As part of the ongoing partnership between the UK’s biggest film festival dedicated to horror, Frightfest, and one of the nation’s most prestigious publishers of cult film books, Fab Press, author, historian, film and music critic, Gavin Baddeley (who also happens to be an ordained minister for The Church of Satan) is the latest writer to approach FAB’s ‘Frightfest Guide to…‘ line with an entire book dedicated to werewolves.
And it has to be said The Frightfest Guide to Werewolf Movies is an eyeopener. To kick things off it contains not one but four introduction essays, which cover everything from medieval folklore, werewolf trials, pagan rites, religious motifs, cannibals and historical serial killers. Baddeley dives deep into the foundations of lycanthrope myth and lore before opening things up to explore a rich chunk of werewolf legend on screen in reviews of some 200 films. The book is lavishly illustrated and designed, and incredibly well researched and written, making it essential reading for anyone with more than a passing interest Gothic’s true underdog.
The author was gracious to give Diabolique Magazine some of his time to explain the main themes of the book, his process of writing and researching the project, his love of werewolves, and much more. Read on to find out what he told us…
Diabolique: It’s interesting that there seems to be no literary precedent for the werewolf, unlike some of the other Gothic monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein, etc… Why do you think that is?
Gavin Baddeley: I think that is one of the cliches you come across repeatedly — because most fans have learned that there is no literary blueprint for the classic werewolf. And to an extent that’s true, there is no literary blueprint. Although, there is one proviso that occurred to me while I was writing this book: the literary blueprints we have for the other myths aren’t very accurate either. So the literary Dracula isn’t really our pop culture Dracula. The literary Frankenstein isn’t really Frankenstein. So I don’t think that’s quite as important as I used to make out. The connection between the vampire you might see on a cinema screen and the vampires you find in medieval chronicles, is just as tenuous as the connection between the werewolves you might see on the screen, and the werewolves you might find in Early Modern trial transcripts. And similarly with Frankenstein; the original Frankenstein story has a lot of religion in it. That’s one of the chief motifs: divine power. In many ways, it’s kind of a retelling of Paradise Lost. You really wouldn’t find that in many of the cinematic adaptations of Frankenstein. All of these myths mutate.
One thing that is interesting about the werewolf myth is that it’s slightly disreputable. So maybe the werewolf shouldn’t have a book. Baron Frankenstein gets a book; Count Dracula gets a book… but maybe the proletarian werewolf doesn’t get a book. Maybe he should get a tabloid newspaper?
Diabolique: In your book you dub the werewolf the “blue collar monster”. Do you think that has anything to do with the werewolf being less celebrated compared to the other Gothic monsters? He isn’t generally an aristocrat, so, maybe there’s snobbery involved?
GB: I think there is a large element of that. If you’re a lifelong lycanthropy obsessive like me you have all these ideas about werewolves in your head. But then if you sit down and watch way too many werewolf movies over a few months, you see patterns that you didn’t see before. One of them is “the werewolf as the dog’s body”; the number of werewolves you find who are henchman or butlers. Werewolves have terrible people skills! Why would anyone employ them?
So yeah, I definitely think there’s something to this. The first wave of classic full blooded Gothics for example, ignoring the silent stuff, the Universal movies, there’s an element in there of making monsters aristocratic. I think this comes from subconsciously contrasting the American “good old boy”, the anti intellectual, the man of the people, against the Decadents of Europe, who are signified by aristocrats. And of course, when The Wolf Man (1941) was originally written — and it’s in the script — Larry Talbot is supposed to be an aristocrat. Bless him, Lon Chaney Jr was not born to play aristocrats. So technically in The Wolf Man, he is the son of a lord, but you’re not getting that from his performance at all.
This said, there are always ifs and buts with these things. One of the most prolific wolf men in cinematic history is our friend Paul Naschy. For Paul Naschy The Wolf Man is a Byronic figure. Byron is the archetype of Gothic aristocracy. So, Naschy is a bit of an exception. It’s largely because his ego runs rampant, like a werewolf, through all of his movies. If he’s casting himself… and if he’s a scientist, then he’s an award winning brilliant scientist, who’s also a prize winning cyclist, who also won the award for sculptor of the year or something. He’s always got a lot of ego in his characters. I think there are a couple of times where you get some of his werewolves who are a bit down on their luck, but he’s always got the blue blood running through him somewhere.
That aside, I certainly think the Wolf Man is the underdog. I mean, he’s always the last to show up in a franchise. He is always beaten to the punch by Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy. Usually there are all these other guys who get made first. The werewolf is reluctantly the final one. But he always prevails.
Diabolique: Do you think that’s what drew you to the werewolf?
GB: The honest answer is: I don’t know.
When Harvey Fenton at FAB Press approached me he said, “we’ve got this series of books that we’re doing, I’d like you to do one, and you can pick whatever you like as it’s not too much of an overlap with another one”. And so without hesitating I said: werewolves. I thought if I write this book, if I watch all these movies, then maybe it won’t exorcise this lifelong obsession, but it might help explain it.
Diabolique: I don’t think I realised there were so many werewolf films until I picked up this book!
GB: Yeah, it’s funny actually. You agree to do this thing. And then you go off and do some preliminary research. There’s a format to these books and part of that is there is space for 200, give or take, capsule reviews. My initial research was that there were about 200 werewolf films. But then you start researching further and it goes up… it’s okay, well, probably 250- 300, and then you stop counting and have to accept this is not going to be every werewolf movie ever made.
I find it interesting that when you start having the kind of conversation we’re having now, people are always surprised at the number. They are either surprised and say, “there are 200 werewolf movies?” or they say, “only 200 werewolf movies; I thought there would be thousands?”
Diabolique: On that note was there anything you had to leave out for any reason that you regret?
GB: There are a few that just dropped out for reasons of space where it was a difficult call. You try to have these guidelines in your head about what does and doesn’t merit inclusion. But one of the things that was a factor was I wanted to put something together which had a chronological balance. So as you flip through this book, I wanted you to be able to see how cinema was evolving — horror cinema in particular. I also wanted to show where you have different motifs that keep appearing.
So you could quite plausibly argue that House on Bare Mountain (1962) is not a significant contribution to the cinema of lycanthropy. On the other hand, it’s a fascinating example of where these things go.
Mad Monster Party? (1962) is one I regret not putting in there. So maybe I should have dropped Scooby Doo. But then I like the idea of Scooby Doo being this sort of weird entry drug for Gothic for a generation of kids.
Diabolique: You talk about the werewolf being the “victim” in the book, which is one of the things that makes them stand out. You also credit this aspect to Curt Siodmak. Do you think this is a rule that applies across the board? Or are there werewolves that are just plain aggressors (like the vampire, say)?
GB: Oh yeah. I think the historical werewolf is predominantly a quasi-religious way of describing serial murder. When you think about a cinematic werewolf you often think of this tortured soul having an existential crisis. It is romantic. But when you think about what a werewolf actually is, there’s nothing romantic about that. The historical werewolf actually enjoys what they’re doing. The characters they’re wheeling out in these trials in the 1500s, they are doing it for jollies.
Diabolique: Before I read this book I had no idea there were werewolf trials!
GB: Absolutely! To my knowledge I’ve never found any in Britain. So either we didn’t have werewolves; or we just let them be.
Diabolique: Where have the cinematic myths evolve from?
GB: Well, after a few abortive silent efforts, you have the false start of Werewolf of London (1935). And to a certain extent I think Werewolf of London is a bit hard done by because it’s not a bad film. It’s a good film, and aspects of it you could argue are better than The Wolf Man. But for some reason, it didn’t take. The Wolf Man is the one that really sets the flag in the sand. And I think there are different factors that fed into it setting the trend for the tragic werewolf… the reluctant werewolf. One of them is that Siodmak is coming at it with this very self conscious Germanic approach. It’s so obvious once you look for it; you’ve got the pentagram as the sign of the wolf, and then you’ve got a Jewish screenwriter who’s fled Nazi Germany, where wearing a yellow star is a form of curse. And so already it is just piling the tragedy on.
Then you put Lon Chaney Jr in there. He plays tragedy. It’s not Byronic tragedy because he’s too much of a lump. But he still gets your sympathy. He was troubled, and there are the really obvious parallels between his battle with alcohol in real life, and his battles with lycanthropy on the screen. So I think once you put Lon Chaney Jr in the lead there, and you have a script by a guy for whom the subject is a heavy metaphor for the tragedy of his own background, it organically becomes this tragic story.
It’s well worth underlining that you also have a strain of enthusiastic sadistic werewolves. So you have for example An American Werewolf in London, a reluctant werewolf, but just before that you have The Howling, which has one of the most disturbingly enthusiastic werewolves. And, arguably the most important 21st century werewolf film is Dog Soldiers. They’re clearly having a blast being werewolves. So it’s not one thing or the other. I think the tragedy one gets the most resonance, but I think it would be wrong to forget that there is a whole bunch of quite eager werewolves.
Diabolique: Why do you think lycanthropy is typically viewed as a male curse?
GB: They are predominantly male in the same way that in criminological terms, the majority of serial killers are male. It’s a particular expression of power, or deviance, which is more overtly masculine: it is brute; it is savage; it lacks sophistication. The vampire myth has evolved into a myth of seduction, and seduction is something culturally we associate with femininity. We don’t have a problem with it being feminine. Whereas the werewolf myth is more one of brutality.
There are some notable asides, Werewolf Woman (1976) for example. Ginger Snaps (2000) has to be in the top ten, as an example of a feminist werewolf fable that works. You also have Trick R Treat (2007), although you could argue that’s a role reversal gag, so maybe it doesn’t count. But it works.
The main werewolf in An American Werewolf in Paris, the follow-up to American Werewolf in London, is female, but it bombed. One of the successful franchises I covered in the book is Underworld (2003). And that film has been successfully marketed on being about a supernatural seductress in PVC. And she’s very violent, though a vampire that fights werewolves, so that perhaps reinforces the point.
Diabolique: Apart from Werewolf Woman, in the field of seventies Eurocult where you often see a lot of experimentation and breaking down of gender rules, I think there could have been room in there to have more female werewolves, a female Paul Naschy for example, so it feels like a missed opportunity. What do you think?
GB: They have tried it and it hasn’t taken. If you go back to Universal days you’ve got She-Wolf of London (1946), which, to be fair, doesn’t work for a series of reasons; one of them being is that it’s not really Gothic. It isn’t what it purports to be.
Then you have Cry of the Werewolf (1944), which actually has a female werewolf. It has a brilliant setting. It’s a New Orleans museum of the supernatural that used to belong to a local Gypsy queen, who turned out to be a werewolf and murdered her husband on her wedding night.
You’ve got Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), which is full of kickass werewolf women. It is batshit bonkers but yeah, if you want kickass female werewolves, and Christopher Lee wearing the most ridiculous shades you’ve ever seen in your life! then it’s a must watch. It’s difficult to argue that it is a good film. But, you know, I enjoyed the shit out of it.
Diabolique: You are very diplomatic in the book and take a well balanced route to championing films that have been unfairly discarded by mainstream critics. How intentional was that? Also, did you find any particular challenges in the research process?
GB: The deadline on this book was fairly generous. Then various shit happens and you suddenly realise, “Oh Christ, now that deadline is very close. I’ve got X months to write this”. I have watched every damn film in that book, which some writers don’t do. So, one of my worries was that it was going to destroy my love of werewolf cinema. Watching ten plus werewolf films a week, I had no idea what that would do to my sanity. But quite early on when I was having to start watching them more intensively, I was putting a disc in, and I just thought, “Oh shit, this is going to be just like that other one I watched the other night”. And then I thought, “Hold on a minute! Technically, you’re being paid money to watch horror films. How can you possibly complain about that?” So, I just opened a beer and got stuck in.
I would consciously not read anything about the movie beforehand. Although, obviously, if you have been into this for so long, nine times out of ten I’d have something in my head. But I’d watch as blind as I could. And I’d have a notepad. The lights would be out, so you know, extra spooky. I wanted to enjoy it properly. Then the following day I would get to the relevant books down from the shelf and start reading. For example, I had watched The Beast Must Die the night before, and I had a stupid grin on my face for the entire 90 minutes. Then you get down this book, where this guy’s just ripping the shit out of it. And you’re thinking, how could you not enjoy that film?
Horror has developed — at least in the last 10 years or so — critical acceptability in the mainstream. I’m instinctively quite uncomfortable with that. I grew up with it being beneath contempt. I got to like being there, they leave you alone if they think you’re beneath contempt. Once horror is accepted it starts to have these rules imposed upon it. And so I think to a certain extent, poking fun at them, just reminds everyone that you’re a ‘serious critic’. I don’t want to be a ‘serious critic’. I love this stuff.
Part of the fun is unpicking why you love them, in order to communicate that to someone else. Because I think anyone who’s interested in cult cinema, who’s gone into this more oddball stuff, most people will be on a journey. You start out thinking “I can’t make head and the tail of this shit”. Then sometimes, because you’re watching them with a certain group of people, or you read a certain person, you start to look at them differently. So I think part of the purpose of writing this stuff is to share that joy.
The worst crime in cinema for me is boring me. In a cinema, the first time I start to think, “Oh, shall I make a sandwich when I get home?” is the point at which the film is failing.
Diabolique: Do think that’s why you were attracted to the werewolf? They do get the shit end of the stick. Is it that you wanted to convince people there’s love to be found?
GB: They do get the shitty end of the stick. Yeah, I don’t know. I’m wary about answering a question like this because you sit there and you feel like you are psychoanalysing yourself. I wonder if I am portraying myself in a particularly negative light. Because there are lots of quite negative things in lycanthropy. There’s a lot of self pity in the werewolf myth. The werewolf could also be a good analogy for having a bad temper, losing control of yourself. But then sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Perhaps it was just the idea that somebody could turn into a monster and eat people, and then wake up the following morning and not be entirely responsible for that. Maybe that was appealing. I don’t know.
Diabolique: Finally, if you could adapt any material for your own werewolf movie, what would it be?
GB: I think if I was to make a werewolf movie I would probably do Peter Stubbe [aka Peter Stumpp]. I would do one of the historical cases. I mean, partly because I love period horror, and they don’t make a lot of it. And the Stubbe case is just so fucking crazy and deviant. It’s sort of a serial killer story, but it’s also got elements of class war. It’s got elements of occultism and absolute gratuitous brutality.