Sunday, 21 August 2016

Werewolf of London

Dir. Stuart Walker

While travelling through Tibet in search of a mysterious flower that only blooms in moonlight, renowned botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked by a werewolf. When he returns to London, Glendon begins to undergo a terrifying transformation, the only antidote for which appears to be the plant he is researching...

Produced by Universal in the wake of the success of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy, Werewolf of London was the first mainstream Hollywood werewolf film. It established several precedents which later became significant mainstays of werewolf cinema, such as the idea of lycanthropy as a contagious disease, the influence of the full moon on the werewolf’s transformation, and the spiritual torment suffered by the tragic male protagonist as he desperately attempts to find a cure for his monstrous condition. As the eponymous beast, Hull delivers a performance that invites much sympathy; prior to his encounter with a werewolf, Dr Glendon was a man much more comfortable experimenting alone in his lab than socialising at his wife’s parties. After the attack, the internal conflict he experiences, as his intellect and reason become overshadowed by animalistic impulses and bloodlust, propels the narrative as he searches for a cure while trying to maintain control of the transformations.

Interestingly, Glendon retains much of his personality, faculties and moral reasoning (not to mention his sharp fashion sense) when he’s in wolf form – he continues to experiment in his laboratory and at one stage, he even dons a hat and coat before going out into the cold London night (!). One can't help but wonder if this was what Warren Zevon was referring to in his song 'Werewolves of  London' when he sang 'I'd like to meet his tailor.' Anyway, I digress. When he consults an ancient tome on werewolves and demons, Glendon discovers that ‘unless this rare flower is used the werewolf must kill at least one human being each night of the full moon or become permanently afflicted’ and while he struggles to resist the urge to kill, his instinct to survive leads to reluctant and guilt-inducing bloodshed. Conflict also arises when another werewolf attempting to obtain Glendon’s botanical remedy makes its presence known. The make-up effects by Jack Pierce transform actor Henry Hull into a therianthropic man-wolf hybrid, the look of which would be echoed throughout later werewolf films, notably George Waggner’s highly influential The Wolf Man (1941), which further congealed and popularised certain conventions established by Walker's film.

Glendon’s first transformation is effectively conveyed. As he skulks along his shadowy, pillar-lined veranda his beastly changes occur cumulatively; each time he emerges from behind a pillar, he appears ever more monstrous until he is completely transformed. As Glendon attempts to keep his lycanthropy a secret, becoming more reclusive and driving his wife (Valerie Hobson) further into the arms of an old flame, an emerging subtext pertains to drug addiction, and, arguably, closeted homosexuality. Interestingly, Werewolf of London also unfurls as a Frankensteinian cautionary tale which speaks of the potential dangers of scientific advancement – it is Dr Glendan’s hunger for knowledge and his desire to push the boundaries of scientific research that leads him to his doom. Prior to his discovery of the strange flower that blooms in moonlight, he is warned not to venture into the valley where it grows, as one character notes ‘without fools there would be no wisdom.’

Steady pacing, moody lighting and several atmospheric stalking sequences in the fog enshrouded streets of London help to fuel the tension and enhance the somewhat gloomy tone, though there is comic relief in the form of a boozy landlady and her equally sozzled chum. While it is usually relegated to the shadows of more prominent werewolf titles, such as George Waggner’s aforementioned classic, there’s no denying the influence of Werewolf of London, which not only remains an effective and entertaining title, but fascinating viewing for anyone interested in exploring the conventions, tropes and lore of the cinematic werewolf. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

How To Become A Werewolf: Part II

Who’s the Fairest of Them All by Bernie Wrightson
Myths survive as long as they speak to something fundamental in the human psyche, and notions of humans transforming into animals and monsters have fascinated and terrified us for millennia. It is an idea that speaks of the primal, animalistic impulses that lurk within all mankind, and it nestles in the dark corners of most, if not all cultures around the world. Throughout folklore and archaic literature the figure of the werewolf is depicted as a cursed and shunned individual, thought to have no control over his or her bestial urges which accompany the dreadful transformations from man to monster.

A person was believed to become a werewolf if they were excommunicated from the church, or if they were born on Christmas Day. They could also become a werewolf if they were cursed, or if lycanthropy ran in their family (tainted bloodlines), or by performing certain black magic rituals or sometimes, just through sheer force of will. More recently, thanks to certain conventions established by classic Hollywood horror cinema (namely The Werewolf of London [1935] and The Wolf Man [1941]), other ways to become a werewolf include infection (ie being bitten by another werewolf) and by lunar influence. The influence of the moon was actually briefly suggested in texts such as Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Were-Wolves (1865), in which references are made to certain regions of Southern France where lycanthropes could change into wolves under a full moon, and in Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts (1607), which actually asserted that the brains of wolves decreased and increased in size with the waxing and waning of the moon.

While researching all things lycanthropic for my book on The Company of Wolves, I came across Elliott O’Donnell’s Werwolves (1912), an old ‘scholarly’ study of, you’ve guessed it, werewolves. Within its pages are first-hand accounts of O'Donnell’s encounters with lycanthropes and a staggering array of werewolf lore from many cultures throughout the world. Also included is a chapter concerning various rituals and rites to perform if you’d like to become a werewolf. According to O’Donnell, in cases when lycanthropy is not hereditary, werewolfism can be attained by drinking water from a wolf’s paw print, or by drinking downstream from several wolves. O’Donnell suggests that in certain parts of Scandinavia it was believed a person could become a werewolf if they drank from an enchanted ‘lycanthropous’ stream. Lycanthropous water is apparently different from regular water (!) and according to O’Donnell, those who live near lycanthropous water describe it as having a faint odour ‘comparable with nothing’ and possessing a ‘lurid sparkle’ which is strongly suggestive of ‘some peculiar, individual life.’ The noise of flowing lycanthropous water is said to resemble ‘the muttering and whispering of human voices as to be often mistaken for them’ and by night the voices rise into ‘piercing screams, and howls, and groans, in such a manner as to terrify all who pass near it.’

Gray Wolf River by Yair-Leibovich
When the individual seeking to become a werewolf locates a lycanthropous stream, they must kneel by it at midnight and recite the following incantation:

Tis night! ‘tis night! and the moon shines white
Over pine and snow-capped hill;
The shadows stray through burn and brae
And dance in the sparkling rill.

Tis night! ‘tis night! and the devil’s light
Casts glimmering beams around.
The maras dance, the nisses prance
On the flower-enamelled ground.

Tis night! 'tis night! and the werewolf’s might
Makes man and nature shiver.
Yet its fierce grey head and stealthy tread
Are nought to thee, oh river!
River, river, river.

Oh water strong, that swirls along,
I prithee a werewolf make me.
Of all things dear, my soul, I swear,
In death shall not forsake thee.

Once these words are spoken, the individual then strikes the bank of the stream three times with his/her forehead, then dips his/her head into the water three times, each time taking a mouthful of water and drinking it. This, according to O’Donnell, completes the ceremony and the individual has become a werewolf and ‘twenty-four hours later will undergo the first metamorphosis.’