The Werewolf (1956) ***½
This movie really took me by surprise. Here, in the mid-1950’s, the heyday of rubber monsters and atomic bugs, lies buried what may be the very first revisionist werewolf movie. Indeed, at several points as I watched The Werewolf, I was struck by the extent to which the slightly later I Was a Teenage Werewolf seems to have borrowed from it, and I was impressed throughout with the filmmakers’ willingness to disregard the usual werewolf-movie plot conventions.
It kind of sounds like the setup to the sort of bad joke one of your co-workers would tell you. A man (Steven Ritch) walks into a bar and asks the bartender, “Do I live in this town?” The guy has no idea where he is, what he’s doing there, or even what his own name might be. He orders a drink, gulps it down, and then heads out of the bar, almost forgetting to collect the substantial amount of change left over from his purchase. Another man follows him out of the bar and attempts to rob him in an alley, but the thug’s got a harder fight on his hands that he bargained for, as the first man lunges at him and wrestles him to the ground. From our vantage point outside the alley, we see the two men’s feet as they struggle, the man on the bottom’s kicks becoming weaker and less frequent as the grunting of the man on top becomes harsher and more animalistic. At last, the loser’s struggles cease altogether, and the victor gets up, leaving the alley. An old lady who just happened to be passing by sees him emerge, and screams in terror-- the amnesiac from the bar (we recognize his suit) has turned into black-furred beast with lethal-looking fangs and long, pointed ears. The wolf man then flees down the street before the woman’s screams can attract anyone else.
Fortunately for the woman, one of the bar’s patrons happens to be Ben Clovey, the sheriff’s deputy (Harry Lauter, from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers). He and two other men follow the werewolf’s tracks in the snow up into the wooded hills around town. They stop their pursuit for a moment when something strange happens to the tracks; in town, and well into the woods, the tracks had clearly been those made by a man’s shoes, but they suddenly change to equally unmistakable animal tracks about halfway up one of the hills. Clovey sends the other two men back to town to fetch the sheriff, and then proceeds cautiously onward. Then the movie jump-cuts to Sheriff Jack Haines (Don Megowan, whom you’ll surely not recognize from his role in The Creature Walks Among Us-- he was in the monster suit) leading an obviously wounded Clovey back into town.
In what is almost certainly the most surprising moment in the movie, when Clovey and the sheriff reach the home of Dr. Jonas Gilchrist (Ken Christy) and his niece Amy (Joyce Holden, of Terror from the Year 5000), all concerned are unexpectedly willing to countenance the notion that the deputy was attacked by some sort of beast-man. In the decade that made the skeptical authority figure who nearly seals the fate of everyone with his reluctance to believe in monsters a full-fledged cinematic cliche, this scene is even more striking than it already appears. Gilchrist and Amy patch up Clovey’s injuries, and then the characters’ thoughts turn to what can be done to protect the town from its unexpected danger.
Ultimately, the sheriff settles on the ever-popular combination of roadblock and posse. The roadblock might not do much good as far as catching the werewolf is concerned, but it certainly does excellent work bringing to light information that may bear directly on the situation. First, a pair of doctors named Morgan Chambers (George Lynn, from House of Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein) and Emory Forrest (Creature With the Atom Brain’s S. John Launer) are intercepted on their way into town. They have heard news reports of the strange attacks, and they believe that the man responsible may be one of their patients. The police at the roadblock don’t yet know this, but these two doctors are the ones that created the wolf-man in the first place in an experiment meant to prove some cockamamie theory about man’s indelible bestiality, a theory to which that of I Was a Teenage Werewolf’s Dr. Brandon bears a suspicious resemblance. Doctors Chambers and Forrest hope to steer events in such a direction that their unfortunate guinea pig is killed before he can reveal their unsavory misdeeds. A bit later, a young woman (Eleanore Tanin) and a ten-year-old boy arrive at the blockade, also seeking to enter the town. The woman turns out to be the werewolf’s wife, Helen Marsh, the child his son Chris, and they have come in response to another news report, which told of the discovery of an abandoned car on the outskirts of town, a car whose description matched that of her husband Duncan’s.
With the help of the doctors and the werewolf’s family, the sheriff is successful in capturing the man-beast, but this turn of events makes Forest and Chambers very nervous. They, after all, want Marsh dead in order to protect themselves. It is thus with an almost complete lack of surprise that we watch the men conspire to release their “patient” from jail. Both doctors die in the process, though (serves them fucking well right, if you ask me), and Haines now believes he has no other choice than to bring the deadly fugitive back in a box. The Werewolf ends with what may be its only concession to the standard formula, the death of the tragic monster.
The Werewolf got revisionist lycanthropy off to such a strong start that it really surprises me that so little was done with the subgenre until the 1980’s, when The Howling and An American Werewolf in London finally got the ball rolling again. (Okay, perhaps that’s something of an overstatement. I should say that little was done with the subgenre in America; I’ve never seen any of the shockingly vast corpus of Spanish werewolf movies from the 60’s and 70’s, and it’s possible that some of those films might have done for werewolves what Tombs of the Blind Dead and its sequels did for zombies.) I find it equally surprising that this movie has remained in such obscurity, even in the face of the admittedly short-lived 80’s werewolf renaissance. I can’t even recall seeing it reviewed in any of the major movie and video guides-- not even Mick Martin and Marsha Porter’s annual tome, which is so comprehensive as to include a review of Ganjasaurus Rex! It’s enough to make me suspect that the movie has never been released on home video, a damned shame if that’s actually the case. If it is, fans of werewolf movies definitely owe it to themselves to keep an eye out for The Werewolf on TV.