‘The Wolf of Snow Hollow’ and the history of Lycan comedy
We all know the core Universal Monsters. There’s Dracula, Frankenstein (the monster, not the doctor, but the doctor was the monster), the Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolf Man, and the newly invigorated Invisible Man. They’re all recognizable to the point of archetype now. They all inspire horror. And ever since The Monster Squad (1987), there’s been no doubt they each are at least a little bit absurd. But why is it that out of all of the classic movie monsters, the werewolf most consistently ends up getting the funny treatment?
From the cultural touchstones and gold standards of An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Teen Wolf (1985) to recent entries like The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020), the modern take on the genre almost always plays at levity. So how did an idea as terrifying as shape-shifting into a wolf and ripping other people to pieces become the stuff of camp and comedy?
The idea of the Lycanthrope, or werewolf, goes way back —at least as far back as the ancient Sumerian text of The Epic of Gilgamesh, which many consider the earliest surviving great work of western literature. In it Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, has her romantic overtures rejected by Gilgamesh because he knows that, among other red flags, she turned one of her lovers into a wolf. I still say dating in 2020 is worse.
This pattern of horrible transformations as punishment extends into Greeky mythology. In the Legend of Lycaon, Zeus punishes Lycaon’s family by transforming them into wolves because he served the god a meal that included human remains. Basically, the idea of transmogrification into a feral canine served as a recognizable damnation for most of antiquity.
Supposed Real Werewolves
Outside of mythology, historical belief in werewolves dating back to the Age of Discovery in Europe was equally based in the grisly. Often the idea of a man transforming into a wild beast served the purpose of explaining away brutal serial murder of children and animals likely caused by mental illness and other maladies. Only the fantastical could reassuringly put such depravity into context back then. Some combination of hypertrichosis, lycanthropy, and/or rabies was likely the culprit given the hindsight of modern science. The ghastly trend also embellished the lunar effect.
The terror of purported lycans permeates historical record up to the point of the advent of mass communication in the early 20th century when it hit an apex with the seminal The Wolf Man (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr.
Let’s Take the Piss Out of the Wolf
So hundreds of years of conflated real and imagined horror very precipitously gave way to WolfCop and Werewolves of the Third Reich in the last half century? It actually happened way faster than that. While many think back to the silly movies of the 80s and the sillier concepts of the 2010s, it was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) that kicked off the horror comedy genre for werewolves just seven years after Lon Chaney Jr.’s original portrayal of the Wolf Man. It served as yet another inclusion of the werewolf in a different context after a series of Universal Monster crossovers like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).
While the comedic conceit of Abbott and Costello was very much their obliviousness or pathetic fear of the terrible monsters, putting the Wolf Man in a situation where it was ok to laugh served as a transformative gateway. Now it was possible for exploration of the monstrosity in a way that could be more palatable to audiences.
Since the beginning of the genre, makeup and special effects for the transformation challenged filmmakers the most, both from a production standpoint and for the end-product’s ability to suspend disbelief.
Lon Chaney Jr. underwent hours or makeup and prosthetics for the iconic look of the original Wolf Man and ultimately the effects wizardry of the time settled on a lap dissolve to depict real-time transformation onscreen.
Forty years later, Rick Baker’s effects work perfected the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London, which is widely still considered the best onscreen transformation because of its expert use of practical effects.
But as this advancement in effects was happening, the feel of the genre continued marching towards comedy.
And from a budgetary standpoint, there’s no better gift to filmmakers who want to put a lycan on screen than the ability to play off shoddy special effects as intentional camp in the pursuit of laughs.
Puberty and Awakening
The metaphor of puberty or sexual awakening makes up the most common presentation of the werewolf comedically. It makes plenty of sense. The body goes through a horrible, awkward change. The resulting bloodlust equates pretty congruently with carnal desire. We all go through it, but none of us will ever go through a full-on werewolf transformation, hopefully. That’s why it’s funny.
But as terrible as it would be to transform into a wolf, when you really think about it, you’ve become a dog person, and that’s also just funny. You’ve got a wagging tail now. You have a wet nose. You probably have to poop outside now; I don’t know. But one thing is certain. Wolfman’s got nards.
Context and subgenre determines a lot for werewolves in modern filmmaking. Just how much does a filmmaker want to lean into camp? Is the werewolf even the focus or a means to an end?
Recent films like Jim Cummings’ The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Amelia Moses’ Bloodthirsty focus more on their protagonists arriving at ugly truths about themselves that may or may not have to do with the lycan carnage unfolding around them.
The werewolf genre couldn’t be more alive and well today after the dark ages of the Twilight films. With today’s democratization of filmmaking and the given history and tropes of what’s come before, it really is possible to make a werewolf film today that surprises its audience. Whether by subverting expectations, focusing on a character study, or proudly owning the limitations of a shoestring budget, the field is wide open for any and all wolves. There’s a werewolf for everybody! You’ve even got some whimsical shit coming down the pike.
It’s a blue moon this Halloween for the first time in all time zones since 1944. Be sure to find your preferred werewolf before then.
Here are some werewolf films on streaming:
Ginger Snaps (Shudder)
An American Werewolf in London (Amazon)
Teen Wolf (YouTube)
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (Netflix)
Here’s some just released and upcoming werewolf features:
Further down the road: