Over the last few decades there’s been some damn fine werewolf movies—from pulpy to serious and low budget to blockbuster. Critic and lycanthrope historian Travis Johnson rounds together the very best.
1981 was the Year of the Werewolf, cinematically speaking. Advances in special effects technology, a spike in horror as a genre, and a little good old fashioned serendipity saw not one but three all time classic werewolf flicks.
First to hit was Joe Dante’s The Howling, in which Dee Wallace’s traumatised news anchor confronts a rural colony of ravening shapeshifters. Then Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen saw NYC cops Albert Finney and Diane Venora hunt down a race of intelligent wolves preying on the city’s homeless. Finally, and most importantly, John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London was so groundbreaking they invented a new Oscar category just to give special effects guru Rick Baker his due.
It was a good time to be a horror fan, folks. Since then, the werewolf has stalked the silver screen only intermittently, and with mixed success; the makeup effects necessary to conceive a convincing wolf man are expensive and complex, while most horror films are modestly budgeted, which makes werewolves a challenging prospect for prospective horror auteurs.
There have been some gems, though, so if you have a hankering to howl, here are the 12 best werewolf movies since 1981—one for every full moon of the year.
Neil Jordan draws from Angela Carter’s book The Bloody Chamber to conjure up this allegorical fever dream that uses werewolf folklore and imagery to talk about nascent female sexuality. If you can imagine a pervy, hairy cross between Little Red Riding Hood and Labyrinth, you’re on the right track.
Sarah Patterson is the teen girl tempted to step off the straight and narrow path and delve into the knighted woods of maturity, with Angela Lansbury as her wise grandmother, and David Warner, Terrence Stamp, Stephen Rea and Danielle Dax in support. Features the most striking transformation sequence since An American Werewolf in London.
King’s illustrated novella The Cycle of the Werewolf comes to the big screen in the form of this schlocky but fun teen horror. When a werewolf starts picking off the residents of country town Tarker’s Mill on the reg, paraplegic teen Marty Coslaw (the late Corey Haim), his elder sister Jane (Megan Fellows), and good ol’ beer-swilling Uncle Red (Gary Busey, worth the price of a ticket alone) must figure out who the culprit is before he gets around to munching on them.
Could have used a bigger effects budget, but features a hotted up motorcycle/wheelchair that Red builds for his low mobility nephew. And any movie in which a werewolf beats a dude to death with a baseball bat deserves your attention. A particular favourite of Quentin Tarantino’s, too.
Coppola did Dracula, Branagh did Frankenstein, and Mike “The Graduate” Nichols inexplicably took a run at The Wolf Man—sort of—with this New York-set corporate satire/horror mash up.
Publishing executive Will Randall (Jack Nicholson, a man born to play a werewolf) is on the ropes. His wife is cheating on him, his job is in jeopardy and his advancing age is weighing him down. A bite from a wolf changes all that, imbuing him with the strength and vitality needed to fend off rival/protégé James Spader and romance Michelle Pfeiffer. But the lure of the full moon soon sees him loping through Central Park and ripping up muggers. Plagued by lukewarm reviews on initial release, Wolf has aged well, as long as you want a sly satire in horror trappings rather than a balls-to-the-wall gorefest.
Werewolf-as-puberty-metaphor is very much A Thing, as many entries here demonstrate, but this Canadian cult classic is one of the best in that particular corner of the genre.
High school gothettes Bridgette (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) are already social pariahs when the latter is bitten by a werewolf, an incident that overcharges her sex drive before cranking up her bloodlust as well. The bodies start to pile up while Brigitte searches for a cure, leading to the inevitable hairy full moon climax. Smart, funny, morbid and gory, Ginger Snaps has earned a loyal fan base and spawned two sequels that are also worth your time.
A squad of soldiers on maneuvers in the Scottish Highlands run afoul of a family of werewolves and have to hole up in a remote farmhouse, fighting off the beasts until either help or daylight arrives. The debut feature from Neil Marshall (The Descent, Hellboy) riffs on siege movies from Zulu to Aliens, using familiar military tropes as narrative and character shorthand to excellent effect.
Marshall proves a dab hand at stretching his limited budget and staging exciting combat sequences and the cast, which includes Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee and Liam Cunningham, commit to the premise with gusto. A mooted sequel has been in development for almost 20 years now, but the original remains a delight.
We’ll never know what original director Mark Romanek might have made of this remake of the 1941 The Wolf Man, but last minute replacement Joe Johnston makes a good fist of this OTT Backlot Gothic extravaganza. Benicio Del Toro is actor Lawrence Talbot, returning to his British ancestral home after his bother is torn apart by…well you know what.
Anthony Hopkins has all the fun as Talbot’s irascible father, Emily Blunt is on love interest duties, Hugo Weaving is the cop investigating the series of increasingly bloody murders, and An American Werewolf in London’s Rick Baker does an incredible job with the makeup. It’s somewhat marred by some dodgy CGI here and there, but this is a rip-roaring big budget horror epic that deserves reappraisal.
Teen lesbian werewolf romance is the order of the day with this one, starring Riley Keough and Juno Temple as the titular couple who fall in love when Temple’s Diane—summering in New York City with her aunt—crushes on Keough’s tomboyish Jack. Indeed, their passion is so fierce that first Diane and then Jack begin turning into monsters. But is the transformation literal, allegorical, or what?
One thing’s for sure: Jack & Diane deftly mixes the physical and the fantastical, reveling in body fluids and body horror one minute, delighting in top motion animated interstitials by the Quay Brothers the next. Kylie Minogue, covered in tattoos, turns up for a brief inexplicable cameo. Coming across as if Gregg Araki and David Cronenberg teamed up to tell a teen romance, the deliberately opaque Jack & Diane will alienate some, but those who can plug into its wavelength will have a time.
Vietnam veteran Ambrose (Nick Amici), ornery and blind, is moved into a retirement village situated on the edge of a forest very much against his will. He gets a new lease on life, however, when he twigs that a werewolf is preying on his fellow eldsters and puts all his cunning and battlefield knowhow into slaying the beast.
“Blind veteran versus werewolf” is a hell of an elevator pitch and director Adrián García Bogliano and writer Eric Stolze milk it for all its worth, delivering a taut, sharp horror thriller that makes the most of its limited resources.
This Danish arthouse horror follows Marie (Sonia Suhl), a withdrawn 16 year old girl living in a tiny fishing hamlet, as the onset of puberty brings with it more physical changes than usual. Her mother is no help, being catatonic and confined to a wheelchair—or is her father (Lars Mikkelsen) keeping her drugged because she suffers from the same curse now tormenting their daughter?
Slow burn, austere and haunting, this Scandinavian monster movie is in no hurry to get to the gore, instead carefully exploring its main character’s tormenting psyche and growing bloodlust to excellent effect.
Alcoholic Canadian cop Lou Garou (Leo Fafard) finds himself cursed by a local satanic coven and is soon sprouting hair and fangs. A little dose of lycanthropy can’t keep a a good cop—or even a bad one—down for long, though, and he’s soon using his newfound occult powers to raise hell, bang babes and take on the villains responsible for his situation.
This is a big, broad, bawdy horror comedy that never lets good taste stand in the way of a joke or three, and basically reads like a more adult, albeit less mature, riff on Teen Wolf, but actually good (Teen Wolf sucks, folks). Begat a 2018 sequel, Another Wolfcop, that is more of the same.
An overnight train speeding through remote British woodlands finds itself under siege by, well, a werewolf; by this stage you should know what to expect. Train guard Joe (Ed Speleers) would much rather be mustering up the courage to romance concession stand operator Ellen (Holly Weston), but instead must use his dubious authority to rally the mixed bag of passengers in defence.
Sean Pertwee of Dog Soldiers and Shauna McDonald of The Descent turn up in support, while director Paul Hyett does well with this novel single location set up. The beast itself looks more Cro-Magnon than canine, though, but these are the sacrifices we make when trawling for good low budget horror fare.
We’ve already had one lesbian werewolf romance on the list, but this one is a) Brazilian, b) exceedingly class and race-conscious, and c) takes some very sharp narrative turns.
Hired to be a nanny for Ana (Marjorie Estiano), a well-to-do single expecting mother, African-Brazilian nurse Clara (Isabél Zuaa) soon comes to suspect that her new boss’s symptoms aren’t simply morning sickness, and the coming baby may not be entirely human. Beautifully shot and impressively ambitious, this South American effort offers fresh flavours for even the most jaded horror palate.