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The Werewolf

The Werewolf(1956)

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teaser The Werewolf (1956)

Fred F. Sears. The name might not be familiar to the average movie lover but some of the films he directed - Cell 2455, Death Row [1945], Rock Around the Clock [1957], Earth vs. the Flying Saucers [1957] - evoke fond memories among aficionados of fifties exploitation movies and drive-in fare. Often working with producer Sam Katzman, whose targeted promotions to "the youth market" were no less shrewd than his B-movie competitor William Castle, Sears would never be mistaken for an auteur like Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour, 1945) or Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, 1950). Instead, he was a second tier studio director in the B-movie unit at Columbia for most of his career, turning out cheap programmers on tight budgets with speed and economy his main objectives. Maybe he didn't turn out any minor masterpieces in his prolific career but he helped keep low-budget genre filmmaking alive and well for a decade and his evocatively titled films (Apache Ambush [1955], Teen-age Crime Wave [1955], The Giant Claw [1957]) obviously fueled the imaginations of such future B-movie fanatics as Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, John Sayles and Quentin Tarantino.

The Werewolf (1957) is one of Sears' rare forays into the horror genre and it incorporates some sci-fi elements into the mix as well. Discarding the old world superstitions and gypsy forelore of most werewolf movies, this tidy seventy-nine minute thriller has a contemporary setting and opens with an amnesiac stumbling into a winter resort town. It turns out the stranger is a car accident victim who was being treated with a new experimental drug. The two scientists responsible are trying to find a cure for radiation poisoning but the wolf serum they inject into Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch) only succeeds in transforming him into the title creature. The rest of the film plays out predictably with standard monster-on-the-loose clichs and a climactic manhunt in which heavily armed cops replace the angry torch-bearing villagers of old. Along the way there is one particularly creepy transformation scene in a mine and, for a change of pace, all of the werewolf's victims are men which provides a gay subtext to the film. The first attack, in fact, takes place in a dark alley outside a bar and all we can see are the writhing, entwined legs of the victim and killer as the grunting and growling reaches orgasmic levels. There is also a marked contrast between the macho flannel-wearing men in the mountain community where the film is set and the sensitive, urban "outsider" who doesn't fit into their society and is driven out.

Don Megowan, who plays the hero, sheriff Jack Haines, in The Werewolf, previously got to play the infamous Gill Man in The Creature Walks Among Us [1956]. Joyce Holden, who plays Megowan's fiance Amy, enjoyed a brief career in television and B features before retiring after her final film role, Terror from the Year 5000 [1958]. Steven Ritch, however, is the real star of The Werewolf and his haunted, tormented performance imbues the film with an inner core of tragedy that is a crucial component of any horror film. In case you didn't know, Ritch was a WWII survivor of some of the deadliest fighting at Guadalcanal. After the war, he considered a career as a lawyer but ended up in the film industry instead, where he concentrated on acting and screenwriting. His most notable contributions are the screenplays for Plunder Road [1957] for director Hubert Cornfield, and City of Fear [1959] for director Irving Lerner. He also appeared in the later film and Lerner's earlier effort, Murder by Contract [1958], which Martin Scorsese once said was "the film that has influenced me the most."

Rarely sympathetic to the horror genre, most reviewers dismissed The Werewolf as a routine quickie with Variety's review articulating the general consensus: "The Sam Katzman production seldom rises above a plodding monotone and won't create much reaction in the minor program market for which it is headed." Placed on a double bill with Fred S. Sears' much more popular Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Werewolf was at least an attempt to revitalize the lycanthropy film for fifties audiences but today seems like much more of a social commentary on its era if you read between the lines.

Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Fred F. Sears
Screenplay: Robert E. Kent
Cinematography: Edward Linden
Film Editing: Harold White
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Steven Ritch (Duncan Marsh), Don Megowan (Sherrif Jack Haines), Joyce Holden (Amy Standish), Eleanore Tanin (Mrs. Helen Marsh), Kim Charney (Chris Marsh), Harry Lauter (Deputy Ben Clovey).

by Jeff Stafford

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