Tuesday, November 8, 2011

THE WEREWOLF (1956)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*

Fred Sears' THE WEREWOLF appears the same year as his most lauded film, THE EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, and one year before THE GIANT CLAW , which would become his most infamous work.

The long-time workhorse Sears died the same year, with five of his films not yet in release due to his prolificity. He would seem to be one of many "jobbing directors" in Hollywood who drifted into SF-films simply because they were popular at the time, as his only significant metaphenomenal film prior to the late 1950s was 1951's BLACKHAWK serial. But by my lights he does seem to be one of the rare "B" directors who engaged with the material enough to render above-average results.

I commented earlier that CRY OF THE WEREWOLF, despite grounding its were-creature in a mystic curse, was pitifully low in the mythicity department thanks to unimaginative handling. Sears' WEREWOLF grounds its fantasy in a science-fictional concept, yet shows far more myth-complexity in any given sequence that CRY did in its entire running-time.

Despite attempts by works like THE HOWLING to conceputalize whole "brotherhoods of wolves," the definitive symbolism at work with the werewolf is that of man against his fellow men; of one man being as a wolf who disrupts the community of men, the human "sheepfold" if the metaphor is not too strained. THE WEREWOLF is far from equalling the classic film THE WOLF MAN in this respect, but it uses its SF-tropes to forge its own significant identity.

During World War II mad scientists were constantly trying to create monsters, not infrequently with some demented notion of serving the war effort. Over ten years after the end of that war, the mad scientists are again at work, but this time the two responsible for creating a "scientific werewolf" labor under the shadow of impending nuclear holocaust. Doctors Forrest and Chambers come across innocent everyman Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch), rendered unconscious from an auto crack-up in the wilds of snowbound northern California. They decide to use him as a test subject for their prospective anti-radiation serum, with the idea that when the Bomb falls, they'll have an antidote with which to build a new society.

Out of this fractured desire for a new society springs, of course, the aforementioned anti-societal werewolf. Marsh, rendered amnesiac, escapes the scientists and flees to one of the local towns. Ironically his first victim is not another innocent, but a more mundane sort of "wolf," a common mugger. However, as the lycanthrope flees the scene of the crime, he also claws up one of the local deputies. Sheriff Haines (Don Megowan) and his fiancee Amy, among others, are then at a loss to explain the activities of an assailant who seems at once man and beast. The script, having already revealed the nature of said assailant, nevertheless plays fair by gradually teasing the characters into realization of their opponent's bizarre nature.

The character of Amy (Joyce Holden) is used to downplay the trope of the werewolf's attractions for the fair sex. Amy is almost empathically troubled by Marsh's condition even before she knows what he's become, yet there's no hint of any romantic beguilement on her part: she remains, in contrast to the Gwen Conliffe female lead of THE WOLF MAN, steadfast to her sheriff-fiancee. One palpable reason for this plot-development is that prior to becoming a hunted beast Marsh was just an ordinary man with both a wife and child. Mrs. Marsh and her son later enter the story, trying to find out why their once-respectable paterfamilias has become the target of a major manhunt.

In addition, the mad scientists are not idle. Just as the local posse chases the wolf-man, the scientists pursue him as well, but with the object of killing him to protect their secret. Inevitably, though they get it in the end, nothing can save the werewolf from his usual tragic fate.

In addition to its intelligent (if perhaps a little predictable) script THE WEREWOLF benefits from the bleak snowy landscapes through which the locals must hunt the beast who was once a man.

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