Bad Moon Rising: How Werewolf Horror Clawed Back

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Bad Moon Rising: How Werewolf Horror Clawed Back

40 years after three influential horror hits—An American Werewolf in London, The Howling and Wolfen—took a bite out of the box office, there’s another bad moon on the rise in Hollywood. Once displaced by bloodsucking vampires as the preferred monsters of the moment, werewolves are currently in the midst of clawing their way back into the frightgeist.

First up, Amelia Moses’ Bloodthirsty, out April 23, centers on a rising singer (Lauren Beatty) whose sessions with a notorious music producer (Greg Bryk) gradually unlock her inner artist—but precipitate other, more unsettling changes. Enigmatic and slow-burning, it digs into thorny questions of empowerment and artistic transformation while reimagining werewolves as individuals who’ve embraced inner potential, but lost something of their humanity along the way.

Two months later, in June, Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within puts a sharp horror-comedy twist on a whodunit setup (call it Claws Out). Snowed in after a series of savage killings rock a bucolic Vermont town, a hapless park ranger (Sam Richardson) partners with the local mail carrier (Milana Vayntrub) to deduce the identity of a lycanthrope hiding amongst the eccentric townies. With its crew of comedy scene-stealers—including Harvey Guillén (What We Do in the Shadows) and Michaela Watkins (Saturday Night Live)—jokes are in even steadier supply than jump scares, but the impish script (by Mishna Wolff, aptly named) works its way through lycan tropes, subverting some and indulging others with a knowing wink.

Don’t expect this latest cycle of werewolf films to slow down anytime soon. Sean Ellis’ Eight for Silver, a Victorian Gothic werewolf tale set in the French countryside, premiered at Sundance earlier this year; though release plans remain unannounced, it’s not difficult to imagine a major distributor pouncing on the title, which boasts handsome production values to go along with its impressive body count. Meanwhile, The Invisible Man writer/director Leigh Whannell is priming The Wolf Man for similarly modern resonance with Ryan Gosling, and Tigers are Not Afraid’s Issa López is working on a “werewolf Western” for probable producer Guillermo del Toro. Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard (another serendipitous name) will next topline Rules for Werewolves, a horror-thriller about a pack of wild teenagers running amok in a post-recession suburb.

Even superhero cinema is howling along. Marvel’s upcoming Disney+ series Moon Knight finds Oscar Isaac playing a crimefighter whose powers hinge on lunar cycles and it’s expected that Werewolf By Night (whose comics contained Moon Knight’s first appearance) will show up, potentially played by Ethan Hawke. But DC beat Marvel to the punch on this one: Kristen Wiig’s meek Barbara Minerva transforms into a cheetah-like creature after wishing to unlock her true potential and become an “apex predator” in last year’s Wonder Woman 1984.

That werewolves are once again infiltrating the mainstream, teeth bared and claws bloodied, speaks to the renewed relevance of the cultural anxieties that this subgenre’s best entries know how to explore and exploit. In stalking a liminal space between animal instinct and human nature, werewolves have always symbolized the potential for repressed urges to erupt—with often deadly results.

To understand why werewolves are recapturing the frightgeist, it’s helpful to look back through history. In early modern Europe, werewolf myths tended to reflect cultural anxieties around the borders between civilization and wilderness, matrimony and deviance, piety and apostasy. 1935’s Werewolf of London depicted an English aristocrat struggling to control animal urges that would turn him into a pariah in both society and, just as problematically, his marriage. In 1941’s classic The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney’s tragic hero fought to retain his British nobility after being bitten by a Romani werewolf. Issues of race, class struggle and sexual repression flowed organically from this idea of a man struggling against his base instincts, made monstrous in the eyes of society if he indulges them.

In 1981, though, werewolves found renewed relevance as symbols of uncontrolled self-fulfillment and the consequences of expanding body and mind. Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, given two years earlier, speaks best to the temperature of the times. Addressing the nation amid an energy crisis and recession, he diagnosed Americans with a “crisis of confidence,” critiquing a nation he saw as becoming more concerned with materialism than community values. By the end of the ‘70s, American productivity was in noticeable decline; climbing divorce and unemployment rates, coupled with the dawn of disco and recreational drug use, contributed to a widespread sense of moral atrophy. Carter pointed a finger at human potential movements that had stemmed from the ‘60s counterculture; the American quest for self-actualization was contributing to a culture of widespread narcissism. He asked Americans to focus less on themselves, to renew their attention to the greater social good. Ronald Reagan soundly defeated him in the next election, taking office in January 1981.

It’s fascinating, then, to consider the three werewolf classics from 1981 through this lens. As John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London opens, two college-aged men travel abroad, having resolved to live a little before settling into banal adulthood. Hiking through the Yorkshire moors, they draw the ire of a werewolf, which wounds one and kills the other. Straying from their pre-established path as contributing members of society, the two Americans become vulnerable and pay the price for such a hedonistic departure. David (David Naughton) survives but turns into a beast in a now-legendary sequence that emphasizes the horrible, unwilling nature of his transformation. Murdering a parade of unlucky Londoners, he’s eventually killed by a firing squad of police officers, put down by a society that no longer recognizes his humanity.

Joe Dante’s The Howling goes even further, suggesting that werewolves have already infiltrated the American society at large, setting its story within an Esalen-esque colony where the wonderfully named Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) teaches disciples to unlock their true, hairy potential. “Repression is the father of neurosis, of self-hatred,” explains Waggner. “Now, stress results when we fight against our impulses. We’ve all heard people talk about animal magnetism, the natural man. The noble savage, as if we’d lost something valuable in our long evolution into civilized human beings.” By the time the entire colony transforms into werewolves, his philosophy has been clearly elucidated: “We should never try to deny the beast, the animal within us.” Tellingly, when proof of werewolves is broadcast on live television, audiences aren’t horrified so much as amused, even receptive.

Wolfen, by Woodstock documentarian Michael Wadleigh, situated werewolves even more directly within the lingering countercultural tensions of its day. Wadleigh’s film investigates a species of Indigenous shapeshifters who’ve taken refuge in an abandoned Bronx housing project, murdering the wealthy New Yorkers who seek to bulldoze the property—not as random rampage but tactical retaliation. By 1981, urban decay in the South Bronx was so widespread that it lent itself to this horror story, one of native populations displaced by colonialism and defending their remaining territory through any means available. In Wadleigh’s hands, the werewolf was no self-obsessed deviant, but the guardian of a marginalized population as well as a champion for the underclass who’d gleefully (and literally) eat the rich. Given the evolution of the werewolf since, it’s perhaps Wolfen that has aged the best of 1981’s trio.

By the early 2000s, the werewolf had been largely declawed as a metaphor for wanton individualism and self-fulfillment. John Fawcett’s influential Ginger Snaps (2001) started the decade off strong by repurposing the creature as a rich metaphor for female autonomy and sexual awakening while Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, released the next year, offered military-action fans a nasty jolt by depicting werewolves as vicious enemy combatants, less transformed humans than true monsters.

Generally, though, werewolves were dislodged in popular culture by the more aristocratic vampire. Underworld and Twilight’s fanged immortals, notably, were white, rich and monastically restrained in their bloodthirst. They better represented the self-actualized individual than those franchises’ werewolves, defined through Underworld’s dicey race-relations metaphor as feral servants of ruling-class vamps and (just as problematically) in Twilight as Indigenous hotheads bound to their primitive programming.

By the time America turned its attention to economic inequality circa 2010, with Occupy Wall Street demonstrations expanding globally, vampires had taken their place in the frightgeist as ancient members of a darkly glittering 1%, parasitic and engorged. As far back as 1867’s Capital, Karl Marx was referring to capitalism as “vampire-like” for its draining of life from laborers, but the wealthy immortal heartthrobs of Twilight, The Vampire Diaries and True Blood reflected pop culture’s more recent romanticization of this predatory elite—as well as their rising fury at aristocratic bloodlines.

As the #MeToo movement has laid bare the extent of power abuses against women in countless industries, often by men who violently dominated those spaces with impunity and the pretension of civility, it makes sense that horror stories of monstrous men, harboring beasts within, would reassert themselves on screen. The werewolf’s return in recent years has tended to underline its capacity for violence, the harm that can be inflicted by an individual uncaging their inner animal.

Traces of the werewolf as a symbol of self-indulgence still linger. Just look at Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, in which stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rises to power by operating on pure animal instinct, turning his offices into a carnal, hyper-masculine jungle. And indeed, reality TV star Donald Trump’s ascendance to the U.S. presidency suggests a renewed version of the culture of narcissism feared in the 1980s, one in which Trump’s celebrity, macho posturing and projection of wealth broadened support for his run. The myriad sexual assault allegations against Trump add another ghastly dimension to the generally accepted notion he won the presidency by being “a wolf in wolf’s clothing,” weaponizing the violently patriarchal power dynamics that have long simmered beneath the surface of American identity.

A keen social awareness of those power dynamics seems to be bleeding through to the werewolf films of today. Last year’s The Wolf of Snow Hollow centers on a short-fused cop (Jim Cummings, also the writer/director) wrestling inner monsters even as he hunts an animalistic killer slaughtering women in a backwoods Utah ski-resort town. A recovering alcoholic, he approaches a breaking point as bodies pile up; the film’s scariest scene catches the cop mid-relapse, drunkenly terrorizing his teenage daughter. The film’s title, it would seem, refers not exclusively to its killer. A treatise on toxic masculinity and addiction, Cummings’ film presents non-supernatural solutions to its marauding wolf, exposing men whose violence is triggered more by spats with ex-wives than a lunar cycle. Simultaneously, it lays bare the ways patriarchy shields men who abuse their power and smothers women who assert their own.

Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers follows suit, in a lighter vein. The Irish film—currently an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature—reinterprets Celtic folklore in which men’s souls escape their bodies in the shape of wolves, leaving their human forms asleep as they roam the countryside. In a more modern twist, Wolfwalkers foregrounds two young girls who seize their freedom by magically assuming wolf form, running free through verdant forests even as an iron-fisted despot aims to bring them to heel. The film’s wolfing is a feminist act, the only path to freedom from oppressive patriarchal control; notably, it’s up to women to show men how patriarchy has shackled them, too.

One less conventional werewolf story from last year, Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s The Wolf House is especially harrowing for an animated feature. A twisted fairy tale, it explores the ghastly legacy of a real pedophilic Chilean cult from a young girl’s perspective. Fleeing to a house of animals that eventually transform into people, she recalls the teachings of the cult’s leader, whose voice takes the form of a wolf. Gradually, her trauma morphs the sanctuary into another prison, cycling forward the same patterns of abuse and control she was indoctrinated with. “I was always inside of you, the whole time,” whispers the wolf, sealing a frightening transformation in the young girl. The Wolf House probes the wounds predators inflict on their victims. It shows us how they scar.

In 2021, the return of the werewolf as a horror villain can be read as a cultural rebuke of violent sexism. At the heart of the werewolf mythos, after all, is a fable of infectious masculine violence. Once a month, a man unleashes the beast within, turning into an animal possessed of all the savage, amoral instincts and appetites any civilized man would repress. The Wolf of Snow Hollow draws its central conflicts from this element of the lore, skewering the thwarted masculinity of its protagonist even as it coldly documents his abusive behavior. Wolfwalkers subverts it, handing wolfing over to women wise enough not to misuse its power. The Wolf House lets patriarchal violence fester just off-screen, but it infects all we see.

The first werewolf films of this year advance this cycle of politically charged horror. Set within the Canadian music industry, Bloodthirsty draws much of its early tension in the exploitative undercurrents of its central relationship between a demanding male producer and an emerging female singer-songwriter. But as their creative process brings out her inner animal, the young musician asserts a more ferocious physicality to complement her artistic awakening, becoming the most empowered and dangerous person on screen. Werewolves Within feels similarly modernized in how its comedic murder-mystery setup turns every character into a suspect, sending up genre clichés and ultimately delivering a sharp commentary on how buying into presumptions can more broadly allow the real monsters to operate undetected.

In considering werewolves as symbols of primal urges uncaged, it’s telling that many of these stories center men desiring control over women, and women seeking freedom from men and the systems they control. As Margaret Atwood once noted, a man’s greatest fear is that a woman will laugh at him, while a woman’s greatest fear is that a man will kill her. It will take generations more to fully grasp, let alone unlearn, the ways this has informed our society. But it’s through a gendered dimension of the werewolf myth that we can most succinctly pinpoint one modern relevance of recent lycanthropic horror: As a way for filmmakers to puncture the violent masculinity that so often lurks within civilized society, redress the innocents it has victimized and wrestle with the age-old question of how we might one day hope to separate the monsters from the men.

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.