October 26, 2011

The Inner Animal: a guest post by Zoe Whitten

I should not be surprised that the author of Peter the Wolf might have something to say about werewolves. Zoe Whitten writes all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff, so when I asked her to write a guest post for the Monster Movie Marathon, she was generous enough to talk about the fur-bearing fascination she has. Pay Zoe a visit at her blog or check out her profile on Smashwords.

Before you do that, be sure to read what she has to say about a couple of cult favorites in the werewolf genre. I've only seen one and hope to see the other someday.

The Inner Animal
by Zoe Whitten  

I’m a big fan of werewolves, and of most shapeshifters of the furry kind. But for as cool as werewolves are, I think they don’t get as much love as vampires in movies. It’s not just that vampires are cooler, temperature-wise. (Sorry.) They’re cheaper to depict on film with a few prosthetics and a less physically demanding transformation from human to monster. With a good werewolf film, you either have to get by on a few glimpses of the monsters in a flash, or you have monsters spending too much time on camera, resulting in people recognizing that they’re looking at a puppet or a guy in a suit. This is a major problem with some of the Howling later movies, for instance.

For my Halloween guest post, I wanted  to talk about two of my all-time favorite werewolf movies, American Werewolf in London and Dog Soldiers. I first saw American Werewolf in London when I was eight. We’d just got a VHS recorder for the first time, and my dad took to renting films like a crack addict would in later generations. Dad loved to rent horror films, and this was one of the first I’d ever seen. (Funny story: now in his old age, Dad can’t watch horror, and he’s rather fond of chick flicks. Yes, really.) I’ve seen it many times since that first viewing, it has stood the test of time well, perhaps because actor David Naughton does such a great job convincing me of his struggle to stay in control. Then again, this film stays fresh in my mind because of David’s first transformation. In an age before computers made everything easy with CGI and blue screens, filmmakers struggled to make a sequence that conveyed the grueling agony that a human would go through turning into a wolf. And they succeeded, I think, because to this day, I recall David’s hand stretching and shiver.

You don’t really see the werewolf often in the film, but you don’t have to. That first transformation has so much visual punch, it carries you through the cheesier parts of the film. Then there’s the dream sequence with the Nazi monsters killing David’s family to keep the tension going. I admit, the film loses a bit of tension with the final act taking place in a porn theater. So there’s all these moans killing the tension even while the grisly ghosts are giving David ideas on how to kill himself. But as you can see, this blend of morbid humor and violence influenced me quite a bit, since it shows up in a lot of my work.

David’s character is a wolf cursed recently, and he fights against his animal nature, which is the exact opposite of the wolf pack in Dog Soldiers. The pack in this film revel in being hunters, and they’ve got a bunch of their favorite food cornered in a cabin. Despite taking place in the middle of nowhere, it still feels a bit claustrophobic. This is due a lot to the camera technique making you feel like you’re standing too close to everyone and everything.

But you don’t really see much of the wolves until later in the film, not even in their untransformed human forms. Here, the stars of the show are a group of Scottish soldiers on what they think is a routine training operation. Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee both play soldiers fighting against the wolves, and what sucked me into this movie is Pertwee’s gruff sergeant character telling the story of a deceased friend’s tattoo. This has nothing to do with the wolves, but it’s just so creepy that it helps set the tone for the rest of the film. It also make Pertwee one of the easiest to identify with, second only to McKidd’s character. But McKidd cheated because he refuses to shoot a dog right at the start of the movie. That would instantly win cool point with me, even if I can recognize it as a cheap trick. Pertwee gets me liking him while he’s telling a scary story that has nothing at all to do with the movie. That’s talent.

Both films share the technique of flashing the camera around their monsters, which I think helps strengthen the fear factor. Visually, everything happens so fast that you don’t have a chance to process it all. Your brain even adds scarier details that may not have been there because the blurriness is something our mind doesn’t like. So we need to add detail to fill in the blurs. And what we see in our heads is most likely scarier than what was really on screen.

The movies chose to look at the wolf from slightly different perspectives. Dog Soldiers looks at the victims of a wolf pack, and while the soldiers are brash, there was not a one among them besides the evil commander who I was hoping would get eaten. With every other soldier, I was in classic horror movie viewer mode, yelling out, “No, dude! Run!” at all the times when obviously, someone failed to run fast enough.

American Werewolf in London looks at the monster itself and finds that some are victims of the curse rather than gleeful agents of evil. The transformation strips away David’s humanity in a painful way, and he cannot control his urges to change. In the aftermath of every attack, David is left with visions he doesn’t understand, and he is haunted by people claiming that he killed them. He’s struggling with his sanity, and so even if he is the monster eating people, when the police shoot him, I feel just as upset as Nurse Price with his fate. In fact, the ending upsets me so much that years later, I developed a kind of denial that it wasn’t “fair” because no one had used silver bullets.

Which I think is why I like werewolves so much as a story vehicle, because there’s the possibility to look at the monster and see their struggle against their inner animal just as much as there is to find a story with their victims. Which lends the mythos a more tragic aspect because you know how most werewolf movies will end. But a film like Dog Soldiers is no less entertaining for looking at the victims, even if they’re also meeting a similar grisly fate. It’s still tragic, and both films share similar themes. But writers are able to make either point of view sympathetic with the right tweaks.

Of course, both films share a sarcastic sense of humor, and I think that helps sell the horror better, and it makes the characters easier to like, even when they’re doing things I should feel uncomfortable with. Both films juggle dark humor and scares well, and both employ similar filming techniques with their monsters to keep me perched in my seat. Which is why both films are high on my list of films to check out for Halloween.


  1. Two of my favorite movies. Am. WW in London is just a classic and Dog Soldiers is a great take on a werewolf story.

  2. Great werewolf movies, both of which I enjoy watching. My favorite "werewolf" movie is Wolfen.