The 8 Ball: Top 8 Werewolf Horror Films
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
Horror month continues here at 8-Ball Headquarters as we dive into the furry side of the genre. There is perhaps no subgenre of horror that is more unfairly maligned than that of the werewolf film. Werewolves are often considered to be the poor cousin to other monsters such as vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, demons, ghosts and the like. Many, many poor werewolf films have been made from Cursed and Skinwalkers to the many embarrassing Howling sequels and more. But there have been many very good films that explore the dark, bestial side of mankind and that theme is responsible for some of the true horror greats. This week, we’re howling to the moon and keeping clear of the wolfsbane as we look at the best werewolf horror films ever made.
Caveat: For the purposes of this list, werewolves either had to have top billing or be a primary part of the storyline. What I mean by that is that films like Trick R’ Treat, which I love, includes werewolves but only in one single segment and thus it didn’t qualify. Similarly, some of the later Universal horror films featuring the Wolf Man could be considered a werewolf film but I didn’t count them because the characters was often more of a supporting character. The films also had to be horror-oriented, meaning no comedies. That left films like Teen Wolf, Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Monster Squad and Transylvania 6-5000 off the list.
• Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
• Bad Moon (1996)
• Wolfen (1981)
• Silver Bullet (1985)
• Werewolf of London (1935)
Our first entry may be a controversial one because it isn’t straight horror, instead going the action-horror route. But you cannot deny that Underworld has some very strong horror elements and its use of the old vampires vs. werewolves motif is given a stylish spin in the hands of Len Wiseman. Ostensibly this franchise seems to focus on the vampire side of it since it casts Kate Beckinsale’s death dealer Selene as the lead character. The werewolves–or as the franchise calls them, Lycans–really do get equal billing with their undead enemies though and with Selene and her charge Michael battling both sides, it becomes as much a werewolf film as it is about vampires. Beckinsale is great and even Scott Speedman is quite good as Michael, but more specifically the Lycans stand out in their performances. Michael Sheen lends gravitas to the character of Lucian, one he would reprise in the prequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. And Kevin Grevioux’s Raze is a force of nature. Wiseman’s visual effects team created incredibly impressive visual designs for the Lycans, making them intimidating and bestial while fitting them in nicely with Wiseman’s distinctive color palette (a look that has been stolen for many lesser films since, by the way). While Rise of the Lycans was arguably the better werewolf film in terms of focus on the Lycans, it lacked a bit in the visual effects and story which allows the original to hold its place on this list.
Wolf is a distinctly underrated entry in the werewolf horror subgenre. The reasons are somewhat understandable, I suppose; the film is a bit more of a slow burn than most horror hounds appreciate and the genre elements are fairly similar to what we’ve seen in other films. However, there are several elements that help Mike Nichols’ horror-drama rise above the rest and foremost among them is its star. Jack Nicholson was perfect casting to play the lead role in this, a publishing heavyweight who is bitten by a wolf during a trip home through Vermont. Nicholson has always had a deserved reputation for excelling in wild man roles and seeing Will Randall let his hair down (or out) is a fantastic time because of the way Nicholson plays it. Michelle Pfeiffer and James Spader are also excellent and the way that they all play off each other lifts the material. The makeup effects by the legendary Rick Baker are brilliant and come on quite nicely in a phase-by-phase manner, while Nichols keeps the ship steering along nicely. Add in an effective score from Ennio Morricone and you have a film that deserves a much better reputation than it has.
Several talented filmmakers have touched on the werewolf genre, to varying success. Wes Craven’s Cursed was a failure, while we just discussed Mike Nichols’ work on Wolf. One director that escapes a lot of peoples’ notice when thinking about werewolf films is Neil Jordan. Jordan is best known for his work helming The Crying Game and the vampire blockbuster Interview with the Vampire, but before he made either of those, he did a quirky and very creepy take on werewolves with The Company of Wolves. The film is based on the short story by Angela Carter and stars Sarah Patterson as Rosaleen, a teenage girl who dreams that she lives in a fairytale forest. This twisted little take on the Red Riding Hood story is bolstered by a strong cast that includes Stephen Rea, Angela Lansbury and Terence Stamp, not to mention fantastic direction by Jordan. Jordan lays on the mood nicely, setting the scene for a great bit of fairy tale storytelling that includes some very impressive takes on werewolf transformation, particularly for its time. The movie would propel Jordan on to bigger and better things, but this is one he can certainly be proud of.
Another director who got his start with the werewolf film is Neil Marshall. Most people know that name from The Descent or, if you pay attention to such things, his directing work on some of Game of Thrones’ most important episodes. Marshall made his directorial debut with this little beast-tinged take on the Night of the Living Dead motif, setting a group of British soldiers within a farmhouse as they try to survive an assault from werewolves. Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee in particular are very good in front of the camera while Marshall takes the setup in some interesting directions and delivers some fantastic gore moments. The werewolves in this film are things of pure terror, portrayed as unrelenting and cunning masters of the art of killing, with practical effects that never look cheesy or low-budget. It’s not just tense and horror-driven though; like many of the best horror films there is just enough humor to make the film incredibly entertaining. A sequel is on the way, titled Dog Soldiers: Fresh Meat and we have to hope that it holds to the high standards that the first set for the franchise.
For many people, The Howling was the original modern werewolf film. And while there were certainly films from the post-New Hollywood era that featured lycanthropy before Joe Dante’s film, this truly is the one that set the bar for new werewolf films. Sure, the sequels became progressively more atrocious as time went on but Dante’s adaptation of the Gary Brandner delivers, with a self-aware and occasionally quite funny sensibility that doesn’t sideline the legitimately frightening moments. The film focuses on Karen White (Dee Wallace), a news reporter who is trying to catch a psychopath. When that goes wrong she is sent to “The Colony” by her therapist, which turns out to be something more than meets the eye. The make-up effects look tremendous and Wallace, Christopher Stone, Robert Picardo and the rest of the cast turn in great performances. This is an absolute hallmark of the genre and while it would be eclipsed by another werewolf film released the same year, it still stands tall despite how bad the franchise it kicked off became.
Ginger Snaps is, without question, the best werewolf film of the past thirty years. The use of lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty is not a new one; films like Teen Wolf and I Was a Teenage Werewolf have of course tackled the subject. But Ginger Snaps arguably did it better than anyone. John Fawcett hasn’t been able to do a lot with his career since this, but he certainly made his mark with the tale of two morbidly-minded teenaged sisters, one of whom is bitten by a werewolf and begins undergoing certain changes. Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins play the two sisters Ginger and Brigette to fantastic effect while the Fawcett takes his and Karen Walton’s smart script in great directions. It’s fair to say that the film wouldn’t be as good as it is without the two lead actresses though; they truly make this a great experience that manages to be incredibly entertaining and yet rather deep as well. Two well-received sequels have followed, making this one of the rare werewolf franchises to not have a bad entry to date.
There was no question what the top two films would be, although I went back and forth on which would place where. I’m still not sure I chose right, because there is a lot of validity to considering An American Werewolf in London the greatest werewolf film ever made. John Landis made a film that, along with The Howling, brought a new sensibility to the genre. It was time to take werewolves seriously and not treat them as the campy messes that they had devolved to in B-level horror films of the ’60s and ’70s. Which isn’t to say that American Werewolf isn’t funny; there are times where it is absolutely hilarious. But it’s horror first and the comedy is only there as humor should be in horror: to provide a moment of release for the audience before going back to the terror. This contains the single-best werewolf transformation in a film, which would go on to earn Rick Baker a well-deserved Oscar for makeup effects. David Naughton was not a well-known actor at the time but he excels as David, while Griffin Dunne’s murdered Jack provides moments of both levity and terror. The tone of a werewolf film has never been done quite as well as it was here, making it an easy #2 (and arguably a co-#1).
The thing that wins The Wolf Man its #1 ranking here is simple: personal preference. That’s not to say I think the 1941 Universal horror film is necessarily a better film; it is simply one that I enjoy more in an emotional level. I grew up infatuated with the werewolf story and Lon Chaney Jr. was the quintessential werewolf for me; he was my introduction into the world of horror at a very young age. Chaney was brilliant as Lawrence Talbot, delivering a performance that helped him finally get out of the shadow of his famous father. Claude Raines is also incredible here while the film sets down all the most iconic rules for the Hollywood werewolf. The influence of The Wolf Man on werewolf fiction is absolute; every film that followed in its wake owes a supreme debt to George Waggner’s film. Jack Pierce’s makeup work is iconic, the score is amazing and frankly, this is the film that–for me, at least–all other werewolf films are judged by. I think it’s fair to say that I’m not alone in this, and it’s very possible that the genre’s lower reputation is simply due to the fact that the bar was set so high from the start.
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.