Monday, October 31, 2016
MOON OF THE WOLF (1972)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I haven't read the 1967 novel on which this ABC telefilm was based. One online review notes that the original story took place in Depression-era Louisiana, and that the female victim, whose murder starts the story rolling, was Afro-American. The film's changes-- updating the story to present-day Louisiana and beginning with a Caucasian female victim-- don't notably hurt the story, which is at its strongest when it's touching on the American "class gap."
A couple of bayou-farmers find the body of a low-class white girl named Ellie out in the woods, apparently mauled by wild dogs. However, the autopsy by the local doctor reveals that she was knocked out by a blow on the head. The doc tells Sheriff Whitaker (David Janssen) that even though wild dogs may have savaged her body, the blow killed her, and that it may have been administered from the front by a "leftie." This, of course, means that in the course of his investigation, Whitaker starts paying a lot of attention to which hand his suspects use to hold their mint juleps. This isn't a very rewarding pursuit, particularly because the doc also says that for all he can tell the blow also could have been delivered from behind by a "rightie." (We're a long way from CSI, here.) The script harps on this schtick a little too much, and even specifies that one suspect is ambidextrous. Perhaps the aim was to give David Janssen as many scenes as possible where he could grimace and look frustrated?
Whitaker gets more fruitful clue-material from the fact that the body was found near the estate of the Rodanthes, one of the legendary "first families" of Louisiana. Whitaker questions the standoffish head of the family, young Andrew Rodanthe (Bradford Dillman), and also finds out that his sister Louise (Barbara Rush) has recently returned to town. In the course of their conversation Whitaker and Louise reveal that each had a crush on the other in high school, and Whitaker claims that he wouldn't act on his affections because of the distinction between their classes. Andrew doesn't seem to approve of any association between his sister and the working-class.
Nothing daunted, Louise runs into Whitaker in town and reveals that despite Andrew claiming that she'd been "sick," he actually brought her back to the family estate because she's been involved with some "socially unacceptable" person up north. Louise doesn't entirely like being under Andrew's thumb but accepts it because he controls the family purse-strings.
The script also reveals that Ellie was pregnant, but Whitaker doesn't have to do much detective work: the doctor admits that he fathered the child, and also that he wanted her to abort it. Again, the conflict seems to arise out of societal disapproval: Doc wants to keep his practice in town, and knows that the community won't approve of his pre-marital liaison. Whitaker keeps his eye on the doc but doesn't see fit to arrest him as a suspect. He does end up arresting Ellie's hot-tempered brother when the guy finds out who knocked up his sister. Brother punches doctor, and the former goes to the lockup. Then the titular "wolf" makes his first appearance. A single man, seen only from the rear, breaks into the jail, knocks out Whitaker's deputy, rips away the door to the brother's cell and kills him.
Up to this point there have been a few tossed-off references to real wolves, while the girl's grandfather warns people about a "lookaroo." Whitaker doesn't seem to have much curiosity about the maniac who killed a man in the lockup, but he gets some help from both Andrew-- who volunteers his services as a deputy-- and from Louise, who volunteers her services to interview Ellie's grandfather, who speaks only French. (Really? Before this, Whitaker couldn't find anyone else in a mid-sized Louisana town who could speak French?) Anyway, Louise reveals that "lookaroo" is just dialect for "loup garou," meaning "werewolf." Whitaker still wants no truck with the supernatural, and continues to be the standard disbeliever even after Andrew-- hospitalized after suffering a strange fit-- turns all hairy and tosses various orderlies around before escaping. A hunting-party goes looking for the wolf-maniac. Andrew shows up at the family estate, where Whitaker proves ineffectual against him while Louise has the honor of destroying her werewolf brother.
I've leapfrogged over a number of plot-details, but I don't think most of them contribute much lucidity to the story, and even after re-watching the film the scenario of Ellie's death doesn't track very well. Assuming that Werewolf-Andrew came upon Ellie and simply killed her out of blood-lust, it's a little hard to picture a werewolf simply clubbing a victim on the head before assailing the body. As to why the wolf-man broke into jail to slay Ellie's brother, I haven't a clue. There are tidbits of werewolf-lore scattered throughout the story, but they don't really integrate with the main action of the plot-- though there's a minor irony in the fact that Andrew, who circulated the story that Louise was sick, is the real "aristocrat-with-a-congenital disease." (In this essay I pointed out a similar distaste for horror-tropes in Guy Endore's novel WEREWOLF OF PARIS.)
Yet, even though I don't think either the mystery-angle or the horror-plot work very well, I still like MOON OF THE WOLF. All of the actors give strong performances with their admittedly half-baked characters, and the telefilm also benefits from some location shooting. Director Daniel Petrie started out in television, and managed to graduate to feature-films for a time (1980's RESURRECTION, 1981's FORT APACHE--THE BRONX) before returning to the small screen. His direction on MOON is best distinguished by the dramatic scenes between Janssen and Rush, and it's certainly not his fault that the production saddled him with sub-par werewolf makeup. MOON isn't one of the better TV-horrors of the period, but the film does at least play around with a few interesting sociological motifs in the midst of its meandering murder-mystery.