New moon rising: return of the werewolf

Forget vampires. A raft of new werewolf films looks set to take horror to hairy new levels. It's time to stock up on the silver bullets, says Stephen Applebaum
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The Independent Culture

Is the vampire's reign as creature of the night coming to an end? For some time now, bloodsuckers have been hogging the moonlight in everything from the chaste, teen-friendly Twilight to HBO's kinky True Blood, while October alone has given us Park Chan-wook's mad sanguinary love story Thirst, and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant.

But could the release earlier this year of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the return to cinemas of John Landis's influential comedy-horror An American Werewolf in London, and the delayed arrival next February of the remake of George Waggner's seminal The Wolfman, starring Benicio del Toro as the titular lycanthrope, be a sign that the scales are tipping in favour of another mythical creature? As will be evident when The Twilight Saga: New Moon is released, werewolves are on their way back – and they're coming in force. It had to happen, eventually.

"If vampires are popular, it follows that werewolves must soon arrive," says Brad Steiger, author of The Werewolf Book. "In cinema, the two are paired like horse and carriage. You can't have one without the other." Chris Weitz, director of New Moon, concurs. "I suppose they're the two most relatable human monsters we can think of," he said recently. "They nicely encapsulate restraint and passion. Vampires are cold-blooded, literally, and werewolves are hot-blooded."

Whether we will go as loopy over lycanthropes as we have vampires remains to be seen. But like them or loathe them, they will be hard to avoid. Indeed, New Moon will offer a whole (six) pack of buff Native American werewolves. The writer/producer/director Alan Ball has promised that the beasties will soon be padding around True Blood's Bon Temps. Jack and Diane, a notorious lesbian werewolf movie originally, but no longer, starring Juno's Ellen Page, looks likely to finally appear in 2011, while MTV is developing a pilot for a series based on the popular 1985 Michael J Fox movie Teen Wolf. Fox network's "dramedy" Bitches – yes, really – about a quartet of female New Yorkers who happen to be werewolves, has, apparently, been put on the back-burner for now.

Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, Appian Way, is putting together a "Gothic re-imagining" of Little Red Riding Hood, with Twilight director, Catherine Hardwicke, at the helm. Some early oral versions involve a werewolf rather than a wolf; after all, the girl's fate at the end of the first published version, by Charles Perrault, was more grim than Grimm.

Add to this list a proposed, some might say pointless, remake of An American Werewolf in London, and the news that the film rights to Maggie Stiefvater's best-selling teen novel Shiver, about a young girl and her wolfy teenage boyfriend, have been snapped up by the producers of Lord of the Rings and Blade, and who can doubt that the fur is really going to fly? Why now? According to Steiger, the werewolf might just be the perfect creature for today.

"What could give one more of a sense of power in these troubled times," he muses, "than being able to shapeshift into a wolf and run off into the night, howling at the moon, and being able to demolish one's enemies and anxieties?" Steiger has a point. Who doesn't feel like going wild these days?

Werewolves in various forms have stalked the imagination for millennia, the reasons for their existence changing over the centuries. In some legends, people become werewolves by choice, says Steiger; they "seek the power of transmutation through incantations, potions or spells, glorying in their strength and in their ability to strike fear into the hearts of all who hear their piercing howling on the nights of the full moon. They also become great warriors in the legends of the Norse and other countries."

After the Church condemned them as Satanic in the Middle Ages, however, a lycanthrope was one of the last things anyone wanted to be identified as. Take the case of Peter Stubbe, in 1589, for instance. He was accused of a series of wolf attacks near Cologne – the wolf itself having vanished – and confessed under torture to making a pact with the Devil, who he claimed gave him a belt that transformed him into a wolf. He said he had killed and eaten children, including his own son, and livestock, and committed incest. The least grisly part of poor Stubbe's punishment was his beheading.

Today, our concept of the werewolf comes mainly courtesy of Hollywood. Though there had been earlier werewolf films, notably Universal's Werewolf of London, in 1935, it was the same studio's The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr, six years later, which would fix the creature in popular culture, and for a long time serve as the blueprint, effectively, for future werewolf movies.

Intelligently scripted by Curt Siodmak, the film "rewrote centuries of werewolf lore and legend", says Steiger. Even the film's famous poem – "Even the man who is pure at heart/ And says his prayers at night/ May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms/ And the moon is clear and bright" – was written by Siodmak.

"The Wolf Man created a number of faux werewolf traditions that became cinematic werewolf dogma in many horror films to follow," notes Steiger. These included the transmission of lycanthropy via a bite or scratch, the first full moon following an attack as the trigger for the victim's initial transformation into a werewolf, the look of the creature, the "clouding of human compassion by blood lust", and the lethal effect of silver. A silver bullet in the heart, he points out, was not added until Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943.

If werewolves have anything to be thankful for, it is surely that, unlike vampires, at least they aren't undead. The sun's rays are harmless to them, they can see their reflection in mirrors, and crucifixes pose no danger. On the other hand, pentagrams, especially silver ones, must be avoided.

The years since The Wolf Man have seen the creature's popularity wax and wane, as actors including a pre-Little House on the Prairie Michael Landon (I Was a Teenage Werewolf), Oliver Reed (The Curse of the Werewolf) and Jack Nicholson (Wolf) have followed in Chaney Jr's paw prints.

In 1981 the sub-genre gained a new lease of life with the release of An American Werewolf in London. The film was a perfect meld of comedy, horror and satire, and featured groundbreaking, ultimately Oscar-winning special effects by Rick Baker, which seamlessly transformed David Naughton's hapless backpacker, horrifyingly, into a ravening wolf before our eyes.

The momentum was maintained by two other films released the same year: Joe Dante's The Howling and the more serious-minded Wolfen. While the rest of the 80s produced further memorable outings for werewolves, such as A Company of Wolves and Teen Wolf, the 90s proved disappointing, offering the likes of Mike Nichols' so-so Wolf and the dire An American Werewolf in Paris.

The Canadian cult favourite Ginger Snaps gave the werewolf a much needed boost at the beginning of the Noughties, and the creature has barely been away since, re-appearing in Dog Soldiers, the Underworld and Harry Potter films, and Van Helsing, among others.

Next year, The Wolfman will take us back to the creature's cinematic roots. It is a risky business remaking a classic and time will tell whether it works like moonlight on the werewolf sub-genre, or a silver bullet. "I am not a fan of remakes, but I do have great hopes for the film," says Steiger.

With any luck, it will be – ahem – a howling success.

Honourable howlers Five great werewolf movies

By Ben Walsh

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

John Landis's mischievous, droll and rather heart-breaking werewolf film begins with two young, chirpy American backpackers traipsing along the Yorkshire moors. They stop off at a pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, and somewhat unwisely ignore the dire warnings of the locals ("Stay on the roads. Keep clear of the moors"). Clearly they're going to be mauled by a lycanthrope. David (David Naughton) survives but he's prone to violent mood swings come full-moon time. His friend, Jack (the bone-dry Griffin Dunne), is trapped in purgatory as a rotting corpse. 'An American Werewolf in London' is memorable for its groundbreaking special effects – the werewolf transformation scene in particular – the petrifying late-night Tube sequence, Jenny Agutter's comely nurse, the soundtrack (Van Morrison's "Moondance" and "Blue Moon" by Bobby Vinton) and the frightful sight of a gaggle of rotting corpses congregated in a seedy cinema watching a porn film. It also benefits from a cameo from Brian Glover and the immortal line, "You made me miss. I've never missed that board before."

Dog Soldiers (2002)

Another witty werewolf film, this time featuring a platoon of British squaddies – including Kevin McKidd's earnest hero and Sean Pertwee's very ripe (he's disembowelled early in the piece, but is patched together with Superglue) sergeant – who are besieged, 'Night of the Living Dead'-style in an abandoned shack in the woods by dirty great werewolves. Neil Marshall's gory, impudent, potty-mouthed delight is that rare thing – a decent, low-budget British horror flick – and is full of tasty dialogue, such as "We are now up against live, hostile targets. So, if Little Red Riding Hood should show up with a bazooka and a bad attitude, I expect you to chin the bitch."

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Neil Jordan's unsettling, brooding coming-of-age tale is based on two short stories by Angela Carter, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan for this cerebral film. 'The Company of Wolves' turns down the blood and guts, but cranks up the eeriness. Based around the 'Little Red Riding Hood' fable, this stylish, trancelike and intensely visual feature film concerns the dreams and nightmares of an adolescent girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), who is told a series of stories by her creepy old grandma (Angela Lansbury), at one point warning her young charge that "There is a beast inside every man; he meets his match in the beast inside of every woman". Jordan's deeply odd werewolf flick is highly sensual, riddled with references to Eden (snakes and apples pop up regularly) and centres on sexual maturity, innocence lost and the horrors of puberty. It's very ripe, with a suitable gamey performance from Stephen Rea as a bloodthirsty (of course) werewolf.

Wolf (1994)

Jack Nicholson, remarkably, is rather sweet in Mike Nichols' "grown up" werewolf film. He plays Will Randall, a burnt-out, slightly wimpy book editor whose supposed friend and ally (a deliciously slimy James Spader) is sleeping with his wife (Kate Nelligan) and undermining his efforts to impress his wealthy boss (Christopher Plummer). However, once Randall is bitten by a wolf, the underdog, as it were, bites back. With his heightened senses, feral instincts and increased stamina he becomes a much more aggressive proposition. He also, rather fortunately, attracts the attentions of Michelle Pfeiffer's millionaire's daughter. Not really a horror film, this is a cerebral, amusing and leisurely paced romance, with an exquisite performance from Nicholson.

The Howling (1981)

It was very tempting to plump for Hammer House of Horror's garish 'The Curse of the Werewolf' (1961), starring a very young Oliver Reed. However, Joe Dante's excellent and much-imitated horror, 'The Howling', is a superior beast. 'The Howling' centres on a TV anchor (Dee Wallace-Stone) who is on the trail of a serial killer, Eddie (Robert Picardo). When she finally catches up with Eddie, she witnesses him morph into a lycan. Full of suspense, black humour, bloodshed and tension.

'An American Werewolf in London' opens 30 October; 'The Twilight Saga: New Moon' opens 20 November ; 'The Wolfman' opens 12 February ; 'Real Vampires, Night Stalkers and Creatures from the Darkside', by Brad Steiger, is published by Visible Ink Press