Are Werewolves Scarier When We Don’t See Them? Or, “A Werewolf in the Mind is Worth Two on the Screen”

A. Quinton — May. 13th 2010

I was recently directed to “Wolfman versus Werewolf“, an entry in Roger Ebert’s “Our far-flung correspondents” feature. Gerardo Valero writes what is ostensibly a review of “An American Werewolf in London” (AWIL), but he touches on a larger (and to me, more interesting) conversation about the potency of fear when its subject is imagined or unseen. Valero says that “Landis directs this film [AWIL] with a clear awareness that the things that scare us the most, reside in our imaginations, never just on the screen.” I agree that keeping werewolf David (mostly) hidden from view after his transformation was the right call– it allows the special effects to shine without revealing any zippers, and it makes for a better story. In fact, I think virtually every werewolf movie released since AWIL could have been improved if their makers had handled the screen presence of their lycanthropes in the same way.

First, consider the state of special effects in 1981. Yes, the effects work done by Rick Baker and his crew were so far ahead of their time that they inspired a new awards category at the Oscars. But not being able to see into the future, and with only $10 million to spend on the entire production, Landis had to assume that even Baker’s most realistic efforts to create a fully transformed werewolf, if shown full-body and in decent lighting, would have been read by the audience as “dude in a suit”. Instead of fear, the audience’s reaction would become one of artistic / technical appraisal, and it’s difficult to be scared of a monster when you’re looking for its zippers or rubber claws (or CG equivalents like bad compositing or flat textures).

The decision to limit the werewolf’s screen presence isn’t merely practical. Like Valero says, it’s all about the imagination. By showing only brief closeups and the occasional half-body tracking shot of werewolf David, the AWIL audience gains just enough exposure to trigger the mind into creating something far more ferocious than a costumed actor or an animated prop could represent. This is why even the most amazing combinations of CG and physical effects still fall flat today. Baker’s work on the recent “Wolfman” remake, for example, was amazingly, startlingly detailed… but was it scary? The survey says “no“. Everyone who was even remotely interested in the film knew what the Wolfman looked like well before the film came out, and even those who avoided spoilers got to see the beast in full detail before the first hour of the film was up. The initial shock at the vivid detail wears away, and there’s no suspense anymore, no mystery or fear of the unknown. Those are potent elements of fear, and they are easily lost when too much light is shed on the monster.

Every film tries to tell a story, and most werewolf movies are meant to be horror stories. Sadly, rather than being truly horrific, werewolf movies tend to fall into the schlocky domain of the “creature feature”, in which audience-avatar protagonists are menaced by a monstrous presence. In these movies the monster is only a character insofar as it possesses frightening qualities to highlight its “otherness” and status as a threat. The audience wants a clear look at the foe before it’s destroyed; otherwise there’s no payoff or gratification. Zombies, for example, are usually shown in exquisitely gory detail because there’s nothing there with which to empathize. Even if you can see the humans they once were, zombies aren’t people; they’re merely monsters, and are designed to eat housewives and businessmen until they’re destroyed by flame or a 12-gauge blast. The monsters in creature features might be frightening, but as characters they’re no more engaging than the interchangeable aliens foes in Space Invaders. We can’t identify with them, nor do we want to.

Then there’s David, the protagonist of AWIL. We spend a lot of time getting to know David as a character before the appearance of the werewolf. Much of that getting-to-know-you time is spent with the audience well aware of what’s to come, and we empathize with him. He talks with his friend Jack, he canoodles with a pretty nurse, he loafs around a London flat reading books and watching television… and then the moon rises, Rick Baker works his magic, and David becomes the creature we’re meant to fear.

And we do fear it, but why? How is this scenario more horrific than what Lawrence Talbot or Ginger Fitzgerald faced? Like Valero, I think the answer lies in how the werewolf is portrayed: as a shadowy and unknowable presence, seen only in glimpses and heard as menacing sounds from the dark. Just as David has no memory of what he becomes or what he does while in his bestial form, the audience doesn’t really know what the werewolf looks like, so has no way to associate the monster with the man it used to be. This underscores David’s (and therefore the audience’s) horror of the “other” he becomes. Other than the traumatic transformation scene there’s no screen-based connection between David and the werewolf; to the viewer, David is not just transformed but utterly annihilated. Without clear visuals of the beast he becomes, there’s no easy way to equate the likable mop-haired American with the glimpses of fangs and yellow eyes his victims see before they die. Yet we know it’s him, because our minds tell us so, and from that knowledge and our own empathy for the character, a stronger horror is born than that which is derived from an overexposure to props and effects.

What if Wes Craven’s “Cursed” had been filmed with these points in mind? How about any of the “Howling” sequels, or even the dire non-sequel “An American Werewolf in Paris“? No amount of editing or tweaking would turn these into Oscar material, but I think each one could have been more interesting and enjoyable (and less embarrassing to werewolf fans) if the filmmakers had left their werewolves in the shadows like Landis did with AWIL. By focusing on what makes the werewolf a genuinely frightening creature instead of stretching the effects budget in an effort to shock and amaze, I think the the intrepid filmmaker might actually be able to produce a werewolf film worth watching.

  • lemonvampire

    I think in the case of The Wolfman, showing off the creature effects was a little excusable. It certainly would have benefited from a few more scenes of the creature stalking his victims in shadow rather than relying on so many jump scares and a climactic wolfman brawl, but it was still more effective than the original. The original film had a very distinct look and style, also showing the titular creature in his entirety, and let’s face it, the original was silly. Lawrence Talbot was kind of a creepy guy who stared at women through telescopes and then made presumptuous advances toward them. On paper he shouldn’t have been a sympathetic character. And when he transformed he always took the time to change into that nice clean outfit, buttoning up and tucking in his shirt before he went out for a night of mildly strangling or shaking people to death. There was nothing scary at all about him. So in remaking the film I think it was interesting how they kept the look of the original and even allowed us to see him frequently, while still making him much more effectively ferocious. But, yeah, ultimately he does come off as just a big brute rather than a really spooky monster. It wasn’t the creepiest werewolf film, but it was still a great example of the genre done well.

  • Scott

    I can agree with the above post, but the film made Talbot AND the wolfman into a protagonist. At least it did for me. I wanted to cheer when he transforms in that torturous wheelchair. He specifically seeks out the overly confident windbag of a psychiatrist. At the end, you root for him yet again, because Hopkins as a villain makes more sense, at least at that point. He revels in the idea that he’s a monster.

    I am not bashing the film. I liked it and even liked the transformation scenes (though I think Baker could have done something far more spectacular and sexy). The film to me is not horror and not even a creature feature because they gave Talbot no or very little conflict. He’s a victim the whole way, from childhood to adulthood, which makes the end rough, but his rage as the beast is all the more warranted and understood. Therefor, he is not a scary monster even when he’s Wolfman.

    AWIL may have followed the same formula of sorts. David is a victim through and through and has very little conflict as well, but his victims are also innocent which gives the beast more of a scary presence. It also makes for some interesting and humorous dialogue between David and his victims in the porno theater. Yet, even at the end of that movie, you don’t want him to die. And this is what makes a truly good werewolf movie to me. The werewolf character is conflicted, savage rage one moment and utter nice guy (or gal) in the next.