Back in the days before cable television and home video, there were basically two ways to see a movie; one could go to the theater and see the movie as it was intended, or one could wait a few months (or years) until the movie hit T.V., where it would be shown edited for time and content. To compete with theaters, broadcast networks took to producing their own made-for-T.V. movies, and these television movie-of-the-week offerings included a handful of films that went on to become horror classics, movies like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and even the first adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Sometimes, the T.V. movies were less-than-classic, but still ended up being a lot of fun. Such is the case with 1972’s Moon of the Wolf.
Moon of the Wolf stars David Janssen (“The Fugitive”) as Aaron Whitaker, the sheriff in a Louisiana Bayou town called Marsh Island. Sheriff Whitaker is called in when a couple of locals find the mutilated dead body of a young girl. Initially, the sheriff determines that the girl was killed by a pack of wild dogs, but an autopsy performed by Dr. Druten (John Beradino from “The New Breed”) reveals that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. The sheriff rounds up a list of suspects, including the deceased’s inconsolable brother, Lawrence Burrifors (Geoffrey Lewis from The Devil’s Rejects), and a rich boy from up the river whom she had been seeing named Andrew Rodanthe (Bradford Dillman from Piranha and The Swarm). When a frustrated Lawrence lashes out at other citizens, the sheriff throws him in jail where he is promptly killed when a powerful beast breaks into the police station. It is then that the sheriff realizes that he is not dealing with a human killer at all, and suspects that the culprit is a werewolf. With the help of Andrew Rodanthe’s sister, Louise (Barbara Rush from When Worlds Collide and It Came from Outer Space), the sheriff must figure out who the werewolf is and how to stop them before they strike again.
Originally broadcast as an ABC Movie of the Week, Moon of the Wolf was directed by established television and film director Daniel Petrie (The Neptune Factor, Sybil). The screenplay, adapted by screenwriter Alvin Sapinsley (who wrote for “The Outer Limits” and “Suspense”) from a novel by Leslie H. Whitten, begins as a standard whodunit, but quickly turns into a monster movie. The change is a welcome one, since the film is not much of a mystery; there’s very little suspense amongst the soap opera-like subplots, and it’s actually fairly easy to figure out who the wolf is once all of the facts are laid out and the blood begins to spill. Nevertheless, the film does have some very spooky moments, especially for a broadcast network T.V. movie. By today’s standards, it’s pretty tame, but in 1972, Moon of the Wolf was able to raise a few goosebumps.
Because Moon of the Wolf is a television movie, it has an awkward structure. It still follows the same three act structure to which a theatrical feature would adhere, but it is also divided into seven acts to accommodate the commercial breaks of broadcast television. This means that every 12-20 minutes, there’s a big cliffhanger and the screen fades to black. In its original broadcast, this is where ABC fit the commercials into the film. With the advertisements intact, the movie flows. Without them, which is how most of today’s viewers will see the film, it makes for some weird rhythmic breaks in the action. The T.V. movie formula of Moon of the Wolf is noticeably different from that of a theatrical feature.
One of the coolest things about Moon of the Wolf is its use of authentic locations. Daniel Petrie shot the movie on-location in the Louisiana Bayou country, in and around the cities of Clinton and Burnside. When the film shows a swamp scene, that’s a real Louisiana swamp. The Rodanthe Plantation is an honest-to-God plantation called the Houmas House, an estate that Hollywood has fallen in love with, having been seen in everything from Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte to Fletch Lives. The extra effort that Petrie took by shooting on-location in the Bayou goes a long way towards giving Moon of the Wolf a realistic feeling.
The beautiful locations in Moon of the Wolf are captured on film by veteran cinematographer Richard C. Glouner (The Dunwich Horror). The establishing shots in the movie are done with sweeping wide lenses, capturing as much of the scenery as possible within the limitations of the 4:3 aspect ratio of television. Glouner also has a few tricks up his sleeve to remind the viewer that they are watching a horror film, including quick, motivated zooms and selective fuzzy focus, all used tastefully in a way that moves the story forward. When it comes to dealing with the wolf, Glouner uses the standard stalking point-of-view shot that audiences have seen dozens of times, but it works well in the context of the movie. Glouner seems to be in on the joke that Moon of the Wolf is a campy, fun movie, and his photography reflects that fact.
The wolf itself in Moon of the Wolf is shown sporadically, not being fully realized onscreen until near the end of the film. Possibly for budgetary reasons, the wolf is mostly hidden through editing or photography so that the flaws in the creature makeup aren’t as apparent. As mentioned earlier, many attacks are shown from the POV of the wolf. Other times, the film will show only the effects of the wolf’s presence, such as a shot of a jail door being thrown onto the sheriff’s desk when the wolf lays siege to the station. Still other times, the wolf will only be shown partially, exposing just an arm or a hand to the viewer. When the wolf is finally revealed, it’s a bit of a disappointment; he’s an upright-walking, Lon Chaney Jr/Michael Landon-looking lycanthrope, more of a hairy human with fangs and claws than an actual werewolf. In a way, the beast’s makeup design is par for the course; Moon of the Wolf is a campy, soap opera-style monster movie, so it gets a campy, soap opera-style monster.
Television movies were different in the days before cable or home video. They were more ambitious, had more heart, and were just plain better. Some of the best horror movies of the seventies were T.V. movies, films like The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver, Trilogy of Terror, and Bad Ronald. Many of these films have faded away into obscurity, but if you can find them, they’re well worth the watch. They don’t make them like Moon of the Wolf anymore.