Realistically speaking, the film industry has come an extremely long way since the first monster flicks. Today we generally build our monster storylines off conventions of the past, and CG has certainly helped bolster our imaginative creativity. People in the early 1900s, however, were thrilled to see any monsters on screen, even with shoddy make-up and weak plot lines. The first werewolf movie, duly titled The Werewolf, was only 18 minutes long, filmed without sound, and played in black and white. It relayed the tale of a Native American woman, who, devastated by the murder of her husband, turns to witchcraft in order to exact revenge. Her daughter picks up the trade, and by using the same witchcraft, she transforms into a wolf to carry out her mother’s vendetta. Sounds awesome; it was probably no. 1 at the box office.
Appropriately, following The Werewolf, a slew of monster movies transpire, yet the werewolf is never cast as the protagonist (the leading character or hero). In fact, due to difficulties in cost and ability, the werewolf is cast but rarely even seen on film, until 1935, when Universal Studios takes up the challenge with Werewolf of London. Although the first storyline to initiate the transference of the ‘curse’ through a bite or scratch, Werewolf in London disappoints viewers with its poor character development and overall quality. As for classic werewolf denominators, there are also no silver bullets needed, however, it does feature the full moon as the transformation catalyst.
Possibly the most significant influence in film for the depiction of werewolves is The Wolf Man (1941) in which Writer Curt Siodmak established the basic ‘rules’ that most werewolf storylines now follow by using the more traditional European folklore surrounding werewolf mythology. The familiarities such as silver, pentagrams, wolfsbane, and full moons are all included, along with the Werewolf in London’s initiative of being able to transfer the curse through a bite or scratch. Over time, these features have become our standard for werewolf movies. The 1940s did, however, continue to feature several other werewolf films where few, if any, of these common denominators came into play.
And finally, it may seem obvious to us that the curse would be passed through a family bloodline, yet it wasn’t until 20th Century Fox released The Undying Monster in 1941 that we see the first film to introduce the idea of an inherited curse. Three years later in 1944, Cry of the Werewolf built on the new idea of a familial curse and also starred female werewolves, a concept that hadn’t been addressed since the first werewolf movie over 30 years before. Owing to the early embrace of filmmakers, the idea of a female werewolf is now as natural as the moon cycle itself.
Nowadays, the term werewolf brings to mind a number of concepts that film has largely influenced. Turning on a full moon, death only by silver, and generations of the handed-down curse specifically frames our perception of our favorite supernatural. Yet, as discussed, these common ideologies behind the werewolf have not always existed in film. In fact, our more conventional understanding of werewolves evolved throughout the years from a pretty inadequate depiction into what we believe about werewolves today. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to say a big thank you to the motion picture industry for turning a relatively cursory character into the beloved monster we now know. What about you?