In the middle of 2020 we learned that Ryan Gosling plans to tackle the role of The Wolfman in what amounts to the latest adaptation of the film franchise that initially starred Lon Chaney, Jr. A planned project of Blumhouse, the film will be directed by Leigh Wannell, who did so well with 2020’s version of The Invisible Man. Gosling is certainly a talented leading man, and a noted heartthrob, too, but might not be regarded as the standard choice to handle the dual roles of Lawrence Talbot and his monstrous alter-ego.
The thought of Gosling as a new version of Chaney prompted me to start thinking about my favorite films in Wolfman history, along with other gems from the sub-genre of werewolves. To my surprise, there have been a surprising number of good films dealing with this subject matter, and they represent a nice cross section of eras, from the 1940s to the 1980s to the current day.
The sub-genre is deep enough to keep a few films out of my top five, and they include good movies like Dog Soldiers, The Howling, Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf, and the first werewolf movie ever made, Werewolf of London.
So which films did manage to make my top five? Here are a few hints: one stars a female werewolf, another comes from the world of Stephen King, and a third is an American transplanted in Great Britain.
5. Ginger Snaps (2000):
When this oddly-titled film first came out, I remember hearing about it and thinking, “Why would someone make a movie about a cookie?” I then learned that this Canadian film wasn’t about those ginger snaps (which are delicious) but actually falls into the category of a werewolf movie. Still, I didn’t fully understand the title until I realized that “Ginger” was the name of one of the two principal characters.
Much to my embarrassment, I did not actually see this underrated gem from 2000 until last year. I had heard it was very good – a cult favorite – and that turned out be 100 percent correct. Beginning as a very dark film, Ginger Snaps stars Emily Perkins and Catherine Isabelle as two high school-aged sisters who are obsessed with death, to the point of staging suicidal scenes for a school project. The characters are initially difficult to like, given their morose view of just about everything, but they become more likeable as the story progresses. In particular, Brigitte (played by Perkins) emerges as the hero of the story, as she does her best to cure sister Ginger of lycanthropy, which has been caused by a werewolf descending onto their town.
The story moves quickly, amidst an interesting small-town backdrop reminiscent of my own hometown in downstate New York. The special effects, which involve very little CGI, are excellent, producing one of the scarier werewolves in cinema history. But there is also a deeper significance to Ginger Snaps. More than just a fast-moving werewolf film, it conveys a parallel message about puberty and what teenage girls typically have to undergo during those years. For that reason, the movie has become a particular favorite among female fans.
While the deeper message is strong, Ginger Snaps is the kind of film that can be enjoyed and savored by anyone. It’s just solidly good. Three stars for this creative cult classic.
4. The Wolfman (2010):
While I’m generally not a big fan of modern day remakes, this effort is actually quite good. The story departs somewhat from the original movie with Lon Chaney, but not so radically that it becomes ridiculous or over the top. It also features a great cast, starting with Benicio del Toro in the title role. Del Toro took great pride in playing the two roles of Lawrence Talbot and The Wolfman. As a child, he loved the original version of The Wolf Man (notice the different spelling) and wanted the remake to be done well, without any parodying of the 1931 classic.
We should regard Del Toro’s mission as well achieved. A very capable remake, The Wolfman is a perfect example of how an original Universal Studios classic can be redone in a way that is modern and creative, while still being respectful to the original source material.
Del Toro certainly does his part to lift the material to its full potential. A Puerto Rican-born actor, Del Toro excels as the dark, brooding character of Talbot, who returns to his native England after the mysterious death of his brother. In all honesty, Del Toro is a better and more versatile actor than Lon Chaney was, and that range of acting is quite evident throughout the film.
Del Toro more than carries his share of the workload amidst a supporting cast that is especially good, particularly for the genre of horror. The legendary Anthony Hopkins expertly plays Talbot’s father, a man with a hidden past, while giving us a characterization that is decidedly different from what Claude Rains delivered in the original film. Emily Blunt, an extremely talented actress who performed so beautifully in A Quiet Place, is excellent as Talbot’s love interest. And then there is Hugo Weaving as a hard-bitten hunter who is determined to take down the werewolf that has unleashed destruction on the English countryside.
The remake of The Wolfman is action-packed, fierce, and quite violent, with powerful special effects that only add to the level of gore. Is the new edition of The Wolfman as good as the original version starring Chaney? Probably not, but it is sufficiently good to make it a must-see film among modern day interpretations of werewolf themes. Three stars for The Wolfman.
3. Silver Bullet (1985):
This was another film that eluded my grasp for so many years, until I finally addressed the situation and watched the adaptation of the Stephen King film. My goodness, why did I wait so long? This movie was terrific, so good from start to finish that it left me wanting more.
Centered on the volatile brother-and-sister combination of Corey Haim and Megan Follows, Silver Bullet tells the story of a series of murders that have disrupted the small town of Tarker’s Mills, Maine. The brother, who is paralyzed and must use a wheelchair, comes to believe that a werewolf is responsible for the recent spate of killings in Tarker’s Mills.
Gary Busey plays the energetic and fun-loving uncle of the two siblings, and a source of inspiration to Haim’s character. Busey’s performance reminds us of how talented and distinctive he was as an actor before beginning to suffer health problems. During the filming, he ad-libbed a number of his lines, which were so good that they were allowed to remain in the final cut. In one particularly touching scene, Busey gives Haim a souped up wheelchair/wagon that is fast enough to run on country roads. It’s a scene handled beautifully by both actors.
While Busey, Haim and Follows all do well in portraying likeable characters, they are ably supported by a good cast that includes a young Terry O’Quinn as a no-nonsense police chief and the always frightening Everett McGill as a hot-tempered preacher.
Silver Bullet is a well-acted, fast-moving motion picture that has surprisingly good special effects for the era of the mid-1980s. Some have criticized the werewolf costuming, including producer Dino DeLaurentis, who did not like the look of the werewolf, even though the costume took three months to construct. The costume is not particularly realistic, but it is still effective and does not detract from the overall impact of the film.
This was a fun one. It has become a favorite among werewolf aficionados over the last 35 years—and with good reason. Three and a half stars for Silver Bullet.
2. An American Werewolf in London (1981):
Within one calendar year, three excellent films about werewolves and lycans entered theaters, and all rank quite highly. The Howling and Wolfen were two of the films released in 1981, and both are extremely well done. But they are not quite at the same level as An American Werewolf in London, which has become a modern day classic.
The movie begins with two American backpackers hiking through the English moors, where they are attacked by a werewolf. One college student (Griffin Dunne) is killed, while the other (David Naughton) is hurt badly—the first step to him becoming a werewolf himself. The death of Dunne’s character is stunning, especially so early in the film, but it sets the stage for a movie that is full of surprises and unexpected plot twists, including the repeated appearances of a ghost.
The likeable Naughton and Dunne play well against each other. Naughton also has good chemistry with his love interest, a nurse played by British actress Jenny Agutter. As she tends to his injuries, she falls in love with Naughton’s character, only to realize that there is something seriously wrong with him, beyond the wounds he received in the wolf attack.
An American Werewolf in London is full of action, fun, comedy, fright, and some of the best special effects ever seen. In fact, the film won the Academy Award for best makeup, which was created and applied so beautifully by the masterful Rick Baker. This one is a certified classic from the 1980s. Three and a half stars for An American Werewolf in London.
1. The Wolf Man (1941):
At the top of my list is one of the best of the classic releases from Universal. It’s the film that made Lon Chaney a star, while also showcasing the brilliant makeup applied by the legendary Jack Pierce.
The film centers on Lawrence Talbot, an American forced to return home to England because of the recent death of his brother. He reunites with his aristocratic father, who wants him to take over the family estate, but the younger Talbot becomes sidetracked when he meets a young love interest named Gwen. He accompanies her to a local fair so that they can have their fortunes told by visiting gypsies, but Talbot instead has a direct encounter with a gypsy-turned-werewolf that will drastically change the course of his life.
Chaney was not the first choice to play the title character. Originally, Universal wanted its most bankable star, Boris Karloff. When he turned out to be unavailable, the studio turned to Chaney. Some film critics panned the choice of Chaney, but they would be proven wrong. Chaney’s performance was so good that Universal would bring him as The Wolf Man on four more occasions, including key roles in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
The supporting cast for The Wolf Man is terrific, too, including Claude Rains as Talbot’s father, Evelyn Ankers as Talbot’s love interest, and Bela Lugosi as the werewolf that attacks the hard-luck Talbot. The three supporting actors were all major players for Universal, perfect compliments to the new star that the studio was showcasing in Chaney.
Not only is The Wolf Man entertaining, but it is also responsible for much of the werewolf lore that continues to be followed to this day, including the notion that only a wolf bite can result in the creation of another werewolf. The movie also devised the idea that a silver bullet is one of the few weapons that can take down a werewolf.
With its well-told story, standout makeup from Pierce, and atmospheric portrayal of the fog-ridden English moors, the movie holds up as one of the best horror films of all time. Four stars for the original version of The Wolf Man.
While Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man tend to gather much of the glory in the old monster world, werewolves have clearly established a formidable reputation through the films listed above—and through others. It’s a reputation that could be fortified further, depending on what happens next with Ryan Gosling’s first venture into the world of classic horror. It will be fun to see what Gosling and Wannell have in store.
Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.
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