By John H. Foote
Mummies, vampires, witches, werewolves, ghosts, and zombies truly can be frightening. Yet for me the single most terrifying creature I have experienced in a film was a human being, Dr. Hannibal Lector.
A rubber ball comes bouncing down a flight of stairs, still wet from having been tossed into a river just moments before. The Changeling (1980) was a top-notch Canadian horror film, and that rubber ball scene scared the hell out of me.
The first time I saw Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) change by the light of a full moon into the Wolfman, I was paralyzed with fear, I think I forgot to breathe. I was eight years old curled up on the couch under a warm comforter with my Dad in the middle and my younger brother Steve on the other side, our eyes focused on the television, an old black and white console.
It was a tradition that started the year before, 1967.
Out of Buffalo on the WKBW television network was Fright Night Theatre, which broadcasted the old Universal horror films. A host dressed as a goofy Dracula introduced each film along with some facts and trivia about the movie, and then it ran, if I remember correctly, commercial free. Dad would put us to bed at 7 or 7:30, then at 11:15 wake us up for the movie. Downstairs we went to take our place on the couch, perhaps grabbing something to drink on the way because no chance was I moving once the movie started. I think we even used the bathroom before descending those stairs. There are few memories from a wonderful childhood as warm as those Friday night late shows.
The first one I remember watching was Dracula (1931) and I loved everything about it. The mood, the sets, the slow building dread, and Lugosi, the great Bela Lugosi in the role he was forever identified with, Count Dracula. Steve and I were hooked on monster movies, we ate them up. Each month Dad would buy us a copy of “Famous Monsters of Filmland”, telling us about the seemingly endless array of movies we had not yet seen.
My father loved movies, and his love of them was obviously in my genes or just contagious.
There is something very nostalgic and warm about the Universal classic horror films. To begin, each was a taut, tight film rarely longer than 100 minutes. That meant a lot of action and narrative was packed into the running time, so nothing was wasted. The filmmakers knew the audiences had come to see the monsters, thus after a build up, they knocked us out. Though initially the films were cheaply made, when they were fabulously successful, the budgets went up, allowing greater production value
And the actors – Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. – became so closely identified with their characters they had difficulty, Lugosi especially, finding other work in which they were taken seriously. They were cast off character actors who with the monsters found their niche.
I always liked werewolf movies, there was something cool about our inner beast manifesting by the light of the full moon, and I felt sorry for Larry Talbot. The films were kind of a Jekyll and Hyde idea with our inner animal emerging to wreak havoc.
Surprisingly there have not been many werewolf movies and even fewer great ones but the best of them are very good indeed.
5. THE WOLFMAN (2010)
This remake of the original 1941 film of the same name is a lavishly produced picture that looks incredible, and the werewolf here is an homage to the original, portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr. The Academy Award winning Benecio Del Toro is Lawrence Talbot, son of the wealthy patriarch of the Talbot Family in the mid to late 19th century, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. When attacked by a wolf and bitten, young Talbot is cursed with a transformation into a werewolf. Murders pile up, the bodies torn to pieces, and though many suspect, it is an unspeakable truth. The lovely Emily Blunt is Talbot’s love interest and he knows it is a matter of time before he kills her so he does his best to have her sent away. Del Toro is outstanding as a haunted Talbot and robust, truly wild Wolfman, giving the film its dark heart. The change sequence is superb, winning the film an Oscar for its outstanding make up. Yes, there are some dull spots, whenever Blunt, Del Toro or Hopkins are off screen, but it is so beautifully produced we cut it some slack.
4. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
By the end of the forties Universal had pretty much exhausted their monster movies. Dracula had encountered Frankenstein, the Wolfman fought the Frankenstein monster and all of them met up in various films. Then came this film, a comedy in which the monsters play it straight, and it was unexpectedly a huge hit at the box office and with critics. Abbott and Costello are a couple of guys who accidentally meet up with Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) who is supervising a brain transplant into the hulking creation (Glenn Strange) of Dr. Frankenstein. Knowing this, Larry Talbot attempts to thwart it but has this nasty habit of turning into the Wolfman come night time. Befriending the comedy team, Talbot will attempt to stop the vampire before Costello’s brain is popped into the body of the monster. Eventually the monsters encounter one another causing chaos, all watched with amusement by Abbott and Costello, who at the very end encounter one more monster, the Invisible Man. The Wolfman provides most of the terror, but I must admit to laughing loudly as Talbot changes with poor Costello in the room watching in horror, the transformation that was the stuff of nightmares.
3. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1982)
Great, gory, scary fun, the film sees two young Americans adrift in England, foolish enough to become lost in the moors. Attacked by something, one is torn to pieces, the other savagely attacked, leaving the two to deal with what is going to become of them. Jack (Griffin Dunne) was killed but continues to haunt David (Robert McNaughton) who is going to become a werewolf. Disgusted by Jack’s rotting corpse and sardonic sense of humour, David ignores the warnings until the full moon rises and he transforms. The punishment done to the human body is horrific during the change, and once a werewolf, he hits the streets to massacre anyone in his path. McNaughton has a likeable screen presence, he was found doing Dr. Pepper commercials in the late seventies and though very good here, his career never went far beyond this. Dunne steals every scene he is in and the lovely Jenny Agutter is excellent as the nurse who falls in love with David. The soundtrack is populated with moon songs, “Blue Moon” accompanying the first transformation. Wildly entertaining the film was directed by the irresponsible John Landis.
2. THE HOWLING (1981)
Bones crack, break and stretch, muscles contort, the face breaks as the nose becomes a snout, the transformation of man, or woman that takes place in The Howling was horrific. The film, directed by Joe Dante, broke many of the conventional rules of werewolf lore, providing audiences with a genuine horror film, the likes of which we had never before experienced. A series of killings, particularly brutal draws the attention of a young journalist who stumbles onto a village of werewolves. The changing scenes, effects and sound are the film’s’ strengths, the only reason to see the film as it allowed the werewolves to be truly terrifying. Is it a great film? No, but the change and atmosphere were firsts. Who expected the transformation to hurt? It never seemed to impact Chaney.
1. THE WOLFMAN (1941)
Creighton Chaney was a towering young man who did not resemble his famous father, silent screen great Lon Chaney even a little. The younger Chaney eventually changed his name to Lon Chaney jr. And found greater roles in Hollywood. He earned rave reviews for his superb performance as dim witted powerhouse Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939), before being offered a horror film, The Wolfman. Knowing it might launch his career, that a franchise could be born, he accepted the role and quite literally a star was born. The greater part of his performance was as poor Larry Talbot, bitten by a wolf, doomed to being a werewolf whenever the full moon rises, waking to the realization he has slaughtered many while in his bestial state. Only a silver bullet will give him eternal peace. Chaney went through a horrible ordeal for the transformation scenes, actually having his fingers tacked into place with tiny nails lest he move. Yak hair and prosthetics were placed onto his face, and any body parts showing until the 10 second transformation was complete. Seeing that for the first time as a little boy freaked me out. Chaney owned the role and, unlike the other Universal monsters, no other actor ever was cast as the Wolfman. Though Chaney would portray Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy, no other actor ever touched Larry Talbot and her ferocious alter ego.,
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.