Werewolves are my favorite monsters. I’ve always been fascinated with transformation—moving from a weaker to a more powerful form, or unleashing the monster inside of man. This is the crux of the werewolf story, and mostly where the horror is rooted in. Similar to Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, the afflicted leading man (or woman) is usually a model citizen, normal and average in every way, except for when the moon shines full and bright in the sky...
The flip side to my fascination with werewolves is my fear of a loss of control, which is what most people pick up on in werewolf movies. There are exceptions, of course, and the movies I like the best in this genre tend to be the ones that play with those expectations, as we will see. I should mention before you dig into the list that there are minor spoilers, so don't read too carefully if you haven't seen the movie in question.
This is a straight-up monster movie, from start to finish. Writer/director Neil Marshall keeps the plot elegant in its simplicity. A special ops squad is doing maneuvers in the Scottish highlands when they run across the remains of the squad they were meeting up with. Next thing you know, the hunters become the hunted... And that’s it. Werewolves on the moors. Simple, really. Here the werewolves are forces of nature, rather than existential metaphors. They are also well designed and pretty damn scary. A nice mix of jumps, suspense, and blood and guts, sure to please any modern horror fan.
This almost-an-art-house film makes the list for sheer audacity. This is a framing story, with three vignettes tucked in between, and a meta-story around the framing story. Yeah, it’s one of those. But don’t worry, it’s imminently watchable. In fact, the confusion is part of what makes the movie unsettling. The vignettes are all different representations of werewolves in folklore, which I personally love. Angela Lansbury is great as the storytelling grandmother who keeps her granddaughter entertained with these gruesome tales. There’s a creepy sexual undertone to a lot of the stories, where the wolf is a stand-in for lust in these cautionary tales. This movie also gets credit for the variety of transformations, including the crazy "exit through the pie hole" gag featured on the movie poster.
3. The Howling (1981)
Ahh, the 1980s...The Howling wears its 80’s-ness like a shroud, but that doesn’t keep it from being creepy and horrifying, though not always for the right reasons. Rob Bottin, the special effects guy who did the monster work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, turns in some fantastic transformations that still make the back of my knees all clammy. This book differs widely from the novel by Gary Brandner, and that’s something of a shame, as there are less creaky coincidences in the book. Dee Wallace plays a TV reporter stalked by a serial killer (who turns out to be a werewolf) and in their final showdown—at the beginning of the movie—the reporter is left traumatized. To recuperate, the doctor sends her to a retreat in the woods upstate (that just happens to be a werewolf colony). Surprise, surprise. Still, a solid, darkly humorous Joe Dante movie, the kind we loved back then.
2. Ginger Snaps (2000)
A really clever premise is the fulcrum on which this entire movie hangs. The time of the month is the time of the moon for a young wallflower who is attacked by, well, you know...and when her budding reproductive system kicks in, she becomes all that and a bag of chips, as well as a slayer of boys. The werewolf as puberty. Brilliant. Good monster effects compliment a script that hits every note perfectly. Also a nice change of pace, since 90% of all werewolf movies are guys chasing girls around in a play on the "Big Bad Wolf/Little Red Riding Hood" dynamic. Ginger Snaps turns that on its ear and is all the better for it.
1. An American Werewolf in London (1980)
Still the gold standard by which all other werewolf movies are measured. Director John Landis took the classic Wolf Man plot and modernized it with a mix of humor and some great jump scares. But the star of the movie isn’t David “I’m a Pepper” Naughton, but rather Rick Baker, who won his first Academy Award for his special effects make-up in the film. David’s transformation is painful, horrible, and fascinating all at the same time. Landis did the best job of making us really care about David and his plight. And that’s what makes The Wolf Man and other films work; there’s a tragedy to the curse of the werewolf. No one wants to be that guy. And there’s only one way out, in the end.