At one point during the screening of 1941’s The Wolf Man, the guy in front of me dropped some popcorn on the floor, scooped it up and ate it. It’s as if the people who go to the cinema to see old horror films on their own are weirdos. There’s a lot of them out there…
The Wolf Man is one of Universal’s classic monster movies and stars two icons of early horror cinema, Lon Chaney Jr. and Béla Lugosi. Larry (Chaney Jr.) reunites with his estranged father in a gothic village, where he falls in love with local girl Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). But after an encounter with a gypsy (Lugosi) and a wolf, things start to get hairy.
This is the seminal werewolf story, now so entrenched in popular culture that even if you’ve never seen it, you have seen it. I mean that as a compliment – The Wolf Man is nothing short of iconic. The simple plot is laced with moments of cruel irony and the script isn’t afraid to be funny – a vital element of any werewolf movie.
The effects look dated but at 72 years old, so would you. This does have the unfortunate effect of rendering the film completely unscary; you wouldn’t confront the Wolf Man with a silver bullet, but a Gillette Mach 3. But The Wolf Man is really a romance, so it doesn’t matter that Larry looks like Chewbacca because we still care about his fate. Interestingly Gwen is engaged when she falls for Larry, which could suggest undertones about adultery and the familiar sex = death logic of horror fiction. But The Wolf Man opts for romanticism in the end, making this a sweet if toothless werewolf film.
Needless to say, The Wolf Man seems to have paved the way for a whole history of werewolf cinema. Subsequent offerings have shared this combination of horror, comedy, sexual politics and humanity. The best of these is An American Werewolf In London, which juggles humour, terror and emotion while giving us the best werewolf transformation in cinematic history. Writer/director John Landis is also responsible for Michael Jackson’s famous Thriller video, which makes a lot of sense.
Neil Jordan mined the sexual politics of the werewolf myth with co-writer Angela Carter in The Company of Wolves, which explored the dark, Freudian, furry underbelly of lycanthropy. Meanwhile the Canadian Ginger Snaps puts a refreshingly feminist spin on the sub-genre, while cementing the idea that special effects are no match for great characters.
But comedy is never far from a full moon – after all, these are films about people who turn into big dogs. That’s quite funny. Not for actual dogs though, who are always the first victims. These werewolf comedies range from Neil Marshall’s bloody Dog Soldiers to Wallace & Gromit’s plasticiney The Curse of the Were-Rabbit with countless homages in between. There’s The Simpsons’ I Know What You Diddily-Iddly-Did segment from Treehouse of Horror X, Futurama’s The Honking and of course Seth Green’s Oz from Buffy.
Just don’t mention Twilight.