Of all of the mythical beasts that have been immortalized over the centuries, the lycanthrope, or werewolf, has arguably made the smoothest transition into motion pictures. Aside from the vampire, no other creature has been done and redone over the years, from Lon Chaney’s definitive performance in 1941’s The Wolf Man to the Team Jacob shirtless heartthrobs in the Twilight films. In 1956, the incomparable sci-fi producer Sam Katzman (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came From Beneath the Sea) took a shot at revising the werewolf mythos with the appropriately titled The Werewolf, and set forth some new theories and ideas about lycanthropy.
The Werewolf starts with a man named Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch from City of Fear) stumbling into a bar and asking the barkeep if he knows who he is; the confused bartender becomes more confused when, after ordering a drink and chugging it down, the stranger almost leaves the bar without his change. Another patron of the bar sees all of this and follows Duncan down the street, stopping him in an alley and robbing him. During the robbery, Duncan turns into a werewolf and kills the thug. As he flees into the night, a woman sees him and screams, alerting the rest of the bar’s patrons and bringing them out into the street. One of the customers happens to be the deputy sheriff, Ben Clovey (Harry Lauter from “Tales of the Texas Rangers”), who follows the tracks into the woods. Ben is attacked and wounded, but saved in the nick of time by Sheriff Jack Haines (“The Beachcomber” regular Don Megowan).
Jack takes Ben to see Dr. Jonas Gilchrist (Ken Christy) and his nurse/niece Amy (Joyce Holden) to have his wounds treated and the four of them discuss what to do about the monster that is apparently threatening their town. Once the story of the monster breaks, a couple of doctors named Morgan Chambers (George Lynn from I Was a Teenage Frankenstein) and Emery Forrest (Marnie’s John Launer) show up with a vested interest in the creature. It turns out that the doctors were the first to find Duncan after he wrecked his car and, seeing that he was suffering from amnesia, they injected him with a radioactive serum that catered to his bestial side and turned him into half man, half wolf. Around the same time that the doctors show up, a woman named Helen Marsh (Eleanore Tanin) arrives, searching for her missing husband – a man named Duncan. Once all of the pieces fall into place, there is only one thing left for the sheriff to figure out – how to save his town and Duncan at the same time.
Written by Robert E. Kent (who wrote some of the old Dick Tracy screenplays), The Werewolf takes the horror archetype of the werewolf and puts a science fiction spin on it; there are no full moons or wolf bites to change Duncan into the wolf. Duncan is transformed by the selfish malevolence of science, a human guinea pig for the doctors’ experiments. Much like the human form of the werewolves that came before and after him, Duncan is a tortured victim. However, with Duncan, it is the evil of men that caused him to change.
The Werewolf is a fairly incestuous production, with Katzman not only enlisting his writing buddy Kent but his longtime director Fred F. Sears (who worked with Katzman on several movies, including The Giant Claw, Rock Around the Clock and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers). A veteran of both westerns and science fiction productions, Sears knew as well as Katzman how to get the most out of a small budget and still make a great movie. The Werewolf was shot by Edward Lindon (who also was the cinematographer for King Kong and Son of Kong), and it has a look that is a mixture of both horror and science fiction. The vibe of the film borrows from the classic universal monster movies, with the deep shadows and sparse lighting, but the film also has the same isolated and deserted feel of Katzman’s alien-invasion sci-fi epics. Lindon knows how to make a monster movie and Sears and Katzman know the low-budget sci-fi genre. Together, they are a great team, and The Werewolf is a perfect marriage of their work.
The titular werewolf is a cool mix of camp and horror. Duncan as the wolf still wears his human clothes, making him look a bit like the hero in I Was A Teenage Werewolf (which was released a year later). Visually, Duncan’s transformations are done in precisely the same way that the transformations are done in The Wolf Man or any of the various older versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although not quite as effectively. A clever mix of makeup, time-lapse and cross-fades make Duncan’s human form turn into the wolf and vice-versa. Steven Ritch acts the part very well, so the viewer feels sympathy for Duncan; he’s alone, has no idea who or what he is, and is being hunted by a torch-wielding mob. The posse is justified, since the werewolf is murdering people in the town, but Duncan himself is not at fault. The introduction of his family searching for him only solidifies his role as tragic protagonist, with the doctors Chambers and Forrest being the true villains in the film. The cursed werewolf instills a curious feeling of both fear and sympathy that tears the audience in two.
The Werewolf didn’t completely shatter the full moon/silver bullet version of the werewolf legend, but it is widely considered to be the first revisionist werewolf movie. Despite its generic name, the film is both inventive and entertaining. A predecessor of both the modern werewolf movie and the sci-fi monster movie, The Werewolf is essential viewing for fans of either genre.