Countdown to Halloween: Werewolves
One or two of you might have noticed that it’s Halloween in a few weeks, and pretty much every writer of horror fiction will have something to say about it. I’m no exception. In the lead up to the day, I thought that I’d run through some of my favourite monsters, talk about why I love them and then recommend a few books and films.
OK, predictably I’m going to start off with the werewolf, which is by far my favourite monster. It’s fair to say that the old lycanthrope has not been as popular as their other supernatural brethren, and the number of really high quality pieces of fiction that deal with them alone is limited. They end up being relegated to vampire whipping boys, teenage love interests or die on their arse in some terrible cgi mess of a movie.
CGI werewolves always look shit. Always.
All of these bad interpretations completely miss the point as to why the werewolf is one of the greatest monsters of all time. Sure, there is the fast, powerful and utterly vicious monster that tears people to ribbons on each full moon, but the tragedy of the lycanthrope is that he is as much of a victim as those he slaughters while under the moon’s influence. He knows what he becomes, and is powerless to prevent it. That is what makes the werewolf so fascinating.
Let’s take a look at the movies and books where the werewolf has been done well.
Let’s face it, this movie has been out for over thirty years and no-one has come close to knocking it from the top spot. This film is one of John Landis’s greatest moments, seamlessly fusing an excellent plot, dark humour and special effects that have still yet to be topped. American Werewolf will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s the first film I saw on videotape, back when we got our first toploader in the 1980’s. It’s also the first “modern” horror film that I ever saw. I doubt that there are many people left on the planet who have not seen this, but if such a person exists, then they need to sort it out immediately. Don’t bother with the sequel though. It truly was fucking awful.
A recent entry into my top three, taking second place away from The Howling after nearly two decades. This film ticked all the boxes for me. It doesn’t shy away from the gore, while doing a great job at building tension alongside the grim humour. What really make’s this film stand out, however, are the characters. Sean Pertwee’s over-acting is nothing short of genius, and it’s full of little pop culture references and in-jokes to lighten the mood before tearing through the characters again. By far the best werewolf movie in recent times.
The Howling is still one of the scariest werewolf movies ever made. The special effects rivalled those in American Werewolf and the creature design is astonishing. Based on Gary Brandner’s novel by the same name it follows a journalist who heads to an isolated community to recover from an encounter with a serial killer. Before long she hears a strange howling out in the woods, and things take a rather extreme turn for the worse. The Howling will, unfortunately be saddled with being known as the film that spawned a thousand sequels, each one worse than the one before. Don’t bother with any of those, but if you have not seen the original, then you really should.
This film is where the modern werewolf was really born. Ground breaking special effects for the time, alongside one of Lon Chaney Jr’s best performances as the cursed Lawrence Talbot, make this required viewing for the werewolf fan. Pretty much every other movie in this list, as well as most of the novels below, borrowed, stole or built on the werewolf as described in this movie.
The Ginger Snaps series is that rare beast – a series of werewolf films that actually does a fairly good job. The first movie starts off with two sisters, Ginger and Bridget, a pair of outcasts who stick together no matter what life throws at them. Ginger is attacked in the woods near their home, and slowly begins to transform into a creature from legend while her sister searches for a cure. The second film picks up right where the first ends, while the third movie is set in the 1800’s in Canada, where an outpost is under siege from a pack of werewolves. The entire series is worth your time. The second movie is probably the weakest of the three, but all three films are an interesting and enjoyable take on werewolves.
Personally, I don’t think this film is as bad as the reviews indicated, although switching director in the middle of a movie is rarely good. Still a fairly effective film, despite some tonal inconsistencies and ropey CGI.
A low budget 1980’s movie based on Stephen King’s novella, Cycle of the Werewolf. Despite the 1980’s cheese, a few dodgy special effects, and Gary Busey’s ability to chew up the scenery, this remains one of the better werewolf films. A couple of scenes, such as the townsfolk hunting the beast through the woods remain some of the scariest werewolf moments in cinema.
Neil Jordan’s adult retelling of the Red Riding Hood story is a surreal, thought provoking and quite sinister film. The werewolf transformation scenes, where the wolf emerges from the human’s mouth remains one of the more disturbing interpretations of the change.
Hammer’s iconic take on the wolfman story saw Oliver Reed sprouting hair and fangs in what is basically a remake of the classic 1941 Universal film. Being the first werewolf film that I ever saw, this one stayed with me for a long time and on a recent rewatch, I still found that I could quote some of the lines despite not having seen the film for 30 years. Reed gives a great performance as the tortured Leon and this movie is definitely worth a watch for those loving some old school werewolf action.
The werewolf in literature has also been something of a mixed history. For every brilliant werewolf novel out there, there are hundreds of terrible paranormal romance books or clichéd, badly written borefests. Again, there are still a number of fantastic werewolf books out there, so I’ll list a few of my favourites below.
The Wolf’s hour remains my favourite werewolf novel, despite the fact that it’s not really a horror story. The protagonist, Michael Gallatin, is a secret agent in World War 2 with one advantage over his enemies. He is a werewolf and can transform into a powerful beast whenever the mood takes him. It’s a high paced thriller with werewolves and nazi’s, however where this book really excels is where Michael’s early life as a werewolf, living in a Russian forest with a pack of other werewolves, is explored.
Trust Stephen King to come up with what is possibly the definitive take on the classic werewolf. Cycle of the Werewolf follows the story of a young disabled boy who comes to suspect that a werewolf is responsible for a series of killings in the small town of Tarker’s Mill. It’s not the longest book in the world, but it contains some absolutely beautiful illustrations on each chapter. The sense of menace and dread as the next full moon comes around is palatable. The movie adaptation, Silver Bullet was pretty good, but the book is far better in every way.
One of the most original and terrifying takes on the werewolf. The movie version with Albert Finney was pretty dire, but the book frightened the life out of me. I wrote a full review of it Here
A gritty, violent and thoroughly entertaining read with well rounded characters and a high paced story that never lets up. Once this book kicked into high gear I could not put it down, and tore through more than half of it in a single 5 hour sitting. A great read for those of us that like our Werewolves to be monsters instead of sensitive misunderstood souls that occasionally sprout fur and fangs
When George and Lou take on a job to transport a man in a cage to Tampa, they laugh at their employer’s warning that he’s a werewolf. Anyway, the full moon is a couple of weeks away, so they figure that they have nothing to worry about.
How wrong they are.
Once Ivan the werewolf escapes he embarks on a sadistic and gleeful rampage through a small town, slaughtering everyone in his path in increasingly savage, gory and often hilarious ways, while doing his best to make George and Lou’s life an absolute misery.
The book cracks along at an incredible pace, driven by the amusing banted between George, Lou, and Ivan the werewolf and the relentless action set pieces.
It’s not got the deepest and most involved plot in the world, but its a hell of a lot of fun. Officially now one of my favourite werewolf novels of all time. I loved it.
And of course, if you are on a werewolf kick, you could do worse than picking up a little book called High Moor. I wrote that novel because I could not find the sort of werewolf book that I wanted to read. If you like the movies listed above, then there is a good chance that you will enjoy High Moor. It’s a fast paced, action horror novel with plenty of dark humour throughout. You can buy it by clicking on the link below 🙂
Next time, I’ll tackle the werewolf’s cinematic nemesis, The Vampire.