Werewolves are one of the most enduring pieces of horror pop culture iconography. And although they’re considered to be one of the quintessential mascots for the genre, and for the Halloween season, I would wager that the vast majority of people have never actually seen a werewolf movie.
Well, a good one, anyhow.
Twilight, Underworld, and Van Helsing all feature the beasts in some capacity, yet are treated mostly as either creepy teen romance bait or mindless action movie fodder. Nothing really to write home about. And certainly nothing that supports their claim to horror royalty.
This is, of course, despite the fact that 1941’s The Wolf Man is a cinematic masterpiece, and one of the driving forces in the historical popularity of horror as a genre. And yet, audiences have mostly forgotten this image of the werewolf, instead substituting it with the image of a shirtless Taylor Lautner.
Which is why, I think, they’ve been somewhat relegated to the mental bargain-bin for most audiences, cursed to be treated with the same trivial disinterest as many of their similarly generic cousins in pop culture like vampires and mummies. And honestly, it’s a genuine shame, because unlike many of their contemporary icons, the werewolf has actually been featured in a wide range of excellent horror films throughout the years. Many of them are witty and cleverly-written gems, and some of the most notable examples feature some of the best special effects and makeup work ever seen in a film, horror or otherwise. And, most importantly, some of them feature some genuinely nail-biting scares.
Let’s take a look at some of the best horror films to ever feature a full moon.
From writer/director Neil Marshall, who gave us one of the most terrifying, claustrophobic movies of all time with The Descent, Dog Soldiers is an excellent, action-packed addition to the werewolf mythology. Set in the gloomy, misty Scottish highlands, the film follows a group of British soldiers (among them Liam Cunningham of Game of Thrones fame and Gotham’s Sean Pertwee) as they square off against a pack of cunning, vicious wolfmen. If The Wolf Man is Alien, then Dog Soldiers is Aliens, abandoning the mystique and unknown danger of the werewolf for balls-to-the-wall adrenaline and bombastic energy. It’s intense, it’s hilarious, and it’s one of the most unique takes on the genre you’ll ever find.
An American Werewolf in London
The quintessential classic, from iconic director/manslaughterer John Landis, An American Werewolf in London is both a horror staple as well a bona fide work of comedic genius. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of an effective horror/comedy ever made, the film seamlessly manages to bounce from hilarity to terror on a dime, yet somehow never manages to give the audience tonal whiplash from the transition. It’s a fairly simply plot, centered on an American backpacker who gets mauled by a roaming lycanthrope in the English countryside and suddenly finds himself with a certain lunar affliction, yet manages to feel so fresh and so unique that the simplicity never feels like a hinderance. And while the writing is superb, and the direction is pristine, the real star of the show here is the practical effects by industry legend Rick Baker. Every onscreen werewolf transformation from 1981 onward takes cues from this film’s visuals, because they’re just that good. Even now, thirty years later, it’s still the most convincing metamorphosis ever put to film. Nothing short of astonishing.
For those who loved the BBC’s Orphan Black, this one’s for you. From series creator John Fawcett and screenwriter Karen Walton comes what is probably the werewolf genre’s smartest and savviest portrayal of the lupine beasts, using them as a metaphor for puberty and the traumas of adolescence. Think Teen Wolf (the Michael J. Fox 80s movie, not the MTV garbage), only less goofy and more gruesome. Sharp, snappy dialogue and disturbingly visceral effects that border on being Cronenberg-esque make Ginger Snaps a unique precursor to films like Jennifer’s Body, effortlessly blending the vibes of a teen coming-of-age comedy and a werewolf horror film. Despite releasing to relatively little fanfare in 2000, this Canadian monster flick has gone on to become a cult classic, as well as a certified feminist icon, thanks to its authentic and engaging portrayals of its female leads. Definitely check this one out if you’re a fan of things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Alongside An American Werewolf in London, The Howling is pretty much the gold standard for the modern werewolf, setting the framework that would define the beast’s place in the horror genre for decades to come. Releasing the same year as Landis’s film, The Howling was the career-making film for director Joe Dante, who went on to helm Gremlins thanks to this movie’s success. Like An American Werewolf in London, The Howling is also darkly comedic, veering slightly more into the campy and ridiculous than its counterpart. However, the film similarly dips its toes deep into the horrific as well, featuring some equally stunning visual effects from Rob Bottin (who would also work on films like The Thing and Robocop). Smart, sexy, and funny as all hell, The Howling set the stage for Dante to dominate his particular niche of dark, genre-savvy horror comedies for years to come.
It’s about a cop, who’s also a werewolf. What more information do you need? Released in 2014, WolfCop is pure cult cheese, and I say that with love. A love-letter to the 80s (it’s Robocop with a werewolf, basically) full of nudity, violence, slapstick humor, and terrible puns, this film is one of the weirdest and wildest things you’ll ever watch. An alcoholic cop gets transformed into a feral wolfman via a cult ritual performed by shapeshifting reptilians. That’s the plot. It’s insane, and frankly, you need to see it to believe it. While all of the werewolf films on this list tow the delicate line between horror and comedy (which seems to come part-and-parcel with the werewolf for some reason), WolfCop is definitely a comedy first and foremost. But it works in its favor, delivering a riotous wolfen romp that’ll leave you equal parts entertained and grossed out.
THERE ARE GOOD WEREWOLF MOVIES, PEOPLE.
STOP WATCHING UNDERWORLD.
Have a personal favorite that’s not mentioned here? Maybe you’re one of the six people on the planet that prefers Wolfen to The Howling? Let me know in the comments!
And Happy Halloween!