Since 2000, FrightFest has become the UK’s largest and most respected horror movie festival, and are now venturing into publishing with their Dark Heart of Cinema series of movie guides. Werewolf Movies is the fourth (after Ghost, Monster, and Exploitation movies, and I for one am happy werewolves were featured before those limelight-hogging vampires or zombies), and proves to be as helpful as that one smart but weird friend of yours who’s seen every horror movie ever produced when it comes to sorting the mongrels from the Best in Show. And even if you are that weird friend, you’re liable to discover some rarities you’ve never heard of before.
After an introduction from Neil Marshall, director of the fan-favorite gorefest Dog Soldiers, author Gavin Baddeley gives us an intro to cinematic lycanthropy, and then a lengthy essay on the history of the werewolf. This is where most authors trip up, repeating error-ridden nth-hand versions of stories or blatantly making shit up, but this is practically worth the price of admission alone. Comprehensive and accurate, he explains how the concept of werewolves has been influenced by politics, religion, the natural world as it evolves over time. For a general public that is often familiar with only the most overused tropes (silver bullets and full moons are extremely recent additions to werewolf lore), this is an excellent introduction. This is followed by a chapter on non-lupine shapeshifters, and speculation on why movie werewolves are so often the “underdogs” compared to other monsters.
The special effects budget required to put even a minimal werewolf onscreen is a hurdle for entry-level filmmakers, and even big-budget productions can struggle to produce a convincing beast, so there are far fewer films featuring them than lesser monsters like vampires, zombies, ghosts or nominally human slashers. We’re lucky to get one or two new werewolf flicks a year; hoping that they’re worthy of intense analysis or anything more than popcorn fodder is almost too much to ask for. Nevertheless, over the years there’s been a couple of solid genre classics amid the pack, and even the most incompetent, incoherent or downright goofy werewolf flick can be enjoyable if you’re in the right frame of mind. A werewolf movie guide doesn’t suffer quite the same rapid obsolescence as another subject might, but they also require an author with insight, a clever turn of phrase and a vast tolerance for cheese to tackle the roughly 200 entries.
Baddeley isn’t just some rando with an opinion. A journalist and fiction author with decades of experience and an admirable infatuation with lupine cinema. His skill shows in how he doesn’t fall victim to the tired trope of snarking the many awful films he must have sat through, which can get juvenile and tiresome to read. Even without the use of a cutesy rating system like “three out of five full moons”, he gives a concise recap and fair evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses which runs from a paragraph to two pages, depending on the meatiness of the entry. Each review is illustrated with large stills, posters, and other art which considering the full-color printing on heavyweight, slick paper, gives the book as a whole a heft and expensive feel.
As always, there are a few errors and quibbles – for example, Stan Winston’s work on The Monster Squad is incorrectly attributed to Rick Baker, the generally well-liked Bad Moon (the first werewolf film to use computer morphing effects in its transformation scene) is overlooked, and Baddeley uses “Oriental” rather than Asian, a term considered offensive when applied to people, although this may be a British quirk that sounds off to an American reader.