Psychotronic Ketchup: Wolfman (1979)

Masochism only plays a small part in my watching of some of these films in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Certainly, I enter into many of these films with a large amount of dread as to their expected quality. This can pay off in spades, however, if the film turns out, on the rare occasion, to be far better than could ever hope them to be.

If only I could tell you that North Carolina's would-be lycanthropy & Satanism epic from 1979, Wolfman, were one of these opportunities. If I could tell you, here's how I would do it: I would slowly roll up to your stately home in a surrey with some fringe on top, carefully bring the single horse pulling the carriage to a stop, puffingly crawl down from the driver's seat and amble achingly up your front steps to impart the news to you. And then, because I don't feel like coming up with another way to approach you, I will return twenty minutes later to tell you this news again in the exact same excruciatingly sluggish way. (Perhaps, after a breather, I will decide to remind you of the news about this film once more, and if I do, I will deliver it for the third time in the same manner. Until that time, you are just going to have to wait.)

Earl Owensby never met a scene he couldn't reuse multiple times in the same 90-minute movie, such as the one described above, with himself as the driver of the Slow Surrey to Boredom. He doesn't just drive that buggy, though. Owensby, a self-made man who walked off with a zillion in the tool industry and went into film production, is the producer and star of Wolfman, and it would be far too apparent a joke to elaborate on the reasons why he got the lead in this film. Here's what I know about Owensby: zilch, apart from what I can glean from his website and from the Weldon book (Wikipedia has literally nothing on him, just on his studio), he made about three dozen films at his studio beginning in the mid-'70s and through the '80s, and is at the very least a footnote in the making of a handful of Oscar-nominated/winning films. His studio, during the filming of Cameron's The Abyss, sported the world's largest underwater soundstage, built at the site of an unfinished nuclear power plant. But Owensby made his real mark in B-movies, churning out ultra low-budget flicks one after the other, including numerous 3-D productions, often starring himself in the lead. His films usually made money, playing only in the South, and gaining extra revenue from being sold to cable outlets. He gained enough notoriety that he was featured in a segment nationally on 60 Minutes the year that this film was released.

And I had never seen any of his movies until Saturday, when Wolfman arrived almost surreptitiously in my mailbox, somehow caught in the newspaper-like junk inserts that usually fly straight into the garbage can below the box. Perfect timing, as it turned out, and not actually planned at all, as I was intent on checking out Universal's The Wolf Man on a new local monster movie show that same night. Thus, a natural double feature was born in an instant.

Look, for all I know, Mr. Owensby might be a terrific guy. He probably has a lot of hard-won friends, and is a pillar of his community, and definitely has an incredible business sense. For all I know, his impulse to delve into movie-making sprang forth naturally from a personal love of movies, and I am all for feeding that impulse. I will always support independent filmmaking, and I personally would love to be involved in any production, even ones as low-budget as the ones Owensby cranked out in his heyday. If I had stayed in Alaska, signs were good that I would be helping my pal Aaron out with his zombie opus, and I had another friend who is active in making his own films as well. If it is what you love, then by all means, do what you feel you have to do.

But, let's get this fact straight from here on: judging from Wolfman, Earl Owensby, for all his presumed sincerity in making these films, was a shitty filmmaker. Yes, he is not the writer/director -- that dubious distinction belongs Worth Keeter, who was seemingly the house director for Owensby Productions, and who has since gone on to a career as a director of numerous episodes of shows like Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and Beetleborgs. (This direction seems appropriate given his start...) But, Owensby was the man in charge -- the money man -- and once you make yourself the lead over and over again, it's quite apparent who actually ran the show with this film and on the others. And if the films are shitty, then that makes you a shitty filmmaker.

Why don't we focus on the good points in Wolfman, most of which stem from an obvious love for this type of film? Most people don't make a distinction between werewolves and wolfmen, but Owensby does, and I must give him credit for that. His Colin Glasgow is a man who is cursed to assume the hair, claws and ferocity of a wolf, but still retains his humanity as far as form and mobility go. He is not a man who turns into a wolf. This puts the film's title squarely in the right subset of lycanthropy films, and points to Owensby and pals knowing, at least to this degree, what they were messing with here.
I am also fine with the idea that the curse is set upon Glasgow by a cult of Satanists rather than the mere bite of a wolf (though that does happen, too); the film is already ridiculous at the outset, and it does add another small element to the plot that was actually surprising at the start, since I assumed it would just be a generic Wolfman effort as described by the history of these things.

There is some pretty good opening atmosphere over the credits, and some of the camera shots are not too bad given what I assume was a rather limited set of choices, not to mention money, time and equipment. And bonus points must be given to these brave souls for at least attempting to set their film in a bygone era, even if it really doesn't come off that way in the finished product. (All the preproduction planning in the world can't mask the sense that some of your townie extras had barely set down their Super Big Gulp from the local 7-11 before picking up their torches and shotguns.) It sometimes seems like they bought every item at a flea market that was older than 1930, and then jam-packed each set with the items, with little regard for their appropriateness. The attempt is appreciated, however. I also had that sense of the child within me, who would have loved this film at the age of ten. It is simple, it has a Wolfman, it has blood, it has a number of people getting killed. I grew up loving two werewolf movies unflinchingly, even while being scared to walk home at night: 1956's The Werewolf and 1973's The Boy Who Cried Werewolf. Quality didn't matter; the werewolves and wolfmen did. These films were the "hairy" ones that I had seen at that point, but if Owensby's film had been around just a few years earlier, it surely would have seemed like wolfie heaven to me.

And that's it for the good. The film's largest demerit comes from the editing, or rather, the lack of it. I don't know if Owensby had a contract with the theatres to deliver a solid 100-minute long feature, but if he did, then he succeeded. On that count alone, the film succeeds. Wolfman feels so much longer though -- the first twenty minutes dripped by in what seemed like a hundred themselves -- and the blame has to rest on Owensby and Keeter's need to repeat themselves endlessly. They can't just show Glasgow running up the steps to the doctor's townhouse; they feel the need to show the entire scene I described above in the second paragraph -- with the surrey and the fringe and the horse and all -- and then when Glasgow returns for another discussion with the good Doc, they show the entire thing again. No shortcuts, no trimming of the scene to quicken the pace. They show it again. And this happens in a couple other scenes as well.

Because of these delays, Owensby doesn't even get in his Wolfman makeup until a full hour into this opus, and if you thought it was all meant to add anticipation to the moment, you have another thing coming. For a film so obsessed with sticking around in scene after scene, when it comes to the big transformation moment, it is over and done in about five seconds. Owensby grimaces, he grips the door jamb, his hand gets hairy, and he runs off into the night. I am fine with the Wolfman look -- he is more Cousin Itt than Chaney, Jr., with practically every bit of skin covered by long brushed-down hair -- I just don't understand why they give us hardly anything in the initial change when they linger so long on it later when he switches back. (And, of course, more than once.) There are several moments that one definitely feels the on-the-fly mode of the making of the film when it seems action sequences don't quite go as planned, such as in the final fight scene or in the big chase scene with the villagers.

It all comes down to Owensby, though. Again, he might be a nice guy, but he is no actor. It came as no surprise to find out later he was supposedly a buddy of Elvis Presley's, because the sense I got from watching Earl's first few scenes here was one of Elvis, all paunchy and addled from pills, giving up music and going back to films again. In fact, a conspiracy theory popped into my skull at that moment, almost a Bubba-Ho-Tep scenario, with one E. switching with the other E. and hiding out in North Carolina, making crappy flicks. Owensby only bears a superficial resemblance to the King, however he did play a Presley-like entertainer in a later film, and he named his real-life son after the King, too; the true match comes in his mumble-mouthed attempts at dialogue, with his soft, sweet-natured sounding accent tripping over line after line, almost to the point where you feel sorry for the guy for just trying. He loses this empathy once he is shown without his shirt, with more natural body hair than even his Wolfman character should even rightly bear. And Keeter seems determined to stay the course with his editing choices, giving us no less than three terrifying glimpses of Owensby's shaggy, dumpy physique. Upon this third horrendous attack on our vision and sanity, one screams out, "Surely, he has to be the producer to have gotten this part!"

Then again, it was the '70s.
If Joe Don Baker could be considered leading man material at that time, then so apparently could Earl Owensby, even if only in his own movies. Somehow, mysteriously, he made lots of cash on this point.

Of course, that Baker guy could actually act...

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