The Beast Within

10 Timeless Werewolf Films

by Bill Gibron

9 February 2010


In less than three days we will see what, if anything, new Oscar winning actor Benicio del Toro and replacement director Joe Johnston have to offer the whole ‘man into beast’ fright film formula. Ever since CG became a staple of scary movies, Hollywood has been trying to reinvent and reinvest in the werewolf film - The Wolfman being the result of such revisionist retro reach. Long a staple of schlock and serious filmmakers alike, this undoubtedly allegorical narrative (human’s channeling their inner creature) has been the basis for both straight forward storylines (as in Universal’s original classic with Lon Chaney Jr.) and oddball reinterpretations (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, perhaps?).

It’s not a flawless formula. There have been some relatively rough examples of the ‘cad into cur’ saga that definitely try even the most obsessed fright fan’s patience. For every shoddy, schlocky attempt, however, there have been one or two wildly successful efforts. Avoiding all the ‘bat vs. wolf’ histrionics that make any Twilight at test of Underworld mantle, and stayting clear of the whole “old school, time lapse facial fur” ideal, SE&L suggests these ten titles. Each one illustrates how effective - and ethereal - the whole late night/lycanthrope subject can be.

An American Werewolf in London (David Naughton, Griffin Dunne - directed by John Landis)

Perhaps the first successful mainstream meshing of horror and comedy, this John Landis directed romp reminded audiences that nothing is scarier - or funnier - than a clueless college kid transforming into a monster. Featuring Oscar winning F/X by make-up legend Rick Baker and an excellent performance by David “I’m a Pepper” Naughton, this cleverly balanced update of the genre type would come to redefined the fright film (and its production) for decades to come. 

The Howling (Dee Wallace-Stone, Dennis Dugan- directed by Joe Dante)

The aforementioned Mr. Baker actually left this film to run with his ideas for Werewolf. He turned things over to assistant Rob Bottin, and the rest is horror movie history. The man who would make The Thing into one of the ‘80s iconic creatures did a dandy job filling in, creating a memorable and menacing transformation sequence. With Joe Dante’s slightly satiric, nutty New Age approach to the material, the results were as terrifying as they were terrific. 

Wolfen (Albert Finney, Gregory Hines - directed by Michael Wadleigh)

Trying to find a new and novel way of telling the same old scary story, director Michael Wadleigh took Whitley Streiber’s Native American themed novel and really accented the cultural over the creepshow. Some found the emphasis on myth and legend to be a bit confusing. Others were miffed at the lack of legitimate F/X spectacle. Still, as smart, subtle thrillers go, this is a welcome addition to wandering werewolf lore. 

Ginger Snaps (Emily Perkins, Katharine Isabelle - directed by John Fawcett)

Canadian filmmaker John Fawcett channeled fellow Great White Northerner David Cronenberg with this bloody, biology-heavy look at horror and high school. Featuring a pair of grrrl-power leads meant to redefine the role of females in movie macabre, the pseudo-sexual underpinnings are so obvious it’s almost obscene. In either form, puberty or the paranormal, this is one fright flick that doesn’t shy away from the most terrifying time of all - being a teenager. 

Wolf (Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfieffer - directed by Mike Nichols)

Attempting to capitalize on the post-modernization of macabre that supposedly began with Frances Ford Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker, The Graduate‘s Mike Nichols gave us this surreal, uber-contemporary take on the old monster myth. Jack Nicholson plays a New York editor recently demoted and marked by the bite of the beast. Michelle Pfieffer is the object of his nocturnal desires. Smarter than you’d expect, and the cast really sells what initially seems like a very silly idea. 

The Curse of the Werewolf (Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans - directed by Terence Fisher)

Oliver Reed is brilliant in the only lycanthrope movie made by renowned British macabre factory Hammer Films. Based on the novel The Werewolf of Paris, director Terence Fisher called on the young UK thespian to carry a relatively bloodless terror take - and he manages magnificently. It’s just a shame that Reed didn’t get a chance to capitalize on his dread icon status for the production company, like Christopher Lee (Dracula) or Peter Cushing (Frankenstein) eventually did. 

The Company of Wolves (Sarah Patterson, Angela Landsbury - directed by Neil Jordan)

The Crying Game‘s Neil Jordan broke onto the genre scene big time with this unique reinvention of Irish folklore and Little Red Riding Hood. Loaded with sexual references and adolescent growing pain innuendo, it wound up confusing many outside the fright fan base. Even today, critics complain about the Howling-inspired transformation sequences seemingly sandwiched into an otherwise effective look at love, lust, longing, and grief. It remains a fascinating, frightening enigma. 

Silver Bullet (Corey Haim, Gary Busey - directed by Dan Attias)

Stephen King, Mr. Prolific, tossed off his illustrated novella Cycle of the Werewolf when asked to provide some “short stories” for a creature-themed calendar. The resulting book was a huge hit, spawning this Corey Haim/Gary Busey adaptation. Rather faithful to the source (King crafted the screenplay) and atmospherically helmed by director Dan Attias (from then phenom Miami Vice), it stands as one of the horror master’s better Big Mac and Fries films. 

Brotherhood of the Wolf ( Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel - directed by Christophe Gans)

French fright master Christophe Gans gained huge international cred with this brilliant, evocative film loosely based on the 18th century legend of the Beast of Gévaudan. Using his uncanny eye for images and a style that invoked the best of modern moviemaking technology and techniques, the director created a tale both beautiful and grotesque, of its time and yet thoroughly above and beyond it.  Definitely an experience that has to be fully witnessed (in the director’s cut DVD) to be appreciated. 

Dog Soldiers (Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd - directed by Neil Marshall)

Before his Descent into Appalacian cannibal Hell, or the dreary Doomsday that followed, director Neil Marshall made a name for himself with this military take on the type. The concept of grunts battling ghouls in the forests of Scotland is given a gloriously goopy workout by the English auteur. To this day, it remains one of his most polished works, an intense foray into fear combined with enough thrills and reinvention to please even the most jaded and cynical dread devotee.

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