The idea of humans turning into wolves has a powerful grip on our imaginations. This thought that on a moonlit night, out there in the woods or dark city streets, is a creature that is part-human, part-wolf—and a cruel, bloodthirsty killer—is an idea that I’ll fall for every time.
Wolves themselves have gotten a bad rap in folklore, but are actually highly intelligent, social, beautiful animals. In 1980, I was working on the International Falls, Minnesota, Daily Journal and was driving back from a weekend in Minneapolis when I picked up a hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere, just as dusk was settling in. There wasn’t a town for many miles and this guy was just walking along. He was a Cree Indian and was “heading north,” probably going to Ontario, although he wasn’t specific.
We got to talking about wolves because I had seen one while canoeing a few weeks earlier and it was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen in my life, with a silvery coat and an elegant loping way of running. I asked my companion if he had ever seen a wolf.
“Many times,” he said. “I was just talking to them right now before you picked me up.”
“What?” I said. “You were talking to wolves just now?”
“Yes,” he said. “They were watching me and talking to me. And I was talking to them.”
“This seems like a crazy story, man,” I said.
“Oh, it’s true,” he said.
“What do you talk about with a wolf?” I asked.
He shrugged and wouldn’t say.
“Are there wolves still talking to you?” I asked.
“No,” he said, dismissively.
“Cause I’m in your car,” he said. “Be realistic. But they are still watching us.”
Being realistic has never been one of my strong suits.
But that story scared the bejesus out of me and when I dropped him off in International Falls and went home I couldn’t get to sleep that night. In fact, it still kinda scares me. The very idea that there are wolves out there and that they’re watching me is an idea I just can’t shake. Which is why I like werewolf movies. For me, a good werewolf movie is the best kind of movie to watch on a moonlit night in October. Here are my favorites.
This is it—the very first werewolf movie. Henry Hull (whom you’ve probably never heard of) plays a botanist traveling in Tibet, searching for the extremely rare mariphasa plant, which only blooms at midnight. (Pssst. It doesn’t exist any more than werewolves do, so don’t go looking it up.) While tramping around Tibet, he gets attacked by a werewolf, but survives and returns to London with a sample of the plant. The botanist goes werewolf on us and starts attacking people and turning more Londoners into werewolves. But his plant happens to be the main ingredient in an anti-werewolf serum, which is handy! The film also features Warner Oland as a Japanese botanist. Oland went on to play the detective Charlie Chan. Both of which were ridiculous and incredibly racist casting decisions because Warner Oland is Swedish! Hair and makeup for the werewolf was done by Jack Pierce, who later went on to do Lon Chaney’s makeup for The Wolfman (1981). This is a fun, spooky, and just-scary-enough horror movie.
1981 was a big year for werewolf movies. There were three of them from major studios, all of which were either pretty good or, in this case, fantastic. Here, two American backpackers (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are wandering around the moors of Yorkshire, England one night. They were warned about the neighboring area by the strange and inhospitable habitués at a pub called the Slaughtered Lamb. (Travel tip for backpackers: don’t drink at any pub with “slaughtered” in its name). The opening section of this movie is terrifying and smart, much like the rest of the movie. It’s also witty, scary, and hugely entertaining. The core of the movie are the astonishing special effects by FX master Rick Baker. This is a great horror film.
A werewolf comedy! Yay! I really can’t count how many times I have watched this movie (or parts of it late at night on television). Michael J. Fox is a teenage werewolf whose dad, a kindly hardware store owner, is also a werewolf. Anyone who has raised teenage boys—or once was a teenaged boy himself—will immediately recognize the storyline here: pleasant, easy-going, obedient sons suddenly get all hairy, aggressive, and become hard-to-deal-with troublemakers. The one difference here: in this movie, the kid becomes really good at basketball. So unrealistic. This movie is nothing but a lot of good-natured fun and the werewolf outdoes a bully in the end. What’s not to like about that? A great movie to watch with your kids.
This is a little-known, terrifying British horror movie set in rural Scotland. A group of special ops soldiers are dropped into a desolate part of the Scottish Highlands for a training exercise when they become trapped by werewolves in a deserted house. This movie combines two things I love in movies: werewolves and a team of special ops on their own in hostile territory. And yes, this is probably the only time those two things are combined. Is this a great movie, a masterpiece of either form? No. But it sure is scary and what more could you want to watch on a rainy, dark October night? Time to scare the pants off yourself. And remember: ‘They are still watching us.” [Shudder]
Aardman Animation is a stop-motion claymation animation house in the UK that has produced some of the most-beloved characters in modern animation: Wallace and Gromit, Timmy from Timmy Time, and Shaun the Sheep. Nick Park created the characters of Wallace, the balding, middle-aged Englishman who constantly ends up in a variety of troubles, and his loyal dog Gromit. Park created a series of short films starring these two characters, the first being the Academy-Award nominated A Grand Day Out (1990). Here, Wallace and Gromit do battle with a giant rabbit who is devouring all of the town’s vegetables, an unfortunate development for Wallace because he is trying to eat lots of vegetables in order to lose weight. Silly? Absolutely. And not to be missed. This is a wonderful film to watch with your kids. It’s slightly spooky, but mainly just amusing.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.