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Monday, July 20, 2009

"Rise of the Lycans": A History of Werewolf Movies, Part 3

After the heady days of the 1980s and the great horror movie boom, the 1990s, as most fans who lived through them know, scaled things back a bit. And yes, of course, werewolf films were affected by this, as well. The '80s had been a golden age for the subgenre, but now, it looked like the wind had once again left the sails of the lycanthrope.

Nevertheless, there would be some signs of life in the old dog--just not very promising signs. For example, the mid 1990s saw something of a mini-craze involving the old gothic horror monsters, thanks mainly to Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula. Kenneth Branagh brought us Mary Shelley's Frankenstein not long after, and it would be in 1994 that the third of the Universal biggies would get a brief moment in the sun.

In this case, it would be the Mike Nichols-directed Wolf, starring none other than Jack Nicholson as the titular shapeshifter. Although the concept of Jack as a werewolf, as well as the fact that he'd be joined by fellow past Batman villain Michelle Pfeiffer, made this one look promising, it was an ultimately forgettable flop.

But Wolf would seem a masterpiece compared to what was attempted just three years later. What better way, you ask, to inject new life into the genre than by going back to its most successful entry? Well, anyone who may have thought that was dead wrong, as can be evidenced by the 1997 "sequel", An American Werewolf in Paris. Bearing little to no connection to the John Landis original, An American Werewolf in London, this mess is now remembered as one of the great horror missteps of the past 20 years.

With the 1990s mercifully over, the new century ushered in a more favorable climate for horror films. And just as the dearth of werewolf flicks was a reflection of the downturn in horror flicks in general, so this new boom in horror also brought about an influx of interesting and innovative movies on the subject of werewolfism.

The first of these, in 2000, would be Ginger Snaps, a fascinating film that draws an analogy between lycanthropy and puberty. Our main character is a teenage girl who is bitten by a werewolf, and must struggle with the murderous beast she is becoming. Her friends try their best to locate a cure for her condition, as she becomes more and more dangerous.

The fact that Ginger's initial victimization takes place on the same exact night she experiences her first period makes it abundantly clear that the filmmakers are using the tried-and-true werewolf warhorse to tell us a story of sexual awakening. It's an interesting attempt to do something different with a seemingly dead subgenre. Ginger Snaps would lead to a pair of 2004 sequels, Ginger Snaps Unleashes, and Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning.

The next major werewolf film of the new century would be the one most fans point to as the finest the subgenre has offered up since the aforementioned AWIL. Released in 2002, Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers is also one of the most underrated horror films of the decade, period.

Grafting werewolf horror onto military adventure, Dog Soldiers puts a "Predator" spin on things, telling the story of a British Special Ops group battling mysterious monsters in the Scottish Highlands--monsters whose true nature they're unaware of until it's too late. This gem of an action horror flick would help put Marshall on the map, and lead to more high-profile projects such as The Descent and Doomsday.

Nevertheless, despite its high level of quality, Dog Soldiers went unseen by many fans, thanks to poor distribution. Rather, the film that would help return werewolves to the mainstream consciousness would instead be another horror action movie by the name of Underworld (2003).

Starring Kate Beckinsale as a vampire/vampire-hunter, Underworld presents us with a secret world in which bloodsuckers battle werewolves (here referred to as "lycans") for total domination. Though heavy on the CGI effects, the movie represented a return to the "monster vs. monster" vibe that had pitted vampires and werewolves against each other in the movies of decades gone by.

The premise was a big hit with fans, proving that people always love to see monsters fighting each other. In fact, Underworld would grow into a full-fledged franchise. The sequel, Underworld: Evolution, would be released three years later. And just this year, we got the third installment, a prequel that showed us the beginnings of the vampire/lycan war. Proving the staying power of the concept, this third movie didn't even feature Beckinsale, and still managed to be a decent success with audiences.

This would be in stark contrast to what should have been another triumphant return to old-school werewolfery--namely Van Helsing, Universal's lame 2004 attempt to reinvigorate its central horror characters. The film had all the markings of success, including Hugh Jackman in the title role, and director Stephen Sommers, the same man who had brought The Mummy back to life some five years earlier.

Featuring Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man and other classic creatures, Van Helsing was supposed to be a good old-fashioned monsterfest that would please both classic horror fans and newbies. Nevertheless, it was a colossal failure both critically and with audiences. Ironically, it would be the Underworld series that did a better job of returning werewolf mayhem to American prominence than the legendary Universal Studios itself, home of Lon Chaney Jr. and Henry Hull.

There's no question that films like Dog Soldiers and Underworld have kept modern audiences interested in the concept of the werewolf. Something about the idea of a man transforming into a beast, of the monster within being unleashed, is enthralling to us. We see it in other classic creations like Jekyll & Hyde, and even the Hulk. And recent films like the German production Blood and Chocolate (2007) continue to keep the subgenre going strong.

Now the saga of the lycanthrope stands at a pivotal turning point. This fall will see the long-awaited release of Universal's full-scale remake of the Chaney classic The Wolf Man, starring Benicio del Toro, with Anthony Hopkins in the Claude Rains role. After all these years, and all the other classic monster retreads, this is the first time that the most famous werewolf story of all is getting the remake treatment.

Will audiences accept it? The project has been plagued with issues since the beginning, including director musical chairs, and recent news of extensive reshoots. And so fans of one of horror's most enduring creatures wait with bated breath to see what the future holds for their beloved beasty. But one thing's for sure, whether it's a hit or a miss, the new Wolf Man will most certainly not be the last time we hear that distinctive howl in movie theaters...

Part 1: "...And the Moon Is Full and Bright"
Part 2: "Bad Moon Rising"


Tower Farm said...

Hands down the worst werewolf movie of recent years...or maybe ever...is the Craven/Williamson flop "Cursed."

I really hope the new "The Wolf Man" is good...though my hopes aren't high...

Thanks for the overview,

Unknown said...

Is it just me or did you forget the French brotherhood of the wolf? In French it is Le Pacte de loups. I thought it was good.

The Headless Werewolf said...

A worthy if low-budget addition to this overview might be WILD COUNTRY, a Scottish film with good, thick atmosphere, if limited effects.

Here's hoping that THE WOLF MAN is a success!

gord said...

FYI, 'American Werewolf in London' and the 1941 'Wolf Man' are both getting deluxe re-releases (the latter as part of the Universal Legacy Series) in late September.

Monster Scholar said...

I agree with you on the fact that Dog Soldiers is the most underrated werewolf movie in recent memory. The Ginger Snaps trilogy will always be my favorite.

As for AWIP cgi werewolves just don't hack it, something the creators of New Moon neglected to realize.

I too am looking forward to the Wolfman and I hope it doesn't break my heart :)

RayRay said...

I have to admit I loved the Underworld flicks. Good story, good acting, good action. Really, the horror aspects [monsters] were incidental. And I like the setting, which was similar to the Blade trilogy, which I am also a big fan of: wealthy underground society of vampires with their human and superhuman servants. Good stuff; the stuff that the White Wolf RPG was made of.

B-Sol said...

Yeah, not great cinema or anything, but just a ton of fun. And Kate Beckinsale...hellloooo nurse!

gord said...

I also love the Underworld films. Minus number 3 of course.

Sadly, I think the first werewolf movie I ever saw was American Werewolf in Paris. Ugh. My early horror tastes were not as refined as they are now. But I was 11, what are you gonna do.

Doruk said...

I sometimes feel like AWiP is unjustly maligned. Sure, it is not by any measure a 'good' movie, but if you ignore the bungee-jumping bits and the poor cgi, it is not THAT bad. I also think it would have improved much if the one who bit Andy was... the one that clearly did bite him, instead of the unlikely one they introduced to make the ending safer.

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