Friday, October 21, 2011

How do you take your werewolves? Two legs or four?

Greetings all.
I enjoy werewolf cinema quite a bit.  I also enjoy werewolf comics, games, art, just werewolf stuff in general.  Over the years of watching, reading and absorbing werewolf media I can say that I have managed to learn a thing or two (and honestly more than that) about werewolves, shapeshifters, therianthropes and/or zoothropes.  While you can enjoy werewolves any time of year, they are horror monsters and so tend to be one of the featured players during Halloween festivities.  Thus I felt it appropriate to do a post on werewolves for the Halloween season.
Real, live, honest-to-Tyr Werewolf in his native habitat.  Picture snapped just after the beast had put the kettle on.
When it comes to werewolves there are just so many different traditions to choose from.  I've studied as many as I can find over the years, so I consider myself an authority on the subject.  I am not here to run down all the different werewolf myths and legends; I am here to talk about the two choices in morphology, broadly speaking: werewolves on two legs and werewolves on four legs.  That's the subject here.

Two legs vs four; what's up with that?  A fair question.  When any piece of media chooses to portray a werewolf the creator has the choice of a more human looking hybrid wolf-man type (the most popular cinema werewolf over time, exemplified by 1941's The Wolf Man) or a wolf (either a normal wolf or a large monster wolf, as seen most recently in the Twilight films).  What do myth, legend and history have to say on the subject?  Arguably myth, legend and history support both types.  If we are to believe that Norse Ulfhednar inspired werewolf myths, then a man in a wolf skin would certainly be of the wolf-man type.  Sending out one's spirit into animal form, possessing a living animal, or the descriptions of men into wolves (especially during the Middle Ages in Europe or amongst native tribes in North America) all support the man-into-four-legged-wolf premise.  In actual werewolf trials, including some woodcuttings of the trials, people were as likely to be described as taking on the savagery of the wolf as its actual shape.  Clearly there are choices.  Once thing we can say is that except for rare cases of divine cursing, werewolfery was a choice an individual made, not a disease passed on by biting.
But that's not our concern today.
The first werewolf film about which I can find any information whatsoever is from 1913, is a silent film, and is about a Navajo who transforms into a wolf (a skin-walker, presumably).  The first example of the hybrid that I can find is much later in 1935 in the Universal film The Werewolf of London.

Universal make-up wizard Jack Pierce designed the simple, but effective, werewolf played by Henry Hull.  The look is accomplished mainly through a lupine nose piece, protruding underbite fangs, strongly arched eyebrows, pointy ears and clawed hands.  Apparently this is all one needs to be a werewolf in an urban location like London.  The film is, according to accounts, where the full moon myth is first mentioned and has a strange plant, not wolfsbane, that can cure lycanthropy.  Years before it would be fashionable, this film featured competing werewolves fighting for a cure and added that "the werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing he loves best" or some such tosh.

So amazing was Werewolf of London that Universal waited until 1941 to produce another werewolf film.   The Wolf Man starred Lon Chaney Jr., the son of the silent film great Lon Chaney.  Much like in the preceding Universal werewolf film Chaney plays a man cursed to become a beast.  However, the plot of The Wolf Man, and indeed the execution of the film, is more in line with creating a sympathetic monster than the previous film.  The Wolf Man established the bit about werewolves being particularly vulnerable to silver, but does not create the 'full moon' requirement (that came later in sequels) although Autumn and wolfsbane seem to play a part in it all.  This film really establishes more than anything the viability of the werewolf as a movie monster.  The success of the film inspired the next few decades to create werewolves of all types.  Interestingly, this film features both the two-legged and four-legged varieties of werewolf.  Chaney's Larry Talbot is cursed to become a werewolf (or as he usually says in the films, "a wolf") when he is bitten by Bela the Gypsy (played by Bela Lugosi) who is a werewolf.  Bela is not a wolf-man hybrid type, however, but a regular quadrupedal canis lupis.  So we have the twist of the "classic" werewolf giving birth to the modern "wolfman".  Chaney was a big man and his werewolf is imposing as a result.  Jack Pierce again designed the make-up and went for a hirsute look...a real wolf-man.  Again we have an animal nose and a bit of an underbite with fangs, but not as pronounced.  Chaney's Wolf Man loved to use the 'choke attack'.  He loved to jump on things too.  Tables, chairs, a windowsill, it didn't matter to Talbot, he wanted to get some air as he attacked.  A luchador werewolf?
Yo soy El LuchaLobo!  Next time, El Santo, I will destroy you!
Hey, it was 1941, they weren't going to show decapitation and evisceration all over the screen, you know.  What is important to note is that the hybrid wolf-man type of werewolf became the default werewolf, more or less, throughout the following decades.  I have deduced that this is because it is easier to slap hair and fangs onto a human than it is to work with a wolf, wolf-dog hybrid, or large dog.  Animals are hard to work with at the best of times and, while expressive, they do not convey the full range of human emotions very well.  Some false fur and plastic teeth are cheap by comparison.
Thus it was in 1957 when Michael Landon became a Teenage Werewolf it was fur faced, underbite fangs and claws all the way.  That's the way things remained, with the smallest exceptions, until the 1980s when a werewolf returned to London and everyone heard the Howling of beasts.
In 1981 An American Werewolf In London brought us a fully formed, quadrupedal monster black wolf.  The transformation sequence is now legendary and won Rick Baker an Oscar.  Let's be honest, it set an all-time standard for werewolf, or any human-to-animal, transformation effects.

This marked a change from the previous few decades of bipedal wolf-man hybrids and was quite the engineering feat in itself.  The werewolf of American Werewolf was much closer to the "traditional" medieval man-becomes-animal lore.  Also in that year we had The Howling, a film which featured the more common bipedal hybrid werewolves, but with the added bonus of those werewolves having very lupine facial features.  The previous decades had brought us furry faces and doggie noses, which are easy enough to render cheaply.  The Howling went for a more wolfish werewolf, at least as far as faces were concerned.

Plot-wise American Werewolf and The Howling could not be less similar.  The former is a "traditional" Hollywood werewolf story where a young man is bitten by a werewolf, becomes a werewolf, does some killing and then is saved from his "curse" by death.  This is the very pattern set by 1941's The Wolf Man and David Kessler could just as easily be Larry Talbot, as the character concepts are very much the same.
The Howling plays with new age concepts, satirizing them wonderfully, pays homage to older films, actors and directors with clever character names and events, and provides a view of werewolves as a different species, apart from humans and closer to the animal passions of wolves.  This is shown in the extremely wolfish makeup (long muzzles, large, pointed ears, differently shaped bodies) and by the characterizations.

Prior to these two films we had werewolves as cursed unfortunates, happy-go-lucky funsters (in cartoons like the Groovy Ghoulies), or pet "dogs" to vampire characters.  In the Munsters the child of Lilly Munster (vampiress) and Herman Munster (Frankenstein creation) is Eddie, a young werewolf.  It was the 80's that brought the werewolf back to a more serious and wolfy form, and allowed us to see werewolves as more than the "dog" of the Monster Mash-Ups or the whinging cursed gimp.  Werewolves in film throughout the 80s and 90s would continue with long muzzles and wolfish characteristics, while sometimes defaulting to the cheaper Wolf Man look of flat muzzle with underbite fangs.  The FOX television show Werewolf featured a more lupine werewolf with a long muzzle, pointed ears and a tendency to lope about on all fours.  Comic pages feature werewolves on two legs and four at the whims of the artist and writers, but the more wolfish muzzles and body forms gained popularity after The Howling and even Marvel's Werewolf By Night Jack Russell gained a more feral, wolfish form when his curse cycle entered full moon phase.
The 21st century has seen a return to the ancient tradition with werewolves that take the forms of actual wolves, albeit sometimes very large wolves.  The Twilight films, HBO's True Blood, and the big bad wolf from 2011's Red Riding Hood all take the form of wolves, albeit very large wolves in the case of Twilight and Red Riding Hood.  As a trend there is nothing wrong with this; it certainly hearkens to the cyclical nature of people, cultures and mythologies.  Arguably with the increases in technology for special effects, including the widespread and affordable use of CGI, it is easier now more then ever to show the transformation of man into beast and have the beast that we want to see and are convinced to see in film.  Thus the original question of the piece stands: How do you take your werewolves?  Ultimately it is about choice and for me as long as it is a well-done piece of cinema or special effects it does not matter how many legs the wolf chooses to use.  In the past decade I've enjoyed 2 legged, long muzzled hybrids (the Wolf Man in 2004's Van Helsing), full quadrupedal wolves (Red Riding Hood in 2011) and even a throwback, Rick Baker designed Benicio Del Toro with a dog nose and underbite fangs (The Wolfman released nationally in 2011).  As long as the werewolf looks good, feral and wild, I'm giving it my support.
Benicio as Wolfman on the left, werewolf effects fromVan Helsing in center and a Twilight Werewolf on the right: comparison study
Until next time, keep your pumpkins lit...and your moon full.
Not that such is required...

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