You have civilization and you have the wild, and they cannot live together in harmony. That’s the theory anyway, going all the way back to the Grimm brothers tales of the terrors in the big dark wood. It’s an even older story than that though, the wild is the darkness and it is kept at bay by the light, good pushing back against evil. But we know that it isn’t that simple, it never is. Life isn’t binary, it isn’t an either/ or.
One of the things I’ve always loved about horror was that it is about looking into that darkness, looking at fear straight on and doing your best not to flinch. It’s about overcoming … surviving. It has elements of every story, but has them cranked up to eleven–if you fail, you don’t just die, you get dragged to hell or turned into the thing that you were afraid of only to prey on those you love … you lose whatever makes you, you. These are the stories that I think are the most terrifying, death is an absolute, but to lose yourself, to watch yourself stripped away and to become something terrible, that is the stuff of nightmares.
I love werewolves and I feel like they are relatively unsung in the world of horror and fantasy, always the other man to the more dashing monster, the vampire. Their stories are relatively similar in structure and, in fact, one of Dracula’s guises was a wolf, but in the world of horror movies and fiction, I feel like the werewolf has been ill-served. I rewatched several movies over the last week, a random assortment that were at my immediate disposal and that I hadn’t seen for a while: Wes Craven’s Cursed, Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, and Ginger Snaps. Of these, Ginger Snaps is the only one that I feel is worthy of a recommendation.
We’ll begin with Cursed.
Werewolf movies have a few films that are undeniable classics. The original Universal Pictures version of The Wolf Man being one of them, An American Werewolf in London, A Werewolf in London, Le Pacte des Loups and The Howling. One of the reasons that The Howling worked so well is that it slipped a lot of knowing humor in with the regular horror movie business. Joe Dante, the film’s director, is especially good at that (Gremlins, another undeniable classic, is also his). But even with the humor, the movie was a horror movie–it follows a young reporter who, at the beginning of the film, is in a porno theatre jerk-off booth trying to lure out a serial killer who has been corresponding with her. We learn that he’s in the booth with her and he begins to change … he’s in the shadows though, so we can’t really see what he’s changing into, our minds fill in a lot of the details. After this encounter, our reporter, Karen, is understandably shaken. She can’t seem to function, can’t sleep … it’s recommended that she leave the city for a while, and go to a psychiatrist’s resort in the woods to heal. It should be noted that this film is loosely based on a short novel of the same name by Gary Brandner. The woman in the novel is not a reporter and is pretty helpless throughout (one of my biggest critiques of the novel is that she is ridiculously helpless and can’t seem to do anything without her big strong husband), though the inciting incident of the book is the rape she suffers under a groundskeeper at her gated community. The film changes this, keeping some of the sexual nature of the attack and making it an attempted rape/ murder, but gives her more agency in her story (she has career that gives her a driving purpose and her husband, although very similarly painted in the movie as in the book, isn’t a primary motivator). Needless to say, going to this resort isn’t the answer to her problems and by the time she escapes from the countryside filled with werewolves, she finds she hasn’t escaped at all–she was infected and will become a werewolf herself, something she chooses to prevent, while at the same time warning everyone through her position as a television news reporter: she changes, live on the air, and has a friend put her down before she can hurt anyone.
But we’ll get back to this in a moment.
Cursed tries to replicate some of the magic that not only that film had, but also the magic that writer Kevin Williamson had with Wes Craven on a game changing horror film from the 1990s: Scream, a movie that turned slasher movies on their head with some self-satirization. They tried to place the same template onto the monster movie genre and ended up with a muddled mess. It shouldn’t be a big surprise, the cast interviews in the featurettes show that each of the principals seemed to feel that they were making a different movie: Joshua Jackson was in it for the king of terror Wes Craven, while Christina Ricci talked about how fun the movie was and how it is hard to take monster movies seriously, so they weren’t, how it was all very tongue in cheek. The thing is, they may have really been making different movies. Ricci was on the movie from the beginning, with Jesse Eisenberg, back before their characters were siblings and when another Scream alum, Skeet Ulrich, was still part of the cast. Apparently, the script went through several major revisions, while filming was occurring. Somewhere close to a dozen people were in one version of the movie and then either had their parts cut or deleted, or just recast, when the reshoots needed to happen. The story changed, Ulrich left, Jackson came on as a character that shared traits with the Ulrich character, but was going down a different path altogether.
I don’t usually bring in pre-production/ production problems into account when I’m viewing a film, because usually the story that that gossip tries to tell doesn’t really impact the movie, but sensationalizes the surroundings of a movie to such a degree that it distracts from the movie itself. Sometimes lengthy productions that go over budget and have script/ cast changes and reshoots harm the finished film and sometimes they benefit a movie that was rushed into production too quickly. It could go either way (though the gossip tries to always paint it as a “runaway production in trouble!”) In this case though, I think it did impact the finished project. The film had none of the edge that Craven’s best work has, nor did it possess any of the levels that he is also able to include (see: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and New Nightmare). It felt derivative and sloppy and silly. It just didn’t work. A big reason for this is that werewolf movies aren’t just movies about a hidden boogieman. They are about changing into a monster and not being able to control that. It’s about sometimes being the monster and spending the course of the story discovering that the one doing the terrible things is, in fact, you. It’s about deciding what to do about that. Cursed didn’t really give any of those subjects much thought, instead giving lip-service to the “curse” but then treating it like newfound superpowers (suddenly Eisenberg dominates at the gym as a wrestler flinging people through the air, Ricci-a very attractive girl already-has all they guys heads turning) with some side-effects (lots of raw meat, blood is looking attractive–wait, isn’t that a vampire thing–well never mind, no one will notice …). Like Scream, there was a lot of last minute: wait, who was the big bad wolf-I thought I knew, but then I changed my mind, but now I think, oh wait, there are just multiple werewolves and that one just flicked off the police and is kind of talking … and hey, we’ve still got too many characters, so let’s kill some before we get to the final twist. By the end, you just don’t care all that much anymore.
And the humor, that thing I appreciated so much about The Howling (and An American Werewolf in London)? It was forced, unfunny and undirected. The Howling had little werewolf nods throughout, often in the background, things like The Three Little Pigs on television. An American Werewolf in London had a werewolf themed soundtrack. It worked. Cursed used the sawed off shotgun approach, tackling not only werewolf movies, but all horror movies and Hollywood in general (the big finale was at a new nightclub called “Tinsel”–though in an earlier version of the movie it was at a wax museum, which would’ve maybe worked a little bit better) and pop culture (a big scene was at a fundraiser for PETA, how ironic!). They tried to remake Scream as a werewolf movie, where most of the characters were “cooler” versions of Randy, but without that character’s focus.
On the flip side to that, Ginger Snaps is an incredibly focused monster movie. Two sisters who are outcasts in their own town, ridiculously late for their first period, and enamored with scenes of death have a close encounter with a beast that has been killing the local pets. The older Fitzgerald sister has her first period one night while they are out to prank a mean girl and stumble upon a freshly mauled dog. She is attacked, brutally, but narrowly escapes. The beast is close on their heels, but is hit by a local greenhouse owner (and pot dealer). Suddenly, “the curse” is about not only about becoming a werewolf, but about becoming a woman–it’s about your body suddenly betraying you and changing. Hormones are flaring and you are a completely different person. Remember that opening scene from Carrie? It’s the exact opposite of that. It’s a mom who is too Better Homes & Gardens, trying to be cool and help her daughters deal with everything, but still not getting it (as opposed to the religious wackjob mother of the telekinetic). It’s about knowing what’s coming, but trying for a different outcome anyway. It’s about two sisters who were always so close that they like to think of themselves as almost the same person, suddenly being so different (“I don’t know, B, it’s like we’re not even related anymore.”) The change is prolonged and slow and there are things that have to be dealt with along the way (she ate the neighbor’s dog, she’s having sex, she’s grown a tail) and then everything just happens so fast. It’s brutal, but it feels earned and honest in the end. It’s a horror movie about changing and about sisters growing apart.
Finally, there is Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, which is a good movie hiding deep, deep inside a truly terrible one. When I say that there is a good movie inside, I don’t mean that it is something that you’ll see watching this film. But there is a germ of a concept that had it been developed better and enacted by people who could, well, act for a director that knew what he was doing … well, then it might have had a chance. All it did have was a title, Howling that connected it to a movie that people did like, the author of the books writing at least one draft of the screenplay, and Christopher Lee. At the time, Lee said that he did this movie because he’d never done a werewolf movie. Years later, when he appeared in Gremlins 2: The New Batch he apologized to Joe Dante for making it.
In theory, it is a direct sequel to the original film (the only direct sequel of the Howling franchise), though it chose to change some of the details from the conclusion of the first movie. For one, that live broadcast suddenly never happened. Instead, there is only one tape of the event that no one seems to have ever seen, that Christopher Lee has somehow obtained. Keep in mind, one of the first scenes of the movie is at Karen’s funeral, where she is represented by her brother (the dumbest) cop from Montana and a co-worker who not only didn’t appear in the first movie, but seems to have so little knowledge of Karen that no mention is made of anything that happened at the end of her life. Lee approaches them both at the funeral, concerned for Karen’s immortal soul, because she was shot with two silver bullets that were removed during the autopsy, so now she’s going to change into a werewolf. This all has something to do with an L.A. pack he has been tracking (by following them into punk clubs and being the most obvious thing ever) and Sheba, some goddess she-wolf that during the second half of the movie, thanks to sucking up the mystical life-force of some nubile virgin sacrifice, she turns from an old crone into Sybil Danning in fetish gear. This occurs in Transylvania, in a small village where two-thirds of the inhabitants seem to be werewolves that are part of this wolf cult (okay, what kind of werewolf cult would wear wolf skins? Seriously, that’s like wearing Grandma’s skin to church. I don’t think this was thought out all that well). Once or twice, Danning makes references about Lee that suggest they are related, though she is also supposed to be thousands of years old and he isn’t apparently supernatural. Not that I’m trying to wring any sense into this turd of a movie, I mean, somehow Christopher Lee’s character convinced Montana Cop and Cub Reporter to join him on a trip to Transylvania to avenge Karen’s death on a group of werewolves that had nothing to do with Karen while she was alive. There is also one shot of Sybil Danning ripping her top off in the movie that is repeated 17 times during the end credits (there was also apparently only budget to do one song for this movie, so the band on stage at the punk club plays it in that scene and then it is repeated throughout the entire movie. In its defense, it is a pretty decent song, all things considered.)
I’m going to stop summarizing the movie now, because it is completely incoherent. I can very easily give you a play by play, but it all adds up to something so stupid that it just isn’t worth it. The question, I suppose is, why do I own this movie and why have I seen it multiple times (okay, two questions). The answer is, nostalgia. This is one of those movies that my little brother and I rented when we were kids and the fond memories I have of watching movies with my brother endears this one to me. It is also the reason I own Nothing But Trouble.
The biggest question I have is: where are all the good werewolf movies? It is a character like Frankenstein’s monster and Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde that really help illustrate the duality of man, ask what makes a monster a monster, and then on top of that, has all the tragic/ romantic gothic sensibilities of the vampire. I mean, werewolves aren’t too far removed from the Incredible fucking Hulk. So, why is it that the best that Hollywood gives us are Underworld (which was decent, but also not a horror movie) and Jacob from Twilight (talk about neutering a genre …). Hopefully, we’ll see the trend turn around now that zombies are over-saturating the market and vampires are pretty toothless.
Still to come: Poltergeist, Primal, Salvage, Sinister and maybe even a guest post … (yeah, I’m planning on doing some guest posts, so if you’re interested in contributing, let me know!) And, you know, the movies I still have queued up to watch.
More later …