Wolfman (1979)





Having burned out on Rooskie films this month, I've decided to delve back into the b-movie monster genre again. Wolfman is a meandering, sleepy tale of a werewolf and the woman who loves him, filmed on location in rural North Carolina and set around 1910 or so. Having lived in that area for a while (western arm of Virginia), I can attest that to this day large parts of piedmont North Carolina are still frozen in time in the Edwardian era, so finding entire towns that still look like they did in 1910 is pretty easy. Plus, everyone down there is just so rustic (when they're not fornicating with farm animals). This movie's director went on to make dozens and dozens of Power Ranger movies, which probably means nothing but it was amusing to me.

On to the show...

We open in a bedroom in "Glasgow Manor", a fancy Old Southern mansion, where Old Man Glasgow is about to die. His youngish nephew and niece are here, as is a gray-haired priest, but none of them are up to any good. In fact, after saying that the old guy's "usefulness is at an end", the Reverend stabs him to death with a silver dagger! Didn't learn that in seminary, I bet.


Silver, eh? Curious...what does silver kill?

The dead man's biological son Colin is called back to Glasgow Manor by the lawyers to finalize the will. Colin is a tall, gangly middle-aged man with one of the thickest, slurryest, most mushmouthed Carolina accents I've ever heard. He should be wearing a NASCAR hat and drinking a Bud Light while watching Jeff Foxworthy or something, it's that bad. And for being our film's "hero", he's a pretty fugly dude, with bad '70s hair and a surprising amount of jiggly backfat.


Colin.

That night the Reverend and the Two Cousins have a candlelit sťance (during a thunder storm, of course, so the room is ominously flashed by lightning at dramatic moments). It seems that the priest is a closet devil worshiper and the Cousins are his willing flock. They beseech Beelzebub himself to have mercy on them and to accept their offering of Colin to keep the "Glasgow curse" away from the Cousins. Clearly they lured Colin here for nefarious purposes.


Satan loves vanilla scented candles.

The next day, at the funeral at the family's private cemetery, the Satanic Reverend launches into a long-winded eulogy, but he clearly doesn't mean it when he talks of God's grace. This is a very long and slowly-paced funeral scene for someone who the audience never really knew and whose only line of dialogue was "Noooo!" as the knife plunged into him. I predict that this movie is going to drag along like a planning and zoning commission meeting for a full hour and 45 minutes, which I'm afraid will be about 40 minutes too long in the end. This is why you hire a decent editor, someone who isn't afraid to cut out huge chunks of worthless filler, because sometimes, often, actually, a bloated movie is worse than one that's too short.


Big crowd, must have been real popular.

Afterwards, Colin goes into town in his rattling horse-drawn buggy and stops at Harris' Curios and Notions. Despite attempts to make the cast's clothing look turn o'the century with Quaker hats and frilly sleeve cuffs, there are far too many modern synthetic fiber suits and plastic zippers on display to really pull that off. Not to mention all the David Janssen haircuts. Colin is here to hook up with an old girlfriend, who is working at her father's clock shop. They banter about the past and the present and about how she looks like an extra from Little House on the Prairie and about how her actual name is never mentioned in this scene, before Colin asks her on a date.


Nameless romantic lead.

So they go on a date to the local inn and eat some pot roast as an olde timey Scott Joplin tune plays on a scratchy phonograph (yes, this is 1910, despite all the power lines and stop signs and what I think was a glimpse of a Chrysler Imperial parked along a side street as they rumbled by in their Amish buggy). They talk about Colin's travels, how he imports goods from overseas and makes tons of money being all awesome and stuff. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't return the courtesy by showing any interest in what she's been doing for the last decade (it seems women were not allowed to have interesting lives in the 1900s). After he reads his lines off cue cards held off-camera for a while, Colin gets into a fight with a drunken hillbilly and they leave (the Glasgows are the Old Money in town and the po' folk resent that). As they tool around in his buggy (which has fringy tassels like a Pakistani taxi cab), the girl fills him in on the recent wave of unsolved murders in the area, all attributed to a rogue wolf. Dumdumdum!


Andy Capp picks a fight.

As they reach her house, Colin leans over for a sloppy kiss, and as he moves his arm around her his polyester suit drags across his clip-on microphone with a loud scraping sound. This seems like such a small thing, but it's indicative of the most overlooked and underappreciated aspect of quality moviemaking, post-production editing. At some point, someone, anyone, while watching the dailies or the final cut should have noticed how low-rent, high school musical that microphone gaff sounded and done something about it. Don't skimp on the scissors and tape, people, don't make me point this stuff out 30 years later.


Let's get it on.

The oily lawyer shows Colin the will, which says that he gets the whole family fortune if he stays here at Glasgow Manor for one month, ostensibly to get the Cousins settled in. Colin discovers that the will has been forged by the Cousins, which is odd as he still gets all the money and the house and the DirecTV and all that. The insistence that he stay here in North Carolina has him confused but he lets it go. While he's presented as an honorable man of independent means, it's also clear that he wants the family fortune and he's willing to put up with anything, however suspicious, to get it. My parents are barely reformed, anti-materialist California hippies, so when they go off to that big Jimi Hendrix concert in the sky, I stand to inherit little more than a hemp hoodie and maybe some vintage bongs.


What is that thing? Is that a bong?

Concerned now, Colin sneaks in to see his grandma, who is suspiciously locked in the attic. The old woman tells Colin the Glasgow family secret, that many generations ago someone made a deal with the Devil and then broke it, bringing down a horrible curse upon the family (Satan doesn't take insults lightly). The technical details of the curse are a bit confusing (thanks, script guy), but it seems that each generation one Glasgow man is turned into a werewolf! The last one was Colin's father, who we saw killed in the opening scene, and now Satan is looking for the next Glasgow man to take the curse. While she's spooling out exposition, granny also tells Colin that the Reverend is actually a devil worshipper and is the "keeper of the curse" and he killed his dad with a silver dagger. Obviously, Colin is quite overwhelmed by all this, but takes the information to heart.


Why do all old women wear shawls?

Night comes, as does a wicked thunderstorm (christ, it's always thundering ominously in this town), and Colin wakes up in a lurch. Haunted by what his granny said, he goes to the woodshed for a shovel and a lantern and proceeds to dig up his father's grave. We see this exhumation in almost "real time", eating up 10 minutes of precious screen time, making a movie that's already an hour too long seem to drag even more. Colin is looking for the corpse's index fingers, which his granny said would be much longer than the rest of the fingers, a sure sign of lycanthropy. Googlegooglegoogle...damn, that's actually one of the signs of a werewolf, learn something new every day. Just then a tame pet German Shephe...I mean a vicious wild wolf attacks Colin and rips him up real good!


Who knew?

Next morning Colin wakes up in bed, seemingly unhurt with his clothes intact. Was it all a dream? Ye gods, it was! Kudos, few movies can trick me with the "it was all a dream" bit, but this one did. Disturbingly, we get an inordinate number of shots of Colin shirtless here, showing off a uniform thicket of all-over hair of the type that backwoods banjo players in Georgia seem to prefer. With a natural pelt like that, I'm actually surprised the director didn't have the werewolf run around topless, you'd never know the difference.


Furry!

Colin goes to the one person in town he feels he can truly trust, the local folksy Colonel Sandersesque Doctor, and tells him about his concerns. When the Doctor begins talking about werewolves, it's clear that Colin hasn't ever heard of such a thing. It seemed odd at first that a worldly traveling man like Colin would have never heard of werewolves, but another quick peek at Google tells me that in 1910, the classical view of a werewolf was still mostly confined to dirt floor huts in Armenia and Latvia. The first real werewolf movie was Werewolf of London from 1935, a generation after Colin's troubles here, and I doubt the few pulpy proto-werewolf short stories were in regular circulation outside of Europe, so it's possible that he wouldn't know anything about them until the good Doctor's exposition scene.


Really, just 2 cents a copy? That's not a sustainable business model.

Night falls upon the Eastern Seaboard and Colin is furiously packing his suitcase with his spats and cummerbunds. As to why he's bothering to leave town, who knows? If he's going to be a werewolf, does it really matter where he is when the moon rises? Or is this curse only valid in North Carolina? He looks at the clock, it's 8pm and the open window shows the moon fully up over the horizon, and he starts to feel a bit queasy. Before our less-than-startled eyes Colin transforms into a werewolf! This being from 1979 and all, our movie goes the old school Universal Studios route with the time-lapse freeze-frame progression, which is quite well done (though it's hard to mess that up if you're trying). This is the type of werewolf that's pretty much just a furry mask and gloves and little else with a lot of feral grunting foley'd in later. For decades, from the 1930s on, Hollywood was able to get away with this sort of thing, but thanks to the invention of the computer chip and the graphics design school graduate degree program, now nothing short of Twilight's full-body, rippling abs and claws werewolf will do for modern audiences. Lamentable, in my opinion, as there's a certain honesty in a stuntman in a crudely painted Halloween mask that is lacking in a mass of pixels and 1's and 0's voiced-over by some teenage heartthrob.


Found this badly-scanned newspaper clipping of Wolfman's make-up guys showing how it's done.

Werewolves need hapless victims, so the beast wanders into the woods and finds an isolated cabin. Busting in the door, it ravages some yokel and then mauls his wife (it just kills people, doesn't eat them, though I'm not sure I've seen a werewolf movie where the monster ate anyone). The music for this scene is simply horrible, like toddlers crashing dishpans together while Yanni has a epileptic seizure on his keyboard, and it ruins any sort of dramatic effect they were going for here. Once the sun reappears, Colin wakes up in his bed with blood-spattered clothes and chunks of redneck under his nails. He's pretty sure he just turned into a wolfman.


Martha Washington screams in terror.

Colin goes to see his girlfriend Lynn (oh, is that her name? is this the first time it's said?), she gets her cape and they go for a ride in the buggy to see the Doctor. There, Colin confesses that he killed those two people as a werewolf, despite the Doctor's insistence that only baby-stealing Gypsies and Libertarians still believe in such things. You know, this movie's plot isn't half-bad, it's just that the actors delivering the lines are so universally horrible that it's a challenge to sit through these talky scenes. There's a reason why good movies use professional actors and not random people they found in the drive-through lane at Burger King (as here). Colin's very same lines spoken by an actual trained actor would make this a completely different movie-watching experience, though I will admit that his hilljack goatbanger Appalachian accent is beginning to grow on me (like a fungus).


Chatting.

The Doctor says that he and Lynn will chain Colin up in the cellar and wait out the night to prove that werewolves are just silly. Lynn agrees, though I don't know why. True, she dated him when they were kids, but that was long ago and since he's come back he's offended her father, punched a guy in a bar, been linked to several gristly murders, and now professes to be a mythical werewolf. Good men must be hard to find in North Carolina, because she's set her standards pretty low here.


Eh, she could do better.

Nighttime now, and, shocker, Colin turns into the wolfman! Humbled by the truth, the Doctor and Lynn run away as the beast breaks loose. The wolfman is in the Glasgow mansion now, looking for some victims. First it kills off the butler (who might be Lionel Ritchie, and oddly seems to be the only black man in rural North Carolina in 1910) and then kills off the Girl Cousin, who pretty much just sits there and lets it happen. The Guy Cousin wanders by in a comically frilly bowtie and the werewolf chases him down and kills him after a sword fight (!). The skinny, pansy dude does give the wolfman quite a run for his money here, and only bows out when he accidentally backs into his own sword (don't ask). The wolfman's physical strength varies from scene to scene, some times it can break iron chains and other times it struggles to contain a 110-pound effeminate man with moussed hair and manicured nails.


Run through.

Ok, stop. What was the Cousins' plan again? Rig the will so Colin would stick around until the next full moon and turn into a werewolf, right? Why? Did they think they could control him, were they also controlling his father in some way? What was the point of their collusion with the satanic Priest? The Guy Cousin was in no danger of turning wolf, right? Or did they need Colin here to "receive the curse" so the Guy Cousin wouldn't inherit it? Did they say it only passed from father to son? Pretty moot in the end, though, as they did a shoddy job of it and got themselves killed. If they had just checked the Farmer's Almanac they would have known it was a full moon night and might have not been just lounging around unprepared.


Dumbasses.

Anyway, the wolfman is now out in the woods, fleeing from a pitchfork-and-torch posse of local rednecks and their floppy-jowled bloodhounds. It's never really explicitly said that the werewolf is immune to conventional weaponry, but it certainly would explain why twenty guys can shoot a thousand bullets at it from close range and still lose the footrace. And those dogs are pretty useless, which is why I have cats.


Oh, don't look at me that way.

The action drags again as we see the wolfman ambush and kill two locals in a barn. Clearly the beast's feet haven't grown to wolf-size as it's still wearing patent leather shoes, and its retained enough human knowledge to be able to open doors and latches, though all that is probably just bad scriptwriting. Morning comes and Colin wakes up in the woods unharmed. The posse catches him and takes him to jail, where Colin steadfastedly sticks to his story of turning into a werewolf (he's gonna get the noose talking like that!).


A young George Lucas about to meet his maker.

The town's sheriff goes to the Glasgow house and after wandering around for some time in the spooky corridors he finds the dead bodies. Since we already saw all this carnage happen, this is just another way to pad out the running time. We've never even met the sheriff before, so it seems an odd choice for his character to be center stage in an extended scene this close to the final climax. It's ok to give ancillary characters some screen-time, but not in the third act and not without at least some set-up beforehand so the audience isn't wondering what happened to the hero.


Deja vu.

Speaking of sideshows, we see the Doctor and Lynn buggy out to the Satanic Reverend's house in the woods to confront him. As the contact team consists of a 70-year old fat guy and a wimpy chick, it's not much of a surprise when the Satanic Reverend feels no fear and comes down the stairs swinging a knife. The Doctor goes down, Lynn screams like a little girl, and the nutjob starts spouting Mephistopheles-related scripture with spittle and froth.


Michael Landon's gone crazy!

The bad priest is now chasing Lynn through an old cemetery with his bloody knife. He's a pretty old guy, and she looks maybe 30, you'd think she'd be able to outrun him if she'd ditch that floor-length hoop skirt, but I guess proper Southern ladies never show their ankles, even if it means death by devilish blades. Of course she should have just taken the buggy, it was parked right outside, she must have run right by it. Were women below the Mason-Dixon Line not allowed (taught, even?) to drive buggies or ride horses? Much like the previous scene with the sheriff, I'm again struck by the fact that all this action is centered on (comparatively) minor ancillary characters, while the (ostensible) hero Colin is conspicuously absent for a good chunk of the pivotal third act.


Find a bigger stone to hide behind.

After catching her via offscreen-teleportation, the Satanic Reverend now has Lynn at the Glasgow Manor and means to cut her up like bacon. At the last possible second, surely to maximize the dramatic effect, Colin runs in to save the day (finally, where the hell have you been?). He and the bad guy have a knife-and-lumber fight that only ends when the moon comes up and Colin transforms into the werewolf again. They both go crashing out a perfectly located plate glass window, the Satanic Reverend to his death and the werewolf also to its demise on the silver dagger. Lynn runs down as the dying beast turns back into Colin, just in time to shed a few tears and make a mental note to update her Facebook status to "newly single".


"eHarmony was wrong!"


The End.

Written in April 2011 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.



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