Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Monster Special: Werewolves

I'm not really a werewolf expert. I know, you're thinking, "Well, yeah, but who is?" To that I say, cryptozoologists, assuming they exist outside of SciFi Original Movies. While I couldn't find one of those to pitch in, I was able to convince my friend Lindsay, the resident werewolf enthusiast, to give a rundown of some of her favorite werewolf media. So, without further ado, here's what Lindsay sent me.

In terms of supernatural monsters, werewolves have played second fiddle to those oh-so-sexy vampires for quite a long time. One reason might be that vampires have a more cross-gender appeal. Biting someone and drinking their blood is a sex/domination metaphor that goes both ways; but setting loose that inner wolfy beast is, let’s face it, a little more of a guy thing. The other reason is that werewolves just don’t work as well in the TV/movie medium. On-screen vampires range from campy to sexy to gritty and beyond, but on-screen werewolves are pretty much caught somewhere between terrible CGI and your standard Guy in a Furry Suit fallback. (Sorry, Joss, but you know that Oz costume was terrible.) I can only assume this is because it’s hard to train real wolves to howl on cue.

But with the steadily rising popularity of the urban fantasy genre in literature, werewolves are finally having their day. Granted, they’re still an afterthought much of the time (in Laurell K. Hamilton’s bestselling Anita Blake books, you’ll even see vampires keeping wolves as pets), but there are a number of authors who’ve actually managed to bite the silver bullet and put the werewolves first. (Shut up, I’ve been dying to use that one.)

The first book on anyone’s werewolf reading list should be Kelley Armstrong’s BITTEN, the first in her increasingly popular Women of the Otherworld series. The series itself switches narrators with nearly every title, in order to explore the variety of supernatural beings Armstrong has created, but BITTEN and its immediate sequel STOLEN both feature a narrator named Elena Michaels, who is the only female werewolf in the entire world. The story itself is a thriller (werewolf pack is under attack, its members are being killed off one by one, could the culprit be a werewolf too?), but just as cool is the exploration of pack life through Elena’s eyes. As I mentioned before, werewolves are traditionally Guy Territory. Armstrong knows it – and so does her heroine. By the end of the novel, Elena has to choose between living a normal-but-fake girly life in the city, or running wild with her wolfy boys in the woods of upstate New York. Of course, it’s not exactly a surprise which one she picks, but how she gets there is the coolest part. I might add, too, that this is very much a by-women-for-women sort of book, by which I mean: watch out for the sexy men. I’m a die-hard Jeremy fan, but I wouldn’t say no to a night with Clay either….

Another great one to check out is MOON CALLED by Patricia Briggs, which is another female invasion of male territory by someone who’s very aware of the fact. The narrator here isn’t actually a werewolf, but rather a “walker” – a term which comes from the Native American “skinwalker.” Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson is, in fact, part Native American, and she can turn into a coyote at will. But since she’s the only one of her kind that she knows about (thanks to those pesky werewolves coming over from Europe all those years ago and wiping her people out), she was literally raised by wolves. Like Kelley Armstrong, Briggs employs the “werewolf pack” device here, with fascinating attention to details like rank and lupine body language. Mercy operates from outside the pack (where she is thankfully free of the social constraints that are placed on werewolf women), but remains close enough to get embroiled in wolf business. Not just because she has a nose for trouble, either – that Pack Alpha, after all, is quite a nice piece of man-candy.

Those are my Big Two, although I should also give a mention to a few others. BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE by Annette Curtis Klause is your standard “I don’t fit in, woe is me, O what do I do?” teen fare, with werewolfism as a metaphor for being just a little bit different. THE WOLVING TIME by Patrick Jennings is a middle-grade novel that I picked up because it had cool cover-art, and I was surprised at how sweet it was. Jennings uses much the same metaphor as Klause does, but sets it instead in a surprisingly believable 16th century France.

Charlaine Harris’s insanely popular Sookie Stackhouse novels also get a mention. Even though the series falls under the All About Vampires category, she does some really cool things not only with werewolves, but also with werepanthers, werebears, and various kinds of shapeshifters. (For the record, even though they haven’t gone into any of the were/shifter stuff in the HBO series TRUE BLOOD yet, I can’t speak highly enough of the show. This is vampire melodrama at its absolute best!)

I should also say something about the TWILIGHT series by Stephenie Meyer, in which there is a human girl / vampire guy / werewolf guy love triangle. (Guess who gets the girl?) I only mention this because YOU SHOULD NOT READ IT. Seriously. I did, and I think I’ve suffered enough for all of us. Trust me on this. Just… don’t.

And of course, a shout-out to J.K. Rowling and that damn HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, which features Remus Lupin, werewolf extraordinaire and my own personal literary boyfriend. I blame Remus and JKR for my ridiculous werewolf obsession. Thanks ever so much, guys.

Thanks, Lindsay!

Now, I am not without some werewolf recs of my own. An American Werewolf in London is still one of my favorite horror movies. Forged in the dark ages before CGI (1981), An American Werewolf in London was forced to rely on imaginative makeup (it even won an Oscar) and a compelling story to spook the audience. When David and Jack go backpacking in England, they get attacked by a large beast. Jack is killed outright, but David is only slightly mauled. David is relieved to be alive, until he starts seeing Jack (with a nice post-mauling visage that decays as the movie goes on), who warns him that he's gonna turn into a beastie himself. Jack urges David to kill himself (whatta friend), advice that David of course ignores, because otherwise the movie would be a half hour long. The movie is similar in tone to the original Evil Dead, before the franchise went fully camp and still walked that excellent line between horror and humor. Of all the werewolf movies I've seen, this is the only one I feel really gets it right.

Next are two movies that don't get it exactly right but are at least watchable, unlike some other werewolf movies I've seen (The Howling). First, Cursed, which I enjoyed more than I expected to. It probably helped that my expectations were low after reading the reviews. Yes, it's campy. Okay, really campy. I mean, it features a pre-redeemed-by-Fringe Joshua Jackson. But it's still a solid movie. And it's by Wes Craven, the master of horror, that has to count for something. Then there's Ginger Snaps, another film I enjoyed because my expectations were low. It makes clever use of a lycanthropy-as-puberty metaphor and spawned two sequels that are, okay, dreadful, but the first movie is worth catching the next time it's on TV.

Despite its Guy in a Furry Suit problem, Buffy the Vampire Slayer did a nice job handling werewolves. Two episodes stand out the most, the second season's "Phases" which you can watch on Hulu, and the fourth season's "Wild At Heart", which you can't. I promise I'll stop flogging Buffy, as soon as you all rent the complete series, or after this week, whichever comes first.

Finally, a bit of an anti-rec. After Dark's Horrorfest (aka 8 Films to Die For) is always hit or miss in its selections. There's usually a gem or two (Unrest, Tooth and Nail) buried among the selected dreck. Mulberry Street is not one of those gems. I love horror movies set in New York City (Cloverfield!) so I was excited for this one. And since the summary - "The city that never sleeps may shut its eyes for good when a deadly infection turns its residents to savage creatures" - led me to think it was a zombie movie, I was doubly excited. Well, Mulberry Street is not about zombies. It's about...god, I can barely bring myself to type this...wererats. Wererats are exactly what you think they are - instead of werewolves, people get bitten by infected rats and become wererats. Giant people-rats. Which I guess isn't a completely ridiculous concept, I'm sure someone somewhere could have pulled it off, but it was not pulled off by the team making this movie. It was on TV last week and I turned it on briefly to see if it was as bad as I remembered it being, and it was. It may be worth watching for a laugh at the insanity (and inanity), but that's about it. Wererats!


Sex Mahoney for President said...

When it comes to werewolf movies, it's Teen Wolf Too or nothing.

Sex Mahoney for President

smd said...

What, no love for the original Teen Wolf? It featured a werewolf playing basketball if memory serves.

Sex Mahoney for President said...

Actually, they're both cinematic masterpieces. I keep both of them within arms reach at all times just in case there's ever a person who doubts Jay Tarses in my presence.