I’ve always thought the werewolf was a fascinating horror archetype. I’ve talked about vampires, zombies, witches, and serial killers, and how all of those horror archetypes address certain human fears. Usually, vampires address fears about becoming lost to our desires and lusts; zombies are about becoming lost to a brainless, teeming hoard; witches are about the fear of too-powerful feminine influence; and serial killers are about the inherent ability and capacity of man to commit violent, unjustifiable murder.
And while all of these monsters address fears relating to control and human identity, no other monster encapsulates our anxieties quite like a werewolf. It’s no secret that civilization is a precarious balancing act between repressing and acknowledging our base, animalistic impulses. Werewolves personify the tension between our rational, controlled selves and our savage inclinations. Regardless of whether or not a werewolf can control his transformation, the opportunity to become a dangerous, uncivilized brute is a siren song few characters can resist.
For the final installment of my series on horror archetypes, I’ve compiled the following list of worthwhile werewolf movies for your viewing pleasure. These six (well, seven) entries represent some of the best and most entertaining werewolf movies. Enjoy!
The Wolf Man (1941) and The Wolfman (2010)
After the death of his brother, Lawrence Talbot returns to his ancestral home to mourn with his estranged father. One night, he stumbles upon a wolf attacking a young girl. Larry successfully defends the girl and kills the wolf, but his bitten in the process. Later, he discovers that he was bitten by a werewolf and is now a werewolf himself. Unable to control his transformations, Larry turns into a werewolf and terrorizes the nearby village. Lawrence, haunted by dim memories of his crimes, is overcome with horror and desperate to find a cure.
Now, I know the 1941 version is positively ancient, but it’s better than the 2010 remake in a lot of ways. However, the 2010 remake has some actual scary bits. And I have a soft spot for the remake, mostly due to Emily Blunt.
The 1941 version has much better acting and writing, with actual character development and meaningful relationships driving the plot. Lou Chaney Jr., who originated The Wolf Man role, turns in a great performance. His Larry Talbot is horrified at what he’s become, and his helplessness and frustration really gets to the heart of what the modern werewolf symbolizes.
However, The Wolf Man isn’t scary to modern audiences. It also lacks a cool transformation scene, which, honestly, is 50% of the reason anyone watches a werewolf movie. This is where the 2010 remake The Wolfman comes in. It’s appropriately moody, gothic, violent, and benefits from 60 years of filmmaking advancements. I recommend that you watch both of these films together.
If the remake had cast someone other than a bored-looking Benicio del Toro and focused on building character relationships, I think it would have surpassed the original. As it stands, they’re perfect compliments, each offering what the other lacks.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
American college students David and Jack are backpacking through the British moors on night when a monstrous wolf attacks them. Jack dies a gruesome death while David survives, though gravely injured. In a London hospital, David recuperates more quickly than anticipated and begins to have alarming, terrifying nightmares. He also begins to see disturbing visions of Jack’s corpse, who warns him that they were attacked by a werewolf, and David’s own transformation is imminent. David must decide what to do—kill himself or accept his new state.
In my opinion, this is the best werewolf movie. An American Werewolf in London is clever and witty but also horrifying and really messed up. It has mastered its uniquely funny and morbid tone. The film also has amazing make-up and practical effects. The transformation scene is one for the ages, and has become the gold standard for werewolf transformations. The film’s effects were so good that it won the first ever Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, an award the Academy basically created for this film.
An American Werewolf in London is a really good movie, with solid acting, tight writing, and terrifying plot developments. It will stay with you for a long time after.
The Howling (1981)
Television anchor Karen White assists in a police sting to capture a serial killer who has plagued Los Angeles with vicious murders of women. When she agrees to meet the killer in seedy porn shop, something happens that traumatizes her. Even though the police arrive and save her by shooting the killer, Karen is still terrified and unable to remember what happened that night. To help her recover her memories, her psychologist sends her to a scenic, secluded retreat and treatment facility called The Colony. Patients with all sorts of psychological ailments are being treated there. While everyone seems welcoming at first, Karen begins to suspect that they’re hiding some terrible secret. Meanwhile, Karen’s fellow journalists investigate the circumstances surrounding her trauma and uncover a disturbing plot that centers around The Colony.
This movie was so weird and intriguing, in the way a lot of striking late 70s-early 80s movies were. The Howling focuses on standard werewolf fare, such as repression and the consuming desire for sex and violence, but the film adds in a twist. I don’t want to disclose it here, but in the grand scheme of werewolf movies, The Howling’s werewolves are a lot more interesting than regular werewolves. I really appreciated the psychological angle of the film, which uses The Colony as an important plot device for self-exploration even as the film makes fun of such self-help retreats. A strange but non-formulaic movie, The Howling looks at the consequences of civilized society and the dangers of giving into primal urges.
The Company of Wolves (1984)
Based on the short story from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection, The Company of Wolves is a fairy tale nightmare. Young Rosaleen has a lucid dream where she is sent to live with her grandmother in a dark, isolated forest. Her grandmother is superstitious and warns Rosaleen of the werewolves that torment the nearby village. They may be monsters, but they appear disguised as handsome, rugged men. But when Rosaleen meets one such handsome, suspicious man, she is torn between obedience to her grandmother and her own burgeoning sexuality.
Director Neil Jordan has made a career out of visually striking, disturbing horror films (think Interview with the Vampire and Byzantium). Picking up where The Bloody Chamber left off, The Company of Wolves examines the sinister underpinning of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. Rosaleen’s transformation from a child into a young woman is fraught with sexual and romantic pitfalls. As she learns what this transformation means to her, the men around her become both objects of desire and real threats to her safety. The Company of Wolves will draw you in with its surreal Freudian imagery, both beautiful and grotesque, and worm its way under your skin. Little Red Riding Hood will never be the same.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
Teen sisters Ginger and Brigitte are inseparable. They do everything together, including fulfilling their roles as the resident weird girls at their high school and carrying out their morbid, death-obsessed photography projects. On the night of Ginger’s first period, while plotting revenge against one of their high school tormenters, Ginger is attacked by a wild beast. The next day, her wounds have mysteriously healed and she is…changing. Brigitte fears that Ginger’s personality change isn’t just about puberty and that something much darker is at work.
I really, really liked this movie. It’s a little low-budget, but I think the rest of the movie makes up for it, as Ginger Snaps is a thoughtful, insightful film with solid writing, great acting, and real gross out scenes. I thought it was inspired to link being a werewolf with puberty, specifically menstruation. In the same vein as The Company of Wolves, Ginger Snaps plays against werewolf type, taking what is usually a masculine monster and using it to explore feminine gender roles and the terrifying uncertainty of growing up. While the normal teen may not be a slave to their hormones, they aren’t exactly in control of the changing bodies, and are becoming different people, both physically and emotionally. These changes can damage or strengthen close relationships, as Ginger Snaps poignantly portrays.
Dog Soldiers (2002)
In the Highlands of Scotland, a small group of British soldiers have begun their training mission in support of a special ops unit. Once in the forest, however, it becomes clear that something inhuman is hunting them. Whatever it is has decimated the special ops unit, tearing those elite soldiers apart and leaving behind one seriously injured survivor. Desperate to find shelter before nightfall, the squad teams up with a local zoologist. Taking shelter in an abandoned farmhouse, the zoologist warns the squad that werewolves hunt in the woods and they have no choice but to fight them off until dawn.
So, Dog Soldiers is not the best movie ever, but it was one of the best horror-action movies I’ve seen in a long time. (I’m an action movie junkie as well as a horror movie junkie.) I really liked the character design for the werewolves themselves, which created a monster that looked like a man-wolf hybrid and was scary as hell. With tons of guns and explosions thrown in, naturally, Dog Soldiers is a lot of fun!
This movie is not so much about the internal struggle between our civilized and wild selves as much as it’s about the struggle between man and nature. It also deals with themes of group dynamics and pack identity, which was an interesting road to take, as werewolves are usually depicted as solitary creatures. Werewolves on the hunt aren’t the only ones who commit morally objectionable acts. While the film’s message needed a little work, I thought it was noteworthy that Dog Soldiers examined this idea with the military, the pinnacle of socially mandated violence.