We’re firmly into October, and though Halloween is still three weeks away, plenty of streaming outlets are already donning their Halloween garb. Disney+ got in on the act last week with Werewolf By Night, their first ever “special presentation” – which is to say, an hour-long one-off – and yet another outgrowth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This isn’t superhero business as usual, however, but a curious screen debut for Jack Russell, a lycanthrope protagonist first introduced in the comics 50 years ago. (Despite his name, he turns into something rather more menacing than a terrier when he transforms.) Played here by Gael García Bernal, he’s a monster hunter afflicted with the old hair-sprouting. Directed by Michael Giacchino, better known for his lively composing work, this nonsense adventure cultivates a chintzier, more retro B-movie aesthetic than most Marvel fare, and is more likable for it.
There’s something oddly comforting about a werewolf – as encountered on screen, at least, rather than in the flesh. Their past-tense air is baked into their very name. As scary creatures go, they conjure associations of cosy fireside folklore rather than anything more horrific, even if there are ways of bringing them more disconcertingly up to date. For all its Disneyfied trappings, Marvel’s werewolf outing pays tribute to the old-school model exemplified by 1941’s The Wolf Man, in which Lon Chaney Jr played the hapless human who turns toothy when the moon is full. It may not send viewers screaming the way it did 80 years ago, but George Waggner’s crisp 70-minute film still issues a wintry shiver, and set the style for generations of werewolf movies to come. The 2010 remake, The Wolfman, despite sophisticated Oscar-winning makeup effects, has already vanished from popular memory, though seek it out if you wish to compare and contrast.
In 1981, John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London was a far more successful update of the Wolf Man formula, kitting out the traditional gory tale with postmodern humour and slightly more permissive sexuality – and so becoming a much-aped classic in its own right. That same year, Joe Dante’s The Howling took a harder, more gut-spillingly violent horror approach to the genre, assuming the perspective not of the creature but its traumatised female prey. It’s not quite as much fun, but it’s still ruthlessly effective. With the genre’s popular appeal suddenly renewed, Neil Jordan took us closer to the arthouse in his sumptuous, often genuinely frightening The Company of Wolves (1984), a literate Angela Carter adaptation that exposed the essential fairytale properties of werewolf mythology.
The following decade, Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994) took things a step further, shedding the cheesier scaremongering to imagine the werewolf legend as a sleeker, more adult study of male sexual urge and excess, given carnal fizz by Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. It stands out now for just how unexpectedly romantic it is. Moving to the more queerly sensual end of the adult spectrum, John Fawcett’s splendid Canadian indie horror Ginger Snaps (Apple TV) touched on all manner of taboo desires in its story of misfit teenage sisters whose joint puberty takes a stranger course when one is bitten by the beast. Made in 2000, it redesigned the mythos for millennial viewers and has duly built the cult it deserves. It’s certainly a sharper spin on adolescent werewolf hijinks that the wilfully goofy Michael J Fox vehicle Teen Wolf (1985), though that film is not without its nostalgic charms.
The new century’s great werewolf tale comes, however, from the less expected climes of Brazil. Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s wily, imaginative Good Manners (2018; Mubi) wraps tart class politics and intersectional feminism into its darkly comic study of the relationship between a wealthy woman and her live-in housemaid – one that takes an unexpected turn at full moon. It’s a long way from Marvel, or indeed any past werewolf incarnation, but it leaves you shuddering just the same.
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