“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.”
—Legend from “The Wolf Man,” 1941
Vampires? Oh, please. They are so last year.
Zombies? Roadkill in the rearview mirror.
Hollywood’s monster of choice in 2009?
The hairy beasts run rampant in “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.” Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro dons a pelt for “The Wolf Man” in November. Later that month, the feral creature emerges in the white-hot “Twilight” universe for the sequel “New Moon.”
Throw in Hugh Jackman in May’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and we’re having ourselves quite a lupine year.
The half-man, half-beast has been a cinematic staple since the days of silent film. In the modern era, actors from Michael Landon to Michael J. Fox to Jack Nicholson have taken long shifts in the makeup chair to play the rabid shape-shifter.
The last time there was such a proliferation of werewolf films was 1981, when “The Howling,” “Wolfen” and “An American Werewolf in London” were all released in the space of four months.
So why is he back now, scratching at our door?
“Everything in Hollywood is cyclical,” says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “Having rediscovered vampires, could werewolves be far behind?”
Others view the werewolf’s resurgence on the big screen as a barometer of the zeitgeist, a reaction to feelings of powerlessness - just as aliens echoed Cold War fears in the ‘50s and vampires mirrored AIDS anxieties in recent decades.
“The distinctive feature of werewolves is a murderous rage that gets repressed and comes out under certain circumstances,” says Michael Delahoyde, an English professor at Washington State University. “Monsters always seem to meet the manifestations of cultural concerns.”
The seminal and defining film in the genre is “The Wolf Man,” the 1941 creature feature with Lon Chaney Jr. (The Del Toro vehicle is anticipated to be a faithful remake.)
While that horror classic established many of the conventions of the werewolf film, it also took numerous liberties with lycanthropic lore.
“The origins of werewolves go back to ancient times when there were myths and legends of dog-men - half-humans, half-dogs,” says Rosemary Ellen Guiley, author of “The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves and Other Monsters.” “We find references from Greece to Native American tribes. These legends led to the development of werewolf lore in Eastern Europe.”
In the 1941 film, Chaney becomes a nocturnal predator after being bitten by a werewolf (played by Bela Lugosi). Previously, the condition wasn’t believed to be something you could pass along like a contagion.
“Usually it’s a different kind of curse,” Guiley says. “Either they crossed somebody or got some magical ointment or made a deal with the devil. If you stepped in a wolf print that had rainwater in it, that could also turn you into a werewolf.
“Peter Stubb in the 1500s in Germany was one of the most famous cases in history,” she continues, referring to a man who, under torture, confessed to attacking and devouring dozens of women and girls. “He made his transformations (to a wolf) by putting on a magical belt that was given to him by the devil.”
Throughout earlier eras, the werewolf was a monster of convenience. When his savage nature emerged, he would raven whatever crossed his path, whether it was a villager or a domestic animal.
That changed in the 1941 film, in which the altered protagonist targets his victims. This, of course, made him far scarier.
“He doesn’t just accidentally stumble on people and kill them. There’s a psychology to it,” says Delahoyde. “As goofy as Lon Chaney looks with that yak hair and putty nose, that’s the moment when werewolves really became disturbing.”
In “The Wolf Man,” Chaney’s beast has a fatal chink in his fur: weapons made of silver. Traditionally, werewolves had no specific bugbears.
“It wasn’t until the 19th century that some novelists generated the idea of werewolves’ being especially vulnerable to silver bullets,” Lee Krystek, curator of the Museum of UnNatural Mystery Web site, says via e-mail. “Before that you could dispatch them with just a regular old bullet or sharp implement. This weakness to silver, of course, is a feature of almost every modern werewolf film.”
Over the last few decades, as ever-more sophisticated special effects have made possible everything imaginable, the transformation from man to beast has gotten far more graphic. The werewolf has grown wilder, bigger and stronger.
Ironically, while the monster has grown increasingly formidable, bounding about on four paws, he can’t match the fright factor provided by Chaney, padding around on two legs, somehow still wearing his pants.
As the werewolf has changed, so has his audience.
“Today’s filmmakers have a great advantage. They have this arsenal of astonishing effects at their command,” says Maltin. “But I think in the process they’ve lost something.
“In the end it’s not about special effects,” he says. “It’s still all about the story and the characters.”
And the wolfbane.