Craig J. Clark — Apr. 28th 2018
Over the course of its initial, decade-long run on cable, Mystery Science Theater 3000 tackled werewolves exactly twice. The first time was in the show’s third episode for the Comedy Channel (later renamed Comedy Central) when Joel Robinson, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo riffed on 1942’s Poverty Row Wolf Man knock-off The Mad Monster, which starred George Zucco as the requisite mad scientist who tampers in God’s domain by injecting wolf blood into a farm hand with predictably hair-raising results. After that, they waited until they were deep into both the Mike and Sci-Fi Channel eras to take down 1995’s Werewolf, one of the freshest examples of cinematic roadkill they ever sank their teeth into since its comedic evisceration premiered on April 18, 1998, in the midst of the show’s ninth season.
By that time, the folks at Best Brains had settled into a definite groove and, after much flitting about in time and space the previous season, the show’s trio of villains — Pearl Forrester, Observer, and Professor Bobo — had settled into Castle Forrester for the long haul, or at least until the plug got pulled the following year. Suffice it to say, compared to their first such effort, made while the writers were still finding their feet, the crew of the Satellite of Love was a well-oiled joke-delivery machine when Mike Nelson and his robot pals gave Werewolf the business. Then again, Werewolf offered up plenty of material for them to work with, alongside the ability to make then-contemporary references to the band Hanson, Janet Reno, rejected Supreme Court Justice Robert Bork, and Eddie Vedder.
Your standard cheapjack lycanthropic doggerel, Werewolf (also known as Arizona Werewolf) is comparable in quality to one of the later Howling sequels. Its Flagstaff setting even recalls the same year’s New Moon Rising, but thankfully this one features less line dancing. In its place, co-writer/producer/director Tony Zarindast presents the unwary viewer with a borderline nonsensical plot about a werewolf skeleton unearthed during an archaeological dig and the trouble this causes various actors for whom English is clearly not their first language.
Chief among them is top-billed George (actually Jorge) Rivero, a Mexican actor whose career stretched back to the mid-’60s, when he divvied up his time between westerns and wrestling pictures in which he was often teamed with legendary luchador Santo. Here he’s Yuri, an opportunistic foreman who uses the werewolf skull to infect multiple people with lycanthropy, including one of the dig’s Native American workmen (who’s subsequently shot and killed by two of his buddies), an unsuspecting security guard (who transforms while behind the wheel of a car, a true recipe for disaster), and a self-proclaimed “struggling young writer” who moves to Flagstaff following the death of his mother and takes up residence in her attic. This is Paul Niles, who’s played by Fred (actually Federico) Cavalli, starring in his one and only feature film. Similarly inexperienced is Adrianna Miles, who plays his love interest Natalie and whose pronunciations of the word “werewolf” are a wonder to behold. (Weirdly, whenever Mike imitates her, he sounds like Tommy Wiseau.)
Rounding out the cast are Joe Estevez (“one of the lesser Estevezes,” per Crow) as Joe, one of the skinwalker-averse workmen, and Richard Lynch (a genre veteran with credits going back to the late ’60s) as lead archaeologist Professor Noel, who absents himself from the plot partway through the MST3K edit, leading me to believe he may have more scenes in the uncut version, which runs a full 22 minutes longer. I’m not about to seek it out to test that theory, though.
Besides, anything that fell by the wayside was for a good cause since it made room for host segments like the one where Mike, having tripped and cut himself on Crow while leaving the theater, abruptly turns into a were-Crow, a two-step process that mirrors the discrete stages of lycanthropy Paul and his fellow werewolves pass through in the film. At first they merely have extra hair plastered to their faces. Then the actors are given a heavy makeup job that makes them look more ape-like than wolfish. The final stage, though, is a barely articulated wolf head puppet, which is seen in extreme close-ups, along with fleeting glimpses of a stuntman in a gorilla suit with a wolf’s head for the long and medium shots, none of which are remotely convincing. Late in the film, at a point where Paul is in the second stage, Tom Servo quips, “Oh, that fiend Rick Baker tackled him and did this to him.” He wishes.