The voice that greeted me that one dark Sunday evening in October of last year was brimming with enthusiasm. On the other end of the phone was director Juan Martínez Moreno, attending The 8th London Spanish Film Festival to introduce a screening of his debut horror film, LOBOS DE ARGA (ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES).
In the annals of horror cinema, audiences were first terrorised by the inhuman classic monsters of the WOLF MAN, DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. Then at the outset of the 1960s, PEEPING TOM’S Mark Lewis and PSYCHO’S Norman Bates introduced man as monster, and filmmakers began to terrorise their audiences with this more recognisable and familiar fiend. A frequent occurrence has been the regression towards the monstrous origins of horror cinema, through an imitation of the William Shatner mask to conceal their humanity.
The affection and interest in the classic horror monsters has not faded, and at The 8th London Spanish Film Festival, horror fans were treated to an opportunity to be terrorised by films featuring both the human and inhuman monster; from Luis Tosar's creepy concierge in Jaume Balagueró's horror/thriller MIENTRAS DUERMAS (SLEEP TIGHT), to Werewolves plural, in Moreno’s ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES.
There is an unadulterated pleasure to be derived from the slasher film, as we watch with delight as the masked killer, his look inspired by an expressionless William Shatner mask, shreds his way through a cast of young flesh, or older, unwilling victims. Equally there is the unadulterated pleasure one derives from the experience of a good monster movie, and ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES has been twelve long years in the making. Since Lon Chaney Jr's incarnation of the WOLF MAN in Universal's horror way back in 1941, seventy years have been eclipsed, and the list of good Werewolf movies is a short one. GINGER SNAPS (2000), now a distant twelve years ago, was arguably the last great Werewolf movie - a modern masterpiece – following which, left horror fans to endure this long twelve year wait for the next notable film in the Werewolf canon.
The film opens with a creative flourish, the pre-title card narrative of the curse told in the visually arresting style of a graphic novel, merging together illustration and film. From the outset Moreno exhibits a creative flare, the atmospheric horror musical score over the opening sequence, becoming more pronounced as the title card replaces the illustrated images concluding with beats that signal an impending sense of doom. This is quickly transposed for a lively musical score, fitting to the comedic sequence of Tomás’ (Gorka Otxoa) arrival in Arga; before an interruption of this time visual horror: the blood smeared sign of Arga. From the outset the film establishes itself as a comedy-horror, merging the two with assured confidence. Throughout, the film is full of inventive cinematography and use of music, Mozart in one moment providing a sort of ‘Great Escape’ theme. ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES is the product of a director who appreciates the language of film, and as such the importance of this audio and visual language when depicting horror and comedy. The Werewolf is a horror monster with a conflict of identity, inflicted upon the Werewolves in Moreno's film by an hundred year old gypsy curse. This conflict of identity however in Attack of the Werewolves transcends the beast through the film’s own identity crisis, instigated by multiple titles, from the straight translation of the Spanish title, THE WOLVES OF ARGA, to the American title, GAME OF WEREWOLVES, to the UK title, ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES. With a touch of coincidental, but nonetheless perfect irony, the film shares the same fate of its monster; both monster and film not restricted to a singular identity, but identities plural.
In a moment of self-reflection Juan remarked, "You know my first movie had little to do with horror. I decided it could be fun to write a horror film, and when I was writing the story I never thought I was going to be able to find a producer in Spain to do this film… I was lucky enough to find him." ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES does indeed mark Juan’s first foray into the horror genre, which is surprising in light of his awareness and enthusiasm for the genre. "You know I have always been a big, big fan of horror movies, especially the classics from the forties, the movies coming from Universal Studios, RKO Studios or even Hammer a little later than that. I watched these movies when I was a kid on television, and I just fell in love with them." With his obvious love of early horror cinema it should not be surprising that his first horror film would feature a classic horror monster such as the Werewolf. Juan’s influences do not only reach as far back as early horror cinema, to Universal horror, or even to the heyday of Hammer. "I was born in the sixties, and that means I was watching the movies from the eighties, the John Landis movies, the John Carpenter movies, and I love them too. You know I think that in some way, that is the reason why I made this movie." It is at this point that I cannot help but recall how Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, despite being an American production, was shot in England. Popular opinion deems it the definitive Werewolf movie, a horror film that served to reinvigorate this classic monster in the 1980s, and on European shores. So too is it on the continental shores of Europe that Juan in 2011 breathed new life into this classic horror monster; returning the Werewolf to the very continent the genre had been so influential and at home during German Expressionism, before migrating to Hollywood, away from the gothic and superstitious heritage of Europe.
The Werewolf is not the only iconic horror monster. The Vampire from cinema's earliest days has continued to remain true to its name of the ‘Undead.’ Zombies have also become a staple of the genre, and both cast a dominating shadow over this formidable horror monster; never more so than on the recent battlegrounds of the ‘Underworld’ and ‘Twilight’ series, where. Vampires have maintained their supreme majesty. The influence of Carpenter on a generic level is understandable, a ‘Master of Horror’, and whilst Vampires are included in his oeuvre, the Werewolf remains absent. Hammer's icon is not Oliver Reed’s Werewolf, but Christopher Lee’s immortalised incarnation of Dracula.
It was a sub-conscious, an almost forgotten or unrealised influence that may have been a significant contributing influence to compel Juan to write and direct a Werewolf movie. "One of the influences for me that maybe I wasn’t very conscious of when I was writing the script, but I later found out was there. There was this Spanish director, who I am sure you have heard of, Paul Naschy. He made lots of horror movies in the seventies in Spain, and he was especially passionate about Werewolves. He was very important to me when I was a kid, and I think that is the reason I chose Werewolves." As important as these other influences inevitably were, from which Juan’s great love of horror derives, the horror cinema of Paul Naschy may have been, whilst not the overriding influence to write and direct a horror film, most certainly was a sub-conscious motivational force pushing him towards the Werewolf. When I confronted him with the question as to why there are so few Werewolf movies compared to Vampire and Zombie movies, his response, whilst not the answer I was perhaps looking for, did offer a greater insight into Juan, and his love of classic horror. "I love Todd Browning’s DRACULA. I love most Zombie movies. When you talk about monsters, horror monsters, classic monsters, there was always a Werewolf. You know from the first movie, the first time I saw the WOLF MAN, the George Waggner WOLF MAN from 1941, and the Hammer movies, the ones with Oliver Reed, I always thought the wolf was the more dangerous monster."
Moreno like every other director of a Werewolf film before him was forced to confront the challenge of the transformation from human to Werewolf; or in his case Werewolves. Rick Baker's use of make-up effects for the transformation sequence in An American Werewolf in London is generally hailed as the greatest human to Werewolf transformation. CGI has come nowhere near improving on this seminal moment, except in going so far as to spoof the agonising transformation of the films protagonist. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON Juan admits is a film that influenced ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES, especially in regards to, "the way the Werewolf was made.” Juan explained, “We did use a small amount of CGI, but mostly we used prosthetics and make up, to make the creatures and all the special effects." John Fawcett's GINGER SNAS circumvented this problem of competing with Baker and Landis’ landmark transformation sequence by having the final stage of transformation of Ginger take place off screen. The transformations of the Werewolves in Moreno’s film, there being more than one, an entire village transformed into the howling beast, occur onscreen, and are impressive, learning from Baker's effects, and Landis' cinematography to create an abstract transformation sequence, cutting between villagers, showing the progression of change. It is a milder metamorphosis, not quite the oppressively gruesome transformation of David Kessler witnessed in An American Werewolf, but still effective, and with a rare genuine authenticity. But after all, Landis was looking to create a terrifying “Hound from hell.” The transformation in ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES presents us with more of a crossbreed, not a complete transformation into the ‘Hound from hell’ of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON or GINGER SNAPS. It is less man metamorphosed into an impulsive and snarling predator and more a methodical and cunning predator, with a sense of conscious awareness, of its former self, and its surroundings, more an update of Lon Chaney Jr’s two legged creature of the night.
Despite this creative choice, the film’s pack of Werewolves invoke a sense of fear and danger, moving the film during its second half from a comedy-horror constructed around a curse, into a survival comedy-horror in a similar vein to Shaun of the Dead.
In any discourse on Zombies, there is the now traditional debate of whether they should be the “Walking Dead” or the “Running Dead”, and there is a similar debate pertaining to the Werewolf: should Werewolves be two legged, or four legged? Juan's Werewolves are two legged, and I’m sure this point will provoke a debate amongst hardened Werewolf fans, alongside a potential further complaint of it being humorous enough, but for some not terrifying enough. Attack of the Werewolves is not an exclusive comedy or horror, but a hybrid of the two genres. Landis has described a problem, derived exclusively from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON’S comedy-horror, despite his insistence that it is a horror film and in no way can it be described as a comedy. The common complaint he heard was that AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON was either, "Too scary to be funny”, or "Too funny to be scary." This is a similar problem Moreno may find himself having to confront, though he like Landis before him proves a film can be both funny and scary, though in the case of ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES, it invokes less a sense of terror, and more an impression of danger.
What struck me in my discussion with Juan was the reverence he has towards the genre, and the concept of horror as something terrifying, or if not terrifying, to invoke at the very least a sense of danger. One of the challenges for a writer-director creating a film that is so blatantly tongue in cheek, in this case of the curse, the roots of the horror in the narrative, is striking that respectful balance between the comedy and the horror. "Of course when writing the movie I had to be careful, but it's mostly when writing that you have to be careful with that balance; for me that was the most important thing, to try to keep that balance."
The comedic tone of ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES is not as oppressively dark as the horror of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, or the more metaphorical subtext of the transformation into Werewolf coinciding with menstruation in Ginger Snaps. Rather it is more of a lighter parody of curse and Werewolf narratives, and the survival horror-comedies, more in common with Edgar Wrights SHAUN OF THE DEAD. "The movie is a parody of horror films, a comedy, but the comedy comes from the reactions of the characters. They are horror situations, structured around the predicaments the characters find themselves in; that they trigger." Whilst the term parody is used to describe Attack of the Werewolves, it is a respectful parody. The Werewolf is true to its identity as a horror monster and not a device for comedic effect; a target for the audience’s mocking laughter. "So what occurred to me when I was writing was never make fun of the Werewolf. For example the Werewolf has to be very dangerous. To me the most important thing was not to laugh at the story, but to laugh with the characters.” One of the joys of the film as a horror fan is the way in which the film transposes one for the other, an on-going movement between the two, with more than the occasional collision. Its employment of horror and comedy is reminiscent to a point of Landis’ classic AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, in a constant state of conflict between comedy and horror, as we are left at times with the conflicted desire to react with laughter, or embrace an impending sense of doom. Nevertheless the Werewolf is respected, never relegated to a comedic presence. We maybe permitted to laugh with, but never to laugh mockingly at the Werewolf. The events may invoke a humorous reaction, the premise of the curse, and the amusing confusion of the villagers themselves of which curse is which, the original curse, or the curse for not breaking the curse. Whilst not a terrifying horror, the Werewolf or Werewolves invoke a sense of feeling of danger and threat to the protagonists, ensuring the horror element is never reduced to a secondary consideration, instead both the comedy and the horror paid equal attention.
An accomplished comedy-horror, it does not imitate recent past Werewolf classics, instead allowing itself to be influenced by Wrights careful blend of comedy and humour, and feature as more of a throwback to the classic Lon Chaney Jr’s two legged WOLF MAN, but updated with a more fierce and terrifying presence. It would be wrong and ill advised to expect the intense horror or gruelling transformation of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON or GINGER SNAPS. It is an updating of the early classics, a parody that is perhaps more respectful than SHAUN OF THE DEAD, parody more than all out spoof, delivering a dangerous horror creature, in contrast to Wright’s comedic Zombies. This may owe more to the fact that Juan’s protagonists have a greater fear and respect than Pegg, frost and company.
For Juan, there is an inevitable sense of disappointment with some modern horror films, particularly the portrayal of the Werewolf. "I have to say I’m a little pissed off with what’s going on lately with horror movies. The Werewolves, they have to get married and have children, and fall in love with each other. I'm not a big fan of that." I concur with him, admiring his willingness to speak out and defend the genre and horror monster he has such a reverence for. "Yes, yes, naturally. I feel it is a betrayal to the genre."
ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES serves to bring respectability back to the Werewolf after its recent hijacking by movies that shall go unnamed. Once again the Werewolf returns to being a cursed and fearful yet tragic creature, and the means by which Moreno exploits the image of Werewolf and human, one in the same, provides the film with an emotional and heartfelt depth in well-timed moments.
Throughout our discussion it struck me that in making ATTACK OF THE WEREWOLVES, Juan was looking back to the past, deep to the heritage of the horror genre, despite the comparisons to SHAUN OF THE DEAD over Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. "Of course John Landis’ AMERICAN WEREWOLF was a big influence on me, not only in the mixture of the genres, but also the way the Werewolf was made. When Edgar Wright made SHAUN OF THE DEAD he really opened that door again for the mix of genres, which he did brilliantly.” Between the filmmaker’s intention, and our interpretation, there is an inevitable conflict, between the influences of the early classics for Juan versus Shaun of the Dead’s perceived influence more so than Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON for critics and audience alike. "Of course the influence was there, but I prefer to think that the movie maybe is more a tribute to these classic movies of the forties. At least that's what I think, and that's what I tried to do.”
As aforementioned twelve years having elapsed since the last notable Werewolf movie, and the next director who attempts to add a further notable entry to the Werewolf canon will have to rival either the horror classics of Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON with its intense horror offset by black comedy, the heavily riddled metaphorical GINGER SNAPS, or compete with Moreno’s respectful paro