I wanted to plug a nifty post by the relentlessly productive B-Sol of Vault of Horror. Among the video blogs, weekly top ten lists, news bulletins, and paternalistic odes to the joys of raising monster-kids, this engine of Interweb copy has managed to produce the first of three posts on the history of werewolf flicks.
It's nice to see ol' fuzzy face get the B-Sol treatment. Long the red-headed stepchild of the Universal fold, the werewolf's is to the universe of classical monsters what Martian Manhunter is to the Justice League – everybody feels he's iconic, but nobody has ever been able to raise his status to the level of a Frankenstein or a Dracula (the Superman and Batman of the JLA conceit).
From B-Sol's post:
With the highly anticipated Benicio del Toro remake of Universal's The Wolf Man on the way this fall, the time is ripe to take a long, considered look at the history of one of the horror genre's most venerable and beloved sub-categories. Although not quite as popular as its cousin the vampire, and perhaps not as thoroughly explored cinematically, the lycanthrope has nevertheless provided us with some of the most terrifying films ever made.
A beast whose origins go back nearly to the beginnings of Western civilization, the mythological being who can transform from man to wolf under the influence of the full moon has gone through its fair share of Hollywood-ization, much like its blood-drinking brethren. And in general, the history of werewolf films can be divided into three major eras. Today we will take a look at the first.
Most of the comments have focused on the odd film that's been left out, notably the list's lack of reference to the werewolf cycle of Euro-horror "master" Paul Naschy. These omissions don't bother me. You can't cover everything and, while Naschy probably deserves mention for holding the record for most-performances-as-a-werewolf, it doesn't strike me that his body of work has had some massive influence on the development of the genre. Despite their cult status among Euro-horror fans, they're sort of an evolutionary dead end. I think Naschy's the William Blake of werewolf filmmakers: There was nobody quite like him and he left no notable imitators, so he stands alone as a weird one-shot mutation in the genetic history of the subgenre. That's my take anyway.
I would, however, underscore something in his discussion of 1935's Werewolf of London:
The movie is Werewolf of London, and for some connoissuers of vintage horror, it remains the high watermark of lycanthrope cinema. Henry Hull stars as Dr. Glendon, and English botanist who falls under the curse of the werewolf after being bitten on an expedition in the Himalayas. The vast bulk of cinema's take on the werewolf legend is already established in this one film: the transmission through biting, the transformation under the full moon, the beast's desire to destroy that which its human half loves most.
The makeup created by Jack Pierce is striking, and Hull's humanoid, intelligent portrayal of the creature is quite unique, giving us one of the only talking werewolves of the silver screen. The film also puts the transformation scene front and center, a tradition that would continue throughout the history of the subgenre. Werewolf of London remains one of the most influential, and yet also one of the most underrated horror films of the Universal canon.
The biggest paradigm shift Werewolf of London introduced to the subgenre is the "humanoid" part. Prior to Werewolf of London, werewolves were depicted as changing from men into standard issue wolves. After London, the norm would be a mostly bipedal human-wolf hybrid creature. Ancient wolf stories tended to assume either a purely mental transformation (a dude gets on his hands and knees and starts acting like a wolf) or a complete physical transformation (in which the transformed person becomes a wolf-wolf). The ancient idea that the transformation is complete – though often a crucial part of the pre-film folklore - would become increasingly less common.
(There are, of course, dissidents. Perhaps ironically, American Werewolf in London and its sequel mostly keep their wolves on all fours. The Ginger Snaps franchise avoids extensive two-legged walking as well. Sharp Teeth and Sacred Book of the Werewolf are novelistic exceptions to the general trend – both assume a complete transformation).
Still, that's a small quibble. It's an excellent post and worth your attention. Dig, Screamers and Screamettes.