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"Blood and Chocolate"
© MGM
Silver Screen Werewolves
We hunt down the hairy-handed gents -- and gals -- who run amuck!

By Kathleen Murphy
Special to MSN Movies

Read more: Best Scary Movies

No wonder "Underworld"'s Lycans and Vampires have been at one another's throats for 1,000 years! On the horror movie circuit, werewolves are dissed as low-rent monsters. Trapped in the same old shaggy fur coat, these dawgs get pushed to the wall by glam vamps like Bela Lugosi's elegant Count or Anne Rice's foppish Lestat. Dracula goes batty (or ratty) or even shapeshifts into a wolf, but the lycanthrope's stuck with a one-note makeover.

And the Wolf Man's no sexual sophisticate like the vampire, who invades proper drawing rooms to heat the blood of Victorian maidens. This hirsute fellow is more likely to wolf a woman down than nibble her into eternal life.

The man-in-wolf's-clothing resurrects the shape and unfettered vitality of our wilder ancestors. Freed from civilization's cage, the werewolf revels in a predator's splendid grace and power as he lopes through the forests and urban jungles of our imaginations.

Few dream of being a blood-sucking corpse, no matter what ecstasies Dracula promises. But running with the wolves? Letting our wild selves out to play? Now there's a best-seller fantasy that has legs. Long, furry ones.

So let's go "wilding" with some hairy-handed ladies and gents to celebrate the opening of "Blood & Chocolate," a Romeo and Juliet/werewolf romance.

ORIGINAL GENE POOL: "Werewolf of London" (1935) and "The Wolf Man" (1941)
"Werewolf of London" hit American screens about the same time that an Austrian monster who liked to be called "Herr Wolf" was just getting his global horror show on the road; "The Wolf Man" wrapped just days before Pearl Harbor. "Werewolf of London" starts out in Tibet, where a scientist (Henry Hull) gets bitten by a wolf-like creature while searching for a rare plant that only blooms in moonlight (turns out it's a cure for lycanthropy). Back home, the obsessive lab rat, no party animal, sends his gorgeous young wife out clubbing with an old admirer. When the rational man's nasty inner beast gets loose, he's more Mr. Hyde with brushcut than fully furred werewolf -- and it's repressed jealousy that drives his appetite for rending and tearing. Cutting this pesky wolf man out of the picture allows for the proper mating of beauty -- not with beast, but with bland, fun-loving beau.

"Even a man who is pure of heart / and says his prayers by night / may become a wolf / when the wolfbane blooms / and the autumn moon is bright."

That famous doggerel resonates with the melancholy that makes "The Wolf Man" so moving, even tragic. An innocent abroad, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) falls victim to an accidental infection (Bela Lugosi, playing a werewolf, mauls him) in a mist-filled black forest straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. Chaney plays Talbot as a baffled bear of a man, caught between his ultra-rational dad (Claude Rains), an English lord backed up by lawman and shrink, and the dark mystery an ancient gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya) guards. Talbot's descent into involuntary savagery seems a cruel jest on a gentle, overgrown American boy whose long-delayed homecoming dead-ends in an Old World nightmare, beaten to death with a silver-handled cane by his own father.

GRAVEYARD YUKS AND NOSTALGIA FOR NATURE: "An American Werewolf in London," "The Howling," and "Wolfen" (all 1981)
Something wild this way came in 1981, what with three milestone werewolf movies marking territory at the box office. Tongue firmly in cheek, director John Landis laced "American Werewolf" with "Animal House" irreverence (John Belushi was an early casting choice). Still, he reinvigorated some of the horror genre's tired tropes along the way. Two smart-aleck frat boys (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) take refuge in a village pub ("The Slaughter'd Lamb"!) during their walk on a dark British moor, where every gawking, close-mouthed patron looks exactly like an extra from a Hammer flick. After the subsequent jump-out-of-your-skin werewolf assault leaves Jack very, very dead, he still keeps popping up to counsel David on the lycanthropic hell to come. Though still cracking wise, Jack's rotting corpse, an eternal cut-up reduced to food for worms, reeks of real human mortality. And David's transformation conveys the terrible agony of a wolf's form stretching and bursting out of human flesh -- even if Landis can't resist mining giggles out of his hero waking up naked as a jaybird in the heart of London. This uneven werewolf tale has nowhere to go but down, its graveyard humor no preparation for David's cruel and unusual fate. ("American Werewolf" inspired Michael Jackson to hire Landis and makeup magician Rick Baker for his ground-breaking "Thriller" music video.)

Joe Dante's "The Howling" builds on popular psychobabble about repression, primal screams and animal magnetism as preached by a New Age guru (Patrick Macnee), author of "The Beast in All of Us." When a TV reporter (blond, baby-voiced Dee Wallace), traumatized by her run-in with a serial killer, moves into the doc's "Colony" on the California coast for a rest, she discovers a pack of ordinary guys and gals who periodically shapeshift into sex-and-violence-loving werewolves. Karen's husband, an aging football hero sidelined by the little woman, is easily lured out to a nighttime tryst with a leather-clad, hot-eyed sexpot. Metamorphosing by campfire into slavering, staggering wolf-things (innovative effects for the time, courtesy of Rob Bottin), the rutting couple is hardly emblematic of the splendid children of nature we might have hoped for. Chock-full of horror-movie jokes and references, nothing in the movie is as howlingly funny as Dee Wallace turning into an Ewok-like werewolf -- with perfect hair -- as button-cute as ever she was as a human.

The premise of "Wolfen," another New Age-y yen for Edenic nature, is that, once upon a time, Native Americans lived symbiotically with a race of godlike wolves, in a paradise despoiled by the coming of greedy white men. Now, the noble wolfen den up in urban wastelands, feeding on the diseased homeless while hard-drinking Indians dance "on the steel," building great bridges. Burned-out detective Albert Finney is tapped to investigate the slaughter of a tycoon (and his wife) who planned to transform crumbling projects into expensive high-rises. The bravura opening scene features a coked-up Manhattan prince and princess wandering an enchanted Battery Park, the night thick with eerie possibility and silence, punctuated by the cold chiming of "sound sculptures," the creak of great, revolving wind-sails. When Finney stalks a suspicious ex-con Indian (Edward James Olmos, "Battlestar Galactica"'s Admiral) down to river's edge, he witnesses a breath-taking example of method acting, as Olmos strips naked, contorts, howls and lopes away in the moonlight, a wolf in all but flesh. When the disinherited wolfen finally show themselves, the magnificent creatures inspire sympathy and awe, conveying something authentically alien, finer and more enduring than all our human works.

HOWLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT: "The Company of Wolves" (1984), "Ginger Snaps" (2000), "Wolf Girl" aka "Blood Moon" (2001)
Blood, hair in strange places and storms of hormones -- no wonder puberty makes teens go all lycanthropic. Better fur and fangs on the silver screen than trench coats and Uzis in the school cafeteria!

The crème de la crème of werewolf movies, Neil Jordan's "The Company of Wolves," is a Freudian/Jungian adaptation of "Little Red Riding Hood" that draws us into sumptuous hallucination, the wilderness territory of waking dream. An adolescent on the verge of her first menarche plunges into a rite-of-passage fantasy, set in a fairy tale forest teeming with potential guides: parents, priest, Granny, the Devil and a gentleman who houses a wild beast in his flesh. Wherever Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) turns, this haunted world is crowded with sexual symbols, expressions of humankind's most primal impulses and wishes. Through storytelling and first-hand experience, awake and dreaming, lovely Rosaleen learns lessons about good and evil, civilized coupling and wilder forms of lust. Angela Lansbury's bespectacled Granny warns her of men sporting a single eyebrow, signaling their wolfish nature, but Rosaleen's mother, fresh from bedding dad, observes, "If there is a beast inside every man, he meets his match in the beast inside of every woman." Werewolves and true wolves can't be put down in Rosaleen's dream: they breed old truths the civilized world has buried or bound. When, in the end, a pack of magnificent wolves literally explodes through the walls, windows and paintings of Rosaleen's "real"-world home, it's visually and emotionally orgasmic.

Fifty years ago, in "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," Michael Landon's antisocial, hormone-addled adolescent acted out his rage clad in lycanthropic fur and fangs. "Ginger Snaps" features two high school outcasts. True rebels without a cause, the Fitzgerald sisters, "united against life as we know it," are given to photographing each other in faked suicide settings. Then Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) gets "the curse" for the first time, and that very night a werewolf bloodies her. Sisterly estrangement follows, as Ginger turns more slutty, bloodthirsty and bestial by the second (she even grows a piggy little tail!) and B (Emily Perkins) desperately searches for a cure. Ginger's manifestation of unchecked animal appetite makes growing up look mighty unattractive (When our girl, once a beauty under her goth guise, completely shapeshifts, she's a real dog, albeit super-sized and vicious to the max.) But Ginger's downfall is the catalyst for B forging her own idiosyncratic identity -- not as geeky Siamese twin, but as a girl who can live in her own skin.

A nifty geeks-and-freaks flick, "Blood Moon," stars -- I kid you not! -- Tim Curry as a fast-talking carny king and Grace Jones as sexy half-man, half-woman! One of the star attractions in Harley Dune's traveling sideshow is the Wolf Girl, a sweet teenager who suffers from hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth). Mysteriously abandoned in infancy, Tara's the pet of her freakish family. (Never slipping into silliness or caricature, actress Victoria Sanchez gifts Tara with genuine sensuality and dignity.) The carnival's deliciously raunchy musical interludes celebrate the utilitarian "differences" of each freak -- the dancing dwarf suggestively chortles, "Just the right height for delight!" But, at one of the show's stopovers, a pack of gun-crazy, freak-hating kids so mercilessly harass the "dog" that Tara seeks experimental medication from a love-struck nerd whose mom does research at a local cosmetics firm. As her beautiful pelt disappears, a truly bestial nature emerges -- with catastrophic results. Surprisingly moving, "Wolf Girl" spotlights the pain of the outsider who wants to fit in, to look like everyone else. No more heartbreaking image than a naked young woman, hairless and feral, crouched over a pool in the forest, staring in animal puzzlement at her human reflection.

GOING WILD FOR GOOD: "Wilderness" (1996)
A BBC miniseries tidily edited down to movie-release length, "Wilderness" features a young librarian (graced with an awfully sexy overbite) who favors one-night stands (incredibly hot hook-ups, according to the guys who get lucky). Once a month, at full moon, Alice (Amanda Ooms) chains herself in a basement cell, furnished with a dirty mattress and lots of raw meat. And, oh yes, her Freudian shrink (Michael Kitchen) is convinced the personable young woman's "wolf" -- who first appeared when she turned 13 -- symbolizes fear of her own unbridled sexuality. The tension here is between Alice's desire to be wholly human -- she's fallen in love with a solid citizen -- and the allure of going over to the wild side. When her lover tracks her to a Scottish wolf sanctuary, Alice has passed through the looking-glass for good. The lithe, crop-haired gamine has gone all feral, her eyes far-seeing, restless, inhuman. Naked, she curls up on a lakeside boulder, curving and shaping herself -- seamlessly, magically -- into the wolf she always was at heart.

THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: "Wolf" (1994)
What could be more civilized than a witty Mike Nichols movie about Manhattan book publishing? But Jack Nicholson, he of devilish grin and wolfish ways, is perfectly cast as "Wolf"'s lapdog turned lycanthrope. His rep for "taste and individuality" doesn't keep Jack's superannuated senior editor from getting fired in favor of a ruthless protégé (sociopathic James Spader) who's also boffing his wife. But turns out "the last civilized man" has been bitten by a weird beast he ran down on a snowy road, and soon, wrinkles recede, sense of smell turns incredibly acute, glasses are superfluous and, best of all, the fading fellow's randy as a young pup. When he hooks up with a gorgeous maverick, fur should fly -- but Michelle Pfeiffer's too low-key chic to project a really wild child, and their clinches lack heat (first choice, Sharon Stone, might have flashed her inner animal). Annihilating his rival (unforgettable "marking territory" scene between Jack and James -- in a urinal!), our upscale Wolf Man takes back his job, with perks. Sly-boots Nichols is working a satirical metaphor for survival in the dog-eat-dog world of Big Apple intellectual economics -- aided by Nicholson's sympathetic yet genuinely scary metamorphosis from weary "worm" into alpha male.

CIRCLE THE WAGONS AND PASS THE AMMUNITION: "Dog Soldiers" (2002)
In this smart, fast-paced revamping of the werewolf genre, a platoon of soldiers on a training exercise in the gloomy Scottish highlands holes up in a cottage to fight off a pack of lycanthropes—ugly upright corruptions of a proper wolf. (The filmmakers wanted to avoid relying on CGI, so animatronics and body suits with stilts did the trick.) Two of their troop -- that they know of -- have already been bitten, so the enemy threatens from within and without. Tight-lipped Kevin McKidd (star of HBO's bloody "Rome") is suitably gutsy and tenacious, super-gluing his beloved Sarge's innards back inside his body, fighting against a knife that's literally grating between his teeth, engineering escape strategies thwarted by the cunning werewolves -- who could as easily be Nazis, Viet Cong, or Iraqi insurgents. "Dog Soldiers" (directed by "The Descent" helmer Neil Marshall) is a terrific little action movie, recalling nonstop super-sieges like "Zulu," the original "Assault on Precinct 13" and "Night of the Living Dead."

What is your favorite werewolf movie? Write us at heymsn@microsoft.com

In addition to her regular contributions for MSN Movies,Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.

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