My good friend Scott Weinberg is, without a doubt, a horror expert. He’s seen more horror movies than you’ve heard of, and he has a surprising recall of their facts and minutia. You have a question about a horror movie, Scott’s probably your first stop.
Beyond that, though, what is The Wolf Man’s character arc? He’s a nobody. He gets bit by a werewolf and acquires the same curse: He’ll sprout claws and kill people on the next full moon. Then he does so until he’s stopped with a silver bullet. Roll credits.
Where’s the cleverness there? There’s nothing “subtextual” or particularly fascinating going on here. It’s all surface-level silliness. The werewolf is not a clever, ironic, or artistically fascinating character. There’s little in the way of real duality or unexpected conflict. He’s boring, except when he’s a wolf, and then he does what wolves do. Yawn.
I can’t begrudge Scott not liking the werewolf. Different monsters for different folks, after all. I’ve never really been into vampires that much and of all the original Universal Monsters the one I really can’t rally behind is Dracula. But to deny there’s subtext to the werewolf? That cannot stand! The truth is that the werewolf is essentially nothing but subtext. Like the zombie, the werewolf is a monster that lives or dies based on how it’s used to reflect a deeper meaning.
The werewolf is all about the struggle within a man between his good nature and his dark side. In many ways the popular elements of the legend sprang from people trying to explain truly horrific behavior; before a modern understanding of psychology how do you explain why someone commits heinous, unmotivated murders? Well, they’re a beast, obviously. And while they don’t look like a beast, they turn into that beast at certain times (the full moon isn’t always a part of traditional werewolf legends). It’s probable that psychotics could have even described themselves in that way, telling their fellow villagers that there is a monster inside of them that they cannot control.
Gilles Garnier is a good example of this; a hermit who was also a serial killer and a cannibal, Garnier claimed that he was given a magical ointment that turned him into a wolf (the ointment came from a ghost. We never get ghost ointments in America, another strong case for health care reform), and in wolf form he hunted and ate pieces of four children, the oldest of whom was 12. Garnier was flat out convicted of lycanthropy and burnt at the stake in 1573; of course the elements of his confession are suspect, but he’s the perfect case study of a madman who could only be explained at the time through mythical means.
Werewolves are global; many cultures have shapeshifter myths, and not all of them are quite as horrifying as the modern versions. The Norse had the ulfhednar, berserkers who wore wolfskin into battle and who believed to take attributes from the creatures. Native Americans had skinwalkers, and there are shapeshifter myths in China as well. At the core of it all is the question of man’s relation to beast, and the central fear that there isn’t much separating the feral and the civilized. Even in cultures where shapeshifters weren’t seen as complete monsters the whole point was to devolve into something more vicious and wild.
Hell, the Romans and the Greeks wrote about werewolves. There’s obviously something fascinating going on here – it isn’t every myth that survives for millenia. Obviously there’s an element of the werewolf (and general shapechanger myths, which I’ll include just so The Howling III: The Marsupials can be a part of this discussion) that resonates with people, and has done so for hundreds of generations.
And here it is, distilled and simplified and modernized:
You’re at dinner with your wife. It’s your anniversary. You love your wife and you’re happy and life is great. But you cannot keep your eyes off the waitress’ ass. And you can’t keep yourself from thinking what she’d be like in bed. Hell, you wonder if you couldn’t get her into the back room and get it on right now, while your wife is at the table. Larry Talbot tears his eyes away and controls himself; the Wolf Man waits until his wife goes to the bathroom and tries to get the waitress’ number.
It’s as simple as that. It’s the bad stuff that bubbles up in the hearts of all men, even good men. For most of us, most of the time, we keep it down and locked away. But every now and again it boils over and can’t be contained. There’s a great joke in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, where Larry Talbot tells Lou Costello “Every night when the moon is full I turn into a wolf,” and Lou replies “You and twenty million other guys.” That’s the crux of the character, really.
What makes the modern werewolf intriguing (beyond the fact that onscreen transformations can be awesome, and are often the highlight of werewolf movies) is the idea that the lead character is battling this affliction. He has to be some kind of a regular guy to really make it work; in early drafts of the new The Wolfman Lawrence Talbot had threeways and smoked opium, making him already a creature of the Id. There was no further beast to be released in that version of the story. Talbot needs to be a guy who is not at peace with his darkness, but he doesn’t need to be particularly dark in advance. In fact the best part of David Kessler in An American Werewolf in London is how squeaky clean he is before he becomes a werewolf. John Landis sets up the werewolf part of him as being in direction opposition to his standing as a good Jewish boy – having the nightmare monsters that kill his family be Nazis isn’t just visually appealing and scary, it also reflects the way that he processes his new urges and desires.
I don’t know what could be more fascinating or relatable than man’s conflict with his own darker nature. In some ways Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, a story that Scott cites as being superior to werewolf stories, is a werewolf story itself, except that Jekyll is seeking to release the beast on purpose. CHUD’s own Andre Dellamorte notes that this is a metaphor for drug use and addiction, about how someone chases the darkness before becoming overwhelmed by it. The werewolf story is about the darkness being brought upon you, unbidden. The werewolf as poor sap is why the story works, because we’re also the poor sap. We didn’t do anything wrong, we didn’t ask for this, but here it is, in our hearts, asking us to do something we know is wrong. Something we know is wrong but is so satisfying.
Most werewolf stories are expressly sexual, as the unleashed beast is an obvious sexual metaphor; it isn’t really the hunt or the eating of meat that we feel like separates us from animals but the fact that we control our emotions and that we don’t rut with whoever we happen to come across. To some this makes the werewolf story read like a rape cautionary tale, and I suppose it could be played that way, but what it really is about is about is submission to our urges. While the werewolf dominates others through violence, the victim of the curse is being dominated by the beast. Some films have set up diametrically opposed characters who experience the curse in their own ways; in The Wolfman the character who bites Benicio Del Toro relishes his experience as a werewolf, and wonders why anyone wouldn’t want to enjoy their dark side. That’s what sets him apart from Lawrence Talbot, and what makes him a villain.
The Lon Chaney Jr version of Larry Talbot staggered through a whole series of movies as more or less a protagonist with perhaps the most unique goal in popular film: his own death. Thats’ what makes him a hero, that he’d rather die than keep on giving in to the wolf every full moon. And that’s why the werewolf so often shows up as an antihero; the power of the wolf is undeniable, as is the goodness of the man, the question becomes one of control. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer Oz the Wolfboy would lock himself away every full moon so as to not hurt his friends, but every now and again he would have to be let out to take care of a particularly intractable foe. The dream is to be so in touch with the beast that you can use its power while not being subjugated by it. It’s a strong concept for artists, I’ve found, because so many writers, painters and actors have to dip into the darkest, ugliest sides of themselves to make their art.
The werewolf – and specifically the anthropomorphic Wolf Man – has always been my favorite monster because I got him (also because I love dogs and being a dog always appealed to me). I understand what it’s like to have something dark inside you that gets out. I’ve never been a truly bad guy but I’ve done some bad things, and just like Larry Talbot waking up after a night where the Wolf Man took over, I’ve experienced that guilt. I’ve fucked people over – and fucked people – based on selfish, stupid whims and greed. I’ve let down my civilized exterior and allowed the unthinking mutt inside of me to have free reign. So I get the Wolf Man because, in my own small, petty way, I’ve been the Wolf Man. Hell, I was the Wolf Man two days ago when I selfishly and gluttonously ate all the Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter Cups (I didn’t say giving in to the Wolf Man was always sexy or exciting).
And I could see why Scott doesn’t appreciate that. He may have his inner beast more under control than I do, or maybe he’s made peace with it in ways I haven’t. But for many people, for thousands of years, the selfish, greedy, lustful, stupid animal that occasionally growls in our hearts is fascinating. I can get how you don’t like werewolves, I just don’t get how you don’t see the subtext.
As for why werewolf movies tend to suck: I think they’re just hard to do. The standard story has been done so well that other versions feel like rehashes, and unlike vampires – who can look like any regular pale person – werewolf stories require extensive make-up. You can make a vampire movie on a shoestring budget, but making a non-laughable werewolf film requires a few dollars. That’s why there have been more interesting takes on vampires, such as The Addiction or Let The Right One In, as opposed to werewolves, who haven’t had much luck in the last few decades (although I think that Trick r Treat does some nice stuff with them). Zombies are another metaphor-laden monster easily done by anyone with any budget.
But that thin filmography could really be in the werewolf movie’s favor. It means the creature hasn’t been stripmined the ways vamps and zombies have (when they’re making zombie romcoms you know it’s all over). Someone out there has a great take on werewolves that deepens the metaphor and takes it in unexpected places. They just need a couple of dollars and someone to believe in them.