Horror Movies 101: Werewolves and Vampires and Zombies, Oh My! (Part 3 of 4)
From writer/director Lonnie Martin comes the third part of his multi-part series exploring the horror film genre. Lonnie’s the force behind the award-winning Ningen Manga Productions (www.ningenmanga.com ). Lonnie also maintains a behind the scenes blog tracking the course of his latest film at womensstudiesmovie.blogspot.com
Monsters Intro & Frankenstein
All right, class. Settle down.
We’ve reached the point where a lot of you may highly disagree with me. All I can do is apologize for when I leave out somebody’s favorite vampire film or ignore someone’s favorite werewolf film or even say something disparaging about somebody else’s favorite zombie film. I wish I had time and space to discuss them all but I don’t. Still, it’s not all bad. My inability to explore every facet of them illustrates how much these monster archetypes have infiltrated and influenced pop culture.
I use the word archetype with some hesitation. Stephen King uses it in his fantastic book on horror analysis, Danse Macabre, to describe the classifications of classic movie monsters. However, instead of focusing on zombies, he looks at the “Thing With No Name” in order to trace the lineage of monsters, vampire and werewolves back to three 19th century novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde respectively. He does touch on zombies, but links them to the cannibalism themes inherent to vampires, implying that without the vampire story there would be no zombie stories.
What I don’t want to do is recycle King. His ideas on the literary values and histories of these monsters are more entertaining and delivered in a manner far more eloquent than I can muster. Still, the beauty of the vampire and werewolf myths is the infinite amount of interpretations they offer while remaining simple concepts. Perhaps the word archetype is fitting given their familiarity. (Is this my way of apologizing if my analysis is less than groundbreaking? Moving on . . .)
Whatever the case, I’m jettisoning the “Thing With No Name” archetype, not because I disagree with it, but because under King’s definition, it spreads across too wide a spectrum of films. If nothing else, the “Thing With No Name” is versatile. However, while the creatures of Alien, Pumpkinhead, Eight Legged Freaks, Species, Godzilla, The Thing and countless others all fall into the “Thing With No Name” category, the movies they star in are in other ways difficult to link together.
Also, Frankenstein is a different kind of monster movie from the films listed above, one that is really quite rare. For while Frankenstein’s Monster is indeed frightening, in almost all the film versions, and there have been dozens, we feel a great deal of empathy for the creature. I guess you could make an argument for Godzilla as well, but try saying the same thing about the xenomorph in Alien.
Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong (Okay, fine. And Godzilla) are rare in that they are monsters the audience feels sorry for despite the horrific nature of their appearance and the violence of their actions. They’re underdogs who have been dealt a shitty hand by fate, so in many ways, we understand they’re pissed. If you’ve seen the original King Kong, or Peter Jackson’s remake (Though not the 1976 remake. Never the 1976 remake.), you know what I mean. At the film’s climax, when the big ape is astride the Empire State Building, Fay Wray swooning in his hand, you’re not rooting for the planes, but hoping the battle’s end will find Kong triumphant.
There are a lot of Frankenstein movies out there. I believe it may be the most adapted story in the history of film. Most recently, USA network did a “modern retelling” of the story that was greeted with mixed reviews. The Kenneth Branagh directed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is closest to the novel, meaning it’s slow, drab, and ponderous. Though essentially a comedy, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is pretty damn good. It’s been twenty years since I’ve seen it, but if my memory serves me correctly, a Hammer Films version, The Evil of Frankenstein, with Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein, is worth a look. That is if Universal Pictures ever gets around to releasing its collection of Hammer Films on DVD.
Still, the best of the bunch is Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein with Clive Owens as the Mad Doctor Frankenstein (“Alive! It’s alive!”), and Boris Karloff as The Monster. It’s dated to be sure, but never boring. I caught it on AMC a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised at how creepy it was. The scene where The Monster meets a little girl on a riverbank makes me shudder just thinking about it. Plus, there’s something in Karloff’s face that perfectly captures the right mix of menace and sadness. The 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, with Elsa Lanchester as The Monster’s would-be mate, is just as good.
While Frankenstein stories are still entertaining, the archetype has been so homogenized over the past seventy-five years that it rarely scares us. It’s become familiar and known. The same can be said for werewolves, vampires, and, to a much lesser extent, zombies. Just look at the cutesy Halloween decorations on sale at your local Wal-Mart, smiling cartoon werewolves, adorable red-cheeked vampires and fun, kid-friendly skeletons (child safe zombies), all guaranteed not to scare you or your Ritalin-laden child. That reason alone is perhaps why I loathe labeling these monsters with the term “archetype.” It seems that by categorizing them, we make them known quantities, and somehow sap them of their power to frighten. Unfortunately, many of the movies reflect this.
Yet there are still some great, scary monster movies out there. The ones that work best are those that try to put a new spin on the old themes. Even if the success is of varying degrees, the reinforcement of the possibilities these monsters hold gives hope that werewolves, vampires and zombies will continue to rise from their graves long after we’re sleeping in ours.
Lycanthropy legends have been around since the dawn of civilization. You could joke that somehow we’ve never truly evolved, but if you think about that too hard it becomes more scary than funny. Homer and Virgil both touched briefly on the subject, and from medieval times onward, werewolves have been associated with one witch burning or another. Today, Lycanthropy is actually a mental illness classification for a person who has delusions of transforming into a wolf. All this begs the question: Are werewolves real? To which the only answer possible is: Who knows?
In less technologically advanced times, the werewolf legend flourished. A person born with an extreme amount of body hair would likely be accused of being a werewolf. Individuals who dreamt of wolves, were born on Christmas Eve, or purposely ate human flesh could be cursed to change into a wolf. Safe in the knowledge of modern psychology, group therapy, and Zoloft, it’s easy to laugh these ideas off as superstitions. After all, they give us the luxury of explaining away the evils of the world in psychological abstractions. The world of the “less civilized” people of the past was one of much more primal and supernatural possibilities.
Though the legend has successfully translated to film, these days the werewolf has lost much of its ability to scare us. Perhaps the werewolf legend is simply one where the unseen, rumored unknown is more frightening than the slobbering, howling beast. Therein lies the problem with most werewolf movies. When we finally see the werewolf, our suspension of disbelief usually goes out the window. I’ve always wondered why that is. With few exceptions, I’m universally disappointed with the creature designs in most of these movies. Maybe it’s that no one really knows what a werewolf is supposed to look like. No matter. In these werewolf movies, the man half of the “wolfman” is far more interesting than the wolf side. Therefore, if the story and characters engage me enough, I can forgive bad animatronics.
In my opinion, the werewolf sub-genre really begins and ends with An American Werewolf In London. John Landis’s 1981 film about two American tourists attacked by a werewolf on the moors of Northern England succeeds because it keeps its tongue placed firmly in its cheek. What’s brilliant is how fear grips you even as you’re laughing. Few films walk the line between scary and satire as well as American Werewolf.
You have the murdered Jack (Griffin Dunne) coming back as a ghost to tell David (David Naughton) that he’s cursed to transform into a werewolf. In each subsequent appearance, Jack is a little more decomposed. It’s a joke that’s played for laughs, and yet the imagery is disturbing as hell. There’s also Jenny Agutter as the nurse who responds to her nutty patient’s ramblings by immediately jumping into bed with him (the film’s most unrealistic plot device). Finally, the music, I could go on for hours about the music, but I won’t ruin it for those of you who haven’t seen it. In my opinion, no movie before or since has used music to such wonderful effect.
Rising above all other aspects, its Rick Baker’s make-up effects that make An American Werewolf in London a winner. Twenty-five years later, they still hold up. I’ve already mentioned Jack’s steady decomposition. Also impressive are two dream sequences, one foreshadowing David’s transformation, and the other featuring Nazi pigs (!). However, the pièce de résistance is David’s transformation from man to wolf. It’s absolutely stunning, especially considering it was all rendered with latex and tubing. The beast itself is convincing. For one thing, Landis wisely shoots the werewolf so we don’t get a good look at it until the last two minutes of the film. When we do get a look at it, we see that he choose a creature design that is almost all wolf and no man, which adds to its believability.
A word to the wise, avoid the “sequel,” An American Werewolf In Paris, at all costs. It’s quite possibly one of the worst movies ever made.
The best werewolf films tap into and exploit the concept of the beast within, though it’s strange how few of them do it well. One of the most interesting is Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves which is less a horror film than a Freudian retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood myth. It looks at the “beast within” idea, and relates it to burgeoning adolescence, giving the film a highly sexual connotation. The film seems to state that we’re all werewolves. Some of us simply allow the beast to come out and play more than others.
Going back to An American Werewolf in London, after David’s initial transformation, he awakes the next morning, naked and confused but randy and feeling great. Yet he has no memory of the havoc and death he has wrought the night before. When Jack visits him later, he confronts David with the ghosts of his previous nights victims, doomed to roam the earth unless he takes his own life. There’s a flipside to letting the primal beast out, freedom and energy are compromised by death and destruction. This conflict is what really makes the werewolf legend compelling.
Ironically enough, it’s spelled out best in a non-werewolf movie, The Hulk, though to be fair it’s still about a man transforming into a monster. Describing his transformation, the Hulk’s alter ego says, “You know what scares me the most? When I can’t fight it anymore, when it takes over, when I totally lose control . . . I like it.”
One of the best werewolf films of late, Ginger Snaps, plays on both the rush of losing control and the sexual connotations of the werewolf myths. Like Landis’s film, it also uses humor to drive the ideas home. Late bloomer Ginger (Katherine Isabel) is bitten by a werewolf shortly after her first period, so when she starts to sprout hair and act a little wild, she and her younger sister Bridgette (Emily Perkins) don’t know exactly what to blame it on. Like David, she discovers the sexual power within herself and begins to rack up victims, unaware or simply not caring that she’s slowly slipping away from humanity.
Werewolf films don’t come out very often. I think the technical logistics seem daunting to many filmmakers. It’s also difficult to find a new twist to the legend. By that token, there’s not much to compare new films too. I’m not going to cover the never-ending Howling series of movies. I’ve only seen the first one, and the transformation effects are stellar, the story is weak. The Wolfen, on the other hand suffers from the opposite problem. It’s a compelling whodunit story, with outrageously horrible werewolves. Still, if you’re interested in the genre, both are worth checking out.
I’ll also recommend Dog Soldiers, directed by Neil Marshall who also helmed The Descent. It has one of the best werewolf designs in the sub-genre. Not only that, the characters are well developed and the story approach, while derivative, is interesting enough. My biggest problem with the movie is that from a plot standpoint, the creatures don’t really have to be werewolves. And in many places the whole affair feels like a knockoff of Aliens.
Finally, we have the classics. Lon Chaney Jr. plays the titular Wolfman in the 1941 film of the same title. And though most people disagree with me, I find Michael Landon in the 50s camp classic, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, to be top-notch entertainment. The scene where he attacks a girl doing gymnastics is worth the rental price alone.
With vampire movies, the sexual implications are full frontal, so to speak. While the classical vampire legends frightened Europeans for centuries, Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula is responsible for the modern view of the vampire, and his sexual approach to the legend has hung on. These days, the idea of being attacked by a vampire is more erotic than frightening. The attraction to vampires is that they make death sexy, something possibly even to look forward to.
This wasn’t always the case, especially when we didn’t have technology and psychology to “logically” answer questions of mysterious death and illness for us. Vampires were blamed for anemia, diabetes, crib death, strange lesions, miscarriage, tuberculosis and any death that couldn’t be explained. As recently as fifty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for rural societies to place garlic, roses, and laurels in the coffin of the recently deceased. The fear of the vampire runs deep, because even without the sexual overtones, the vampire is a godless creature without morals. In art, both classical and modern, the devil himself is often given fangs and red eyes, attributes of the vampire.
“The blood is the life,” madman Renfield states in Dracula, and the vampire craves the blood of the living. Blood is mysterious. It carries unseen pathogens, some which heal others that harm. The vampire’s very life requires the spilling of blood, which is messy and chaotic and results in the death of those being bled. The implication is that the vampire not only feeds for survival, but also for pleasure.
It’s here that the sexual portents become fully aroused. If you’ll allow me to make a generalization, I’ve noticed people who express fascination in vampires also have a similar fascination with oral sex, and why not? What is a vampire doing but stealing bodily fluids with its mouth? The victim more often than not is in a complete state of ecstasy while this happens. In this light, the vampire can be boiled down to a metaphor for unconventional, “kinky” sex, which for the uninitiated can be taboo, threatening and/or downright scary. Bluntly put, blowjobs aren’t exactly the most socially acceptable sex act in the world, especially to those people, and there are still quite a few of them, who think sex is for procreation not pleasure.
The movies of course have capitalized on this. However, I’ve found that explicit sex and vampirism aren’t always the fantastic combination it would seem to be. Often, what you get is soft-core porn like Embrace the Vampire with Alyssa Milano and Jennifer Tilly, or Tony Scott’s first film, The Hunger, a movie that Susan Sarandon, David Bowie, and Catherine Deneuve would like to forget they were in. Okay, The Hunger is not as bad as Embrace, but once you get past the sex and camerawork, there’s really not much of a story. To me, sex like violence is more effective when left to the imagination.
More often than not, vampire films are less horror than they are comedies (Vamp, Once Bitten, Transylvania 6-5000, Love At First Bite, Vampire in Brooklyn, and on and on and on.) or action films (Blade, Underworld, which also features werewolves, John Carpenter’s Vampires). These films aren’t bad per say, but they aren’t exactly satisfying either. This is especially true for the comedies that often turn the vampire into the butt of a joke or amp up the sex factor to ridiculous extremes.
One vampire film that successfully toes the line between fear and funny is Fright Night, in which a teenaged boy suspects his new next-door neighbor of being a vampire. No one believes him, including his mom or his girlfriend. Of course he’s right, otherwise there’s no movie. The boy enlists the help of a midnight movie show host to stop the vampire before he seduces his girlfriend. I may be the only person who can make this film into a metaphor about losing your virginity. (Give it up to someone you love, not just some hot guy.)
There are moments that border on slapstick and the movie is unintentionally funny in certain places, most notably when the vampire (Chris Sarandon) seduces the girlfriend (Amanda Bearse) in a nightclub. However, the last half hour or so of Fright Night takes a turn into pure horror with some of the scariest and most effective special effects of the eighties. It makes all the difference and turns what could have been just an okay film into something a little more special.
Another gem from the 1980s is The Lost Boys, which like Fright Night, utilizes the “vampires in the ‘burbs” setting to maximum effect. Here the sexual metaphors are jettisoned for a peer pressure narrative. Michael (Jason Patric) wants to hang with the cool kids who just happen to be a group of vampires led by Keifer Sutherland. His behavior starts to change much to the chagrin of his mother (Dianne Wiest). His brother (Corey Haim), figures out it’s because Michael is turning into a vampire himself. Less scary than possessing an eerie, mounting tension, it’s stylish fun from beginning to end.
Sex and teenage angst aside, one of the best elements of the vampire legend is the seemingly endless amount of vampire lore; crosses, garlic, death by sunrise, holy water, mirrors, bats, rats and cats. Perhaps the reason the vampire has been able to branch into other genres so well are the myriad possibilities the legend offers. Yet, though most movies have some interesting ideas, as a whole they’re often disappointing. Dracula 2000 comes to mind, which despite the presence of some great talent (Jeri Ryan, Omar Epps, and Jennifer Espisito just to name a few.) and a great concept (Judas Iscariot as the first vampire. Stoker’s Dracula as a documentation of true events.) the final product falls flat.
Hardcore fans may shout blasphemy but, in my opinion, the best two vampire movies for lore are Francis Ford Coppola’s extremely faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel and the film version of Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire. Neither film is especially frightening, but both are elegant, erotic, and epic as they delve into the origins of the vampire legend. Both movies are better paced than either of the novels they’re based on yet they also require a taste for the melodramatic. If you can get past the initial stuffiness of the style, you shouldn’t be disappointed.
Before leaving the vampire for a much more soulless undead monster, I also have to mention Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, an excellent modernization of vampire lore adding some science to the superstition. It’s been adapted for the screen twice, the first time in the fifties as The Last Man On Earth starring Vincent Price and then fifteen years later with Charlton Heston in The Omega Man. Neither of which has properly captured Matheson’s tale of the loneliness and desperation of the last man in a world full of vampires. Ironically enough, it’s the zombie movies that adapted Matheson’s ideas the best.
Zombies have fared the best in the gentrification of movie monsters. If I were pressed to give a reason why, I’d say that the idea of the dead rising from the grave to feast on human flesh doesn’t readily lend itself to either comedy or cuteness. Though with the release and popularity of the “zombie romantic comedy,” Shaun of the Dead, the winds may be changing. Though Shaun, like An American Werewolf in London and Fright Night before it, is as scary as it is funny. Another reason why the zombie legend may be difficult to lighten up is that its main elements, namely cannibalism and rising from the dead, are at least loosely based in reality.
Cannibalism has a long though undocumented past. Besides the cannibal rites of indigenous South American tribes and African “headhunters,” both the Donner Party of the mid-1800s and the Andes soccer team plane crash of the 1970s have raised the ethical question about cannibalism that is still unanswered: “Is it okay to eat human flesh in order to survive?”
The idea of cannibalism is taboo, as it has been since the dawn of civilization. All major religions and most societies condemn its practice. With the implication that one who has a taste for human flesh is less than human, or possessed by a demon or evil spirit, it should come as no surprise that so many stories and legends have risen around it. Perhaps more than anything else, cannibalism is cited as proof that the devil does indeed exist.
Cannibalism is central to many horror stories including the werewolf and vampire myths. Most monster movies revolve around a possibly sentient creature that would rather eat people than communicate with them. It’s also found in many children’s fairy tales with monsters or witches threatening to feed on either small animals or young children, The Three Little Pigs, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood just to name a few. The Boogeyman himself will more than likely take a bite out of junior after he pulls him into the closet or under the bed. It’s amazing more kids don’t grow up to be vegetarians.
The concept of the dead rising from the grave also has its scientific roots, though they are admittedly less firmly planted. For example, in the 1800s, the fear of being buried alive reached epidemic proportions in both Europe and America. Medical science had not yet evolved to diagnose comatose states caused by various diseases. Coffin makers made mints designing coffins where someone mistakenly buried alive could signal for help. It’s been claimed that more than 25% of people in the early 1800s were buried alive.
One of the most vivid stories of this phenomenon, probably more apocrypha than fact, is that of Martha Washington. It’s rumored that when her body was exhumed to be moved closer to that of her husband, scratch marks were found on the coffin lid where she presumably awoke in the grave and tried to claw her way out. Another story tells of a mortician who dropped dead from fright when the corpse he was working on sat up when he began to cut it. (For more stories like these and a detailed historical look at live burial, check out Jan Bondeson’s poorly written but fascinating book on the subject, Buried Alive.)
Still, being buried alive isn’t truly rising from the dead. With the Voodoo concept of zombification however, we get a lot closer to the “living dead.” Haitian folklore tells of how a person who transgresses against another can be ceremonially drugged and buried for dead, only to be revived as a mindless slave to the one they betrayed. In Wade Davis’s popular non-fiction book accounting his search for the “zombi drug,” The Serpent and the Rainbow, he analyses two purported cases of “zombification” as well as provides the scientific basis for the phenomenon.
The Haitian/Voodoo concept of zombies is an idea film latched onto fairly early. Voodoo stories became fairly widespread in the 1920s. After he played Dracula, Bela Lugosi starred in White Zombie as a madman with an army of zombies. Apparently, it’s not as good as it sounds. As stories like these evolved, they moved away from supernatural aspects towards more scientifically created zombies such as the madman-engineered zombies of the appropriately titled Teenage Zombies or the plague victims of the aforementioned The Last Man on Earth.
It was George Romero and Night of the Living Dead that altered the zombie movie forever in 1968, and no fan or filmmaker has really ever looked back. He gave us the mindless, dead flesh eater that kills for no reason. What the zombie film shows us is the fall of civilization in which the ultimate taboos of cannibalism and the walking dead become the norm and humanity becomes the freak of nature. The zombie Romero gave us is a human only in form. Inside is nothing but primal instincts, kill and eat and kill.
The zombie film is ripe for social commentary. Just about any symbolism you want to apply to the zombies is a valid one. The zombies are the masses, brainwashed by hysteria. Wait a minute. The zombies are liberals/conservatives pushing their views onto us. No, that’s not it. The zombies are terrorists, blindly following religious dogma. They’re the religious right, the “leftist” media, the communist menace, the unchecked proliferation of technology, the poor and uneducated, the military, the government, or just about any other group of individuals you want to criticize for being mindless and soulless, or prepped for an uprising.
In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the first sequel to Night, consumerism is the sin that the zombies represent. Four survivors find refuge in a shopping mall where they become minor kings because of unchecked access to any material things they want. But the zombies want in, not as much to feed on the survivors Romero implies, but because materialism is so hardwired into us, even death can’t stop it. Also, like Night, it’s not the zombies, but the survivors themselves who ultimately cause their undoing.
The recent Dawn of the Dead remake is one of the exceptions to my “never watch the remake” rule. To be fair though, the only thing it really has in common with the original is zombies and a shopping mall. The consumerism commentary is replaced by a visceral nightmare of staying alive in a world gone mad. The original asks, “How will we survive without all the stuff we think we need?” The remake asks, “How we will survive period?” There are also differences in the zombies of the two movies. The original Dawn zombies are slow, lumbering, and very dead ghouls that seem to be decomposing before our eyes. The remake zombies are like packs of wild coyotes, fast moving and agile, obviously modeled after the plague-ridden “zombies” of the British hit 28 Days Later.
Romero’s third film in his Dead series, Day of the Dead, envisions the last remnants of civilization falling apart, with a few soldiers and civilians holing up in an underground bunker. The movie has a bad reputation for losing the wonderful social commentary of the first two films. It’s also accused of stylistically ripping off the Lucio Fulci films Zombie and Gates of Hell, which ironically ripped off Romero first. The movie is flawed to be sure, but as a picture of man’s inability to evolve, even in the face of the inevitable, it works.
The Fulci films are notorious for their gore, which in my estimation is almost necessary for the zombie film. As I’ve said, I’m not a gore hound, but without it, zombie films almost miss the point. The repulsive elements in Romero’s films merely drive home the point that there is nothing human left in the living dead. In Fulci’s film, however, the gore trumps story and to me that’s unforgivable. There are lots of Fulci fans out there and I’m going to piss them all off by saying I think he’s a hack. Worse, he’s a hack who thinks his view of zombies is artistic. But his gore is just gore. Nothing engages me emotionally.
On the flip side, the gore in Return of the Living Dead is both acceptable and used for comedic effect, which is rare. In fact, much of the film is funny which strikes me as odd because it’s also damn scary. What’s great about the film is how the laughs actually accentuate the horror of what’s going on. We laugh when a zombie gets on the police radio and tells the dispatcher to “send more cops,” at the same time cringing as a zombie horde devours the owners of said radio. The “contingency plan” for ridding the world of the zombie menace elicits a giggle right before the frightening reality of its implications sinks in.
It should come as no surprise that one of the best non-Romero zombie movies mixes its horror with humor. We seem to more readily accept our monsters if they’re not taking themselves too seriously. Plus, life is like that. The scariest things in the world can seem funny at first, and the funniest things in the world often become scary once time gives us perspective on them. This comedy/horror dichotomy offers the comfort that despite their desire to eat us the things that go bump in the night at least have a sense of humor.
In Part 4, I’ll try to wrap this up as quickly as possible with a huge grab bag of movies and themes I couldn’t fit into the monster and slasher categories.