Stephen King, in his celebrated non fiction work Danse Macabre postulated that the Werewolf was one of the three major archetpyes of horror. The other two being The Thing With No Name and the Vampire. In the 36 years or so since he wrote that, horror changed a lot, but these archetypes – as broadly stated as King intended – still hold up more or less. In terms of recent horror movies I’ve reviewed, Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno is a Vampire movie, and Darling, by Mickey Keating is a Werewolf movie. I would add one to this list, however, and that is the Zombie. Sure, many Zombie movies are just that, but their proliferation as the most ubiquitous creature in horror fiction and movies (all you need to do is look at the sheer volume of books on Amazon – every new “writer” seems to produce nothing BUT zombie fiction – and the depressing array of low-budget movies on Netflix to see that) deserves a place at the table – it’s gone beyond being just a play on the Vampire archetype.
So, why does a review of the British werewolf movie Howl start off like this? Having gotten the setup out of the way, I’ll circle round to it soon, but for now it’s appropriate to discuss the movie in the context of other werewolf movies. Back to King’s archetypes for a second, though. Discussing the werewolf as an archetype is not to be taken literally. When King uses the term, he isn’t strictly talking about someone who changes into a wolf-like monster, he’s talking about fiction where the monster emerges from within, submerging the human side as the animalistic passions and hungers explode outwardly to destroy others. It’s a clumsy name, I think: the term “werewolf” is too literal for my liking. Under this umbrella, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates is a Werewolf, as is Lauren Ashley Carter’s Darling. For me, the archetype could be named It Came From Within, and it would easily contain the Psycho and The Werewolf.
And what of werewolves in horror? One of my earliest memories of them was the seminal Universal pic The Wolfman, watched so long ago as a child in Scotland. I don’t recall ever being scared of the Universal movies back then – charmed is maybe the right word – but I do remember being sympathetic to the doughy-faced Lon Chaney Jr ruing his fate in the Curt Siodomak-written movie, and I believe those feelings to be the foundation of my own take on the nature of horror fiction: that great horror focuses on the inevitable doom of an innocent. See The Wicker Man, Candyman, and The Blair Witch Project as examples of what I’m talking about. Drawing these threads together, I leap ahead 40 years in cinema to where David draws the ace of spades in John Landis’s An American Werewolf In London. While the story is basically just an update of The Wolfman, the movie is rightly famous for its fantastic transformation scene, with effects by the legendary Rick Baker, but David Naughton’s performance as the tragic David is also one of the best acting jobs in the history of the genre.
That movie was released in 1981, but so too was my own personal favourite werewolf movie, The Howling. From a mediocre novel by Gary Brandner, this movie has a much richer story than American Werewolf, and for my money, Rob Bottin’s transformation effects are superior to Baker’s. While Baker’s are all about the pain of transitioning from one form to another, Bottin’s are all about the effortless pleasure of doing so – contextually, the Bottin scenes don’t actually make a lot of sense because they rely on the presence of a protagonist who might otherwise tear out of there as soon as it starts, but they are shot smartly by director Joe Dante, and the result is visually stunning. Bottin would go on to achieve legendary status of his own the following year with John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing.
Howl, a low-budget British werewolf movie, starring Ed Speleers, and the luminous Shauna McDonald (The Descent) hearkens back to the days of Hammer Studios – 40 years ago, this movie might have been considered a classic of the genre. The setup is classic Hammer – passengers on a midnight train are unlucky enough to break down in the heart of a forest, and are picked off one by one … by werewolves! In 1976, you’d get Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and maybe a B-list American actor (let’s pick David Soul), and it would be great fun. Not so, Howl. Speleers plays Joe, a downtrodden train conductor, and his character arc starts promisingly enough – I thought it was a well-written diatribe about how we treat these public service jobs with such disdain, and there is a lot of audience sympathy built up for Joe as he makes his way through the carriages checking tickets and being treated like shit. It’s through character work in Act 2 that the movie makes crucial missteps. Joe’s arc doesn’t necessarily mean that he steps up to become the hero, but he doesn’t evolve much, isn’t able to find that life-defining hidden well of strength, and without leadership the movie simply proceeds from scene to scene, limping to a mostly unsatisfying end.
The werewolves here are disappointing in most aspects. The full body makeup is well meaning and different – aesthetically, I appreciated the concept of trying to make them look like actual wolf/human hybrids, but the finished look reminded me too much of the Morlocks from The Time Machine. In the final confrontation scenes the clumsy fight choreography in near-daylight exposes this painfully. I will say though that the scenes where they are hunched and approaching through forest mists as shadows with glowing eyes are extremely effective. I really loved that visual, and wish the creatures actual look had been left unrevealed.
Circling round as I threatened to do earlier, Howl is a movie about werewolves, but in terms of horror archetypes, this is a Zombie movie pure and simple. The werewolf movie, That Which Came From Within, is a small intimate movie about the destructive animalist forces that emerge to do harm, before retreating, satisfied until the next time. Zombie movies are simply about the overwhelming outside force of anonymous, faceless, characterless annihilation. Howl’s werewolves have no sense of individualism or character – they, like the hordes in all other zombie movies, exist simply to attack and eat the humans who hide behind their barricades.