The werewolf has always felt like the stepchild of the monster universe. Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Invisible Man all have classic literature as their backbone. The Mummy is a tale as old as time. The Creature from The Black Lagoon is a product of the mid-20th-century fascination with science and evolution. In the midst of it all is the werewolf, the only original cinematic monster who is tortured by transformation. It is unique in that way, and despite its distinctiveness, werewolf movies have struggled to find their footing more than any other classic monster.
There have been some wonderful werewolf movies throughout film history, but they haven’t inundated pop culture the same way as Dracula, Frankenstein, even The Mummy (thanks to Brendan Fraser’s terrible flicks raking in cash at the box office). It seems to be more difficult to individualize the werewolf film, and even remakes of the 1941 classic haven’t worked for a myriad of reasons. So what are the best werewolf movies out there? Here are my selections:
10) Ginger Snaps (2000) – The story of two suburban outcasts obsessed with death and the macabre is a hidden gem in the werewolf timeline. One sister is bitten by the werewolf and the other must decide whether or not to join her or save herself from the madness. The opening act of Ginger Snaps is a brilliant piece of small indie filmmaking. While it does manage to unravel in a more conventional end, the story of suburban outcasts is an interesting setting for a lycanthropic narrative.
9) Teen Wolf (1985) – Okay this isn’t really a traditional, horror-based werewolf movie, but it still belongs here. Michael J. Fox’s other 1985 film is a sideways remake of Michael Landon’s I was a Teenage Werewolf, and is a film I will forever defend. Sure, the basketball scenes are maybe the worst sports scenes in any movie ever, but the wolf makeup, the dynamic of the small-town high school, and the inclusion of the great Stiles (Jerry Levine) make this a wholly enjoyable teen comedy with a little body horror on the side.
8) Silver Bullet (1985) – I never know whether or not to take this seriously. Silver Bullet is a Stephen King adaptation about a small town terrorized by werewolves, and a young handicapped boy (Cory Haim) who takes them on, with the help of his lush of an uncle (Gary Busey), who makes a supercharged wheelchair to kill the lycanthropes. The film bounces from gruesome horror to cornball comedy in individual scenes, and Busey is the very definition of the drunk uncle.
7) Wolf (1994) – Mike Nichols’ elegant werewolf tale, told within the highfalutin world of book editors and New York socialites, is often derided. But it has plenty to offer. Jack Nicholson chews the scenery (pun intended) as the man bitten by the werewolf, and as he romances Michelle Pfeiffer and takes on his adversary – played gleefully by James Spader – Nicholson’s transformation intensifies until the final showdown. Some of the strange floating jumps between Nicholson and Spader have always felt strange, but the performances and Nichols’ direction elevate the film considerably.
6) Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) – In the expansive world of Universal Monster collaborations, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man is easily the most entertaining mashup. Bela Lugosi takes over as the Monster, and Lon Chaney Jr. returns as Larry Talbot, who is searching for Dr. Frankenstein but finds the monster frozen in ice instead. Aside from one of the best posters in the Universal Monster collection, the showdown between The Wolf Man and the Monster is one of the best in the catalogue. The return of Maleva the gypsy (the great Maria Ouspenskaya) from the original Wolf Man is an added bonus for horror fans.
5) The Company of Wolves (1984) – Neil Jordan tried his hand at the werewolf story in the early 80s, and the result is a wildly entertaining and genuinely frightening spin on Little Red Riding Hood. The melding of dreams and reality and the truly fascinating transformations make this film stand out from those surrounding it in the 80s (except for one, of course). Part gothic fantasy, part fairy-tale gone awry, The Company of Wolves is the perfect flick to see this time of year.
4) Curse of The Werewolf (1961) – This has always been a personal favorite of mine, a fascinating technicolor werewolf film with vibrant blood and one of the more unique looking werewolves in the mythos. This Hammer horror, in the midst of the Christopher Lee Dracula films, doesn’t follow the traditional tropes of the werewolf mythology, with a rape involving a haggard old man and a Spanish woman, and the offspring eventually turning into the wolf of the story. The picture is wonderful looking, perhaps the prettiest of the Hammer films, and Oliver Reed delivers an excellent, hammy performance in the title role.
3) The Howling (1981) – Genre master Joe Dante took his turn at the werewolf story in 1981 with one of the finest, most bizarre horror films in the genre. A news anchor (Dee Wallace) takes time off after a horrific situation involving a serial killer, only to find herself in an even more horrific scene involving a cult and strange screams in the night. The Howling kicked off the early-80s werewolf craze and spawned too many sequels to count, and the mix of spiritual horror and lycanthropy set it apart; that, and the work of the great Joe Dante.
2) The Wolf Man (1941) – It was tough to decide between these top two. Perhaps on another day this pair of werewolf movies may be switched, but today The Wolf Man is in the second slot. Lon Chaney Jr., forever suppressing a cry it seems, is wonderful in the lead role as a man tortured by his new body issue. The makeup of the wolf, groundbreaking at the time, is still the most indelible werewolf makeup in the history of the genre. The Wolf Man wasn’t the first werewolf tale, but is easily the most iconic.
1) An American Werewolf in London (1981) – The most re-watchable werewolf movie of all time, John Landis’s horror comedy throws things at the screen with reckless abandon, creating an eclectic and energetic thriller with cheeky humor to boot. Once bitten, David Kessler (David Naughton) sees his dead friend everywhere, decaying steadily, and romances his randy nurse. He also manages to have an insane dream about Nazi zombies murdering his family. Weird. Beyond these idiosyncrasies in the plot, the transformation in the second act is the best, most horrifying in the entire genre. Landis knew the transformation was the key element of the story, and he went all in with stunning results.