The werewolf (or lycanthrope, if you’re being fancy) is sort of the “middle child” of classic horror cinema monsters. He’s not as overtly sexual (or as handsome) as the vampire, nor is he quite as perpetually gruesome as Frankenstein’s monster. The werewolf is fortunate in that he can hide in plain sight as a normal human being—except when the full moon strikes, because that’s when he transforms into a snarling beast that loves nothing more than chomping into a nearby person.
So in a way the werewolf is a lot like Marvel’s Incredible Hulk character: he cannot control his transformations, he desperately wishes to be free of the curse and he often causes all sorts of mayhem while in beast mode. But, as we’ll see in the following cinematic syllabus, the best werewolf movies pay just as much attention to the monster’s human side as they do to the its gory exploits.
Werewolf of London (1935) A few years after they found massive success with Dracula, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, Universal Pictures produced this stagy but effective tale of a botanist who travels to Tibet, finds a legendary flower, gets bitten by a werewolf and returns home only to discover that his problems have just begun. It’s a bit dry and more than a little dated, but (despite the fact that Universal would ultimately go in a much different direction, werewolf-wise) students of the subgenre should certainly consider it required viewing.
Plus it features some early effects work from the legendary Jack Pierce, who only a few years later would move on to…
The Wolf Man (1941) The great grandaddy of American werewolf movies may have arrived a decade later than Universal monster classics like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) but it quickly earned a place alongside the studio’s most beloved creature features. True, this is your (great) grandfather’s werewolf movie, but it’s always important for a beginner to acquaint themselves with the classics—plus, this 70-minute chiller is still a whole lot of fun.
The plot is the very template of traditional werewolf stories (with one key omission: A man returns to his small Welsh village only to discover that the townsfolk are being terrorized by a ravenous wolf – and of course it turns out to be a werewolf, one who promptly takes a chunk out of our hero and transforms him into a “wolf man” of sorts. Boasting some old-fashioned but still impressive Jack Pierce photographic effects and more than a few straight-up scary bits, The Wolf Man also benefits from a tight script and an ensemble cast that includes Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi and Long Chaney Jr. in the role that made him famous.
(The full moon never enters into it! That theme wouldn’t come up until the sequels!)
With a (relatively) brand-new monster in their stable, Universal quickly capitalized by jamming all their monsters into subsequent semi-sequels. Lon Chaney Jr. would don the Wolf Man make-up four more times in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1955) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which is my own personal favorite and I don’t mind admitting it.
The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) Not too long after the Universal Monsters cycle began fading out, a bunch of UK producers decided to pick up the horror baton and run with it. The company was called Hammer Films, and it was good. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959) were their breakout hits, but they also got around to the werewolf legend with 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) For my money the finest werewolf movie ever made, and I bet that most of the filmmakers cited in this article would agree. John Landis strikes a masterful balance between broad comedy, legitimate horror and yes, even a touching romantic diversion.
The story is brisk and efficient: two American backpackers are attacked by a werewolf on the moors of England, and (of course) the one who survives finds himself transforming into a bloodthirsty mega-wolf when the full moon rises. Bonus points for some truly freaky dream sequences, a wonderfully disturbing subplot involving undead corpses trapped in limbo, and some of the finest (Oscar-winning!) Rick Baker visual effects of all time… I could go on and on. Oh, also the soundtrack, made up exclusively of songs with “moon” in their titles, is simply great.
P.S. Don’t bother with the 1997 semi-sequel An American Werewolf in Paris.
The Howling (1981) Seems like 1981 was a pretty solid year for werewolf cinema. (An adaptation of Whitley Streiber’s Wolfen also hits screens in 1981, but that’s more about wolves possessed by ancient spirits than werewolves. It’s still worth digging up.) I like to imagine that An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s equally amusing The Howling played at packed drive-ins across the nation. I sure would have been there, except my mom hates horror movies.
The Howling is about an investigative reporter who travels to a self-help cult full of aging hippie weirdos—who also happen to be a ravenous werewolf coven in disguise. Much like the aforementioned London-based werewolf comedy, The Howling benefits from a brisk clip, a very clever screenplay (courtesy of a young John Sayles), and a colorful bunch of actors who know precisely what sort of tongue-in-cheek b-movie they’re inhabiting. Rob Bottin’s werewolf effects may not be as iconic as Rick Baker’s London transformation, but they’re pretty damn excellent all the same.
The Company of Wolves (1984) When you think of Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, you might think of powerful and award-winning dramatic films such as Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992) and Michael Collins (1996). But the celebrated arthouse director also has a flair for the horrific. His vampire tale Byzantium (2012) brought some fresh blood to a relatively stale subgenre; 1994’s Interview with the Vampire still manages to hold up pretty well. And Mr. Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997) packs a mean wallop to this day.
The Company of Wolves was the filmmaker’s sophomore effort, and while it didn’t make much of a splash back in 1985, it still stands as one of the most creative werewolf stories you’re likely to come across. Sort of a grown-up re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood combined with an old-school anthology format in which a few creepy stories interrupt the framing segments, the film was based on a short story by Angela Carter (she also cowrote the screenplay with the director) and earns high praise for combining a dark fairy tale with a nifty omnibus format.
Plus it’s a real visual treat with some great special effects and a cast full of names like Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Stephen Rea and an uncredited Terence Stamp.
Silver Bullet (1985) Based on the Stephen King novella Cycle of the Werewolf, this obscure little horror tale benefits from a strong production design, a killer werewolf design and some fun performances (Gary Busey!) It’s pretty much your standard “boy who cried (were)wolf” tale, only this time around our plucky young hero is wheelchair-bound. And yes, this does factor into the suspenseful stuff on more than one occasion.
Due in large part to ongoing production problems, most notably a werewolf that wasn’t all that impressive to look at, director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) bailed on the project and was replaced by first-timer Daniel Attias. King, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, was also reportedly pretty “hands-on” during production. All in all it’s a perfectly watchable, if not all that memorable, mid-‘80s werewolf flick that earns a spot on the syllabus mainly because of King’s involvement. And Busey’s, of course.
Teen Wolf (1985) Much like 1981, the year 1985 was pretty solid for the werewolf aficionados. They got an artsy dark fable from Neil Jordan, a quaint small-town werewolf attack from Stephen King and then… this. The “other” Michael J. Fox vehicle of 1985. But while Teen Wolf is broad, silly, and occasionally kinda dumb, it has also gone on to foster a pretty loyal cult following. Clearly there is a niche for high school comedies in which a shaggy werewolf is also the star basketball player.
And if you’re gonna go to the trouble of pulling Teen Wolf out of mothballs, you may as well follows it up with Teen Wolf Too (1987), which replaces high school with college, basketball with boxing and Michael J. Fox with Jason Bateman.
Wolf (1994) Every once in a while a Hollywood studio decides to drop a nice chunk of change on a big-budget, star-studded horror epic, and that seems to be what happened in the case of Mike Nichols’ odd (yet oddly entertaining) 1994 feature Wolf. “Jack Nicholson as a werewolf,” is basically all one needs to know going in, but despite a few slow spots and some tonal inconsistencies, it’s actually a pretty entertaining movie.
Nicholson plays a New York book editor who gets bitten by a wolf and then gradually transforms into a much cooler guy… before ultimately becoming a bloodthirsty monster, of course. The screenplay is actually a pretty crafty concoction of horror, dry comedy and tragic romance; Rick Baker’s makeup and special effects are fantastic; there’s a great Ennio Morricone score; and the ensemble cast is loaded with not only Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, but also Christopher Plummer, Richard Jenkins, Kate Nelligan and a wonderfully despicable James Spader.
Gingers Snaps (2000) It’s safe to say that by the year 2000, we were long overdue for a feminine spin on the old-school werewolf tropes, and fortunately we found one in this darkly amusing Canadian import. Katharine Isabelle plays Ginger, a young woman who finds herself behaving in all sorts of ravenous ways after being bitten by (you guessed it) a very large wolf. It falls to Ginger’s sister (and a few ill-fated pals) to find a way to reverse the “curse” before it’s too late.
Karen Walton’s screenplay strikes a firm balance between morbid and melodrama, and director John Fawcett does a fine job of combining the conventions of high school movies with some novel spins on established werewolf lore. The result is a smart, insightful, and consistently entertaining horror film in which young women take center stage.
Extra credit: the prequel — Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004) — and the sequel — Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004) — are not half bad.
Dog Soldiers (2002) A few years before he’d grace the world with the subterranean awesomeness known as The Descent, writer/director Neil Marshall delivered this nifty action-horror film that packs a mean bite. (Sorry.) Lots of films try to combine action, horror, and wise-ass humor into one cohesive hole, but very few pull it off in such a badass fashion.
The plot is appreciably simple yet enticing: A platoon of British soldiers are on a training mission in the Scottish wilderness when they stumble across a pile of human remains—and a pack of snarling werewolves. This high-end b-movie boasts a great cast, a killer score, a very brisk pace and a generous portion of “soldiers vs. werewolves” mayhem.
Underworld (2003) The pitch probably went like this: “It’s Romeo and Juliet, only with vampires and werewolves!” And then someone who works the studio said, “Done. Only make it an action flick instead of a horror movie.” And the producers said, “That makes perfect sense!” That’s how I like to think that this long-running franchise got its start. And as far an mindless, moody action / horror / romance combos go, it’s not half bad.
The stunningly slinky Kate Beckinsale is a kick-ass vampiress who is supposed to join her brethren in the beating up of “lycans” (aka werewolves) but all that changes when she falls in love with one of 'em. Simplistic and periodically silly as the first installment is, it’s still superior to the umpteen follow-ups Underworld: Evolution (2006), Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009), and Underworld: Awakening (2012). And yes, there’s a fifth and final chapter scheduled for later this year.
Twilight (2008) This has werewolves in it. Moving on.
The Wolfman (2010) It sounded like a pretty decent idea at the time: a new-fangled (but still old-fashioned) remake of Universal’s hairiest classic monster with an all-star cast (Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins), a pair of impressive screenwriters (David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker), and a journeyman director well-known for making quality popcorn flicks (Joe Johnston, of The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Captain America). So what went wrong?
While certainly not a total mess, 2010’s The Wolfman struggles with tone, attitude, pacing, and payoff. On a visual scale the film warrants some pretty high grades (Shelly Johnson’s cinematography is really quite beautiful) and it’s always great to see the legendary Rick Baker back on a werewolf assignment, but there’s just nothing all that memorable about this rendition. (The Blu-ray’s extended version is a minor improvement over the theatrical cut, should you be willing to give the flick another spin.)
Late Phases (2014) Whereas the big studios generally look to remake and “young adult” stories for their werewolf-related productions, it’s the independent filmmakers who manage to find new role, wrinkles, and obstacles for the accursed beasts to chomp through. Such is definitely the case with this oddly melancholy, slyly funny werewolf flick.
Nick Damici plays an old grump who moves into a retirement community, only to realize that the area is being stalked by a large, hairy beast. Of course none of his neighbors believe him, so he sets out to save the day all by himself. It’s basically “the boy who cried wolf,” all over again, only this time the boy is a gruff old bastard who doesn’t take kindly to stray wolves. Damici’s superlative performance keeps the film interesting even during the talkier bits, and there’s ample support from actors like Ethan Embry, Lance Guest, Tom Noonan, Rutanya Alda, and Tina Louise. (Yes, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island is in this werewolf movie!)
Wolfcop (2014) Finally, a werewolf movie that asks the important questions, like “What if a cop got bit by a werewolf?” and “What would happen if you transformed into a werewolf while you were peeing?” This broad and highly amusing satire of 1980s action/horror flicks will please anyone who enjoys similar “throwback” fare like Manborg, Turbo Kid, and Grindhouse. Like the best horror/comedy combos, Wolfcop pulls off some really solid gags but doesn’t skimp on the creepy stuff either—but really it’s all in good, goofy fun.
Probably not for the kiddies, though.