Friday, October 14, 2011

Swearing off werewolves and other lies

I had never intended to write a werewolf book. In fact, I’d sworn off writing one altogether. 

I’ve written every other kind of monster story, mostly as screenplays. I kicked around the Frankenstein theme, written a few ghost stories and explored vampires in two different scripts. There have been three different takes on the zombie idea, one of which is still in development. My personal fave is a horror-western about a cursed gunslinger hunted by the zombies of the men he’s gunned down. 

But after seeing a particular movie in 2000, I steered clear of werewolves. That movie was the last word on werewolves and I saw no way to top it so why try? 

As a monster-obsessed kid, I always had a soft spot for The Wolf Man. Of the titans of the Universal monster flicks, Dracula was my favourite but I was always intrigued by poor Larry Talbot, the doomed hero of the wolfman movies played by Lon Chaney Jr. Through a cycle of five movies, Larry Talbot is classic tragic figure hunted, bludgeoned, imprisoned and shot with silver bullets on his quest for a cure to his werewolf curse.  

Monsters are notoriously hard to kill, especially by a Hollwood looking to squeeze every last drop from a franchise but by the late 1940’s the classic monsters had become parodies of themselves. And the one surefire way to kill a monster was to have them meet up with Abbot and Costello. No monster survived that treatment. 1948’s Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein vanquished the careers of three monster titans in one fell swoop and yet the character of Larry Talbot/Wolfman was granted something of an arc as the character got to go out like a hero, sacrificing his own life to take down the villainous Count Dracula. 

Werewolf movies went a little stagnant after that. Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf left me bored as a kid and the one film I saw from Paul Naschy’s cycle of werewolf movies left me a little confused. Mind you, I did appreciate the over-the-top cleavage in those flicks so it wasn’t a total loss. 

Werewolf movies stand or fall on the make-up effects of the monster. It’s all or nothing and any half-assed attempts at the wolfman make-up produces sneers from even its most ardent fans. And so it went until some breakthrough developments in special effects brought the werewolf movie howling back to the movie theatres.
The summer of 1981 saw the release of two movies that blew the lid off the werewolf genre. Developed and shot roughly at the same time, Joe Dante’s The Howling ate up the box office that spring and by late summer, John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London stomped onto screens. Both movies were gloriously grotesque in their transformation sequences, something not even attempted since the original Wolf Man cycle. Advances in latex make-up and animatronics turned effects artists like Rob Bottin and Rick Baker into the rock stars of the Fangoria set. 

The Howling is a great werewolf flick but an odd story. It opens with a fantastic sequence where genre fave Dee Wallace plays a reporter meeting a serial killer for an exclusive interview in a sleazy porn theatre. The killer is gunned down by the cops before he wolfs out, leaving Dee traumatized by the experience. From there, the movie takes an odd turn as Dee and her husband retreat to a creepy enclave to heal but everyone in the secluded retreat turns out to be a werewolf. The movie ends with Dee wolfing out live on the news into some goddawful were-poodle thing.  A fun footnote to the movie are the uncredited cameos by Forrest J. Ackerman, Roger Corman and indie film giant John Sayles, who also scripted the movie. 

A fun movie for sure but The Howling remains a little chaotic in its storytelling and overtly campy in style. 

On the other hand, An American Werewolf in London, is a brilliant film. Note there’s no qualifier there. It’s not a brilliant werewolf movie, it’s simply a fantastic movie. Full-stop. Tracking the same dramatic ground as the original Wolfman movie, American Werewolf follows an innocent bitten by a monster and slowly coming to realize that he’s cursed. What makes this movie stand out is its clever interplay between humour and horror. Laughs are often used to punctuate the horror and build to the next scare but here, it’s used to ground and reveal the protagonist David Kessler, played by David Naughton. The humour endears the character to the viewer and that in turn underscores the horror visited upon him. After a few hilarious/creepy visits from his undead friend Jack, David learns the true nature of the curse he’s under. Hooked on the horns of a lycanthropic dilemma, David must choose between killing himself to end the curse or continue to not only kill but condemn innocent souls to purgatory. The story directly references the original Wolf Man movie, taking a cue from that old monster movie which informs the climax to David’s werewolf dilemma. 

Rick Baker won an Oscar for make-up that year. High praise for a lowly genre flick but in my opinion, it should have been nominated for original screenplay or best picture. 

There was one other werewolf movie from that year, an odd one. Wolfen, adapted from the Whitley Strieber novel, starred Albert Finney as an NYC detective investigating a pack of supernatural wolves stalking the streets. Not a great movie by any stretch but the premise of that flick must have stayed in the back of my head all these years and informed my own ‘cop versus werewolf’ take. 

But the movie that changed everything was a little Canadian horror flick called Ginger Snaps. A gleefully dark and subversive mix of teen rage and horror that has yet to be equalled. Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald are two death-obsessed outcasts suffering suburban hell. Ginger is attacked by a werewolf shortly after she experiences her first period and the werewolf symptoms are misdiagnosed as menstrual symptoms until it’s too late. “There’s something wrong with you,” Brigitte tells her sister, “besides being female.” The ‘curse’ is in this movie takes on a whole new meaning. 

While Ginger is the one who’s undergoing changes, it’s her sister, the shy resentful Brigitte, who is the protagonist of the movie. Ginger embraces her darker side and the powers that come with it, while Brigitte tries to hide the truth from their parents and teams up with the local dope dealer to find a cure before her sister is lost. The werewolf mythology is a little different here. Rather than changing back and forth from human to wolf and back again, the change into the werewolf is a gradual change and it’s permanent. Once the cursed victim has morphed all the way, they never come back to being human. This gives the story a real urgency and ‘ticking clock’ pace. 

Ginger Snaps had a brief theatrical run but became a cult hit once it hit the DVD shelves. I saw it at the Bloor Theatre in 2000 and I was blown away. More than that, I was inspired by it. Here was a brilliant little movie that was not only horror but Canadian too! More than anything, seeing that movie inspired me to pursue screenwriting because it showed me the possibilities. 

That was the last word on the werewolf subject as far as I was concerned. Nothing could top the subversive and wickedly funny tale dreamed up by screenwriter Karen Walton and director John Fawcett. Why even try? The subject of werewolves was capped and there were plenty of other horrors to pursue. 

Cut to five years later. I’m reading Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, a crime thriller about the past haunting three men in a blue collar Boston neighbourhood. The lives of three boys are forever changed when one of them is abducted by two men posing as cops and horribly abused over three days. Forever scarred, the boys grow up and drift apart but they’re reunited years later when the daughter of one of them is murdered and suspicion grows around Dave, the man who was abused all those years ago. 

Dave, a gaunt shell of a man, is fighting personal demons from the abuse suffered as a boy. He begins to feel the desire to abuse others himself but he fights it by numbing himself with booze and turning that inner rage against other abusers. He even kills a child molester. One night, he’s watching a horror movie on TV and makes a strange correlation between his own inner demons and the vampires on screen. Like the vampires, he’s been afflicted by this curse which he knows is slowly taking him over and he’s powerless to stop it. 

Mystic River is a powerful book that follows the trajectory of violence and how the past is never too far away. But that strange correlation poor Dave makes between childhood sexual abuse and vampires stayed with me because it was kind of brilliant. Except for one thing, Lehane had picked the wrong monster to make his analogy. While they may be innocents to begin with, vampires tend to embrace their dark nature once they’ve turned. To me, a more appropriate monster that correlated to childhood abuse was the werewolf. Once infected by the werewolf, the character fights it and searches desperately for a way out. In this sense, Mystic River’s Dave is no different from the Wolfman’s Larry Talbot, David from An American Werewolf or the Fitzgerald sisters in Ginger Snaps. There was a story in there, I thought. A new take on the werewolf idea. 

The idea became an ear worm that would not shake loose and despite my earlier conviction that the final word on werewolves had been written, the idea festered until I couldn’t resist. It started out as a screenplay, a middle ground between Se7en and American Werewolf. Two homicide cops track down a killer running loose with a pack of feral dogs at his command. The suspect believes he is a werewolf. Digging further, the detectives uncover a history of abuse suffered by the suspect and realize that the killer has misdiagnosed his own trauma, interpreting his rage and psychosis as the effects of a werewolf curse.

Oddly though, that initial idea for a different take on the werewolf idea became a small part of the story. Writing the script and later turning that into a novel, the focus of the story was more about the homicide cops confronting the supernatural and less about the abuse/lycanthropy analogy. But that happens, ideas change and the story will become what it wants to become. I tried to follow Stephen King’s advice on this matter: ‘The book is the boss’. 

So, after vowing not to write a werewolf story, have I written the final word on that furry subject? 

Not a chance. 

But I had a hell of a lot of fun writing it.