soldier who functions as our hero. Liam Cunningham plays Captain Ryan (a heartless special forces operative worthy of booing for his snivelly performance), but you might recognize him from CLASH OF THE TITANS or THE ESCAPIST or maybe even A LITTLE PRINCESS. All of these actors and the ones I didn’t mention are talented and up the film up a notch or two with their presence.
The werewolves here are pretty unconventional. They look like lighter furred or maybe even bald versions of THE HOWLING lycans with long snouts and even longer stilted legs. Marshall doesn’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on them and preferred to make quick cuts and shadowy frames when they were on camera for most of the film. This suggests that the FX didn’t really look too good, but then again Marshall’s quick cuts to amp up the tension and when the camera does linger, they don’t look half bad. Maybe the faces are a bit robotic and stiff and the stilts the werewolves walk on are a bit awkward, but they do make them imposing giant beasts and credit should be given to Marshall and Image FX for going the conventional route rather than CGI. Seeing shadows and forms speed past the camera is definitely more jarring and there’s a lot of it here. The budget of DOG SOLDIERS probably wasn’t immense, so this is a director creatively using his limitations to his benefit. Filmmakers could learn from this: the less we see of the werewolves, the scarier and more threatening they become. Making the cast interesting makes the scenes without the werewolves digestible too.
All in all, if you’re looking for a modern werewolf movie worth seeing that wasn’t made in the eighties, DOG SOLDIERS leads the pack. With fine acting, the debut of a talented director, ballsy to the wallsy action, and fresh twists on an old genre, DOG SOLDIERS proves that there’s still promise for an oft neglected subgenre. I’m hoping to be surprised with RED RIDING HOOD because it means more filmmakers will be tempted to make werewolf films. I’ll be seeing it this weekend probably. But if I’m disappointed, I’ll always have DOG SOLDIERS and the other films in this column to remind me how these films can be done right.
And finally, you can’t have a werewolf column without mentioning the Wolfman…Wolfman Jack that is. Enjoy!
See ya, next week, folks!
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Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole / wordslinger / reviewer / co-editor of AICN Comics for over nine years. Support a Bug by checking out his comics (click on the names to purchase)!
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