Archive for the ‘Werewolves’ Category

This happened on October 15th, 2009.  There’s still no joy in it for me.

Trick ‘R Treat is a movie that has developed a large internet and word-of-mouth following among a certain kind of film fan, the kind that loves to find a little-known movie worthy of attention in order to champion its merits to the world.  Trick ‘R Treat was originally slated for a 2007 release and was never released widely; it finally made it to DVD last week.  Having heard scattered but rapturous praise in advance, and always on the lookout for an original horror film that could use a defender, I made watching it a priority.

The verdict:  Disappointing.

It’s not good.  It’s not.  In fact, a half an hour into the movie I realized that it was actually bad, and it wasn’t going to stop being that way.  And sure enough, it didn’t.  It’s twice as disappointing because I know that there are plenty of smart people that love this movie, and good for them, but they’re not right on this one.  There’s some nice cinematography in Trick ‘R Treat, and some occasionally inspired imagery, but a new and original Halloween classic?  No.  Really, it isn’t.  Not hardly.

Trick ‘R Treat is an anthology horror movie, meant in the spirit of Creepshow (George A. Romero & Stephen King) or Twilight Zone: The Movie (John Landis & Joe Dante & Steven Spielberg & George Miller), and the five individual stories are meant to overlap seamlessly in the spirit of Pulp Fiction.  (Stepping into big shoes can make it real easy to trip up…)  The five stories – or four with an introductory sequence – all take place on the same Halloween night, and all are haunted by a scarecrow-mask-wearing trick-or-treater in orange pajamas, kind of a silent Crypt-Keeper figure.   That character is by far the most memorable thing about the movie, and he features into the final and most straightforward story, the only one that is ultimately worth watching in the least.

Here’s the lead-off problem:  Trick ‘R Treat is operating on the premise that Halloween has a series of traditions, and that bad things can happen if you violate those traditions.  The movie mistakenly assumes that every viewer is acquainted with the traditions featured in each story.  It certainly does not lay out the traditions clearly at the outset, and even after watching all of the stories, I wasn’t clear what principle they were referring to.

Let’s look at each segment in these general terms:

The prologue features a young couple returning from a Halloween parade.  The young woman (Talladega Nights’ Leslie Bibb) snuffs out all the jack-o’-lantern candles in the yard, against her boyfriend’s warning.  In an extended “homage” to the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s Halloween, she is stalked and killed.  The tradition broken here:  Don’t take down the Halloween decorations until the night is over?  Okay, this one I get, although it hardly seems like the punishment fits the crime.  (After all, how else can she make room for the Christmas lights?)

The first full story features a school principal (Spider-Man’s Dylan Baker), a single parent with a young son, who confronts a sloppy brute of a child (Bad Santa’s Brett Kelly) who has been smashing pumpkins and stealing candy.  The principal calmly poisons the kid, then spends the rest of the episode trying to nervously hide the body from the neighbors and his son.  The tradition broken here is:  Always check your candy.  That one I get, because it’s the only time in the movie that a tradition is clearly stated.  The crippling problem with this story is character-based:  Why does this guy kill a kid on his front steps, totally out in the open, and then all of the sudden get shy about it?

In the second story, a group of adolescents plays a scary prank on an autistic girl, but in doing so, they invoke an old supernatural menace.  Tradition broken:  Don’t play pranks lest they happen for real? I’m not sure.  This was a pretty convoluted segment, with plenty of character and plot inconsistencies.  My more empathetic tendencies also lead me to take issue with the concept of the mentally-challenged undead.  If you are the type of person who is excited by the prospect of retarded zombies, go ahead with it I guess.

In the next story, a virginal college student (True Blood’s Anna Paquin) is stalked by a cloaked, fanged man, but she and her mega-hot friends turn the tables on him.  Tradition broken:  Don’t take anyone’s Halloween costume too literally?  I really can’t say.  This segment is an utter mess, and it pains me to say it because it culminates in the appearance of my favorite movie monster.  But the story makes no sense, it is confusingly intercut with the previous stories, it features the abrupt and not-well-explained reintroduction of a character from an earlier story, and it features the worst acting of the entire film.  You can distract me with amazing cleavage, but only temporarily.

In the last story, a wheezing old bastard (awesomeness’s Brian Cox) is besieged by that scarecrow kid who’s been appearing throughout the movie.  Tradition broken: Be kind to trick-or-treaters lest they be unkind to you. I guess.  This isn’t fully clear, but it almost doesn’t matter this time around.  I called this one the best segment earlier because it has the most interesting filmmaking – it has the movie’s best actor playing against a legitimately decent monster design, and it’s just an extended chase sequence that doesn’t waste time on poor dialogue or cute twists.  The pumpkinbaby’s motivations are still mighty unclear, but at least I wrung some entertainment out of the movie’s final moments.

The one thing that fans of Trick ‘R Treat and I can agree on is the mystery behind its delayed and unceremonious release.  Not that I believe that this movie is good enough for anyone but the most optimistic and desperate horror fans, because it’s not; but because I literally see a worse movie than this dumped into theaters every single week.  Trick ‘R Treat doesn’t hang together right, but it’s less ugly and sadistic than the Saw movies, more energetic than (for example) Surrogates, and more ambitious than just about any Sandra Bullock movie.  Trick ‘R Treat fails, but at least it tried.  It’s sad that I consider that praise, but I’d rather give a chance to a movie that wants to be original than a movie that is cynical and lazy.

But yeah, probably skip this one anyway.

Am I wrong?  All I know for sure is that I’m on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Advertisements

And we’re back!  Ready for round two.  Inspired again by my friend-in-movies at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’m re-presenting and reshuffling my top fifty movies of all time.  “Reshuffling” sounds a little more extreme than what I’ve done here — most of the titles remain the same, and the order isn’t much different.  But there’s a fair amount of new blood, and I’ve updated the links to any movies I’ve written about at length (those are bolded in red.) 

This list is absolutely subject to change, so keep watching this space, but while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep watching the skies.

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (1966).

2. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

4.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).

5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).

9.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

10.  MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

11.  John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

12.  HEAT (1995).

13.  FREAKS (1932).

14. JAWS (1975).

15.  Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON (1985).

16.  THE WILD BUNCH (1969).

17.  SHAFT (1971).

18.  BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984).

19.  THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

20.  SEA OF LOVE (1989).

21. RAISING ARIZONA (1987).

22.  EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

23.  OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

24.  THE INSIDER (1999).

25.  ALLIGATOR (1980).

26.  COLLATERAL (2004).

27.  THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).

28.  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

29.  MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946).

30.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).

33.  GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997).

34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).

39. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).

46.  THE PROFESSIONALS (1966).

47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).

49.  EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (1973).

50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

50 1/2.  The five-minute skeleton swordfight in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

______________________________________________

And that’s that…. for now.

For a little bit more all the time, find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

I probably should be doing about 50 other things at this very moment, but I saw this great top-50 list today and was inspired it to immediately answer it.  I made my list very, very quickly, so in plenty of ways it’s the most honest form a list like this could ever arrive in.  While the numbering is fairly arbitrary (until the top five, where shit gets definite) and while the contents could easily change as soon as five minutes from now, this is still a fairly good representation of what a top fifty movies list from me should look like.  Anyway, let’s hit it.  Links where they fit.  I eagerly await any and all comments you might make!

50. Watermelon Man (1970).

49. Fletch (1985).

48. The Great Silence (1968).

47. Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954).

46. The Hit (1984).

45. Knightriders (1981).

44. The Night Of The Hunter (1955).

43. Of Unknown Origin (1983).

42. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973).

41. Prime Cut (1972).

40. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).

39. Coffy (1973).

38. Trainspotting (1996).

37. In Bruges (2008).

36. Quick Change (1990).

35. Collateral (2004).

34. Out Of Sight (1998).

33. Halloween (1978).

32. Magnolia (1999).

31. Raising Arizona (1987).

30. Escape From New York (1981).

29. Shogun Assassin (1980).

28. Goodfellas (1990).

27. Purple Rain (1984).

26. True Grit (2010).

25. The Unholy Three (1925).

24. My Darling Clementine (1946).

23. The Insider (1999).

22. Alligator (1980).

21. Animal House (1978).

20. High Plains Drifter (1973).

19. Freaks (1932).

18. Beverly Hills Cop (1984).

17. An American Werewolf In London (1981).

 

16. Predator (1987).

 

15. Jaws (1975).

14. Shaft (1971).

13. Evil Dead 2 (1987).

 

12. The Wild Bunch (1969).

11. Manhunter (1986).

10. Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976).

9. Heat (1995).

8. King Kong (1933).

7. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

6. Big Trouble In Little China (1986).

5. Unforgiven (1992).

4. Dawn Of The Dead (1978).

3. Ghostbusters (1984).

2. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968).

 

1. The Good The Bad & The Ugly (1966).

@jonnyabomb

So I don’t think it’s too drastic to call Dog Soldiers the best werewolf movie of the new century. It may not even be much of a compliment: The competition for the title is pretty sickly. Dog Soldiers isn’t a great werewolf movie, but it is a good one, and that alone is hard enough to manage. It’s a fun little movie that maximizes a limited budget, and it’s certainly one hell of a calling card for writer-director Neil Marshall.

The pitch is perfect in its simplicity: a small squad of British soldiers on a training exercise in an isolated forest are assailed by a pack of werewolves. The DVD cover blurb suggests that it’s Aliens by way of Predator, and while those are lofty comparisons, Dog Soldiers actually doesn’t suffer too badly for it. (The blurb also invokes Jaws and An American Werewolf In London, but those comparisons are actually less grounded.) What Dog Soldiers has in common with those two movies is a smart and methodical build to the central conflict, a plot structure that becomes a relentless siege movie once all the pieces are in place, and a platoon of main characters that are (for the most part) distinctive, likable, and charismatic.

In its opening sequence, Dog Soldiers begins with a mixture of camp and sincerity. A pair of campers sharing a romantic getaway are stalked and consumed by an unseen beast. (We all know going into it that it’s werewolves, and the movie is respectful enough of its audience not to pretend otherwise.)  In one of the movie’s campier moments, the werewolves use the zipper to open a tent full of tasty campers, instead of just ripping into the bag.

We then meet the protagonist, Cooper, (played by Kevin McKidd, aka Tommy from Trainspotting), on a job interview for British Special Forces. He fails, because at the end of the exercise, he refuses to shoot a dog, at the somewhat obtuse behest of the menacing Special Forces commander (Liam Cunningham) who you just know you’ll see again before the movie’s over. The whole “kill the dog” thing is almost as campy as werewolves using zippers, and it’s a little too on the nose thematically. (We know Cooper is going to ultimately prove himself by shooting some very big dogs.) Getting all the constructive criticisms out of the way, I must also point out that the orchestral score is extremely corny and the “sweeping” helicopter shots that establish the forest won’t put Peter Jackson out of business.

But all that out of the way, the movie zips along from there. We’re reintroduced to Cooper a month later, having returned to his less distinguished band of grunts. We meet the team, and they seem like a decent bunch of guys, particularly the Sergeant (a gruff-voiced character actor named Sean Pertwee who is maybe the most likable guy in the movie) and a joker named Spoon (Darren Morfitt). Dog Soldiers is the kind of movie where the characters are killed off in order of likability, from least noticeable to most missed, and it’s the kind of movie where you notice that, but don’t mind much.

The guys touch down in the woods with rubber bullets – they’re running a pro game of tag with that Special Forces unit – and are quickly made to regret it when evening begins to descend. Some fast-moving animals begin to tear the team apart, literally, and I think that director Marshall very efficiently withholds glimpses of the werewolves, while showing just enough that we know what they are and we know to fear them. A couple of the initial kills are surprising in what we’ve come to learn from his subsequent movies is Marshall’s way, and one character somehow survives his initial werewolf encounter, only to spend most of the rest of the movie drunk with his guts hanging out. (Now, at last, you know whether or not this movie is for you.) A young woman arrives in a Jeep just in time – as the sun goes down entirely and the werewolves come out in full force, she drives them to the only farmhouse for miles, where the remaining soldiers make their last stand.

Werewolf aficionados have probably already devoured this flick, but in case you haven’t, you want to know just one thing: How do the wolves look? And I have to tell you honestly – I think they look great. The leading reason why so many werewolf movies are so bad is because the practical effects are so hard to make convincing. (True werewolf-movie fans don’t even rate CGI – that stuff just hasn’t worked once yet.) The werewolves of Dog Soldiers are not just interestingly and originally designed, but they are wisely deployed by the filmmakers – not seen often enough or long enough to see the limitations of the suits, and the weird, awkward movements of the suits which we do manage to see somehow make the wolves more believable and freaky. Feel free to disagree with me, but I stand by my appreciation.

Dog Soldiers never reaches the heights or frights of An American Werewolf In London, since to date, no werewolf movie has. This newer movie has got a couple unnecessary and predictable plot twists and a couple cringe-inducing moments, such as the moment towards the end, right after one such twist, where one character just stands and spews out bad werewolf puns at the other characters. [“It’s that time of the month!”]  But it has energetic filmmaking behind it, along with performances that are way better than the werewolf average, and lead monsters that don’t disappoint. I’ve seen Dog Soldiers three times now, which is more times than I’ve seen any werewolf movie besides American Werewolf (the numbers of viewings of which, I’ve lost count.) If you like werewolf movies as much as I do, see this movie pronto.

http://twitter.com/jonnyabomb

The Wolfman was just on TCM.  What a fantastic way to lead off a Saturday morning!  Anyway it reminded me of this piece I wrote, all the way back in 2008, which remains one of the better things I’ve uploaded to the internet thus far.  But it hasn’t appeared on my own website, until now…

 

A couple Saturday nights ago I went to a midnight screening at the New Beverly of Never Too Young To Die.  If you somehow missed this thankfully unique artifact from the 1980s, this is a movie which stars John Stamos as a gymnast who discovers that his father (played by that guy who played James Bond only once) was a secret agent recently killed in action.  Vanity (my personal favorite Prince protégé) plays a gun expert and colleague of Stamos’s dad who arrives at the funeral to protect Stamos from his dad’s killer, who is naturally played by Gene Simmons of Kiss.  Gene Simmons is a terrorist and a master of disguise who also enjoys dressing up like a really, really ugly woman.  Cross-dressing experiments are an effective fear-inducing technique on Gene’s part, because I was only watching the movie and quickly found myself queasy with nausea.  

I’m sure it goes without saying at this point that this movie is unforgettably bad.  From the arbitrary plot to the demented dialogue to the violently-swerving tone to the flowery music to the flamboyant flannel-and-neon-wearing Asian sidekick, Never Too Young To Die is a real contender for the laughably-awful/ awfully-laughable hall of fame.

 

And in a weird way, the whole experience got me thinking about werewolves.  Again.

Every genre has its own highs and lows, its own share of beautiful badness.  But almost all of them have that balance apportioned reasonably fairly.  For all the crap, both the fun crap and the depressing crap, you can always find at least a couple high water marks.  Take the spy movie, for example:  For every Leonard Part 6, there is a Casino Royale.  For every For Your Height Only, there is a Bourne Ultimatum or three.  The genre can withstand Stamos, Simmons, and the rest of their over-the-top ilk, because there are enough serious filmmakers out there to elevate it.

I’m exaggerating of course, but not by much.  Every major strain of genre filmmaking, whether it be the war movie or the alien invasion/science fiction movie, the time travel movie or the samurai movie, the Western or the boxing movie or the comic book movie or the vampire movie – all these have their few-and-far-between classics that make sitting through all the more inferior efforts worthwhile.

The exception is the werewolf movie. 

In the realm of the werewolf movie, it goes this way:  There is only one indisputable classic.  One.  There are only a couple other movies that are any good at all; a few more that are promising but don’t quite get to good; and a metric ton of the turds that just stink out loud.  To my knowledge, this is the one genre with absolutely NO so-bad-it’s-good entries.  There is no werewolf equivalent of Never Too Young To Die.

The werewolf character is one of my favorite archetypes, so I hope to speak on the subject with just a little accumulated authority, and talk for a moment about why there are so few decent werewolf movies.  The overall reason, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding among filmmakers of what has made the concept so interesting to so many cultures for so many centuries.  Either that, or a general lack of purpose.

In his invaluable book The Monster Show, David J. Skal writes about the way that werewolf and vampire legends are historically intertwined, citing the fact that in Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula is technically a werewolf in addition to a vampire, because he does turn into a wolf at one point in the story.  Very true.

But I think that the notion of connecting the two traditions has led far too many storytellers and filmmakers to miss the mark by a wide margin.  Cinematically, werewolves are treated too often like vampires with longer fangs and much more hair, and occasionally the reverse also occurs.  (The movie Underworld is notable for doing both – trying to borrow the coolness of both concepts, thereby cancelling both out, and achieving absolutely nothing of interest.)   

 

I believe that it’s much more compelling to look at the two legends as separate and fundamentally thematically different.  The way I have come to see it, vampires are about sex and power, lust, temptation and corruption.  Werewolves are about rage, plain and simple.  The werewolf story works best when depicted as a metaphor for uncontrollable anger, which is why so many people relate, yet also (hopefully) fear the idea.

Werewolf stories are also about loneliness, which vampire stories must never be about.  Vampire stories, by nature, have nothing to do with loneliness, because vampires are, by nature, always looking for company.  This is probably why so many low-budget vampire movies dip into the soft-porn realm.  Frankly the werewolf movies do that a lot too, and that tendency doesn’t make me one-thousandth as happy as you might think.  I watch more of this junk than you want to reckon, and all that sex stuff in monster movies is a little too much chocolate in my peanut butter.

   

So yeah, the loneliness of being different, of thinking different, of having done different – and terrible – things.  An interesting cinematic treatment of werewolves, to me, would be to consider the beast as the Travis Bickle, or perhaps the William Munny, of movie monsters.

 

I would still hope to see (or make) a werewolf movie of even half the quality of An American Werewolf In London – for my money, the only truly great (in all meanings of the word) werewolf movie.  Another day I will compile a more comprehensive list of the werewolf movies I’ve seen and where I consider them to fall, but the bottom line is that, from where I stand, there’s never been one as good (or better) since John Landis’s horror-comedy classic, and arguably there wasn’t one of nearly that consistently high quality beforehand either.  [The original 1941 Wolf Man, with its genre-defining screenplay by Curt Siodmak, is such an important movie, but it definitely has grayed noticeably with time.] 

Landis has a slightly different definition of werewolves than I have discussed thus far – in the pantheon of cinematic monsters, Landis affectionately considers the werewolf a “schmuck.”  The werewolf just can’t win.  He wants a happy life, he wants true love.  He really doesn’t want to be an animalistic killer, but come the full moon, he don’t got much choice.  He’s kind of a sad sack.  In the case of Larry Talbot or David Kessler, that’s certainly an apt description.  But I think my thesis holds, since there inherently is loneliness in the outcome of An American Werewolf In London.  Certainly it is sad to ponder the fate of the young nurse Alex Price (played by Jenny Agutter) after the film’s final scene.

So I guess what I’m saying is that another reason that I’m continually fascinated by the idea of werewolves in movies is because it’s almost entirely an untapped area.  One great movie, and very few decent ones to stand near it, means there is plenty of room for company.

Also I love monsters, and werewolves are by far my favorite monsters.  They contain the potential for the most compelling ideas and relatable concepts.  Also and finally, they look like dogs.  If I have to explain here why dogs are the best of all the animals, I can’t expect to be the one to change your mind.  We’d have to agree to disagree, or I would have to agree that you are wrong.  Dogs are the greatest.  Werewolves usually kinda look like dogs, which is as good a reason as any to have them as a favorite movie monster.
By the way, I titled this entry “Part One” up above because you can be sure that as long as I am writing these essays, I will come back to this subject again. 

I imagine what I’ll do is, from time to time, cover a couple of the werewolf-related projects that I uncover as I trawl through the bookshelves, comic book racks, multiplexes, and horror aisles.  (And sometimes I’ll even share my own drawings…)

     

Today I will finish up this massive entry with the two most recent werewolf-related stories I have checked out.  One is a movie and one is a book.

 

1.  Skinwalkers

Skinwalkers is a werewolf movie that came out last year.  Thanks to better-than-average production value, a couple original concepts sprinkled into the more generic elements, and a generally good cast, it isn’t terrible.  And yeah, that is probably the highest possible compliment I can cobble together.  It’s not terrible, and is in fact passably entertaining. 

On the side of goodness:

The central idea of rival werewolf brigades with conflicting goals – one group wants to end the curse forever, the other wants to prolong the curse indefinitely – is a compelling one.  I’m not sure the movie that was made takes the concept as far as it deserves to do, but it’s a good idea.  Also, the ending, which I won’t ruin, isn’t exactly satisfying, but does at least leave things in an intriguing morally ambiguous place. 

On the side of badness:

I wish that filmmakers would get off the generic Native American angle in horror movies – it makes everybody in all directions seem stupid and callow at this point.  Thankfully, Skinwalkers doesn’t dwell too long on the usual Cliffs Notes exploitation of a long-exploited culture, but it is right there in the title.  Also lame:  The werewolves spend much more time in human form shooting guns at each other than brawling in wolf form, and the final confrontation completely visually evokes a similar scene in Terminator 2.  Such heavy “inspiration” in a movie is never not distracting.

The two leads in Skinwalkers are played by actors with familiar names to those familiar with credits outside A-list – as the mother of a 12-year-old boy who may hold the key to breaking the werewolf curse, Rhona Mitra; and as the cursed uncle who will do anything to protect the boy, Elias Koteas.  I always notice those memorable names because Elias Koteas (The Thin Red Line) is a reliable character actor who gives intensely genuine performances, like a kinder gentler Robert De Niro; and because, well, Rhona Mitra (Doomsday) is a spectacular looking woman.  Also helping out in the mission is a girl named Sarah Carter, who is also incredibly fun to look at.  Hey, I’m only a man, and you know how that goes.

 

The evil werewolf gang are led by that guy from Roswell who always seems like he’d be a friendly enough guy in real life, but to be generous, is never the most interesting thing about the movies he’s in (and we’re usually talking about problematic movies like The Grudge or D-War.)  Also in the gang are a familiar-looking character actor that even I can’t place, a girl who is so unrealistically hot that it’s actually kind of annoying, and a black guy who looks exactly like Brad Pitt circa Legends of The Fall.

The werewolf makeup, by the late Stan Winston and his studio, is interesting and thoughtful.  These werewolves exist in a state between human and canine, as opposed to so many other depictions which lean towards the latter.  It’s a good, creepy envisioning that would certainly come off as much more creepy, if they weren’t shot so brightly.  The Bruckheimer-esque cinematography does the monster no favors here.

Again, overall, as I say, “a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes the concept interesting.”  Here’s another example of that.  Still, this movie is worth a watch for anyone who digs werewolf movies as much as I do.  (You need to consume less sugar.)

 

2.  Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

The striking black-and-crimson visual design coupled with the title drew me in to this one.  I didn’t know it was a werewolf book, until the inside jacket head-nod from no less than David Mamet named it so.  I bought the book and it was a good read.

The story is about a lonely dogcatcher who meets a temperamental girl who happens to be a werewolf.  (The werewolves in this envisioning appear as slightly bigger, meaner dogs.)  He and she fall in love, and she leaves her pack for him just in time, because werewolf warfare is breaking out throughout Los Angeles, particularly in my personal stomping grounds of Silver Lake and Echo Park.  The book digresses consistently to follow the supporting players, such as the cunning pack leader who hides out as the newly-adopted dog of a kindly elderly woman, who finds that he likes the new surroundings more than he expected.  It’s a very episodic structure.

It’s also written in epic verse.  Scared yet?  Basically, this is an unusual way to go for such lowbrow material, but it works.  The format allows for more poetry than the genre usually is imbued with.  By poetry I mean descriptive imagery and thoughtful phrasing, not annoying rhyme schemes.  Once you train your eye to read this format, it’s pretty easy to get through.  While I wish the book spent more time with the central two characters and had a more hard-charging plot, I greatly respect it for bringing more art to werewolves than they usually get served.

I also need to add that the final line of one of the last chapters is one of the sharpest, awesomest sentences in the whole boo,k and would by itself be worth double what the book cost.  It’s the sentence that I would always hope to read in a book like this one.

And I just like any thriller that takes time out of the narrative for a passage like the following  (Read it and you’ll probably very quickly figure out whether or not this book is your kind of thing):

Page 97-98

Peabody the cop drives, thinking about the dogs.

An old conversation from years past drifts back to him.

On a stakeout that tested their sanity and bore no fruit,

his partner, the wise man who taught him the clockwork of the world,

said to Peabody, “You know why we domesticated dogs and cats?”

“Why?” asked Peabody.

“Well, see, some people think it’s because they’re carnivores,

and they’ll chase down rats and mice and other vermin for us,

keeping the campsite clean, so to speak.

But my particular theory is that we keep them around because,

well, they’re funny.”

Peabody remembers the tired smile they shared at this thought.

“Funny?” Peabody asked. 

“Yeah,” his partner said. “Cats chase their shadows,

hang on the curtain,

and dogs, well, they chase their tails

stick their nose in your crotch

and hump your mother-in-law’s leg.

They’re just funny.

Bunnies are cute, but they’re not funny,

so we left them in the wild.

But parrots talk funny, so we took some of them home too.”

Peabody had thought about this for a minute before offering up

what he thought was the perfect challenge.

“Monkeys.”

“What?” his partner said.

“Monkeys are funny,” said Peabody, “so, why didn’t we pick monkeys?”

His partner sighed and shook his head with sad dismay.

“Monkeys? Jesus.

Monkeys’ idea of fun is throwing their shit at you.

Monkeys always take the joke a step too far.”

 

Peabody misses his partner.

Some reading from the archives:

Werewolf Slumber Party!

Werewolf Plagiarism!

It was a werewolf kind of a day, apparently.

Thirteen is just a start. Believe me, there are plenty of horror movies I can happily recommend to you, but I’m going to limit myself to writing about the basics, the barest of necessities. This isn’t even necessarily a list of my own personal favorites, although there is a fair amount of overlap. For the purposes of this article, I just sat down and thought to myself, “If I wanted to write a textbook about the best and most influential horror movies of all time, if I had to tell horror directors which movies should be in their mental canon, if I had to tell movie fans what their dream homework assignment would be, and if I had to narrow it down to just 13, which 13 movies would those be?”

Here’s what I came up with (in chronological order):

 

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu is a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. It’s not technically the first vampire film ever made, but in terms of influence and impact, it might as well be. And after almost ninety years (!), it’s still scary. Max Shreck’s performance as the cadaverous Count Orlok is so bizarre and creepy that an entire movie was made with the premise that he wasn’t entirely acting (Shadow Of The Vampire), and it’s hard to not consider the eerie believability of that premise while re-watching Nosferatu. [Follow the link to watch the movie.] For the record, it’s Wes Craven’s choice for the best horror movie ever. So, you know, there’s that. Kind of a major endorsement.

 

Dracula (1931)

Again, I didn’t just make this list in terms of influence, but in terms of shelf life. Does the movie still hold up? If you haven’t seen Tod Browning’s hugely influential rendition of Dracula, you may be surprised to find out that it absolutely holds up. It’s true that Bela Lugosi’s incarnation of the mythical Count is so iconic and so imitated that there’s no way his first appearance can have the same impact as it surely did in 1931, but as the movie continues, he still manages to grow creepy on you. And Dracula is just plain entertaining, a virtue that scores of subsequent vampire movies have neglected to manage since.

 

Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale’s Frankenstein is another movie that, if you revisit my essay from this time last year, has an unparalleled cinematic legacy that also happens to be entirely deserved. Along with Dracula, Frankenstein helped solidify the Universal monster films as the definitive incarnations of these legendary creations of literature for generations of filmgoers. The Monster brought to screen by Boris Karloff and Jack Pierce is an unforgettable face, one you are bound to see all over this weekend when trick-or-treaters come knocking.

 

Psycho (1960)

Entire books have been written about the genesis, the making, and the impact of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. There will probably be more. It’s a movie that does so many amazing things – turning an oft-told real-life account into the most iconic cinema, switching protagonists halfway through the movie, convincing audiences to (temporarily) side with the villain, and serving as the primary genesis moment of every slasher movie to come. And of course, there’s the Bernard Herrmann score, forever etched in our collective cultural memory, yet just one more perfectly-rendered element of this flawless movie. Like every other movie on this list, once you clear away all of the backstory and the accolades and the countless cultural references, this movie still has the power to unsettle you, to haunt you.

 

 

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Like Nosferatu, this is a movie in the public domain, which means that you can watch it online without guilt, and if you haven’t seen this pivotal movie before, maybe you’ll consider using this article as a bridge to doing so. Night Of The Living Dead is a centrally important movie in the horror genre, since it really is square one for the popularity of zombie tales (which today are literally inescapable), and in my opinion, it’s as watchable and as sturdy as it ever was. Sure, it’s as shaky and crude and as limited by budget as it ever was, but to me that’s always been part of its appeal. Because it’s not as polished as most other movies of its time, it carries a proto-documentary feel that makes it more effective than any horror movies of that time and many since. I don’t want to go into the political context, because that could be and has been a book (I recommend this one), and also because director George A. Romero has suggested that some of the movie’s most haunting real-world correlations were unintended. But sometimes a movie can become more than it was even meant to be. This one sure did.

Further reading:  This comprehensive article, published today on Entertainment Weekly’s website, has some great quotes from modern directors about Night Of The Living Dead’s influence.

Further viewing: Well you have to go right into Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (1978), the sequel of sorts, which is a landmark horror film in its own right and a close contender for this list. (Without Night, there’d be no Dawn.  Came down to that.)

 

 

The Exorcist (1973)

Because it’s probably the scariest horror film ever made. Is that even in debate? (Wink, wink.) John Landis named The Exorcist the greatest horror film of all timeSo did the man who played Jason Voorhees. I stand with those guys. The Exorcist isn’t one of my favorite movies, because how could it be? But there’s something about this movie that is chilling down to the very soul. It haunts. That’s due to the much-acknowledged cinematic mastery of William Friedkin and legendary camera-genius Owen Roizman, and the unforgettable performances of Max Von Sydow and especially the haunted Jason Miller (God, if only he’d been in more movies) – but it’s also due to the simple idea of the movie: Father Karras is given back his lost faith in God by learning that the Devil exists.  What happens on screen is disturbing enough, but that simple notion goes beyond disturbing – it’s upsetting on a psychological and intellectual level. You don’t have to buy into all of that big talk, but just try to name a scarier movie…!

 

 

Jaws (1975)

It’s definitely open to debate whether or not Jaws counts as a horror film. It owes more to the American nautical tradition than anything else – it’s more Moby Dick than monster movie, ultimately. But I ended up including it because A) There are few movies I’d rather watch, B) There’s not much more frightening on a primal level than the idea of soulless teeth coming up at you from the ocean depths, and C) You really do have to factor in the cultural and creative impact of Jaws. There isn’t a horror filmmaker alive who hasn’t studied Jaws intimately, and if there is, they probably don’t make very good movies. Jaws is masterful in its creation of enduring suspense and indelible imagery – it’s so good that, unlike every other movie on this list, few imitators even dare to go near this one. There are hundreds of zombie films and vampire films released every year, but how many great-white shark films?

 

Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s classic slasher film is both the spiritual heir to Hitchcock’s Psycho and a monstrously influential masterwork in its own right. In Psycho are the seeds of the slasher genre, but Halloween opened the floodgates. It also happens to be better than any similar movie that followed. What distinguishes Carpenter’s movie is probably actually two things: 1) The layer of mythology that Carpenter applies to a fairly simple story about a masked psychopath, delivered in ominous phrasing and hushed panic by British actor Donald Pleasance (he talks about Michael Myers the same way that Quint talks about the Indianapolis in Jaws), and 2) Carpenter’s simple score, with that unforgettable piano refrain and the pitch-perfect way that the sweeping synth sounds are layered on. I don’t know if you could make such a sparse, effective score today. Most movies insist on a broader orchestral palette. Carpenter had the intelligence and the confidence to do more with less.

 

Alien  (1979)

Here’s another movie that really counts more towards another genre – Alien is science-fiction before it’s anything (future, spaceships, aliens = sci-fi) – but it plays like straight-up horror. It’s a haunted-house movie, a ghost story, just one where the supernatural being stalking a trapped bunch of people happens to be an alien of the kind no one’s ever seen in movies before or since. The Alien is one of the iconic movie monsters, one of the few from the second half of the twentieth century. And Sigourney Weaver is the ultimate “last girl” – like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, she plays a character of depth and resourcefulness that is rare for genre films. She’s a true survivor. Well, her and the cat.

 

 

The Shining (1980)

It bothers me just to have to include this movie on this list – not because of any doubts over its greatness and its importance, but just because typing the title makes me flash back to certain things that I just plain don’t want to think about. The Shining is psychological horror of the first degree.  There’s an unnatural yet deliberate pacing to every frame that sets this movie apart from all movies of similar ambition. And then there’s this guy. Stephen King reportedly has some issues with how his novel of The Shining was adapted, but it would take someone on that level of popular-cultural importance to be able to question a Stanley Kubrick movie. I’m sure not going to. I love Stephen King, but I also love what Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining. Actually, I don’t love it at all. It freaks me the hell out! But there’s no list of essential horror films that could conceivably be complete without it. 

 

 

An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Look, it kills me not to have The Wolf Man on this list. (For that matter, it kills me not to have The Creature From The Black Lagoon on this list.) But An American Werewolf In London is the greatest werewolf movie ever made. There’s not all that much competition for the title, for better or worse, but all movies since John Landis’s movie have had to contend with the unflattering comparison. I can only think of one other director who can balance comedy and horror as well as John Landis did in this movie, but Landis (and composer Elmer Bernstein) found a relatability, a humanity, and a sense of romance even, which are all very rare attributes for the horror genre. And Rick Baker is a king when it comes to this stuff – good luck to the CGI company that thinks it could improve on this miracle, and not only that, but his wolf designs are legitimately frightening. I’d love to see more movies like An American Werewolf In London, but it’s genuinely inimitable. As long as I have just the one to watch, I’m pretty damn happy.

 

 

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter is the only director who landed on this list twice; that should tell you in what regard I hold his work. (As if the volumes of articles and references I’ve previously written didn’t already make the point.) The Thing is more successful than any movie in history at finding the horror in the cold. Forget the fearsomeness and the paranoia at being plagued by a nasty, shape-shifting extraterrestrial – even if you manage to beat that guy, you’re still stuck in the middle of Antarctica with all the electricity gone. But yeah, the alien is pretty scary too, for the record. The dark humor and the gross-out moments of The Thing are pretty terrific and important too. In the end, the most memorable scene just might be the final scene, a talk in the snow between two characters who may or may not be anything we can trust. It ranks with some of the best American filmmaking ever, beyond even any confines of genre.

 

 

Evil Dead 2 (1987)

This is the guy who I was referring to a couple paragraphs ago, the guy who knows how to scare you and to make you laugh in equal measure, the guy who has impacted world cinema more than even his beloved reputation would suggest, the genius, the savant, the world’s greatest Three Stooges fan: Sam Raimi. This movie is magic. I don’t even know where it came from, really. I mean, I understand that Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell and all their co-conspirators got together somewhere in the woods and made this movie happen – but where does this level of insane inspiration come from? Dig up some clips, watch them in any order, and be astounded: There’s no movie like this one. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been shouted near-orgasmically at full volume by everyone who truly loves movies? A fool tries to recreate the story or the technique of Evil Dead 2; a true disciple of Raimi and Campbell takes their example to heart. Be original, be yourself, and push the pedal to the floor.

______

So there’s my list. Obviously it’s just a start, and there are many directions to go from here.  Want to find a couple of suggestions?  Here’s a link to my 31-day horror-movie-viewing project from 2009; I haven’t had the time to repeat the act this year, but I’m going to try to put up as much fun stuff as I can between now and Halloween. I really hope that you enjoy what you read!