Werewolf Folklore permeates the fabric of our lives. Stories handed down through the ages that become part of our culture make us who we are. We don’t think about it much in our day to day activities. It is usually during special occasions that ritual and traditions are observed in an obvious fashion. We observe some of the oldest and most fantastic of these at this fall time of the year.
One of my favorite Halloween traditions is to watch scary movies. Some of the most fantastic, awe inspiring and terrifying of these are the classic monster movies. Werewolves have captivated man’s imagination since the earliest of times. They incorporate many of the phobias and fears of a frail human race, unwanted, often horrific physical transformation, the loss of control over ourselves, the desire to hurt or even kill others. The list goes on and on. I love werewolf mythos, especially where it intersects with film.
I decided that a great way explore one of my favorite literary beasts in movies would be to compose a list showing where I think the milestones exist in film history as it applies to depicting such a fiendish creature.
In 1935 the first film to feature bipedal anthropomorphic werewolf was made with simple yet effective makeup on actor Henry Hull. This is, for me, the first true werewolf in a movie.
In 1941 the silver screen was graced by Lon Chaney Jr’s masterful makeup work in black and white. The complexity of the makeup and appliances in this film were a marked leap forward from earlier movies.
Werewolves pretty much copied Lon Chaney Jr’s makeup with ever so slight variations for years until the gory Hammer Horror film Curse of the werewolf came along. The creature here evokes a more feral look and color adds depth and conveys feelings not seen before.
Movies stagnated again for a pretty long stretch of time until 1981 when a pair of films BURST onto the scene. American Werewolf in London allowed a young makeup artist named Rick Baker to show us how the werewolf transforms in a way NEVER before seen on screen. The creature in this film shows us the agony of the transformation as well as facets of it none of us ever even considered before. It is also the most animalistic of the film monsters to date.
Rob Bottin a student of baker showed his mentor and contemporary that two werewolves are better than one. Bottin’s transformation scene concentrated on mostly the head and upper body but it proved to watchers how truly terrifying such a change could be when the cursed character truly embraces being such a beast. This iteration of the werewolf while still quite manlike is the scariest wolf captured on film to date for me.
in 1987 a team of effects artists headed by the late Stan Winston gave us this gem called Monster Squad. The werewolf here was a re-imagining of the classic wolfman using practical / mechanical effects. While the creature was very manlike its mechanical facial expressions made it very realistic and eerie.
Ginger Snaps, from 2000, makes the list because it chose NOT to copy the Baker /Bottin style of creature. No surreal transformation scenes here. Instead you get a female werewolf with a strange mostly stretched skin look. It is unusual and in many ways very alluring. The advent of computer generated effects added greatly to the realistic movements of this creature.
Dogsoldiers burned up the silver screen in 2002 giving us a very scary werewolf which manlike in stance was quite feral and animalistic. This combination of a very wolf-like head and a very bipedal stance was frightening and intimidating enough for it to make my list.
Underworld in 2003 gave us our first FULLY computer generated screen werewolves. The transformations were fast and fairly realistic. The movements of these creatures and the fact that they used CG and practical effects VERY effectively makes this a clear advancement in werewolf effects.
Van Helsing was made in 2004. This movie has ALL CG werewolves. No practical effects to be had in the this flick. While some are pretty realistic others are not so much. This is not a great film but it shows up here for no other reason than its use of CG for all aspects of the wolves. If you want my two cents they really have to get realistically moving hair right before they will ever be able to ditch practical effects entirely.
Honorable Mention : I left 2010’s remake of The Wolfman off the list intentionally. Even though it won Rick Baker an Oscar award I think it really didn’t break new ground so it wasn’t really a step forward. If anything its clever use of practical and CG effects had already been done although not with this sense of flair and style.
That’s its. Hope you enjoyed my time line. Happy Halloween!