Category Archives: film

Movie reviews. Genre commentary.

Werewolves and the Silver Screeen

Artist’s conception of one of the Beasts of Gévaudan, 18th-century engraving by A.F. of Alençon.

Unlike that of its close cousin, the vampire, the mythology and folklore of the werewolf was not that well developed until it found its way to the silver screen. Although stories like the Beast of Gévaudan (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Beast_of_G%C3%A9vaudan) were well known in the eighteenth century, and books like Sabine Baring-Gould (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Sabine_Baring-Gould)‘s treatise on werewolves were popular a hundred years later, the werewolf, as we have come to know him, does not have as rich a history as the vampire does. Not until movies came along.

Stories of werewolves existed as far back as the ancient Greeks; and Europeans in the Middle Ages were witness to many werewolf trials (most notably Peter Stumpp (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Peter_Stumpp) in 1589). But there exists no real lycanthropic equivalent of Dracula (Guy Endore’s 1933 Werewolf of Paris comes close, as does the little known, but popular at the time, The Were-wolf, by Clemence Housman [published in 1896!]). Though both creatures were the stuff of eighteenth century hysteria, the distinctions between vampires (the dead who could sometimes turn into wolves) and werewolves (the living who were transformed into animals) were not always so clear.

Even in antiquity, legends of the vampire and the werewolf would often intertwine, making much of their mythology difficult to separate. Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon and it cycles, for example, is thought to have made the first vampire, Ambrogio; but Selene is also a moon goddess, often depicted in art with wolves by her side. The myths go back further than the Greeks, of course. Babylonians had their shapeshifters and bloodsuckers. As did the ancient peoples of Asia and South America. Yet the man who transforms specifically into a wolf is almost uniquely European. Usually, the devil or a witch is involved. And a burning at the stake or turn on the wheel usually took care of them.

But the origins of silver bullets as being the primary way to kill werewolves? Or metamorphosis dependent on the cycles of the moon? The origins of these are murky. Even the anthropomorphic werewolf itself is more the stuff of Hollywood than anything that came before.

SILVER BULLETS, SCREENS, AND CANES

Silver has always had magical, even religious properties of purity. It has certain antimicrobial properties, making it a useful ingredient in early medicines, or simply make for a good pitcher that would keep water cleaner, longer. Alchemists valued it. As did artisans.

The origin of the belief in the power of silver bullet to kill supernatural monsters may date to  17th century stories of the city of Greifswald, Germany where silver buttons, buckles and other items were melted down to forge bullets to kill the creatures. This comes to us from J.D.H. Temme’s Folk tales of Pomerania and Rugen, written in 1840. But outside of only a few obscure scholars who reference this material infrequently over the next hundred years, history does not readily fuse the scourge of the werewolf with the power of silver.

Though the Beast of Gévaudan is reputedly killed by a silver bullet, modern scholars argue it is only through much later translations of the story —most notably Henri Pourrat’s novel Histoire fidèle de la bête en Gévaudan, written in 1946 — that a silver bullet is introduced as killing the beast.

That is five years AFTER Universal releases The Wolf Man in 1941the first film to truly attempt to use some semblance of European folklore to tell the story of a cursed man.

Written by Curt Siodmak (https://www NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2000/11/19/nyregion/curt-siodmak-dies-at-98-created-modern-wolf-man NULL.html), The Wolf-Man was originally entitled “Destiny.” Siodmak saw in his cursed anti-hero a metaphor for the writer’s own flight from the horrors of Nazi Germany. And without knowing it at the time, he ended up influencing the mythology of the werewolf more than any historical or literary source before him.

Not that there weren’t a few werewolf films that had preceded Universal’s classic.

The earliest of record is lost to us. 1913’s silent The Werewolf  was the first to tie the legend to Native American beliefs, but because of the prints being destroyed by a fire in 1924, few would have remembered it. From the records that do exist, there is no mention of transformation due to the moon, or destruction by a silver bullet. A 1924 silent film also called The Werewolf should have been lost; it’s a terrible piece that suggests a surly drunk is like a man who has become a wolf.

In 1935, Universal first tried the theme of a man transforming — not into a wolf — but a wolf-like man. Courtesy of the makeup artistry of Jack Pierce (of 1931’s Frankenstein fame), the anthropomorphic change was effective — to an extent. In this Werewolf of London, actor Henry Hull did not want his face fully covered, and the result was more Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde than anything else. And his is dispatched in an anti-climatic way. The werewolf is killed by an ordinary bullet.

Jack Pierce works on Wolf-Man makeup

Four years later, just as Jack Pierce perfects his makeup to create a truly head-to-toe hairy Jon Chaney, Jr., Curt Siodmak would give us the first modern “Wolf-Man.”

Claude Rains about to bludgeon Lon-Chaney as he holds Evenlyn Ankers in The Wolf-Man (1941)

Indeed, it is in The Wolf-Man that Siodmak introduces and/or fuses so much of what we now accept as gospel when it comes to werewolves. First, they are not so much actual wolves as they are toothy hirsute men (well, Lon Chaney, Jr. at least). Secondly, silver — in the form of a silver-headed walking stick — dispatches the creature more effectively than any traditional weapon.

But it is not silver alone and a bipedal creature that Siodmak somehow turned into modern mythology. One of his biggest contributions to werewolf folklore was the influence of the moon.

FULL MOON FEVER

1941’s The Wolf-Man is famous for its now well-known poem:

Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.

Recited by many characters in the film, the four line poem is an ever-present refrain in the picture. But its last line makes one wonder. Did Siodmak only intend for a seasonal moon to set off the lycanthropic transformation? Is it, as Chaney’s love interest, Gwen, puts it, a transformation “at certain times of the year.”

It would appear in The Wolf-Man, that phases of the moon factor little into Lon Chaney’s problem.

Universal would soon, however, add to the mythology. In the first of many sequels  — 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man,  written by Siodmak — the line had been changed to “And the moon is full and bright.”

Some believe the change to a full moon was made to account for Chaney’s resurrection: it was under the light of the full moon, after all. Chaney would go on to play the monster a total of five times, and the the moon became ever more important to the plot of each film. The altered poem was recited in each, with the exception of House of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

The connection between werewolves and the moon has been part of the lore ever since. The fuller, the better, apparently.

MORE MAN THAN BEAST

Exactly what form the werewolf takes is another matter entirely. Peter Stumpp, for example, was said to take on lupine shape. Bipedalism — or a more anthropomorphized shape — does not seem to come into the picture until Henry Hull does his wolf-man Jekyll / Hyde transformation in 1935. Whether this was a matter of practical effects and/or problems with animal control is unknown. What is clear is that by the time of The Wolf-Man, the title itself makes clear that what we will see is, indeed, a man.

The werewolf as wolf-MAN carried well into nineteen fifties’ cinema. See, for example, 1957’s popular I Was a Teenage Werewolf —where actor Michael Landon’s creature looked like Chaney’s with a pompadour. Or the little known (for good reason) The Werewolf, from 1956. Neither movies are particulared good.

But then, as with many traditional monsters, where Universal left off, Hammer films in the UK took over. Among the best of the genre is Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf (1961). The nearest adaptation to Guy Endore’s novel, Curse is steeped in the modern cinematic werewolf mythology. Oliver Reed’s werewolf bears a human visage, and walks on two legs. The moon is responsible for his transformation (it’s even on the promotional posters!). And he is ultimately dispatched with not only a silver bullet — but one blessed by a priest!

Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Audiences of the nineteen sixties and seventies would come to expect their werewolves to follow now established genre norms. Most of the elements come together, for example, in 1974’s The Beast Must Die.

Most. Not all. For in The Beast Must Die, the threat definitely comes on all fours.

MORE BEAST THAN MAN

Detail from poster for An American Werewolf in London (1981)

John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981) is the first film to (more than) effectively show a man transform into an actual wolf. Effects master Rick Baker’s Academy Award winning makeup shocked audiences. The practical effects transformation of man to wolf looks real (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=10a5cflZzBg), and really painful — all to the tune of “Blue Moon.” The age of men in hairy masks was over.

That the wolf in American Werewolf is killed in an alleyway in a hail of regular-old police bullets is also telling. That it was released in 1981, the same year as two other genre-defining werewolf films — The Howling  and Wolfen — showed that by the nineteen eighties, the folklore and mythology of werewolves were further being explored — defined even — by the films themselves, and not some literary or semi-historical antecedent. An American Werewolf in London honored traditions of the genre with healthy doses of humor. The Howling (with an equally impressive but radically different practical effects transformation courtesy of Rick Baker’s assistant Rob Bottin) took the monsters off of the moors and put them in hippie communes. And Wolfen, which only hinted at lycanthropy, suggested that its wolves were transmogrified Native American souls.

Each of these seminal films from 1981 could be considered a deconstruction of the genre.

Or a transformation.

Films that would follow in decades to come like (one of the few nineties’ entries) Bad Moon (1996), the excellent Ginger Snaps (2000) and the brutal Dog Soldiers (2002) would further play with genre conventions.  And if the release of films like Late Phases in 2014 are any indication, filmmakers will be sinking their teeth into these stories for years to come.

Even Universal returned to the story with a remake of The Wolf-Man in 2010 (to mixed reviews). CGI had, for better or worse, been added to the attacks and transformations, but many of the genre conventions established seventy years earlier remained relatively intact.

In the end, 1941’s The Wolf-Man may stand as the best of werewolf films — if only because it influenced everything that came thereafter. In that regard, writer Curt Siodmak achieved what most storytellers only dream of: the chance to have a character become part of modern mythology.

For more on lycanthropy, moon madness, and a brief history of werewolves, see my own “The Moon Howls” elsewhere in this blog.

Unmasking the Phantom: Romanticizing the Face of Horror

Phantom of the Opera Mask

Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, has been filmed at least a half a dozen times, turned into a very successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and used as inspiration for one of the most ubiquitous halloween masks (that many wear without ever having seen Lon Chaney’s makeup or even heard “Music of the Night”). Still, there’s something in the mask itself that is inarguably attractive. We hide our true selves — a self that, perhaps, only a lover or trusted friend can know. Not the self we are at work, or at a party. Carl Jung would say those are masks of the persona: the ego adapting to its circumstances. But the mask that hides a self that is something horrible, or something to be pitied (or both)?  That’s something different altogether.

In the gothic tradition to which Leroux’s novel belongs (along with all the adaptations that come later), the masked face is romanticized for that very reason. Is there a tortured man beneath the mask that needs only find love to be free? Or is there a fiend waiting for us.

THE NOVEL (1910)
Lon Chaney, The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney, The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

For Leroux, the mask as symbol is quite complex; in addition to having his phantom, Erik, hide a hideous visage, Leroux writes that “none will ever be a true Parisian who has not learned to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one of sadness, boredom, or indifference over his inward joy.” We are challenged to confront that we all wear masks — not just the ghost of the Opera house that longs for the beautiful Christine.

The tale is familiar (well, to people like me it is): Erik hears Christine sing, and is captivated. But he knows himself to be so deformed that Christine will be repulsed by him. So he waits, secretly aiding Christine is her career. Minor characters are literally disposed of, and the main characters eventually find themselves at a pivotal moment when the mask will come off. Hideous boy will stand before beautiful girl, and all will be revealed.

But all what? Disgust? Pity? Overwhelming love?

Here’s the novel and its many adaptations differ.

In the novel, when Erik is alone with Christine — away from her suitor, Raoul (whom Erik has imprisoned) — he lifts his mask, revealing his deformity, and kisses her on the forehead. She returns his kiss. Erik then reveals that he has never received a kiss — not even from his mother — and is quite overwhelmed with equal parts sadness and joy. He tells Christine that he has never felt so close to another human being, and turns from wicked ways — releasing Raoul. Why? The novel makes it clear: he has been saved by love. Indeed, Leroux has him dying because of love at the end of the novel. Christine buries him, then takes off with the handsome Raoul.

THE SILENT FILM (1925)

Fifteen years later, in 1925, Universal would adapt the novel to the silent silver screen.  Producer Carl Laemmle (who would later go on to produce both Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) for Universal) chose Lon Chaney — the man of a thousand faces — for the central role. And in a post World War I world where the horrors of war left mutilated men, it is not beyond reason to assume that Chaney based at least some of his makeup on the poor broken souls who had returned from Europe with faces torn apart by German shrapnel.

Noseless and lipless, with a sunken-eyed face that looks more like a skull than that of a man, Chaney’s phantom goes way beyond the novel with the extent of Erik’s deformity, and it changes the whole tone of the story. Despite Christine still getting the attention from the phantom that leads to he success at the Opera house, her fear — our fear — is real. This phantom illicits horror — or at the very best, our pity. And instead of Erik lifting his mask in an act of love, Chaney’s phantom is dramatically unmasked, by Christine, in one of cinema’s most written-about reveals.

MONSTER OR MISUNDERSTOOD MAN?

Erik’s unmasking is not his own decision. It is sudden. It is terrifying. And it leaves Christine horrified on the floor. A captured Raoul — again, Christine’s suitor — can only be freed if Christine makes a choice of two levers. A challenge is made by Erik. One lever will free Raoul. One will blow up the Opera House. But there’s a catch: free Raoul, and agree to marry Erik.

The tension is palpable. The audience sees Erik as a true monster, and wants so very much for Christine and Raoul to be together. And that is what they get, in a sacrifice made by Erik. He tricks Christine. His intention was apparently to free Raoul all along, and escape the Opera House with Christine. Only he is thwarted by an angry mob who attacks him and throws him into the Seine. Christine and Raoul? They are seen on honeymoon at picture’s end.

Still, the filmmakers initially intended to preserve the original ending of the novel.  They filmed scenes in which Erik dies of a broken heart at his organ after Christine leaves him. But the preview audience apparently hated this ending. They wanted the monster punished, and the lovers to be reunited.

REMAKES AND MIS-TAKES

Throughout the many adaptions — from Claude Rains in 1943, to Herbert Lom in Hamer’s version of 1962, to Brian de Palma’s bizarre Phantom of the Paradise (1974) — the stories change.

Music becomes the true love of the phantom in some. Disfigurement at brith because a tragic encounter with acid in another. But the central theme beneath all is this push and pull between the beautiful chanteuse and the disfigured musician. Sometimes repulsion. Sometimes attraction. Always Romantic in the Gothic novel sense of the term. Except, perhaps, in DePalma’s work, where the Gothic gives way to Glam.

THE MUSICAL (1986 — present day)
Phantom of the Opera musical
Phantom of the Opera musical

But outside of the novel, no version is more romanticized than the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical — which manages to fuse so many elements of the tale told over the last hundred years. In the blending of outcomes, the best and worst case scenarios for poor Erik co-exist. Yes, he is hideous. But he is romantic. And despite Christine’s love for Raoul, there is a bond between her and the phantom — one that often finds its way, as with most musicals, into song — and a gift of a ring to Christine.

The unmasking has mixed reaction — at first fear, but it soon becomes pity. This pity leads to tenderness. And tenderness, to love. At the end, Erik realizes that despite his love for Christine, he must release her to Raoul. The rightful couple begin to escape Erik’s subterranean lair, but not before Christine decides to return the ring that Erik had given her as a token of his love. She finds instead a mob that has descended into the lair to kill the phantom. But as she lifts aside the cloak where she believes Erik to be, she finds only… a mask.

MASKS

Masks play a central role in all adaptations of the Phantom of the Opera. Some are there for sudden horror (kill the monster!). And some are there for romantic imaginings (where did the poor tortured artist go?).

Masque of the Red Death
Masque of the Red Death

Some masks are even there to further hide the true persona — or perhaps remind us all that despite love or terror, death awaits us all. In many adaptations, Erik attends a ball dressed as Poe’s Red Death. His mask is invariably a skull. Memento Mori. The reminder that life is fleeting, and that we all must die.

In the end, it is the use of the mask — and the unmasking — that addresses our own extremes of attraction and repulsion. The persona projected by those behind masks can be quite attractive, and we can easily fall in love with the man or woman behind the mask. But in our subconscious minds, there may always be the question of what is that same man or woman hiding… and why. We become suspicious while at the same time intrigued.

We flirt with what is captivating, while fearing being held captive.

And masks are rarely literal.