During the forties, three kinds of werewolves would crop up – werewolves born into curses (Princess Celeste from Cry of the Werewolf), werewolves bitten (Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man) and imagined werewolves (She-Wolf of London). By the fifties, the Atomic Age would usher in a different kind of werewolf – one born from science, and in the dramatic and highly sophisticated The Werewolf (1956), this was the case.
With its wonderful opening where a lone dishevelled man walks through a ghost town, heading towards a local tavern, a voice over comments on the “word lycanthropy” and explains that wolf people have been the talk of legend and something that the ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about, and that places such as Borneo and Turkey knew all too well. He also mentions the stories of the Navaho Indians and dispels the idea that a “modern day” marvel such as werewolfery in contemporary fifties America could be possible. Columbia Pictures would deliver the goods with The Werewolf, a stylish and heartbreaking film about one man’s inability to connect and his struggle with his place in a familial structure – in many ways, Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch), the film’s protagonist, is the kind and gentle version of Eddie Quist from The Howling in that he is an eternal outsider (Eddie is even an outsider from his own werewolf community).
Duncan Marsh is presented much like an anti-hero in a film noir from the previous decade; he is disillusioned, detached, distraught and in utter despair and, just like Karen White in The Howling, suffers from memory loss bought on from a traumatic experience. When Duncan reaches the waterhole, he is looked upon as alien – a reflection of the “man with no name” that populated many westerns during the forties and fifties. “You a stranger?” asks the barkeep, to which Duncan responds: “You don’t know me” and “I guess I’m just passing through”. The idea of the lone man with no name not only comments on the western and the renegade drifter that gunned his way through those slices of Americana, but he also symbolises the lone wolf travelling through the wilderness, away from his pack and forced to fend for himself.
Not only does The Werewolf tribute film noir and westerns, but its very opening reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone or a short film that had an E.C. Comics style pay off. When a local drunkard harasses Duncan on a darkened street for some money to buy him booze, the threatening thug ultimately becomes the victim with Duncan transforming into a werewolf and tearing him apart. The brutal alleyway sequence turns from urban thriller to full throttle monster show with the growling sounds and violence happening off camera but evoking graphic horror. As much as the film shies away from onscreen violence, it does not keep its featured wolf man off camera or relegated to minimal screen time. The Werewolf is fantastic in its depiction of its monster: he is shown in broad daylight, he is tracked and followed, and gets some wonderful close ups. In fact, along with the terrific score and some inspired performances, one of the best things about the film is the elongated sequences where Duncan is in his werewolf state; seeing the wonderful make-up design in all its glory is a treat for all monster movie fans. Once again, the transformation sequences occur via lapse dissolves and this design is very similar to Andreas in Return of the Vampire. Along with the snarling sharp teeth comes lots of drool and saliva which is quite a sight to behold. His wispy brushed back fur, sunken black eyes, big wet nose and pointed outward ears makes for a terrific werewolf look.
The film moves quickly and finds antagonistic men, sporting flannel, hunting down the werewolf in the forest. It is clearly an inspiration for Joe Dante’s treatment of the actual werewolf men in The Howling (played by the likes of John Carradine, James Murtaugh, Noble Willingham and company) pretending to “hunt for wolves”. Slim Pickens as the werewolf sheriff explains to the fretful Karen that there really wouldn’t be any wolves near The Colony, and this fact that wolves have never “been in these parts” acts as something as a narrative set-up – in both The Howling and The Werewolf. No wolves around suggests that something else is to blame. Something different, but still wolfish. As opposed to The Howling, where lycanthropy is a mental, physical and emotional (also spiritual) condition, in The Werewolf the world of science is at the forefront of the horror. It is learned that two sinister scientists treated Duncan Marsh’s amnesia, bought on from a car accident, with wolf blood, which in turn caused his lycanthropy. Something that hits home is a subtle moment where Duncan, in his human state, rubs at his tired and weary bare feet. The barefoot vagabond, responding to the idea of gypsies who would travel Europe without footwear and inspire Christian belief as to “never trust a man or woman who wears no shoes”, is a direct linkage to the history of lycanthropy in gypsy culture (free to transform without the confides of human attire). Here, something folkloric is dismissed for a new fifties sensibility as The Werewolf dispels ancient mythology for the marvels of science. Even the term “werewolf” is a stage whisper – a nurse says “There is a word for what you are talking about” and her doctor uncle replies “Werewolf” – and the marriage of folkloric monsters with scientific factuality is the backbone of this film.
In regards to locale of the film, the fictional Mountaincrest is a rugged mountain town; a Norman Rockwell type environ and very western in its landscape (and a place for “real men”) which is very different to the Esalen community in The Howling where left-over cowboys such as the Noble Willingham character struggle with New Age thinking as introduced by Dr. Waggner. As different as the feeling of the location is, or the set up, the actual forestry is similar in both films, and on top of that is the fact that reporters are on the hunt for the truth, much like Terry Fisher and Chris Halloran, as well as Karen White, in The Howling.
Steven Ritch plays the pain beautifully; nothing is forced or ill-conceived and his meeting with Amy and her uncle leads to a wonderfully executed confession about killing the man in the alley, followed by a devastating “freak out”. The two lascivious doctors who turned him into this monster are much like Frankenstein and Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein while the film’s strongest subplot takes a very interesting turn when Marsh’s wife and son appear on the scene. The tragedy – the sadness of the situation – is the disconnection Duncan has with his wife and son, and the werewolf being an expression of the rebellion against the oppressive nature of the trappings of responsibility is what makes The Werewolf a stand out in fifties horror cinema. There is no background as to how lycanthropy was born in The Howling; these people are simply werewolves. Here, in The Werewolf, the science of treatment and serum intake is the sole cause whereas in The Howling, werewolves are much like any other race or creed; there are werewolves in The Colony who confirm that they were bitten and therefore bestowed with the curse/gift of lycanthropy, such as Donna and Jerry Warren (Donna explains to Karen “When I was first bitten…”).
In The Werewolf, Duncan’s wife explains that “Duncan is the most gentle man that ever lived”, drawing thematic parallels with “the beast in all of us”, which is an oft-used adage in The Howling. Duncan’s wife also says “Whatever my husband is, I want to help him however I can”, which presents the family as a unit being a curing element. In The Howling, Karen’s love for her husband is clearly not strong enough to protect her husband from the werewolf community while Duncan, wandering through the wilderness – haggard and beaten and bruised by his surroundings – comments on the nature of the beast. When Duncan’s wife pleads with him to come home, it is heartbreaking and a tender moment with her son weeping by her side. The tragic idea of a man displaced – lost in his condition – ruined by science and reliant on his animalistic self to help him cope is perhaps what would have happened to Karen White had she been permitted to survive The Howling and live as a werewolf for some screen time rather than being gunned down. “The world is a place of change”, says the wise Dr Waggner. This sentiment is also expressed by the doctor in the climactic moments of the film: “Times have changed and we haven’t…not enough.” With a lynch mob representing society as a rustic traditional “man’s world”, as opposed to scientific intervention represented by an outsider male couple, The Werewolf pits the lycanthrope in the middle of those institutions. Duncan Marsh is trapped on a bridge and killed – the tragedy of the eternal outsider. “Now he can go home” are the final words uttered in the film with the idea of home being a resting place, or heaven – a summary of the eternal place for the perpetual outsider.