vulture lists

18 Werewolves: From Lon Chaney to Taylor Lautner

Vulture looks back on 75 years of movie and TV lycanthropy.

With Taylor Lautner set to re-howl in Twilight: Eclipse on Wednesday, and the shirtless, pantsless werewolf clan rampaging on this season’s True Blood, it’s been a big year for handsome men who turn into wolves. (Also, for strange high-schoolers.) But Jacob Black and Alcide didn’t just emerge fully formed from the minds of Twilight and True Blood creators — their rugged yet fluffy wolf selves are products of decades of cinematic werewolf development. And so, to examine how we got from Lon Chaney Jr. in bear claws to Jack Nicholson in pointy teeth to the lithe, sexy CGI wolves of today, Vulture looks back on 75 years of movie and TV lycanthropy.

One of the first movie werewolves was Henry Hull’s Wilfred Glendon, a botanist bitten by a strange creature while flower-picking in Tibet. He may be a monster, but he’s no monster-monster; the dapper beast is careful to always don a gentlemanly jacket and tie.
Lon Chaney Jr. is the thicket-headed, pointy-fingered Wolf Man, and a clear Chewbacca predecessor. He’s not as uptight as the previous Werewolf of London, having ditched the tie. And yet the fearsomeness of his beastly tendencies is undermined by his high-waisted slacks and fastidiously buttoned shirt.
A man rescued from a car crash is only partially healed by the mysterious serum his rescuers (scientists, naturally) inject him with. The other part of the serum turns him into a drooling, bloodthirsty werewolf with a spookily dainty face and a preference for tailored jackets. It was a much more modest time.
A troubled young teen (Michael Landon) is turned werewolf during hypnotic sessions with his therapist. His high-school track jacket, however, remains unscathed, and his new head of hair is given an elegant three-sectioned comb-back. Unfortunately, you also get the impression his teeth are falling out of his head.
In eighteenth-century Spain, Leon the werewolf — a product of rape, and one of the first werewolves to be seen onscreen in color — is the fairest of the werewolves, with a pale face, white hair, a Vincent Schiavelli–shaped head, billowing white blouses, and a tortured heart.
A full departure from the dusty, proper were-gentlemen of yore, the main beast in The Howling sports a creepily glistening skinned-face look that does not immediately win over the TV anchor who is his human obsession.
While backpacking through Europe, two young Americans are attacked by a werewolf. One is killed, and the other lives on to introduce a more graphic kind of metamorphosis to the movies, complete with gruesome, bone-crunching audio and impressive time-lapse hair growth.
Perhaps worried that things got too graphic with London, werewolves take a step back. Exchanging terror and wolf nudity for gym shorts, Michael J. Fox’s high-schooler Scott Howard more modestly transforms from a nervous nerd into a hairy-chested ace basketball player who has a way with the ladies and a fearlessness atop moving vehicles.
And then, back to the terror: Jack Nicholson revives his Shining grimace-grin as a golden-eyed werewolf working at a publishing house, the most notoriously bloodthirsty of all the houses.
In the follow-up to An American Werewolf in London, American tourists (in France now) happen upon a lovely young lady werewolf (Julie Delpy) who draws them to a life of werewolf drugs and secret societies. Plus: These Montauk Monster–ish dog-people are public-transit savvy.
Once again retreating from the trend of believably frightening werewolves, Seth Green’s Oz is a thoughtful, guitar-playing high-schooler who turns into a moon-faced, rumple-nosed canine after a nip from his young cousin (who happens to be a werewolf). Not too manly, just sort of homely and uncomfortable-looking.
In Underworld, vampires and werewolves have been at war for centuries, and have comically elaborate rules and histories. More important, however, these stylized, wall-climbing werewolves are ripped, and they’ve taken a page from the Alien book, with their slimy teeth, creepy facial crests, and open-mouthed threatening noises.
Escaped convict (or is he?) Sirius Black isn’t technically a werewolf — he can turn into a dog, but he’s not vicious — although Professor Lupin (pictured), Hogwarts’ latest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, is the real deal. He’s got a scraggly, understated Gollum thing going on, with patchy fur; rangy, stringy limbs; and a hunchback crouch. Scary in a scrappy way.
Werewolves bulk up again: The saber-toothed, snub-nosed, and now completely CGI beasts of Van Helsing are capable of killing Dracula, and they’re also kind of cute. Sled-doggish, almost.
Beware the demonic Teddy Ruxpin! In Wes Craven’s amusingly cast werewolf movie (it stars Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Nick Offerman, Portia de Rossi, and Josh Jackson, among others), the partly animatronic, partly human, partly CGI wolves occasionally resemble soft-tummied plush toys, proving you can never go backward: Once you’ve seen CGI howling, you can’t be spooked by a guy in a costume.
Pairing the gory spectacle of photorealistically gruesome special effects with the bosom-heaving, blouse-shredding romanticism of old-school horror, The Wolfman was supposed to revive a genre, but it was crushed by the simultaneously released Valentine’s Day. (Werewolves are no match for Julia Roberts and a bunch of other ladies.)
Over the last 65 years, the metamorphoses in werewolves have primarily been on the wolf side of things. But in the new millennium, it’s the human side of the man/wolf that’s seen the most change. Gone are the nebbishy alter egos, full of shame and confusion as to why they wake up with human flesh caught in their teeth; the True Blood werewolf clan is calm, confident, physically fit, frequently shirtless, and regularly bare-butted. And when they go lupine, there’s no embarrassing transformation, just a guy one moment and a wolf the next. Such is the calm, no-drama equanimity of the buff.
The Twilight wolves are, like their True Blood brethren, either completely human or completely wolf, with no furry-faced transition stage in between (adolescent girls are no great fans of facial hair). Twilight werewolves, however, differ from the True Blood wolves in one important way — they’re CGI-ed to look like titanic stuffed animals, with their extra-fluffy fur and giant, squeezable paws. More petable versions of Taylor Lautner, basically.
18 Werewolves: From Lon Chaney to Taylor Lautner