February 25, 2016

REVIEW: WOLFMAN (1979)


Wolfman is a 1979 film written and directed by Worth Keeter and starring Earl Owensby, Kristina Reynolds, Sid Rancer, and Edward Grady. Set in rural North Carolina at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the story deals with a man returning to his ancestral home following the death of his father only to find that there is a curse of lycanthropy upon his family, and he is the next in line to be afflicted.

Given just how utterly atrocious this movie is, I’m genuinely surprised by how it’s stayed with me after viewing. We’ll get into some of the nitty-gritty details further along in the review, but suffice to say that this micro-budgeted film is not without a certain charm which can only be found in cheap productions prior to the advent of budget-friendly CGI, as seen in more recent schlocky fare like Ghost Shark, Sharktopus, Sharknado, or any other shark-centric DTV movies.

Author's note: For the record, I never intended this review to end up as long as it is. It was a real struggle to encapsulate what is so awful about this film without really delving into these details scene-by-scene. I hope you still enjoy reading it!

As the titles roll, we are privy to the nighttime exterior of Glasgow Manor, brought gloriously to life by a noticeably cheap scale model while thunder and lightning crash in the distance (or someone flicks the light switch on and off, take your pick). Inside the bedroom of Edwin Glasgow, some nefarious dealings are afoot, with some nefarious individuals in attendance. Glasgow himself appears to be bedridden and helpless as his nephew and niece, Clement and Elizabeth, and the local Satan-worshipping pastor, Reverend Leonard, leer over him. Reverend Leonard callously explains that Glasgow is no longer useful to them and plunges a dagger into his heart (hmmm…a SILVER dagger), killing him. Talk then turns to the subject of Glasgow’s son, Colin, who is due to arrive within the hour by train. Thus, we are introduced to our would-be hero, Colin Glasgow, a man with all the air and southern charm of a block of wood. He is met by the family lawyer, who takes him to the Manor to meet with his cousins and begin preparations for the funeral of his father.

After Colin goes to bed, Reverend Leonard, Clement, and Elizabeth gather in a candlelit parlor for a séance. As the “Keeper of the Curse,” Reverend Leonard implores Satan to pass the curse along to Colin in order to spare Clement and Elizabeth from the same fate. No exposition is given here or in the rest of the film as to how Reverend Leonard stands to benefit from this, other than simply being evil for evil’s sake. It’s a minor gripe compared to the rest of the movie’s shortcomings, but an important one nonetheless, as it’s fairly obvious that Clement and Elizabeth stand to benefit from the will that Colin is now tasked with finalizing as he unknowingly awaits his first transformation. During the invocation, Reverend Leonard insinuates that the curse has been with the family for quite some time, possibly for generations, as repayment for Colin’s family “blaspheming Satan.” Since he is the appointed Keeper of the Curse, does this mean that one of his ancestors originally placed the curse on the Glasgow family? Or is he somehow immortal, and is he the one that did it all those years ago? A little more background on how it came to be could have added an interesting layer to the story and filled in the gaps.

See? I wasn’t lying when I said this movie stayed with me after viewing. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I imagine that there must have been something interesting in the general inception of this film, something lost in translation as more people became attached to the project, as opposed to the finished version which has been boring unlucky viewers for nearly four decades.

Anyway, we now come upon the funeral scene for poor Edwin, who is given such a mind-numbingly long sermon by Reverend Leonard (oh, the irony!) that it’s easy to forget he was in the film for all of two minutes before being dispatched. While at the funeral, Colin spies a veiled woman and seems to be so interested in her that he barely pays any attention to anything else, and even rushes off after her when the funeral is over. But the very next scene shows Colin coming home with Clement and Elizabeth, and no mention whatsoever about what Colin found so interesting about the woman. Colin enquires about the Reverend, and we are fed a bit more exposition on just how shady this cat is (he doesn’t currently have a church, but he’s building up finances for one, hopes to start construction in the near future, etc.). I’m not sure if anything was going on behind the scenes of this film between any of the actors, but Colin’s huffy response of “Well, I wish him luck” is so full of unintentional mockery and disdain that I have to laugh out loud every time I see it. Seriously, someone saw that take and said, “Yeah, that’s good, we’ll keep that one in.”

We now cut to the most staged-looking shot of Colin walking into a curio shop that I can possibly imagine—it’s as if director Worth Keeter said, “Act natural,” and Owensby actually acted “natural” when all he had to do was walk into the damn shop. Inside, he meets a woman. Oh, it’s the woman from the funeral! And they know each other? Okay, now it all makes sense. It turns out that she’s an old flame of Colin’s, and he’s keen on getting that flame rekindled. At one point, she states she was married, but that “didn’t work out.” There’s some more inconsequential exposition about things that have absolutely no bearing on the story, and then they agree upon a date for that evening before Colin leaves. (Wait, what’s the girl’s name? Seriously, they don’t ever say her name in the scene. It’s Lynn, though.)

During the date, they head to the local watering hole (because what’s more romantic than the town bar at which EVERYONE congregates?) and we are treated to even MORE needless exposition about what Colin’s been up to since he left town. While they are talking, a couple of the local yokels are spying on them. One of them says that it’s none of their business, since the girl isn’t married anymore…until they see that she’s with Colin. Suddenly, this guy takes it upon himself to ask what her HUSBAND would think of her out with another man. I’m sorry, is she divorced or not? This movie can’t seem to make up its mind. The man viciously grips Lynn’s arm to drag her away, and Colin ends the situation with a well-placed beer bottle to the head, then leaves with Lynn. On the way home, Colin learns from Lynn that there have been a “few” unsolved murders in the area, most likely the work of a large wolf. So, what, wolves can be tried for murder in the first or second degree in 1910 South Carolina?

That night, Colin experiences a feverish nightmare in which he visits his father’s grave and a hand reaches out to clutch the cuff of his pants. Colin screams and, um, sort of thrashes about, apparently unable to do the one thing anyone in their right mind would do…run the hell away.

The next day, Colin’s off to check over the will with the family lawyer. Yet even more needless exposition about what Colin’s job is under the stipulations of the will, why he has to stay longer, blah blah blah… (Seriously, if you’ve been watching the movie at all up to this point, you know this stuff already. Why they feel they need to retread this information is beyond me. It’s frustrating how little confidence this film has in its viewers.) While poring over the will, Colin compares his father’s signature to another signature on file and—SURPRISE!—he discovers the will is a forgery. But seriously, the signatures don’t look THAT different. I just wrote down my name twice on a sheet of paper, and a similar effect was achieved. However, he takes the will to a local physician and longtime family friend, Doctor Tate, who confirms that the signatures are “very different indeed.” (Seriously, are they both looking at the same thing I saw? ‘Cause it’s not without the realm of possibility that the two signatures were written by the same man. I’m just saying.) While he is admittedly a trifle concerned about this revelation, Colin doesn’t really do anything about it. After all, the will still leaves him with the family fortune, so why bother, right?

Colin sneaks upstairs and secretly meets with his grandmother, who has been kept locked away all this time under the pretext that she has been ill. Colin is less shocked than he probably should be that she is actually quite all right, and learns from her the truth—his father was a werewolf, Reverend Leonard is a Satan worshipper and the Keeper of the Curse, and…you know what? We know this stuff already! Colin is so far behind the audience at this point that it’s becoming a chore to keep up with how oblivious he is to everything. We do learn one intriguing fact, however: as proof that she is telling the truth, Colin’s grandmother instructs him to dig up the grave of his father and check his index fingers, which she swears are longer than the other fingers on his hands, which is a sure sign of lycanthropy. You know, I have to give credit where credit is due—this is indeed an old world sign of a werewolf from the days of yore, and I’m happy to finally see it get some screen time. Between this and the method of becoming a werewolf depicted in the first season of Hemlock Grove (drinking rain water from the paw print of a wolf), I feel better about the prospects of finally seeing a magic belt that turns people into werewolves in future horror movies! Colin’s grandmother then tells him to get away as quickly as he can, lest the curse finally attach to him.

Colin does as he is instructed and dugs up his father’s grave that night. I don’t know about you, but digging up a coffin that is buried beneath six feet of earth seems like a task that isn’t easily accomplished in the few hours between midnight and dawn, but Colin seems to accomplish it in record time. Indeed, he discovers that his father’s index fingers are abnormally long (comically long, actually). As he is leaving the grave, a wolf comes out of freaking nowhere and he tussles with it before it bites him. And by “tussle,” I mean he plays with it on camera for a while before presumably fetching it some Beggin’ Strips. When Colin wakes up the next morning, he is inexplicably in his own bed and his clothes are clean, with absolutely no sign of him having dug up a grave the night before. But wait! As he sits up, we see that he is extremely hairy! A sure sign that he is a werewolf! No, wait…nope, he’s just that freaking hairy. Blech.

Instead of pursuing the “everything is fine, it was just a dream” trope, the film blessedly deigns to rocket forward with Colin holding onto the idea that he did indeed dig up his father’s grave, and that something is terribly amiss. He again visits Doctor Tate, who basically tells him that he’s a loony and needs to get some sleep. He heads off to fetch some pills for Colin, but Colin spies a newspaper on the desk which boldly declares that there is a full moon tonight. He rushes out, and suddenly it’s already dusk because hey, it’s been an hour already and we haven’t seen any werewolf action yet!

Colin arrives at the Manor and discovers that Lynn is waiting there for him. He gives her the requisite “go home, lock your door, bad stuff is going to happen tonight” speech, and once she leaves, he heads upstairs to…pack? What the hell is he doing? Is he just going to pretend that he’s not going to turn into a werewolf? As a matter of fact, isn’t his becoming a werewolf technically his well-meaning grandmother’s fault, given that she told him to head out on the dead of night to dig up a grave in the first place? Seems to me that her room is directly where I would head if I was going to turn into a werewolf.

And what a werewolf! Brought to life by stunning stop-motion photography similar to Lon Chaney’s eponymous Wolf Man of the 40’s, only with far fewer cuts between make-up applications to really drive home the fact that this is a budget production, so the transformation is more jarring than terrifying. And I can’t forget to mention the werewolf sound effects! I seriously think someone recorded a Hoover turning on and off to simulate the breathing, since it sounds more like an asthmatic vacuum machine with a bad power flux than anything else. The newly transformed Colin heads out in the night to commit his first acts of murder.

From here on out, the rest of the film is fairly by the numbers, as far as werewolf movies are concerned. Colin spends his time trying to convince Lynn and Doctor Tate that he is a werewolf, and proves so by turning into a werewolf in front of them during the next full moon…the very next night! And this is a trend that continues for the rest of the film, as each subsequent night is inexplicably a full moon. Meanwhile, the sheriff has rallied the townspeople ala the old Frankenstein “lynch mob with torches and pitchforks” trope to take down this wolf once and for all! Wolf-Colin breaks into the Manor and kills Clement, Elizabeth, and the butler (all of whom knew Colin would be turning into a werewolf, and inexplicably took NO precautions). Whereas Elizabeth just sort of sat there and let it happen, Clement’s death is by far the best and funniest in the movie; he grabs a sword and tries to fight Colin with it, but somehow gets it stuck in a door (the fight choreography and camerawork is not very clear on explaining how this happened). The door swings open with the blade is pointed outward, and Clement backs into it, impaling himself in his own ineptitude and allowing Colin to take a chunk out of his throat for good measure. Colin then goes out into the night, committing a few more murders while evading the lynch mob, who are by far the most ineffective hunters ever.

The next day, Colin is found by the mob in the forest covered in blood and is arrested for all the murderin’ (never mind that none of them even take the time to consider that this doesn’t explain all the murders that occurred before he arrived in town after a years-long absence). Meanwhile, Lynn and Doctor Tate decide to confront Reverend Leonard and, I don’t know, politely ask him to remove the curse from Colin? It doesn’t go as planned, since Leonard stabs the good Doctor to death and chases after Lynn for the next ten or fifteen minutes of the movie. While being questioned, Colin very conveniently receives word that Lynn was seen with Reverend Leonard, flies into a rage, and just breezes past all the police standing around him to find Leonard and Lynn. Leonard conspires to kill Lynn in the Manor so she will be included with Colin’s body count, but Colin somehow puzzlingly knows exactly where they will be and makes a bee line for the Manor. Once there, Colin confronts Leonard and the two wrestle around for a bit. Though he is holding the very same silver dagger with which he killed Edwin at the beginning of the film, Leonard seems more comfortable with constantly punching Colin in the face with the hilt instead, and then wonders why Colin turns into a werewolf before his very eyes when the full moon suddenly rises (yeah, I know, I said this movie rockets forward once Colin becomes a werewolf). The two crash through the window to their deaths, Leonard from the fall and Colin from conveniently falling onto the silver dagger. Lynn rushes downstairs to cry over Colin’s body. Roll credits.


And that’s it! This movie is a special kind of awful, but not the kind of awful for watching it while drunk with friends. Personally, I think it moves far too slow for that. Instead, I think it works better as an exercise in what NOT to do when filming a movie, especially where story is concerned. This film is far too up its own butt when setting up characters and situations that it honestly becomes a chore to watch. When the werewolf action finally happens, it’s far too anti-climactic to be rewarding in any way. Stay away, far away, unless you are so morbidly curious that you can stand to spend hours lamenting the time you wasted. If you do decide to watch this film (or already have—poor soul), give us a shout in the comments below and let us know what you think!