Bat image from OpenClipart (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
In less than three days from this writing 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 CGI became a staple of scary movies, Hollywood has been trying to reinvent and reinvest in the werewolf film — Johnston’s The Wolfman (2010) being the result of such revisionist retro reach. Long a staple of schlock and serious filmmakers alike, this undoubtedly allegorical narrative (humans channeling their inner creature) has been the basis for both straight forward storylines (as in Universal’s original 1941 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 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 Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight (2008) a test of Len Wiseman’s Underworld (2003) mantle, and staying clear of the whole “old school, time lapse facial fur” ideal, Short Ends & Leader suggests the following ten titles. Each film illustrates how effective — and ethereal — the late night/lycanthrope subject can be.
1. An American Werewolf in London, Dir. John Landis (1981)
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.
2. The Howling, Dir. Joe Dante (1981)
The aforementioned Mr. Baker actually left this film to run with his ideas for An American Werewolf in London. He turned things over to assistant Rob Bottin, and the rest is horror movie history.
The man who would make John Carpenter’s The Thing into one of the ’80s iconic creatures did a dandy job filling in, creating a memorable and menacing transformation sequence in The Howling. With Joe Dante’s slightly satiric, nutty New Age approach to the material, the results are as terrifying as they are terrific.
3. Wolfen, Dir. Michael Wadleigh (1981)
Trying to find a new and novel way of telling the same old scary story, director Michael Wadleigh took Whitley Streiber’s 1978 Native American-themed novel of the same name and really accented the cultural over the creepshow. Some found the emphasis on myth and legend a bit confusing. Others were miffed at the lack of legitimate F/X spectacle.
Still, as smart, subtle thrillers go, Wolfen is a welcome addition to wandering werewolf lore.
4. Ginger Snaps, Dir. John Fawcett (2000)
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, Ginger Snaps is one fright flick that doesn’t shy away from the most terrifying experience of all: being a teenager.
5. Wolf, Dir. Mike Nichols (1994)
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. Wolf is smarter than you’d expect, and the cast really sells what initially seems like a very silly idea.
6. The Curse of the Werewolf, Dir. Terence Fisher (1961)
Oliver Reed as Leon is brilliant in the only lycanthrope movie made by renowned British macabre factory, Hammer Films. Based on Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, (Farrar & Rinehart, 1933), 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.
7. The Company of Wolves, Dir. Neil Jordan (1984)
The Crying Game‘s Neil Jordan broke onto the genre scene big time with his 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. No matter. The Company of Wolves remains a fascinating, frightening enigma.
8. Silver Bullet, Dan Attias (1985)
Stephen King, Mr. Prolific, tossed off his illustrated novella Cycle of the Werewolf (1983) 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), Silver Bullet stands as one of the horror master’s better films.
9. Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups), Dir. Christophe Gans (2001)
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. Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups) is definitely an experience that has to be fully witnessed to be appreciated.
10. Dog Soldiers, Dir. Neil Marshall (2002)
Before his descent into Appalachian cannibal Hell in The Descent (2005), or the dreary Doomsday (2008) that followed, director Neil Marshall made a name for himself with his military take on the werewolf-type, Dog Soldiers.
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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