In the annals of monster-dom, the werewolf is perhaps the most misunderstood. Steeped in myth, he is really just the Freudian “id” with fangs, let loose to wreak animalistic, moon-fuelled havoc.
But when it comes to cinema, the werewolf’s initial incarnation wasn’t entirely literal. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson first explored the themes of primal duality with his famous 1866 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the silent 1920 film version with John Barrymore made it flesh.
Telling the tale of an upstanding man of science accidentally morphing into his dark half, a slobbering, out of control lunatic with bizarre tastes, it set the tone for the animalistic frights to come.
“I always loved the ferocity of that story, the unchained animal hiding within, ready to erupt,” says Tony Timpone, longtime editor of legendary horror magazine Fangoria.
In 1941, Universal Pictures unleashed the original The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. as a young man cursed with wolf-ism by a vengeful gypsy and whose unfortunate reign of terror could only be brought down by a silver bullet.
That angle became the template for the contemporary werewolf legend, repeated again in scores of international offerings including Hammer Films inspired and still frightening 1961 creeper, The Curse of the Werewolf .
In 1981, with the advent of prosthetic special effects, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling offered cheeky, bloody, sexual riffs on the legend and broke shocking new ground with scenes of men violently, painfully morphing into monsters.
But if the shirtless beefcake beasts of last year’s blockbuster Twilight sequel New Moon make you long for these more feral fiends of yore, take heart: Joe Johnson’s hirsute horrorshow The Wolfman is both a tribute to the melancholy Universal original and the gory, effects-soaked spectacles of the 1980’s (American Werewolf FX guru Rick Baker even created the transformation scenes).
“Men love his power and women are attracted to his danger,” says Timpone of the iconic monster. “So yeah, bring on the beast!”