FEATURED IMAGE: WOLFMAN (2009)
When you get a whole bunch of horror fanatics in the same room at the same time, you’re bound to hear the same topics of conversation over and over and over again. Somebody’s going to complain about Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN remakes eventually. The question of when, exactly, it ceases to be “after midnight” in the GREMLINS movies will come up at least once. And somebody, in my own personal experience, is damn near guaranteed to ask why there aren’t more werewolf movies – and especially good werewolf movies – being made nowadays.
We’ve covered this topic before, and some excellent points were discussed. Yes, practical creature effects are expensive, and low-budget CGI werewolves usually look pretty terrible. And yes, on some level, horror trends are simply cyclical. Werewolves aren’t “in” right now but ghosts and zombies are. Eventually we’ll come back around to slashers, then vampires again, and then so forth.
All valid arguments. But there is one very important point that doesn’t get made nearly often enough, and that is that werewolf movies are actually still alive and well. They just don’t have any werewolves in them.
Let’s back up a bit and think about the werewolf genre, and what separates a werewolf movie from a vampire movie, for example, or a movie about Frankenstein’s monster. There are superficial trappings to each particular monster, and all of them can vary from film to film. Their powers, their weaknesses and their deformities, for example. On the surface, werewolves just are just humans who transform into wolves, vampires are just undead bloodsuckers and Frankenstein monsters are just corpses who were brought back to life.
But what makes a monster truly resonate in a story isn’t its appearance and its abilities, it’s the underlying metaphor. Vampires represent the evil outside of ourselves, the seducers, the monsters from the shadows who invade our homes and suck away our humanity. Frankenstein monsters are the evil that we personally create, borne from our individual desires and all-too human failings, who come back to haunt us with unexpected and horrifying consequences. And werewolves represent the evil already inside of us, the constant struggle to suppress our ugliest impulses, the ecstatic release that comes from acting upon them, and the guilt and shame that come afterwards.
Although we may not make all that many movies about people who literally transform into wolves nowadays, we are still consistently telling stories about people wrestling with their inner monster, who sometimes let that monster loose in moments of shocking violence, and who fascinate the rest of us in ways that are disquieting.
Which brings us back around to the point I’m trying to make: werewolf movies never went away, but they did transform into serial killer films.
After all, why go to all the trouble of creating in an elaborate and expensive visual metaphor for a psychological condition that actually exists? Films like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON or THE WOLF MAN are about people who find themselves with uncontrollable blood lusts, sometimes unleashing the demon but then psychologically tortured by their own actions. Functionally, they’re basically the same as AMERICAN PSYCHO or THE STEPFATHER, but nobody had to invent new makeup effects just to convince you that Christian Bale or Terry O’Quinn were monsters.
We know very well that real-life monsters live around us, and we know that sometimes — hopefully only rarely — the most frightening monster in our own lives can be ourselves. Serial killers are an extreme example of this nearly universal phenomenon, but again, we know for a fact that they exist… unlike werewolves, which are (at best) hearsay.
The storytellers behind many of our greatest serial killer stories are clearly aware of this metaphor. Thomas Harris, when writing his genre-defining serial killer novel RED DRAGON, created a terrifying murderer who believed he was transforming into a powerful demon, and who committed his crimes in phase with the moon. Heck, Ian Fleming did the same thing in his James Bond novel FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE decades earlier, pitting the British super spy against a hitman who got his start as a serial killer who timed his murders to the full moon.
The metaphor continues: Norman Bates doesn’t kill people, he transforms into his personal boogeyman — his own mother — and then he kills people. Dexter Morgan has a “dark passenger” he cannot control, but whom he does try to guide into the path of other monsters, freeing the killer inside while preserving some semblance of his own conscience. That level of personal conflict between the “good” and “evil” inside of us is inherently sympathetic without magic getting involved, but the iconography is a useful visual reference.
None of this is to say that werewolf movies are no longer necessary. Far from it: the werewolf metaphor is as potent as ever, whether or not monster effects are actually implemented. But the serial killer genre usually covers the same ground, more plausibly and less expensively, so it only makes sense that storytellers who are looking to convey this psychological condition and exploit this particular anxiety to have veered in that direction.
Which is why, I suspect, many the more successful werewolf stories from recent years are using the idea of lycanthropy to convey other aspects of the human condition. The GINGER SNAPS movies use werewolves as a metaphor for puberty (and later, for addiction). TWILIGHT and TEEN WOLF use werewolves as an extended metaphor for (mostly masculine) adolescence. LATE PHASES uses the threat of a werewolf at a retirement community to explore our anxieties about old age and, specifically, our physical frailties.
In fact, the best werewolf movie I have ever seen isn’t even a horror movie. Mamoru Hosoda’s heartbreaking anime WOLF CHILDREN is about a woman who marries a werewolf, has his children, and then finds herself raising the little monsters all by herself. There are new and expansive levels of depth to the werewolf metaphor in WOLF CHILDREN, which uses lycanthropy to symbolize mood swings, neediness, self-discovery, immaturity, maturity and all the personal growth that comes in between.
It’s a beautifully animated, stunningly textured story that explores the concept of werewolves in fresh, emotionally satisfying perspectives. I cried multiple times and I learned something about my own humanity, and I just can’t say that about DOG SOLDIERS no matter how much I like that movie too.
So functionally and metaphorically, werewolf movies are actually alive and well. It’s just that most of them don’t “wolf out” as often as they used to, and the rest of them are evolving. And I think that’s still worth howling about.