Being a werewolf is generally messy – there’s that agonisingly painful transformation process, the total loss of self-control, and just having to deal with all that fur everywhere. Lycanthropes are full of angst, and movies – including these 10 essential picks – have always appreciated that about them.
Before any Remus Lupin fans go claws-out in the comments, a quick note: There are tons of movies that incorporate werewolves into plots that also involve other monsters, like What We Do in the Shadows (“We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”) or Monster Squad (“Wolfman’s got nards!”). But for the purposes of this list, we wanted to spotlight films where werewolves are supplying the majority of the conflict and/or carnage. So let’s get to-aroooooo it!
10. Werewolves on Wheels
If you’re looking for a tightly-scripted, well-acted horror saga with fancy production values, this 1971 exploitation classic might not be your cup of gasoline. But if a werewolf movie that’s mostly just footage of an outlaw biker gang cruising the desert and partying around bonfires – with a brief but crucial interlude involving a random Satanic cult – sounds appealing, look no further. Yes, the “special effects” look like cheap Halloween masks, and it ultimately delivers far more motorcycle wheels than werewolf sightings – but you can’t stay mad at a movie called Werewolves on Wheels.
9. Silver Bullet
Two years before he fought vampires in The Lost Boys, Corey Haim played Marty, a kid who takes a stand against a vicious werewolf in 1985's Silver Bullet. (The movie is named both for the object traditionally used to kill werewolves, as well as the nickname given to Marty’s awesome, gas-powered wheelchair, which gets an upgrade mid-movie to an even more awesome daredevil model.) Stephen King wrote the screenplay, adapting his own Bernie Wrightson-illustrated novella, and there are plenty of familiar King markers scattered throughout the story. For one thing, it’s set in a Castle Rock-ish small town in Maine called Tarker’s Mill.
The supporting cast is outstanding – Everett McGill (also known as Big Ed on Twin Peaks) plays the local reverend; Terry O’Quinn is the sheriff; Megan “Anne of Green Gables” Follows is Haim’s big sister, Jane; and Gary Busey plays Marty and Jane’s boozy Uncle Red. An adult version of Jane (Tovah Feldshuh) acts as an unseen narrator to the events which are supposed to take place in the mid-1970s – a device Stand By Me would also use a year later – but there’s not much nostalgia at play here. Mostly, it’s just a pair of scared-as-hell siblings and their sceptical uncle coming to grips with the monster in their midst, then formulating a plan to take it down. And to be perfectly honest, the werewolf reveal and the associated special effects aren’t very pulse-pounding; the real reason to watch Silver Bullet is Busey, a legendary oddball who delivers the goods here, stealing every scene with his loosey-goosey performance.
8. Dog Soldiers
Before The Descent and a pair of pivotal Game of Thrones episodes, writer-director Neil Marshall made his feature debut with this pitch-black comedy about a group of soldiers who’re sent out on a training mission in the Scottish highlands – not realising they’re marching straight into werewolf territory. Marshall makes sure we get to know the guys (including Kevin McKidd and Sean Pertwee) before they’re plunged into peril, but Dog Soldiers doesn’t make you wait around for the monsters to show up.
Much of the movie takes place in an apparently abandoned country home where the men take refuge with the help of a local zoologist (Emma Cleasby), using their military skills and random array of weapons to hold off the snarling beasts who’ve surrounded the property. Dog Soldiers also has a secondary plot involving a special forces unit – led by Liam “Ser Davos Seaworth” Cunningham – who’re tracking the werewolves for their own nefarious purposes. Mostly, though, it’s a story of high-stakes survival, featuring characters you actually care about and some fantastic gore, as well as a last-act twist that’s nifty even if you see it coming.
7. The Company of Wolves
You can’t have a list of werewolf movies without at least one entry that’s inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, and this gorgeous (but also gross, when it needs to be) 1984 entry from Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy) based on Angela Carter’s short story fits the bill. As teenage Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) sleeps in an attic bedroom filled with toys from her childhood, she dreams a series of fanciful fairy tales. Some of them unfold as stories that are told within the dream, others are part of the main dream narrative, but all of them are different variations on cautionary tales about wolves (with some warnings about men in general tucked in there for good measure).
The many layers of plot – and some lush, stylised production design – add to the dreamlike nature of the film overall, though it does take some nightmare turns: The Company of Wolves contains easily one of the most disturbing werewolf transformation sequences ever, involving more gruesome skin-ripping and face-tearing than even the Brothers Grimm could ever have imagined.
Whitley Streiber, author of The Hunger and Communion, also penned the source novel for this 1981 tale of weary NYPD detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney), who’s dragged in from semi-retirement to investigate a rash of perplexing murders. The crimes are notable both because of the people involved (one victim is a famous real-estate tycoon) and because of the grotesquely mutilated bodies the killer or killers leave behind.
You can see where this is going – but the trippy Wolfen is no ordinary werewolf tale; instead, its killer beasts are technically not werewolves, but rather shape-shifters who are in human form most of the time. (As you might imagine, Wolfen has some cultural sensitivity issues since the “pack” are all portrayed as Native Americans, but Edward James Olmos provides plenty of gravitas as the group’s most outspoken member.) It takes damn near the entire movie for the characters to catch on, but the audience has been aware since the opening scene, thanks to director Michael Wadleigh’s generous use of “wolf-o-vision” to let us know we’re watching the action from the POV of a heat-seeking predator; it’s a clever contrast to the electronic surveillance that also pops up throughout the film.
That gimmick doesn’t take away from Wolfen’s other standout elements, which include the use of NYC’s crumbling South Bronx neighbourhood as a way to signify the city’s own “shape-shifting,” and an enthusiastic supporting cast that includes Gregory Hines (as a jovial medical examiner), Tom Noonan (as a goofy zoologist), and Diane Venora (as a no-nonsense forensic psychologist).
5. Ginger Snaps
This 2000 Canadian cult classic from future Orphan Black co-creator John Fawcett stars Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle as sisters Brigitte and Ginger, whose unusually close relationship is built on a shared love of all things morbid (including a future suicide pact they made as children) – and a shared hatred of everything in their suburban town, especially the other kids at their high school. Things begin to change for everyone when Ginger gets her period for the first time, then is swiftly saddled with another “curse” when she’s bitten by a werewolf.
Growing up is tumultuous enough even without the intense body horror that comes from transforming into a monster; while Ginger’s dealing with sprouting hair and primal urges, Brigitte is frantically trying to figure out a cure (with the help of an unexpected ally: the local weed dealer) or any kind of workable solution, really. Things get more complicated, as they often do, when the body count starts rising – but the heart of the movie is the deep bond between the sisters, which drifts into codependency even before the crisis really takes hold. A snarky script with feminist leanings, co-written by Fawcett and Karen Walton, and an enviable post-grunge aesthetic further cement Ginger Snaps (which spawned a sequel that features Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, as well as a prequel that shifts the action to the Canadian wilderness, circa 1815) as a must-see.
4. Teen Wolf
Jeph Loeb co-wrote this 1985 Michael J. Fox high-school comedy, which is somewhat unique in the werewolf pantheon because Fox’s character, Scott, has actually inherited his lycanthropy from his father (one of many details changed in MTV’s recent Teen Wolf series adaptation, which ran for six seasons). There’s no biting involved, and generally a lack of violence overall, but there is plenty of drama to work through. Once it’s revealed werewolves are scary good at basketball, Scott’s meteoric rise from nobody to hero causes tons of inner conflict – and he learns some hard lessons vis-à-vis mooning over the stuck-up class beauty instead of appreciating his best gal pal, who’s clearly perfect for him.
But mostly, Teen Wolf is out for a good time, with Back to the Future-era Fox exuding charisma galore, and iconic moments (and dance moves!) that have more to do with fun than horror. What reference point would we have for “surfing” atop a moving vehicle if not for the genius of Stiles, Scott’s party-animal best friend/hype man?
3. The Howling
Three years before he made Gremlins, Joe Dante directed this decidedly more grown-up 1981 monster movie, co-adapted from Gary Bradner’s novel by future indie darling John Sayles. Dee Wallace (post-Hills Have Eyes but pre-E.T., Cujo, and Critters) stars as TV news anchor Karen White, who agrees to meet with a serial killer who’s been stalking her as a way to help capture both him and sky-high ratings. The experience proves so traumatising that Karen’s shrink (Patrick Macnee) insists that she and her husband spend a week at “The Colony,” a New Age-y seaside retreat that almost immediately proves itself to be the opposite of therapeutic. There are a few reasons why this is so, but mainly...it’s the werewolves!
The Howling has a generous dose of sleaze, all the better to remind you that werewolves are generally grimy creatures (the make-up effects are by Rob Bottin, whose many credits also include Total Recall, Legend, and John Carpenter’s The Thing) as well as a stellar supporting cast, with great character turns from Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, and my personal favourite, Dick Miller – a Dante favourite (he plays Murray Futterman in Gremlins) who pops up as the exasperated owner of an occult bookstore.
2. An American Werewolf in London
John Landis’ 1981 horror classic – for those keeping score at home, yes, this is the fourth werewolf movie from 1981 on this list; were there extra full moons that year or something? – packs so many genres into its genuinely moving story. It’s a buddy comedy, a romance, and a thriller, in addition to being a full-on horror movie with Oscar-winning make-up that is still stunning to behold (all hail the great Rick Baker).
It begins as American best friends David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) – two immediately likable characters – set out to explore the wilds of North Yorkshire; after enduring a frosty reception at the local pub, they head back out into the night, where they have their fateful encounter on the moors. David wakes up in the hospital where he’s tended to by a pretty nurse (Jenny Agutter), but he has injuries nobody can see – except Jack, who keeps popping up in greater states of decay to warn his pal of his doom. Cheeky music choices (“Blue Moon,” “Bad Moon Rising”) and a sly sense of humour keep American Werewolf on the lighter side, but Baker’s visceral special effects are what really make it extra special.
1. The Wolf Man (1941)
Forget the tepid 2010 remake – the original will forever be the best. Lon Chaney Jr., who would go on to play Universal’s Wolf Man in four sequels, stars as Larry Talbot, a genial fellow who returns to his family’s estate in Wales after a prolonged absence (which conveniently accounts for that fact that the Oklahoma-born Chaney certainly feels 100 per cent American). But he’s barely had time to reconcile with his father (Claude Rains) or start wooing a pretty girl from the village (Evelyn Ankers) when an impulse visit to a fortune-teller (played by Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi) inadvertently leads to Larry being bitten by a curiously large wolf.
Even though everyone in Larry’s hometown seems to know an awful lot about werewolves (the film’s signature poem: “Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright” is recited multiple times by different characters in act one alone), it takes forever for the locals to realise they’ve got one in their midst. Though it wasn’t the first-ever werewolf movie, The Wolf Man remains the standard-bearer, with its transformation scene (a painstaking process in the earliest days of special effects make-up), its tormented hero, and its inevitable tragic conclusion.