Evil scientists turn an unwitting family man into a werewolf and let him loose in a sleepy small town. Made on a shoestring with bit-part actors, this 1956 Columbia melodrama packs some nice visuals and interesting, adult themes. 6/10
The Werewolf. 1956, USA. Directed by Fred Sears. Written by Robert Kent & James Gordon. Starring: Steven Ritch. Don Megowan, Joyce Holden, Eleanore Tanin, Kim Charney, Harry Lauter, Larry J. Blake, Ken Christy. Produced by Sam Katzman. IMDb: 5.8/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Columbia’s 1956 movie The Werewolf won’t show up on any top lists of best werewolf movies, and perhaps rightly so. However, this low-budget production deserves a little more love from wolfman aficionados than it tends to get. Even when it was released, it was made as a tack-on, as it was produced as the bottom-bill companion to the studio’s hyped UFO movie, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which was the subject of my last review. It was even directed by the same director, Fred Sears, a Columbia workhorse who occasionally showed signs of true talent, whenever he got away from churning out run-of-the-mill westerns and was given a decent script to work with, which was the case with The Werewolf.
The script by Robert Kent and James Gordon kicks off the story immediately, and this plot description lifted directly from Wikipedia will give you as good an idea as any of the mood of the film: “A disheveled man in a suit wanders uncertainly down the main street of the small, rural town of Mountaincrest on a winter’s night. Looking out of place and confused, he goes into a bar, telling the bartender that he doesn’t know who or where he is. Local thug Joe Mitchell follows and demands his money as he leaves. As the two men struggle in an alleyway, Ma Everett, who is passing, stops. She sees only four legs sticking out onto the sidewalk during the fight but hears an animal snarling. Then two of the legs suddenly go limp. Someone- or something- steps out of the alley and looks Ma in the face. She screams in terror, and it runs off into the darkness.”
The dishevelled man/werewolf is, we learn much later, called Duncan Marsh, and is played by Steven Ritch. The film follows Duncan as he seeks out help from a local physician Gilchrist (Ken Christy) and his assistant Amy (Joyce Holden), and asks them to help discover who he is — what he is. He tells them he was in a car accident and was taken in by two doctors, and he’s afraid they’ve done something terrible to him. Desperate and afraid, he suspects Dr. Gilchrist and Amy will turn him over to the police and flees into the wintry forest. As the story progresses, we meet Marsh’s wife Helen (Eleanore Tanin) and their young son Chris (Kim Charney), who drive around looking for Duncan, who they are told has been in a car accident and has been treated by two doctors Forrest and Chambers (S. John Launer, George Lynn). When she visits them, Helen is told Duncan had received a bump on the head, and they sent him on his way. However, we later learn in a discussion between the two doctors that they did indeed use Duncan for a secret experiment. I am not entirely sure I got this right from the somewhat bizarre explanation, but as far as I could tell, the doctors have a theory that prolonged exposure to nuclear radiation will activate humans’ dormant lycanthropy gene, and have developed an antidote, which they will use on themselves and their closest allies. When the final nuclear war comes, the rest of humanity will descend into barbarism, while the two doctors can rule the world with their serum. Duncan, it seems, was a test subject to see if their theory of nuclear radiation = werewolf was correct. Meanwhile, back in Mountaincrest, sheriff Jack Haines ( a first-billed Don Megowan) leads the townspeople in a hunt for the werewolf. A local hunter down at the local bar brags about almost catching the werewolf in a bear trap, stories and rumours spread, along with fear and paranoia.
Eventually, all storylines merge as everyone meet back in Mountaincrest. The lines are drawn in the snow. Dr. Gilchrist, Amy, Helen and Chris see the man behind the monster — a victim of some foul play — and beg sheriff Haines to try to catch Duncan alive. However, the evil scientists naturally want Duncan dead as quickly as possible, so their secret will go with him to the grave. They are backed up, albeit for different reasons, by a townsfolk that’s worked itself into hysterics with all the rumours and pub talk about the killer werewolf. Which side will the sheriff choose? And perhaps even more importantly: what will Duncan do? Or is Duncan even Duncan anymore, or have his animal instincts completely taken over?
Made on a short budget, The Werewolf makes good use of location footage at the San Bernadino National Forest and Big Bear Lake, probably re-using sets from westerns and thrillers for studio photography. The mystery of Duncan’s fate is skillfully unwrapped. The audience knows the score from the beginning, naturally, but for once, it doesn’t feel like we are just sitting around waiting for the characters to catch on. There’s enough intrigue to keep interest up, and the main characters are likeable eonough and endowed with just enough character to keep us caring about what happens to them. Steven Ritch impresses in his only starring role as Duncan/the werewolf, with a nervous, emotional energy, and the the rest of the cast is solid.
Like in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, director Fred Sears shows that he had more chops in him than the westerns he churned out for Columbia might have suggested. He knows his horror movie history, as implied by the opening shot of Duncan walking into town on a snowy night, a scene which looks like an homage to the opening shot of James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933, review). Another shot which looks like it could be lifted straight out of Universal’s expressionistic horror movies is one where the two evil scientists try to kill Duncan in prison. The chiaroscuro lighting by DP Edward Linden lets the scene of the werewolf making short work of his attackers in eerie shadow play.
That said, much of the footage is perfunctory, revealing the short shooting schedule. Without the outdoor shooting, and even with it, this is a rather cramped movie often shot on small sets, filmed from a certain angle, because a fourth wall for rooms were never made. What really prevents this film from becoming a cult classic is the disappointing ending. Without spoiling it, let’s just say that the ending is in all manners sub-par. From idea to execution, it is shoddy, and seems to exist mainly because the filmmakers wanted to include a certain landmark in the film’s finale. The movie’s ending, while conclusive, leaves you without a feeling of conclusion or redemption. It just sort of ends in a very predictable manner.
However, the film does deal with surprisingly adult themes, often in a rather clever way. It latches on to small town prejudices, gossip and slander mills, pushing out and ganging up on the outsider, the freak. Very much in the way that the Frankenstein monster is persecuted by the torch-wielding mobs in his first two Universal films, so is the werewolf here hunted by torch-wielding villagers, despite that the film is set in the fifties, when people had flashlights, so it’s a clear parallel drawn by Sears here. Frankenstein’s theme of the outsider persecuted by society runs like a thread through the movie — and in both cases the monster is a victim of the machinations of a mad scientist. Granted, in The Werewolf, the mad scientist subplot is the weakest part of the script. In general, there tends to be two types of mad scientists; the first is the altruistic one, who , in trying to achieve noble goals inadvertedly creates some horror as he “meddles with things Man is not supposed to meddle with”. The second one is the evil one, whose expressed goal is to create some horror, which he intends to use as a tool for achieving his personal goals. In The Werewolf it is clear that we are dealing with an evil mad scientists, but exactly what his goals are and how they relate to the werewolf is muddled. Exactly how and why Duncan is a werewolf and how this aids Dr. Chambers takes some mental gymnastics to comprehend. The whole idea hinges on the idea that a third world war, which will irradiate the entire population of the globe is imminent. And if we buy this notion, the movie also asks us to buy into the idea that radiation will turn us all into werewolfs. Duncan, then, simply is a test subject. The question arises why the two scientists let their test subject go, while they could easily have achieved their goals by observing him in captivity. Now they are relying on the flimsiest of hope that he will not remember them — which, of course, he finally does. Now, the idea is that when the world turns to werewolfs, a serum will keep the two scientists and their friends human. That will make them a handful of soft, pink bits of meat fending against millions upon millions of bloodthirsty killing machines with superhuman strength, human intelligence, fangs and claws. Exactly how this is supposed to work in their advantage is questionable. The weird thing is that the movie could have worked perfectly well without the whole mad scientist business.
The werewolf makeup is surprisingly good. It has been unfavourably compared to Jack Pierce’s in The Wolf Man, and sure, there’s less finesse and cotton/collodium build-up. But makeup artist Clay Campbell achieves with lesser means a striking and believable werewolf, that’s leaner and meaner than Lon Chaney’s. Unlike his Universal counterpart he doesn’t rip his clothes during transformations, but spends the entire film properly dressed in suit and tie, which makes things easier on both budget and schedule. The transformation scenes are time-lapse montages just like in The Wolf Man, and fairly well executed.
No original music was written for The Werewolf, but Columbia’s Mischa Bakaleinikoff has put together a solid soundtrack from tinned music.
The Werewolf got mixed reviews in the trade press when released. British Film Bulletin noted that the movie took the sociological approach to the topic, but: “The result isn’t nearly as interesting or exciting as it should be. Except for a few brief sequences which show a man-changing-into-wolf and attacking, there is a lack of the expected action, violence and horror.” Harrison’s Reports wrote: “The picture offers little that is original, either in story or in treatment, but it may prove acceptable to the horror fans, since it is the first ‘wolfman’ type of film to reach the screen in ages”. Motion Picture Daily gave a positive write-up: “It’s good science fiction stuff with enough entertainment ingredients to satisfy, expecially those who go in for imaginative narrative”.
The film is equally devisive today. For example, TV Guide calls it “a careless retelling of the age-old werewolf tale”, although the magazine does credit it as “the starting point of the resurgence of gothic horror on the silver screen”. On the other hand, Bruce Eder in AllMovie’s 3/5 star review writes: “The Werewolf is one of the best examples of its movie subgenre — the modern lycanthropy story — and unexpectedly comes from producer Sam Katzman, whose production team, led by director Fred Sears, got everything right. The script is intelligent and suspenseful, and filled with interesting, believable characters who get good portrayals from a cast of mostly relative unknowns and bit players in bigger-than-usual parts.” Eder praises Don Megowan’s portrayal of the small-town law enforcemenet officer as “unexpectedly good”, and Steven Ritch’s turn as the werewolf as ” the performance of a lifetime”.
Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings writes: “Not a bad movie, but one that could have been better.” Bea Soila at Flickers in Time calls it “not half bad for a cheesy Sam-Katzman produced horror flick”. And Richard Scheib at Moria finds it “a modestly interesting little film”.
The Werewolf is an interesting curio in the gallery of monster movies, one that shows a lot of potential, but doesn’t necessarily deliver on all of it. The elements of a really good script are all there, but they don’t quite gel. Rather, there a many good moments and ideas that don’t really fit snugly against each other. There are interesting and adult themes explored, but not deeply enough that they would carry through to the finale. The acting is good, but the script is not good enough for the actors’ efforts to elevate the movie to A-film status. It’s no surprise that the film is obscure, but it gets an A for effort and could use a little more love.
Director Fred Sears was born in 1913 and started his career as a stage actor, producer and director, until he was hired by Sam Katzman as a dialogue coach for Columbia in 1946, a company he stayed loyal to until his death in 1958. He also appeared numerous times in front of the camera in small roles, before graduating to direction in 1949, often getting handed westerns, crime films and other B-movies. His films were routinely undistinguished up until 1956, when Katzman handed him the double bill of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (review) and The Werewolf. A more staple diet of his was the teenage movie, such as Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955), which made him a natural choice for director when Katzman was able to get a contract with rock musician Bill Haley, whose megahit “Rock Around the Clock” had taken off after being featured in the intro of MGM’s film Blackboard Jungle in 1955. Rock Around the Clock (1956), produced by Columbia, directed by Sears and featuring not only Bill Haley and His Comets, but also The Platters, Alan Freed, Tony Martinez and Freddie Bell, is often considered the first rock n’ roll musical film, and became a major sensation, taking home over $4 million dollars at the box office. However, Sears wasn’t able to capitalise on the film’s success, stuck as he was at Columbia, designated to its low-budget outfit, where he kept grinding out gangster movies, teen movies, westerns and the occasional SF film. Katzman hoped to repeat the success of Earth vs the Flying Saucers by having Sears direct another SF double bill in 1957: The Giant Claw and The Night the World Exploded. The Giant Claw is rightly lambasted as a hilarious failure, thanks to its titular menace: a bewildering-looking giant bird that Sears has to try and convince the audience is threatening the world. In fact, the rest of the movie is pretty much on par with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, but when it came to special effects, Katzman got cheap, and decided to outsource the monster to a small Mexican company — and the result was not what Sears had hoped for.
Screenwriter Robert E. Kent was a low-budget workhorse, often turning out interesting but hastily cobbled-together scripts, first for Sam Katzman at Columbia, and later as a producer for Edward Small. With Small, he often worked with low-budget director Edward L. Cahn, with whom he produced a couple of science fiction movies: Curse of the Faceless Man (1958), the hugely influential It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Invisible Invaders (1959). In 1961 he produced The Flight that Disappeared, directed by Reginald Le Borg. He then set up his own production company in the early 60’s, making two Vincent Price horrors (including Twice-Told Tales (1963, review) and four westerns.
Don Megowan is cast here in one of his very few leads. The 6’6+ ft or 199 cm tall actor was a former track and field star and football player. When he was involved in a car accident in 1963, paramedics needed a crane to lift him out of the vehicle because of his huge size. Unsurprisingly, his build made him popular for roles as heavies, and he appeared as such in a whole slew of western TV series in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. He is best known for playing Gill-man on land in Universal’s The Creature Walks Among Us (1956, review) — the movie where the Gill-man oddly grows five sizes when he is out of the water. All in all, he appeared in over 100 films or TV shoes. He had small roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) and Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1972). He had two starring roles in low-budget science fiction movies. He played the heroic leads in The Werewolf (1956) and The Creation of the Humanoids (1962). He is one of the ever-growing numbers to have played Frankenstein’s monster, in Curt Siodmak’s 1958 TV movie Tales of Frankenstein. He also had a bit-part as “early man” in The Story of Mankind (1957).
Steven Ritch does such a formidable job in this film, that it is surprising he never progressed further in his movie career. He spent much of this rather short career (1950-1962) on western films and TV shows, both as a supporting actor and as a screenwriter. Western buffs may remember him for writing and appearing in Plunder Road (1957) and writing and appearing in several episodes of Wagon Train (1957-1965), often playing Native Americans. He also wrote and appeared in the crime drama City of Fear (1959). Ritch took part in some of the most brutal fighting at Guadalcanal in WWII, and had planned on becoming a lawyer after the war, but was intead bitten by the acting bug. The internet knows nothing of what he did after he shelved his movie career in 1962, but he lived a long life and passed away in 1994.
Harry Lauter, who has a substantial part as a deputy, had small roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, review), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, review) Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Satan Bug (1965), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), and even played second lead in Superbeast (1972). He also appeared in a number of SF TV series, including Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, The Invaders, My Favourite Martian, The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants and Men Into Space. Larry J. Blake, in another sizeable supporting role, also appeared in bit-parts in Creature with the Atom Brain, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Beginning of the End (1957), The Strongest Man in the World (1975), Demon Seed (1977) and Time After Time (1979).
Cinematographer Edward Linden was a silent era veteran who spent most of his career filming low-budget westerns and adventure films. His one claim to fame is that he was one of three cinematographers working on King Kong (1933, review). The Werewolf was the last film he made before his death in 1956.
The Werewolf. 1956, USA. Directed by Fred Sears. Written by Robert Kent & James Gordon. Starring: Steven Ritch. Don Megowan, Joyce Holden, Eleanore Tanin, Kim Charney, Harry Lauter, Larry J. Blake, Ken Christy, James Gavin, S. John Launer, George Lynn, George Cisar. Cinematography: Edward Linden. Editing: Harold White. Art direction: Paul Palmentola. Makeup: Clay Campbell. Sound: Ferrol Redd. Produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia.