When most people think of the cinematic werewolf, chances are that they have in mind the big three, and who can blame them? In 1935, Kentucky-born actor Henry Hull portrayed the first of these lupine creatures to make it to the big screen, the unfortunate Dr. Wilfred Glendon, in the underrated horror outing Werewolf of London. The lycanthropic ball would really start rolling six years later, however, when Lon Chaney, Jr. played, for the first of five times, the immortal character Lawrence Talbot, whose turn in The Wolf Man proved so very popular that Universal featured his character in an entire series of now-classic films. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and the all-time-great horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) – all featuring the Wolf Man, despite their titles – would follow over the course of that decade. And in 1981, the concept of the cinematic werewolf would be given another jump start with the immensely popular film An American Werewolf in London, starring the extremely sympathetic David Naughton as the unfortunate David Kessler. In today’s Shocktober column, however, I would like to focus a spotlight on a few other werewolf characters, in a pair of films that you may not be overly familiar with. Taken separately or as a wonderful Halloween-season double feature, both will provide the requisite thrills and chills to get you through an October night….
A few years back, I had the pleasure of reading Guy Endore’s classic 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris, a highly intelligent, insightful look at this legendary creature of modern-day folklore. And a few nights back I happened to watch the 1961 Italian/Austrian coproduction Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory, a film that is hardly classic, overly intelligent or insightful, but that did come as a nice treat for me anyway. To my great surprise, this is not the teenage lycanthrope panty raid that I had been expecting, or the camp fest that the title would lead one to anticipate. The film – directed by Richard Benson, aka Paolo Heusch – deals with a series of brutal murders in a young women’s reformatory school in what is supposed to be the U.S. but feels distinctly European. To its credit, the movie boasts some pretty creepy atmosphere, effective music, very passable B&W photography, and very decent acting (although it’s hard to tell for sure about that last with the terrible dubbing). It feels like a cross between a monster flick and an early Italian giallo, with a dash of mystery thrown in. Who IS the werewolf? Is it the new, hunky blond professor with a secret in his past? The lecherous old teacher who’s being blackmailed by one of the students? Or howzabout the Igor-like, handicapped handyman? Most viewers will never guess; I know I didn’t! The Maltin book inexplicably gives this film its lowest “BOMB” rating, but I think the editors there are being way too harsh. Although Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory is nothing great, it still deserves some respect for the effective and well-put-together thriller that it is.
So it would seem that Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London weren’t the only quality films dealing with werewolves that came out in 1981. That same year, Joe Dante, with The Howling, delivered what is in essence a gift to all horror fans. His werewolf picture features some truly frightening monsters, several of the most impressive transformation sequences anyone could desire, and a cast that is itself a tribute to the classic horror pictures of the past. In the film, we meet TV news anchor Karen White, appealingly played by Dee Wallace a year before E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial would make her a household name. After a traumatizing run-in with a serial killer, Karen and her husband (played by Dee’s then real-life husband Christopher Stone) go up the California coast to rest and recuperate at The Colony, an alternative-lifestyle, group-therapy retreat of sorts run by a pop psychiatrist (the ever suave Patrick Macnee). At this late date, I don’t think I’m spoiling the party too much by stating that The Colony’s residents are a pretty, uh, hairy bunch of folk! Dante directs his film skillfully, and although he reserves most of Rob Bottin and Rick Baker’s remarkable FX for the final third, the viewer is constantly afflicted with a feeling of unease, leavened by much insider humor. That great cast of horror vets – including John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Kenneth Tobey and Dick Miller (hilarious as antique bookseller Walter Paisley … the same name he sported in Roger Corman’s 1959 quickie A Bucket of Blood!), plus cult fave Slim Pickens and appearances by Corman himself and horror editor Forrest J. Ackerman – is truly a godsend, and some likable newcomers, such as the late Elisabeth Brooks, with her Angelina Jolie-like good looks, and Robert Picardo, who few will recognize as the holographic Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, make significant contributions. When I saw this film in the mid-’80s, I remember thinking how strange it was that Dennis Dugan, who I knew only as a weasly putz from an old M*A*S*H episode, should wind up being the hero here, but such indeed is the case. Watching the film recently, for the first time in well over 30 years, I was struck by how much I remembered of it, and indeed, some of the picture’s set pieces are truly made to stick in the memory. Though followed by five in-name-only sequels at this point, all of which are supposedly pretty lame, the original Howling is surely the one to go for. A class act, plain and simple, and a howling success!
So there you have it … a brace of lycanthropic thrillers that just might fit the bill for you and yours this Halloween season. Whether you watch these films on a night with a full moon or not, a chilling time is guaranteed for all!