Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Spoilers ahead for Bad Moon, An American Werewolf In London, The Howling, Dog Soldiers, Ginger Snaps.
Listeners of Horror Business and readers of THIS JUSTIN know I’m a sucker for a good werewolf film. Out of all of the archetypical movie monsters, the werewolf stands at the top of the mountain as the one that gets under my skin the most. Vampires are a cool, and I guess mummies are alright. Creatures, from the Black Lagoon or elsewhere, are fine. But werewolves…there’s nothing like them. Give me a good werewoof movie and I’m happy.
I don’t know why I’m so intrigued/terrified of the idea of a person turning into a wolf-ish being. I can’t say it’s something as sophisticated as the idea of giving in to my primal hindbrain and casting off the chains of the social contract appeals to me, or that the concept of being a idiocentric, animalistic man-beast is a wanted alternative to me being something of a boring person in everyday life. Honestly, there’s nothing really all that romantic about the idea to me. There’s a tragedy, sure. But there’s nothing tempting about the idea that speaks to me on a deeper level. Honestly, I think it’s just because I like being scared, and werewolves can be scary as fuck. Seriously. I frequently nightmare about them: whether it’s being lost in the woods and being chased by a pack of frenzied woofs, or I’m defending my house from a siege of lycanthropes, or (scariest of all) I’m in a room with someone I know is going to turn into a woof any minute and I’m defenseless. I seriously dream about this shit like once a month. It’s stupid, but I still love it.
Traditionally, werewolf designs have fallen into one of three camps: vaguely human wolf man (The Wolf Man, Monster Squad), actual large and freakish wolf (An American Werewolf In London, Wolf, Ginger Snaps), and bipedal upright monster (Dog Soldiers, The Howling, Late Phases, Bad Moon, Van Helsing, Underworld: Evolution, Project: Metalbeast). I think the last category is most effective, followed the middle and first category (if the “vaguely human wolf man” is ever effective, that is) so most of the films on this list will be in that category.
This isn’t my definitive ranking of werewolf movies. It roughly correlates with my opinion of the films, but this list is about the werewolf design itself. I’m not saying Bad Moon is better than An American Werewolf In London, something so erroneous it felt blasphemous to type. I’m merely talking about what I like about the creature designs. So, without further ado, from worst to best, here we go!
The Wolf Man
I’ll give it a nod if only because it’s the movie that kind of sort of started it all. Honestly, the movie/franchise isn’t one of my favorites of the classic Universal properties; the design isn’t really anything too scary or elaborate. You’ve seen it. You know it. It’s a simple design, and was probably terrifying when it first came out, but by the time I got around to seeing it as a kid, I’d already seen newer, better werewolf properties. And besides, how scary is a werewoof who strangles their victims. Shit’s wack. I shouldn’t even have mentioned this movie.
I never really dug Ginger Snaps, but the design is at least interesting and unorthodox. Not the strange, slightly wolfish early phases of Ginger after she’s bitten (in which it just looks like Katherine Isabella with some makeup and prosthetics on), but the full-blown woofed out design at the end when Ginger is stalking Emily Perkins through a basement. I don’t know if it’s just subpar puppetry that ends up making it look weirder (i.e. the stop-motion work at the end of the first Evil Dead; moving past unrealistic and into the realm of the nightmarish), but it’s definitely cooler looking than just a wolf. It reminds me of the dog Thing from Carpenter’s The Thing: hair here and there but also strangely slimy. The transformation sequences are pretty gruesome and seem almost like an accelerated cancer, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a werewolf jawn before.
The werewolf design in these films is good enough on its own, and I think the weird janky CGI of the transformations kind of works in its favor, but the specific example that stands out for me in this movie is William Corvinus: son of Alexander Corvinus, brother of Markus Corvinus, and in the Underworld universe patient zero for the virus responsible for lycanthropy. William is the first and most powerful werewolf, and also the best kind of werewolf: bipedal and fucking huge. Most importantly, he’s genuinely kind of scary looking for a monster in a big budget sci-fi film. Especially the eyes: rather than generic animal eyes, they’re entirely white, and I think this lends it almost a ghostly feel. The scene towards the beginning when William is hunted down by a squad of vampires after decimating a village is legitimately awesome. Unlike the rest of the woofs in the film up that point, William in this scene is a puppet that looks and moves like an actual animal, and that makes him feel more dangerous and real than the CGI woofs leaping around and attacking Bill Nighy and his compatriots.
When I was a kid, the werewolf in this film used to scare the hell out of me. It was a bridge between the classic “wolf man” design and the hulking bipedal monstrous style of werewolf I’d love later on. I love this movie, but the first time I saw it as an adult I was taken aback at how not scary the Wolf Man was in this movie. Granted, Fred Dekker definitely leans into the more tragic elements of the character, so they didn’t want to make the design too monstrous. It’s just enough of an upgrade from the classic Universal look to be something distinct, and modern for the time, and it strikes a great balance in looking somewhat inhuman but being just human enough to still evoke a sense of sympathy for the man trapped within the wolf. Also, it’s amazing how they display the werewolf’s invulnerability to anything but a silver bullet.
An American Werewolf In London
The best example of a movie I love that has a creature design I’m not a hundred percent in love with. Yes, the design is terrifying. Yes, it’s executed fantastically. It looks amazing, whether it’s savaging Griffin Dunne on the moors, snapping at luckless pedestrians in Piccadilly Square, or quietly sizing up a mournful Jenny Agutter. I’m just not a fan of four-legged werewolves (also looking at you, The Beast Must Die; do some fucking work on the design and don’t just put a large, friendly-looking dog in the movie). To me, part of the horror of the werewolf is that it’s not simply a hellish version of a wolf, but something else entirely: a wolf that walks like a man. Apparently, Rick Baker initially wanted a bipedal design, but John Landis was dead-set on a quadruped “hellhound.” It’s possible that Landis wanted to avoid confusion with another werewolf film coming out that Baker was sort of connected to: Joe Dante’s The Howling. Whatever the case may be, as much as I absolutely love American Werewolf, I’ve never been nuts on this design when compared to other werewoof movies and I’ve always wondered how Baker’s original design would’ve looked in the film. It gets the job done and is successfully scary, but I definitely want more from a design than this.
Arguably the most unique design on this list, the woof in this film has qualities that look like they’re gathered from a bunch of different animals. The arms are longer than normal, the ears are bigger, and the snout is shorter. It looks vaguely cat-like and apish. And yet, this all pulls together for a creature design that is unsettling in its weirdness. It has a strange wildness to it, an unpredictability. I’m almost reminded of the X-Men character Feral. Most importantly, however, it fits the film’s plot in being something that a human being could best in physical combat. Unlike a lot of the woofs on this list, it doesn’t feel like an unstoppable killing machine but rather an intelligent wild animal that could in theory be stopped by an aging blind war vet by a series of booby traps. I love this movie. I love the weird places it goes and, out of all of the movies on this list, I think it does the best job of leveling the playing field for our human characters while still being honestly scary.
What sets the woofs in The Howling apart from other films (and not just Dee Wallace’s transformation into a weirdly cute shar pei kind of werewolf) is that not only do the werewolves in this film look savage and animalistic, but they look evil. There’s something to them that speaks not just of a beastly nature but also of a malevolent knowledge and a malicious intent. Their ears look almost like those of a Doberman with docked ears, standing straight out and at times horn-like. Even their silhouettes are frightening, especially at the end when you think Dee Wallace has escaped but the werewolves attack her car. Holy fuck. Rob Bottin’s work on the Eddie Quist transformation scene gets lauded frequently, and while I don’t think it’s nearly as good as Rick Baker’s work in AWIL, I will say that it fits more with the “evil” nature of The Howling’s werewoofs. When David Kessler transforms, he’s in absolute agony. Furthermore, when he begins hearing about the murders that took place the night prior, he is horrified realizing that he may be responsible. Eddie Quist, on the other hand, seems to relish his transformation, and is not only not at all repulsed by his actions as a woof but takes glee in the fact that he’s murdered people. It’s this demonic touch that makes The Howling’s woofs all the scarier.
This was tough to put at number two, but here it is. I think this design is the most realistic in this list. You can almost imagine what petting them would be like, if they would let you. The muzzles have the silky quality that a dog’s muzzle has, and the exposed skin where there’s no fur looks like actual skin. While absolutely terrifying to look at, there’s nothing really all that grotesque about this design, unlike every other entry on this list. They’re not malformed like the AWIL or Late Phases designs, nor are they demonic like the Howling design. Indeed, they actually achieve a kind of odd beauty in the way they move and look, a flowing gait that is almost sensual. It cannot be stressed enough that what makes them scary is how real they look. I don’t just mean design-wise either; in execution they resemble living creatures more than any other entry on this list. Neil Marshall seems to have a healthy amount of confidence in this design, given how much he shows extended shots of the woofs without hiding them in shadows or cutting away quickly. It doesn’t hurt that the people wearing the costumes were trained dancers, so the woofs are imbued with a lethal grace that makes them all the more magnetic. The shot at the end when they file into the kitchen to kill Sean Pertwee (or so they think) is as breathtaking and beautiful as it is frightening. And the iconic shot of the one werewolf towering over Pertwee’s bed after it had crawled in the window is honestly one of my favorite shots in any horror film ever. In the edition of THIS JUSTIN I wrote on the film, I brought up how there’s an almost sensual quality to this scene, almost the way that John Carpenter directed the “show me” scene in Christine.
The best of the best. Legit unfuckwithable. Honestly, this is the archetypical werewoof design for me. Bad Moon might be, at best, a watchable movie: the actors spend much of their time chewing their lines and the CGI during the transformation scene is better left unseen. But goddamn…that werewoof is scary. Everything about it, from design to execution, is genuinely fucking terrifying. The hulking physique, the gaping maw, the crazed feral eyes, the seemingly permanent snarl, the bestial, alien roar; all of this combines into something absolutely monstrous. It’s such a hulking and physically intimidating creature, and what makes it even scarier is how it’s shown in a well-lit room in the climax. Much like the werewoofs in Dog Soldiers, there’s something telling in the confidence of the filmmakers to not keep their creature cloaked in shadows to hide the zippers. The werewolf is already scary enough when a hapless forest worker comes across it late at night, or when our hero, a brave and handsome German Shepherd named Thor, also stumbles across it in the woods. When it attacks the main characters in the young son’s bedroom, it evokes a feeling of a “monster in the closet” reaction, in that typically our rooms are our safe havens, but not there’s a monstrous fucking dog creature in the middle of it. It really does evoke a subtle childlike fear with that scene. All of this rests squarely and firmly on the shoulders of the design, which is more than capable of carrying such a feeling. The FX aren’t quite up to par with the likes of Dog Soldiers: in some of the closeups the puppetry is quite obvious, and the aforementioned transformation scene is an absolute glut of criminally bad CGI, even by the standards of the time. But the end product more than justifies the rocky road to get there. It’s a stunning design that carries the film and yet excels in spite of the mediocrity in the rest of the film. Sans our good friend Thor laying down street justice at the end, that is.
Honorable Mention: Van Helsing
This is a tough one, because while I do think the werewolf design in this film is cool, it’s born of an era in filmmaking when the directors vision and the capability of the design team couldn’t quite sync up with one another and the end product just looks too unreal. I hate when people think criticizing CGI makes them some kind of sophisticated outlaw, but I do think that the one advantage practical puppetry almost always has is that it’s far easier for actors to engage with; it’s an object in space that they can interact with. Bad CGI doesn’t just look cartoonish, it also lacks the substance of an object, the weight of reality. All that said, the werewolf in this film sounds amazing on paper. It’s a bipedal design with big pointy ears with lots of fangs and claws; nothing fancy, just classic spooky stuff. But in a movie as jaw-droppingly excessive and frenetically shot as this, the filmmakers deserve a commendation for their restraint in this one area.