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Classic Film Review: THE WEREWOLF (1956)

By Anthony Moretta

Buried beneath the glow of '50s space-age and hard-boiled bitches and bums, The Werewolf punches at you from the decade's horror craze, but without the sheen of The Blob (1958) or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It's the lowest budget and looks great. From the steady opening long shot of a deserted main street, black-boxed by the night sky, and nifty cut to the opening credits, to the torch-carrying mob and forest trek. Director Fred F. Sears (who also narrates), and screenwriters James B. Gordon and Robert E. Kent, crafted a sincere monster flick, shedding the need for big scares and even bigger effects. Instead, it's police fiction and high drama. It's a little sci-fi and slightly sinister. There's macabre alright - enough for the sort of movie that would have inspired horror-punk rockers like The Misfits - but not for the sake of sensation. Not for subversive kicks.

Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch) is the afflicted man, an experiment gone wrong by two God-playing scientists, Forrest and Chambers (S. John Launer and George Lynn). Marsh stumbles into the idyllic town of Mountaincrest, not remembering much and bringing the beast when pushed to anger or fear, taking his first victim who tries to roll him in an alleyway for twenty bucks. Cue the cops and investigation, led by Sheriff Haines (an awesome Don Megowan), and the town's on spindles, looking for a deranged killer on the loose. No time's wasted to introduce Marsh's wife and kid, and the doctors also trail their escaped guinea pig, trying to reach him ahead of the police. We head into the woods and mountains, where Marsh is holing up, dodging the search party. With the help of a bear trap, and some heartfelt coaxing, Marsh is taken in and put in jail. The doctors try to spring him, but the wolf makes a meal of them and heads back into the wild, where the law has no choice to put it down with a series of rifle shots off a river bridge.



The cops swallow the science of it all, and it's a guess we should, too. Whatever we need to explain the werewolf's existence. The aftermath of nature's abomination is what this picture's about. When all is fucked, the picture explores character reaction and reasoning. Not thematically dissimilar to the post-heist scenes in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), or the closing sequences of Gun Crazy (1950). And it looks a lot like Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and First Blood (1982), two amazing films about outcasts on the run.



The Werewolf is horror noir and why shouldn't it be? It's the 1950s. Lots of front lighting and carefully picked camera angles, showcasing the outdoors beauty against the supernatural, and Sears knows better than to turn this thing over to blatant carnage. The beast kills off-screen, like in the prison cell scene where it offs the doctors. The screams and mashing are happening just below frame, almost inviting us to lean over and look down to see what's happening. Sears leaves the details to our imaginations, playing off the tried-and-true trick of what we don't see scares us most.

The darkness also weighs down the wolf's pursuers. They accept the manufactured monstrosity as an expected return on man's arrogance. They almost want to believe in the occult. Not as an outskirt of normal living, but as a place-setting for what's to come. Maybe something worse. Where Forrest and Chambers speak in fascination about their lab work - a pulley for their greed and glory - the townsfolk address the goings-on in monotone, matter-of-fact, colorless speech.

Haines strikes strong in measured pose and repose, crowding his brain with the blight of an untamed animal ripping out throats in his town. And Marsh is tortured by his amnesia, wandering far from home, and the primal creature is left to survive the harshness that greets it because of the harshness that was forced on it. When the bear trap snaps the wolf's leg, you almost feel sorry for the poor bastard, and Sears keeps the camera still as we watch and listen to all of the wolf's pain and effort in prying the trap open, eventually crawling away on the forest floor.

 

Anthony Moretta is from Brooklyn, NY and writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter Online and will be featured in the upcoming anthology, Unfashioned Creatures. His independent film project, Travels, is currently in post-production and he's also developing an original comic book series.