With the Blu-Ray/DVD of The Wolfman remake hitting stores today, there's no better time than now to revisit the werewolf genre. Unlike vampires and, more recently, zombies, werewolves have never been as consistently popular with moviegoers, due perhaps to the inherent limitations of the concept (i.e., man vs. his bestial, primitive nature), but that doesn't mean fans of the sub-genre are completely bereft when it comes to putting together a must-see list, only that they (meaning me) have to dig a little deeper. As you'll see, three Cinematical entries arrived in movie theaters in the same year 1981 between April (The Howling ) and August (An American Werewolf in London) of the same year, 1981. It was a good year for werewolves.

A few, brief notes before we move on to the Cinematical Seven: (1) Films from The Twilight Saga will not appear on this list. (2) CG werewolves, by their nature, are inherently unscary, and will, therefore not be included on this list. (3) Sequels, regardless of quality, are automatically excluded from this list. Originality counts.

1. An American Werewolf in London (1981): Once, long ago, writer-director John Landis (Coming to America, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Trading Places, The Blues Brothers, Animal House) was an A-list director, but he was able to acquire studio support for one of his pet projects (sorry), an England-set, black comedy-horror film. Adding a new spin to the werewolf mythos (i.e., anyone killed by a werewolf hangs around, haunting him and otherwise upping the guilt quotient), Landis, along with a strong cast, and more importantly, Rick Baker's top-notch makeup effects (Baker won the first of six Academy Awards for An American Werewolf in London), created a horror-comedy with equal appeal to genre and non-genre fans.


2. Ginger Snaps (2000): Canada's sole entry on this list, Ginger Snaps, comes courtesy of director John Fawcett, who co-wrote the Cronenberg-influenced screenplay with Karen Walton. Centered on teen sisters, Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins), Ginger Snaps mixes black, Heathers-inspired humor (it's set in high school, after all), burgeoning sexuality, twisted familial relations, and camp-free, non-CG- horror. Followed by a sequel, Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed, and a prequel, Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (both more than watchable).

3. Wolfen (1981): Despite the absence of actual werewolves (they're super-intelligent wolves who hunt humans for food), Wolfen, based on Whitley Strieber's (2012: The War for Souls, The Greys, Communion, The Hunger) out-of-print first novel, deserves mention on any best-of list, due to Michael Wadleigh's (Woodstock) use of innovative use of thermography and Steadicams for the POV of the super-intelligent wolves, well-choreographed horror sequences, an eerily effective score by James Horner, and an A-level cast that included Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines (as the obligatory sacrificial sidekick), Tom Noonan, and a pre-Miami Vice Edward James Elmos as a Native-American bridge worker deeply conversant in Native American myths (specifically shapeshifters). Oh and did we mention the anti-corporate, pro-environmental theme that runs through Wolfen thanks to Wadleigh? Well, we just did.


4. Dog Soldiers (2002): Neil Marshall's debut film as a director (he co-wrote Killing Time four years earlier), Dog Soldiers, throws an unprepared squad of weekend reservists played by surprisingly talented cast, including Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee, against a pack of ravenous werewolves. Most of the action takes place in an isolated farmhouse on the Scottish moors, as good a setting for a horror film as you can find (just ask George A. Romero who first used the setting for Night of the Living Dead). The results are bloody, gory, hilarious, and, on occasion, cheesy (i.e., actors in ill-fitting werewolf costumes), but always consistently entertaining. It's Roger Corman-style, low-budget filmmaking, thankfully without unconvincing, ineffective CG (cf., Cursed, The Twilight Saga).

5. The Wolf Man (1941): The source material for this year's remake and the second werewolf-themed to feature the makeup effects work of Jack Pierce, The Wolf Man features Lon Chaney, Jr. in a career-defining role. Chaney makes his Wolf Man a tortured, tragic character, struggling, ultimately unsuccessfully, to save himself from the curse. Thanks to screenwriter Curt Siodmak's nuanced script, The Wolf Man also deserves credit for defining the general rules of the werewolf sub-genre.

6. The Howling (1981): A cheesefest from beginning to end (on purpose no less), Joe Dante's (Small Soldiers, Innerspace, Gremlins) The Howling appeared in movie theaters a few months before An American Werewolf in London. An overbroad critique of pop psychology and New Age Cults, The Howling is best remembered for the still impressive transformation scene created by makeup effects prodigy (and former Rick Baker protégé) Rob Bottin. Bottin would go on to develop the gruesome, gory effects for John Carpenter's The Thing a year later. Oh and an unrecognizable Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) in a brief scene where his character, Eddie Quist, a serial killer-werewolf, digs an inconvenient bullet from a hole in his head. Oh and let's not forget the scene involving werewolf sex.



7. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961): Hammer Studios revitalized the moribund horror genre with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). Each film, modeled on their Universal Studios predecessors, packaged eroticism and violence with high production values and stage-trained actors, most notably Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (both appeared in an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles with Cushing as Sherlock Holmes). For their take on the werewolf sub-genre, Hammer Studios turned to Oliver Reed to play the conflicted central character, a young man cursed from infancy to become a violent, uncontrollable werewolf as an adult. In its pathos and bathos, it actually supersedes The Wolf Man (our fifth entry above).

Honorable Mention: The Werewolf of London (1935): Best remembered for its cloak-and-hat wearing werewolf, The Werewolf of London featured Jack Pierce's makeup effects, but scaled back at leading actor Henry Hull's request. The Werewolf of London failed to attract audiences to movie theaters, due to the assumed similarities to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (an adaptation starring Frederic March appeared in movie theaters four years earlier). Pierce would revisit his werewolf makeup effects six years later when he supervised Lon Chaney, Jr.'s transformation scenes for The Wolf Man.

So what do you think of this list? Did I leave anything out? Did I include a non-worthy film on the list? What would you include?
CATEGORIES Cinematical