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EW's Horror Quintessentials: The 5 best werewolf movies

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American Werewolf In London
Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

With Halloween fast approaching, EW is picking the five best films in a variety of different horror movie categories. For the past week and a half, we’ve been posting our top picks from several specific groups—demons, ghosts, slasher movies, and so on—and giving you the chance to vote on which film from each category is your favorite. On Oct. 31, EW will reveal your top choices.

We already covered vampires earlier today—but now it’s time to tackle their furry, sharp-toothed nemeses.

We’ve never really had a Werewolf Moment. Vampires have been popular figures onscreen since the silent film era. Zombies experienced a post-millenium burst of popularity that has never really died down. In that company, the history of werewolf movies can look a bit shrimpy. 

Vampires get auteurist experiments, like Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive or Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu. Zombies are the preferred monster for young directors looking for cheap thrills and for not-so-young directors looking for an ideal metaphor. Werewolves, though—they persist, but rarely in the spotlight. In recent years, the lycanthrope has been demoted to a supporting player in vampire-centric mythologies. Werewolves are the scuzzy-earthy antagonists to patrician vampires in Underworld and Twilight; in True Blood, the local werewolf was the big huge hot guy; in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the local werewolf was a stoner-ish guitarist in a stoner-ish garage band; there’s a werewolf in Hemlock Grove, to the extent that Hemlock Grove is a thing. (The exception: Teen Wolf, which is still more about human hotties than actual lycanthropes.)

What is it about werewolves that makes them a trickier bigscreen proposition? Maybe it’s because they lack the intrinsic cool of vampires. Maybe it’s because the mere fact of making a werewolf movie requires an elaborate special effects budget. Maybe it’s the old Hulk-movie problem: A werewolf movie is, as a rule, a movie about watching a human being try their hardest not to become a werewolf, even though everyone in the audience is specifically watching the movie because they were promised a werewolf. There’s a vaguely moralistic atmosphere underpinning the werewolf-movie genre. Becoming a werewolf means releasing your id, and in werewolf movies, the id is a bad/immoral/murderous thing. Yet the whole point of a werewolf movie is watching how much fun it can be to release the id. (Fight Club is the best unofficial werewolf movie ever made, with Tyler Durden as the world’s first body-waxed lycanthrope.)

So while there aren’t a lot of good werewolf movies, the good ones are often great. The mixture of tones at the core of the werewolf myth often produces a movie that’s both scary and funny, set at the bizarro intersection between sanitized civilization and beast-within naturalist horror.

5. Dog Soldiers (2002)

In horrormeister Neil Marshall’s debut film, the plot is simple: A squad of British army officers (played entirely by British actors you kinda recognize) gets dropped into the Scottish Highlands. They’re nominally there for a training exercise; they immediately find themselves in a Predator-ish duel with group of wolf-people. Dog Soldiers is a lo-fi thriller in all sorts of ways: There’s a minimum of ambient lycanthrope mythology, and Marshall keeps the effects practical, which means the movie’s werewolves have aged much better than any of the CGI wolves in the Underworld/ Twilight franchises.

4. The Wolf Man (1941)

The most influential werewolf movie in history and one of the standout entries in Universal’s early horror era. The plot would get reflected in pretty much every werewolf movie that followed: Man goes to remote location, ideally on the far outskirts of the British isles; Man gets bitten by werewolf; Man struggles with the basic realization that his two options are to become a werewolf and kill people or kill himself. Over 70 years old and just 70 minutes long, The Wolf Man remains a quietly bleak stunner, with a final showdown that packs an emotional wallop. (Also: Claude Rains!)

3. The Howling (1981)

To the extent that werewolves ever had a moment, it came in 1981, when two very different werewolf movies hit theaters. The Howling arrived first, and it’s the key film in director Joe Dante’s transition from Roger Corman pupil to the kooky horror-comedy of Gremlins. The plot of The Howling is ludicrous; the effects by Rob Bottin (who was about to begin his transcendent work on The Thing) represent a high-water mark for horror effects in the pre-digital era.

2. Ginger Snaps (2000)

And now for something completely different: A feminist-powered werewolf movie about two death-obsessed goth sisters living in a vanilla-flavored Canadian suburbia. Ginger Snaps is the great stealth classic of the turn-of-the-millennium high school wave. Barely released at the time due to ambient post-Columbine anxiety, it now stands as one of the essential female-centric horror odysseys, with lycanthropy-infected Ginger and her more levelheaded sister Brigitte struggling to navigate the metaphorical calamities of being a teenaged girl. And Ginger Snaps is funny, too: The opening sequence, with the sisters constructing an elaborate slideshow of themselves dying horror-movie deaths, is a love letter to horror-film prosthetics.

1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

And now for something completely different-er: Arriving a few months after The Howling, John Landis’ werewolf film is more expensive and more adventurous, with frequent 180-degree shifts in tone that make Evil Dead 2 look straightfaced by comparison. A couple of American backpackers wander through the English moors. A werewolf attacks. One of them dies, although he’s not that dead; the other one gets bitten. And then the movie sets off on a series of tangents: A screamingly funny werewolf-soldier dream sequence, a screamingly horrifying transformation sequence constructed by effects legend Rick Baker. A freaky nighttime attack sequence leads into a farcical scene in which the protagonist, having transformed back into a human, finds himself naked at the zoo. There’s an extended interlude set inside of a porno theater; there’s an elaborate action scene set in London’s busy Piccadilly Circus. Then it ends. Werewolf movies are all about releasing the monster within, and American Werewolf in London is a magnificently energetic mess that feels directed by pure id.