Friday, September 20, 2013

Seasonal movies are up and running

As I said a while back, we caught an early and rather nonseasonal showing of Hammer Films' take on the old werewolf story, Curse of the Werewolf.  We then watched The Mummy (Hammer), as well as the rather captivating remake staring Brendan Fraser.  We saw some Simpsons Treehouse of Horrors, and kicked off the "official" scary movie portion of the year with Universal's Dracula.   This last weekend, we decided the next appropriate turn was Universal's The Wolf Man.  Enough fog and atmosphere to fill a gypsy tent.

And that got me to thinking.  Call me a sissy, call me a coward, call me Al.  But when I was growing up, it was werewolves that scared the bejeesus out of me.  I mean, like any kid in those pre-VCR/Call of Gorefest Auto XIII days, I was scared of plenty of things.  Not all.  Some monster movies, even in the 70s, seemed silly.  Though we didn't usually get to see the "Classics" that often.  Apart from King Kong, I never saw Dracula or Frankenstein until the age of home video recorders.  Unless they were chasing Abbot and Costello around.

But despite some things scaring me and others not, it was until I was a bit older that my fear of werewolves finally went the way of the tooth fairy.  I won't say how old.  Trust me, I was *cough* older.  Don't know why really.  I was always a bit arachnophobic and I trace that back to living in the country when I was a tot in a house my Dad built by his own wit and industry.  As good a house as it was, you just can't do anything about spiders in the country.

Maybe it was a 'traumatized as a kid' thing.  It was back then that I remember first seeing a 'werewolf' movie.  On an old black and white TV we had, my sister and a friend had some monster movie matinee going.  And to this day I don't know the movie, but it had a fellow who rolled down a wooded hill, and when he popped up - Bang!  He was a werewolf.  Meaning he had hair on his face and fangs.  But when you're no more than 5 years old (we moved right after my 5th birthday), that's all it takes.  So that's probably why it took years to shake the shakes when it came to the legendary shapeshifters.  Thank goodness my wife was there to protect me!

So in the spirit of my somewhat well received and popular Movies to Scare Kids By post, I thought I'd do my favorite howl-at-the-moon movies!  Just what everyone who comes to a Catholic blogger expects.

1. The Wolf Man (1941)
What can I say, the movie that many people think captures the various legends about werewolves in fact invented many of them.  Autumn moons, silver bullets, pentagrams, the perpetual need for gypsies, all of
these come from the mind of Curt Siodmac.   Lon Chaney, Jr. is strangely cast against a diminutive, but always impressive, Claude Rains as his father.  Most of the cast is there for filler, but does a good enough job.  Maria Ouspenskaya, as the mysterious gypsy woman, and Bela Lugosi as her ill-fated son, also steal their respective scenes.

But like most Universal movies, the real star is the build up to the monster, and the heavy-enough-to-crush-you atmosphere.  Never is it not foggy in the world of Larry Talbot.  Towering trees, fog-choked woods, an imposing castle, an androgynous European-styled village (supposedly in Wales), all give an extra level of depth.  True, by now WWII was well under way, and America's final days of youthful innocence are winding down.  I can't help but think that, by then, audiences were not quite as terrorized as we sometimes think.  Oh, they may have been scared, having nothing to compare it to.  But even then, the real horrors of what non-shape-shifting men are capable of was all too real, and too common in that mid-industrial era of history.

2. The Curse of the Werewolf
Hammer Films made its mark by taking the classic monsters of Universal days and colorizing them.  By then, most of the cast of legendary monsters had been reduced to fodder for the high jinks of an aging Abbot and
Costello team.  Fun stuff.  But in the wake of the mushroom cloud and the likelihood of space travel around the corner, somehow those old fog draped villages just didn't hold the terror, or even the atmosphere.  If some movies still thrived with the possibilities of black and white, the old monsters didn't.  Replaced by a growing repertoire of giant insects and reptiles and space aliens, werewolves and vampires just didn't seem to fit.

Enter Hammer Films.  With Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing leading the way, they repackaged and resold the classics in new, vibrant and brooding ways.  The literary inspiration was as often as not tossed out the window even more than the Universal versions.  Sometimes the very heart and soul of the stories were changed.  But there was always a shard, something keeping them connected to the source materials and folklore, even if bright blood and colorful sets were now the norm.

Unlike most of the Hammer catalog, The Curse of the Werewolf has neither Cushing nor Lee, but instead turns to up and coming Oliver Reed to show his inner animal.  Not content with simply rehashing the made-up legends of The Wolf Man, Curse of the Werewolf actually taps into ancient folklore and Christian superstition, and spends a great deal of the movie building up characters we should care about.  An important thing in classic horror, since in almost all cases, they are meant to be tragic.

3. The Werewolf of London
Overlooked were it not for Landis's pseudo-remake and Warren Zevon's addictively awesome song.
 Released shortly after Fredrick March nailed the Oscar for his turn as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, many saw Werewolf of London as simply J&H with fangs and more hair. As a result, critics dismissed it and it more or less floundered in the box office.

Over the years, a slow but steady respect has grown for the movie.  It suffers from wanting to do many things, and never quite getting around to focusing on what.  But the concept of traveling to Tibet, being attacked by an Asian Werewolf (where foxes or possibly tigers might have substituted), of a werewolf with hat and cape, all seem to be enough to make the watching enjoyable.  Performances are solid enough, and in the tradition of J&H that finds itself played out in werewolf legends of later years, the wolf part becomes more pronounced with each change.

Send the kiddies to be with these next two:

4. An American Werewolf in London
As a keen interpreter of social and philosophical movements, John Landis is a decent filmmaker.  Made famous by Animal House, and culminating with his work on Michael Jackson's Thriller, Landis had a knack for producing better products than his rather shallow commentary on events suggests he should.  Oh, none of them are deeper than an average mud puddle.  But he had a certain something, and worked well with the first generation of SNL alumni who tried with varying levels of success to make it to the big screen.

According to Landis, he got the idea for American Werewolf while working the crew of Kelly's Heroes.  He noticed an old time funeral and was taken by the fact that, as late as the 1960s, there were still places in the world untouched by modern thinking.  Thank goodness.  He took that and spun it into a delightful, and sometimes frightening, and sometimes shocking film that repackaged long forgotten tricks of the terror trade.  The earliest part of the movie, with David Naughton and Griffin Dunne traversing the moors and running into the famous "Slaughtered Lamb" pub, is the high point.  Being the early 80s, Landis can't resist copious amounts of gratuitous sex, just like so many filmmakers of the period.  Like children who found the key to the liquor cabinet, it was almost as if to say 'look Ma!  We can show sex in movies!!'  A shame.  Because there was a decent amount of humor, suspense, drama and even some character development in a movie otherwise weighed down by some typical over doing in on Landis's part.

It's also worth noting, BTW, that many see this as one of the turning points in movies in which killing and violence begin to mix with humor in such a way that eventually they become indistinguishable.

5. The Howling
Following in the 'werewolf as porn metaphor' , The Howling uses the same groundbreaking effects that Landis has at his disposal, but on a tighter budget.  In hindsight, it's easy to see that this had less of a budget to work with.

The story of a community of werewolves living behind the scenes, attempting to fit in with modernity, has an almost psychological element.  The screenplay was, in fact, written by a man not with a degree in screenwriting, but with a background in psychology.  Long and short, he wanted the movie to rebel against the idea that the way to civilization was eliminating repression.  He wanted to take the opposite view: get rid of repression, and what you get is animals. Given the last couple hundred years of teaching man is nothing but a glorified animal, I'm inclined to agree.

Despite its shoestring budget, it manages to stir up some pretty hefty suspense, and some pretty terrorizing werewolves.  It still suffers from the 80s 'look at our glorious porn culture!' mentality.  Beyond that, the concept, as well as the 'don't show more of the monster than you need to' approach to film making, reminds us that usually our minds conjure up worse images than anything Hollywood can imagine.  Usually.  Though I'm not so sure that applies here. Seeing this film on our large screen TV for the first  time, I actually shrunk down in the couch.  Those are some pretty horrifying looking werewolves if you think about it.  The camera work, the eerie music, the right amount of supernatural flare, and just a touch of humor and homage, makes this almost a competitor for the better movies in any lycanthrope list.

Honorable Mention: Dog Solders
Saw this one on TV years ago.  Didn't know what it was.  At first I thought it was Rambo goes to Scotland.  But as I watched, I had to admit, it was fun.  It wasn't really scary, but by now, I probably
have enough to be scared of that doesn't involved wolves on two legs. The idea is that a crack special forces troupe is dropped in the desolate woodlands of Scotland.  While there, they discover that they've been sent on a secret mission.  Turns out people in these woods keep disappearing.  OK, like you don't know what happens next.

It's a bit like Night of the Living Dead meets Aliens meets The Howling.  I can't account for the budget since I don't know British movie financial comparisons.  It makes due with what it has, but contains a bit too much gore and guts for my taste.  Still, the acting is solid enough, since to my Yankee ears, any actor with a British accent is one step off Olivier.  I wouldn't go about recommending this for an Oscar.  But it's one of those movies that set out to do something, and in the end, did it.  For that, and just the general creepy 'what would I do in that situation' feeling of it all, it gets a nod.

The Winner: The Wolf Man
In the end, I still default to the great one.  Perhaps because so many people assume the things this movie invented are rooted in the ancient past.  Given our grasp of history, that's not hard to imagine.  In any event, the movie has so many classic tropes of the Gothic Horror genre that you just can't imagine any other movie that doesn't end up being measured against this version.  There are only four screen deaths, and only one is actually shown.  One - the woman - is not shown at all, and the deaths of the two lycanthropes are hidden by camerawork and well placed trees.

The acting helps.  Claude Rains is his usual awesome, and the encounter between him and the omnipresent gypsy woman is a clash of powerful personalities.  The rest of the cast does as well as they need to given the premise. The movie also, like so many movies at that time, explores the scientific and rational explanations and their limitations.  It also gives at least a couple positive bows to religion and its usefulness in a troubled world.  But let's face it.  Science or not, we know all the psychobabble is wrong - he's a werewolf plain and simple.  And it ends up turning on that underlying story thread of all Gothic Horror: the tragedy.  Larry Talbot did nothing wrong.  He was doomed by a fate beyond his control.  People died for no other reason than being fated by powers they did not understand.  In the end, the father who is resisting belief in such nonsense is forced to bring down the final blows and end the reign of terror, and at the same time come crashing headfirst into the realization that he was wrong and his son, alas, was right.  Powerful stuff if you think about it, and more powerful than much of the modern violence and gore laden productions we see today.

Special note.  It had long puzzled us why the first werewolf is shown as a full blown wolf, while Larry Talbot is famously a man with wolf like features.  My boys figured it out this year.  As mentioned above, and maybe this was intentional, maybe not - the longer you're a werewolf, the more wolf like you become.  Mystery solved.

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