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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Who's Afraid of The Big Bad Werewolf?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


It's time for scary movies. For the past few years, October has tickled my creepy nerve, and I've found myself seeking out scary movies. This year, with the help of Netflix, I did some advanced planning, and will dedicate the season to studying a particular sub-genre of horror movies: the werewolf movie.

A quick note: I like scary movies, but I don't like gore and violence. So that's tough. Those movies that can combine a good old fashioned scare with some restraint are real gems. Here's to hoping this October produces some of those.

Right, so, on with it.

I meant to do this chronologically, but I messed up. Rather than starting with the 1935 Werewolf of London, I started with the 1941 Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney (who was also in The Defiant Ones). What's interesting about the 70 minute film is the time during which it was filmed and its' dominant theme. The condition of inexplicably turning into a werewolf is, obviously, something that torments the film's protagonist, Larry Talbott. But his father has no patience for Larry's belief that he might actually be behind a couple of recent murders; to him, the whole legend of the werewolf is simply folklore illustrating something fundamentally human: "the good and evil in every man's soul."

I have to wonder how that line rang in the ears of Europeans and Americans as they watched newsreels of the Nazi army.

The Wolf Man is concerned with the individual soul and its' dark history and tendencies (Larry has finally returned home to England after 18 years in America--and, poof!, his English accent is completely gone!). It is overweighed with the vocabulary of psychology, of science, and the human mind. And when it comes time, on Sunday morning, to go to church, it is for a psychological benefit, as Larry's father explains: "Belief in the hereafter can be a very healthy counterbalance to all the doubts man is plagued with these days."

But it appears that all of this psycho-babble and its attendant homilies on the folly of a black-and-white world view gets set up as the foil. Because it is a matter of black-and-white. That becomes abundantly clear when Larry's father is forced to kill the werewolf, not knowing it's his own son. All of his psychological and rational explanations can't avert that either-or scenario, nor its consequences.

But maybe I'm reading too much into it; maybe it's just a fun scary movie. I found myself asking my wife, "If you were watching this in 1941, would it scare you?" You obviously don't expect to be scared in 2005 by a 1941 horror movie--and you aren't. The special effects were ground-breaking for their time (Chaney had to sit for hours as makeup was caked on his face), but today they're just funny. All you can see of Larry's transformation from man into werewolf is his legs. The shot cuts from his startled face to his legs (below the knees) repeatedly, and each time his legs have more hair (which was actually yak hair), until, finally, he looks to be wearing slippers. And the werewold is much more man than wolf: he walks upright and looks about, hiding behind a tree, as he is hunted. It's quite entertaining.

It's all fun. Up next: Werewolf of London. Then we jump three decades to get into a 70's werewolf movie.

Stay tuned. Oh, and the Sidney Poitier film festival will resume in November.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 6:02 PM

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