The Monster's on the Loose!!! Non-Chaney, Pt. 3: Were-Rik? There... There Rik!

[This is the third part of a trilogy in my The Monster's on the Loose!!! series concerning my fascination with wolves and werewolves in my youth, none of it due directly to the influence of the Universal Monsters series and its Wolf Man character as portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr. (He had already entered my life in comedy form through Topps Creature Feature trading cards, but we are discussing scares and not laughs here, not intentional laughs anyway). To read the first two parts of the series, visit either Non-Chaney, Pt. 1: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad... Something? or Non-Chaney, Pt. 2: Werewolves Along the Wall.]

The universe of my youth was rife with werewolves in flicks, books, comics, and television. Even with a mere four channels at my disposal, television continued to prove to be my main source of lycanthropic thrills. I have already recounted some of the early cartoon meetings with those of the furry set, but there were even more characters such as the hippie-styled Weirdo Wolfie on Filmation's The Groovie Ghoulies, Ruby-Spear's titular werewolf Fangface, Buck Kartalian as Bruce W. Wolf on the live-action Saturday morning show Monster Squad (with a pre-Love Boat Fred Grandy), and Howler, the youthful offspring of the Wolfman who fight crime with the Drak Pack.


While young, if there was any show or movie on that had the slightest whiff of monster mayhem, I was there. And I did have a sharp eye for werewolf antics. I was lucky enough (if that is how you wish to see it; I certainly do) to run into such titles on television as The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973), Moon of the Wolf (a 1972 ABC Movie of the Week with David Janssen), Deathmoon (a CBS-TV movie in 1978 with a werewolf loose in Hawaii), and The Legend of the Werewolf (1975, with Peter Cushing). And while not really a werewolf title, the ABC television series, Lucan, was about a orphaned boy raised by wolves who grows up and then roams about seeking out the mystery of his birth parents. Over in the funny books, Marvel Comics had a regular series called Werewolf by Night, of which I only got to read a few issues, but Marvel also had a character called the Man-Wolf, who was the monstrous alter-ego of J. Jonah Jameson's astronaut son, John. The Man-Wolf headlined Creatures on the Loose for the last few issues, and was featured in a pretty cool double-issue story in Marvel Premiere as well, but was most prominent in my life for battling Spider-Man on several occasions.

So, far before I truly ever got to see Lon Chaney, Jr. play his most famous character, I was not hurting for source material to fuel my werewolf fears, nightmares, and obsession. This obsession caused me to write one of my stupid songs as a kid – alongside such classics as I'm an Elf and The Anaconda – that I titled The Monster's on the Loose!!! You might notice that the title of the song matches the title of this ongoing series of posts about my monster obsession stemming directly from my youth. And get this, it had a chorus that went – the soft-skulled amongst you may wish to brace for impact – "The monster's on the loooooooo-oooo-ooo-oose! The monster's on the loooooooo-oooo-ooo-oose! The monster's on the loooooooo-oooo-ooo-oose! The monster's on the loooooooo-oooo-ooo-oose!" You get the idea. There were actual lyrics for a pair of verses, of course, but the main point was so that you could practically howl while singing along with the chorus.

But there were three prime titles that influenced my fears the most in those early days: two movies and one episode of a quite famous but short-lived television series.

Kolchak: the Night Stalker: Werewolf (1974)

Dan Curtis' Kolchak: the Night Stalker TV series should never be underestimated as to its influence on me as a growing horror fan of a certain age. From my first time seeing an episode, where the intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak battles a swamp creature in the sewers, I was hooked. When The X-Files came along, my attraction to it from the start was from the residual effect of having seen the few Kolchak episodes over and over and over again, and having long wished I had another such series that could fill the void. To find out that X-Files creator Cris Carter had drawn his own inspiration directly from his love for The Night Stalker (to the point of eventually hiring star Darren McGavin to play a Kolchak-type character in seclusion late in the series) did not surprise me.

For the werewolf episode of the series, Carl ends up taking over at the last minute for his editor Tony's long-anticipated working vacation aboard a luxury liner promoting a singles cruise. Naturally, something weird is happening onboard. After a series of gruesome deaths, Kolchak gets caught up in not just trying to stop the creature (played by a sleazily perfect Eric Braeden) but also doing battle with the captain (good ol' Henry Jones) and crew who are trying to downplay the murders and keep the press from getting the information. And, of course, even though he gets a terrific confederate in this adventure – Nita Talbot as movie-mad Paula Griffin is a riot – Carl is the only one who ultimately believes that Braeden is an actual werewolf. Or at least the only one willing to go on record saying that is what he encountered (which is the basic thrust of the series).

Like most episodes of the show, it is alternately funny (apropos of its subject matter, the show has a consistently dark sense of humor) and silly (many of the filming effects are pretty dated). The attack scenes are mostly of the creature throwing people overboard (it seems to be his M.O.), or tossing multiple crewmen about in group fashion, but as a kid, the POV attacks and the quick flashes of the werewolf's intense strength and fury still gave me the willies. I saw this episode numerous times as a kid (like all of the show's mere lot of twenty, along with two introductory television movies that drew massive ratings). While my estimation of the series might be a good deal higher than most and heavily dosed with nostalgia, my more practiced eye still thinks the Kolchak series as a whole holds up not just as being pretty haunting today, but also as solid entertainment, its chief attribute being Darrin McGavin, arguably one of the more underrated actors of his day.

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Hammer's more historical attempt at the genre, The Curse of the Werewolf, directed by Terence Fisher in 1961, was a revelation to me. I was already a big Oliver Reed fan thanks to seeing Richard Lester's Musketeer films and Carol Reed's Oliver! quite young. My mother had told me that Reed had played a werewolf at one point, and staying up past midnight one Saturday to watch the local World's Most Terrible Movies program on our ABC affiliate, KIMO, I was granted my first opportunity to see him play the role. By then, I had already been introduced to the Hammer Studios style (my first such film was Frankenstein Created Woman), and was fascinated by the fact that the Hammer films were both classier than most of the other horror films I was encountering to that point, but also far more gruesome, sadistic, and bloody. Curse goes for an epic feel from the start, trapping its tale of lycanthropy in a Spanish fairy tale setting. The werewolf plotline almost gets swallowed up for a large portion of the film, but gradually builds to a terrific climax, the thrills becoming larger and larger on the way.

As a kid (and even now), I wished that there was a bit more of the monster in this film – you really have to wait for the payoff – but when it comes, it's a doozy. Reed looks fantastic as the creature, with a torn, billowing flouncy shirt as he climbs up and about the roofs and bell tower of the village. Shots of Reed in his werewolf guise are seen quite often in monster and horror books, and that is with very good reason. The film was the first to show a werewolf character in full color, and the added touch of being able to show bright red blood smeared on his face and dripping from his fangs is fabulously rendered. It is astounding to me that Hammer never did a follow-up to this film, when they seemed to have no problem expanding their Frankenstein and Dracula series well beyond reasonable limits. In a perfect world, there would at least be five or six Hammer werewolf flicks to choose from; sad to say, there really is just this one, but they did a magnificent job with it.

The real Big Bad: My imagination...

While I had seen the Kolchak werewolf episode already, I had not quite run into that first viewing of The Curse of the Werewolf just yet. The Reed version of the werewolf was just around the corner, as were the rest. But I was still wolf-haunted. To be sure, after the image of Maurice Sands' Les Lupins entered my brain as a grade schooler, my every walk home from the bus stop through the mid-to-late afternoon of Alaskan winter dusk became a genuine task in terror for me. While I was fine walking along the far end of the street on which our house was built, with a couple of houses and a trailer along one side while nothing but dark woods lurked along the other, the fear would grow over me as I made my way towards our neighbors' house. The Wachsmuths' house was built close to the road's edge, with a simple driveway area in which to part cars, and while it was surrounded by trees like every home in the area, it's nearness to the street meant that approaching the house was never foreboding and sometimes stopping there even served as a temporary refuge when I couldn't quite work up the gall to get to my own door (which happened on occasion).

Directly across the street was the Woods' house, and while we were friends with Mr. Wood's kids, it had become harder and harder to go over there to play after his wife had committed suicide a few years earlier. It was probably one of the first times in my life where I became expressly attuned to human tragedy, and certainly the moment where the act of suicide, which I barely even understand when used in a movie or TV show, became a reality to me. The Woods and the Wachsmuths were our nearest neighbors; everyone else lived a couple of acres away or more, always with forest, other roads or both between us, and the hilly terrain was not always conducive to plotting out quick getaways to a safe space when monsters were on the rise in one's backyard... or mind.

From the moment that I took that first step off our street and onto our driveway – usually a dirt road covered with rocky gravel, but taking on an occasional more precarious texture when snow and ice came along due to the season – my nerves would seize up at the same time that the goosebumps sprang into full industry along my arms. My eyes would dart back and forth to the trees on both sides of the long, sloping driveway that sunk down into our property. To say the trees lined the driveway would be a misnomer, since that would imply they were planted in some form of designed precision; rather, the driveway was cut naturally into the woods that were already there, and so the word "surrounded" is far more of an appropriate term. For surrounded I was, tree after tree with who knows what lurking behind them, awaiting a taste of my supreme deliciousness.

Each forward step would bring a slight crunch of snow, which would cause me to stop and listen hard, because anyone knows that a werewolf is crafty enough to only move closer to its prey when the intended victim is making too much noise to hear anything else. When I say "anyone knows," I mean, "Because I made that up myself when I was a kid". But that is exactly what would happen. My journey down my driveway each afternoon after school that winter (and the next) would begin with a series of small steps and hesitations, listening for anything that might move in the woods around me. One would think, despite the darkness, that I could easily see most of the ground was just snow because the birches and other deciduous trees and plants had lost their leaves already. But since when does logic rule the life of a sixth grader? The spruce trees, which were still fully covered in needles and therefore vast green curtains of terror, hid unimaginable horrors behind them, and were the chief cause of my distress. After moving perhaps five or six feet down the driveway in this manner, I would finally get up just enough nerve to shoot forward, running as fast as I could the rest of the way down the driveway, through our parking area, up the grass along the edge of our yard, and under the stairs where we kept the key to the house hidden for my use.

In my head, I was running a thousand miles an hour each time, but I always new that if an actual werewolf wanted to get me, there was no way for me to stop him. Because I knew that simply running fast was not one of the werewolf rules. I had no silver bullets, let alone a gun, and knew that I was pretty defenseless. My previous fear of dealing with the Big Bad Wolf, which you might recall was centered around the lower driveway and stairs on our property, was frightening enough but he could be dealt with by cartoon pigs by simple trickery. I was pretty tricky myself, so I knew that if it came down to it, I could handle him; I just wished to avoid the situation altogether. But werewolves were different. They were usually supernaturally based, and had to be dealt with using arcane magicks and herbs and very specific elements.

And when I finally got inside my house, what was it that I would do? Would I hit my homework like a good boy (and like I was supposed to do)? Would I do my few chores, because I was the oldest and given some responsibility, and which was why I was allowed to come home early instead of staying at the babysitter's house a couple of streets away with my brothers? Or would I pray to Jesus to protect me from the werewolves that were surely after me? Most of the time, none of the three. Sometimes some homework would get done, and sometimes some chores would, but most of the time, I would turn on the local CBS-TV affiliate, KTVA, and watch whatever chunk of that afternoon's matinee monster movie was left. In the summers, I got to watch the entire movie, but in the winter, I would just tune in and see what movie it was and catch the second half of the film. This was fine, because that was usually where most of the good monster action was anyway – the second half – or where all the big monster reveals were if the film depending on them.

I don't remember the name of the program or if it even had a title. This is strange because the films it showed were never to be forgotten by me. The program aired classic (or non-classic, depending on your viewpoint) horror and science-fiction movies – mixed with the occasional Sherlock Holmes mystery or film noir adventure – and of the monster flicks, they were chiefly from Universal, AIP, and Toho. As a result, this is where I got my basic education on the films from those studios. It's where I finally got to see those Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy, Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon films I was reading about in the then-waning days of the original run of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I also was able to catch the bulk of the original Showa period of Godzilla and other kaiju films from Toho. Other favorites which I would first see on this program were The MansterThe Monster that Challenged the WorldFiend Without a Face, It Came from Outer Space, I Married a Monster from Outer SpaceThe Black ScorpionThe Deadly MantisSon of KongThe Green SlimeThis Island Earth, and most importantly, The Thing from Another World. And yeah, this is where The War of the Gargantuas became such a glorious, ridiculous obsession for me.

However, mostly due to timing of when I started watching this afternoon monster matinee show, Universal's acclaimed House of Horrors, filled to the rafters with its famous monsters, would not show up on the program for me until later in my viewings. The Wolf Man, as a film and not just mere pictures in books or on trading cards, would not come fully into my life for another year or so, nor would other films in which the Chaney Wolf Man character appears, like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, or Universal's own preceding film in the subgenre, 1935's The Werewolf of London. But there was one film that aired on this matinee program that, with very furry fingers of its own, touched a quite specific nerve with me. And stuck with me for years...

The Werewolf (1956)

Fred F. Sears' The Werewolf nearly did me in as a kid. Seen today, it's a pretty enjoyable, quick little thriller (only 75 minutes, like many similar films), almost as much science fiction as it is horror, but I didn't care about such distinctions back in those days. I also didn't know that Mr. Sears directed, in the same year as The Werewolf, what would be one of my favorite science fiction films, Earth vs. Flying Saucers (though that was mainly due to Ray Harryhausen's still immensely appealing and famous special effects sequences). He also directed another film that would become of my "so bad, it's good" faves to this day, The Giant Claw, a ridiculous giant bird flick that features effects that serve as the complete opposite to Harryhausen's sublime animation in his other, better sci-fi film.

But The Werewolf doesn't rely on flying saucer or giant monster effects; the monster is human-sized in this film, and it isn't necessarily the title creature. It is a detail I would not realize until the second time I encountered the film, but while there is indeed a werewolf at loose in this film and by almost any definition he could be described as a monster, the true evil in this film is via the hands of a pair of mad scientists attempting to track down their creation, as well as the majority of townspeople who go over the top in their attempts to shoot down and kill what is, for the most part, a very sick and unarmed man in this film. It might seem too easy to you that I would take the position of declaiming a large group of humans in the film as "the real monsters" – especially since it is how I tend to view most of the unthinking proportion of the human race – but the film itself makes this distinction in having a smaller group of good guys trying to find and help the poor man to safety.

My first viewing (and therefore, earliest memory) of the film was near the halfway point of its running time, since I turned on the television mid-afternoon after having just battled my werewolf fears to find myself face to face with one of those same creatures on our now (in hindsight, given the current standards) ridiculously tiny television screen. I was seeing a transformation scene that made my blood run cold for not just the remainder of the winter, but for quite a time afterward.

A nervous and clearly brain-addled man, Duncan Marsh (played by Steven Ritch) stands inside a cave confronted by another man, a mad scientist dressed as a hunter, bearing a rifle. In the woods outside, a posse led by the local sheriff (Don Megowan) is trying to track Marsh down, seemingly for a series of local deaths, both human and animal. Marsh doesn't understand what he has done, and begs the other man to tell him why his pursuers wish to kill him if he hasn't done anything to them. Suddenly, as his anxiousness and fear grows, Marsh starts to hyperventilate, and then his deep breathing noises turn into a series of growls. He transforms before the eyes of the scientist, in what was to me one of the most frightening things I had seen on television at that point in my young life.


The effect is not particularly smooth or well-done (Universal did it a bit better), but his face gradually becomes hairier. Where this werewolf has it all over Chaney, Jr. and others, perhaps harkening back to Mamoulian's version of Dr. Jekyll, is the look of pure bestial terror and then confidence in Marsh's eyes as he changes, and then the sickening way he drools out of his mouth and over his chin as he advances on his would-be attacker. Marsh is far more frightening to me mid-transformation than when he is fully transformed, for when he staggers out of the cave, his attacker fleeing, his once tight, shorter wolf hair is much shaggier and fairly ridiculous looking. Honestly though, just about anyone dressed as even the simplest, even silliest, version of a werewolf could have sent me running for shelter back in those days. I was eleven years old, living in the woods, and frightened to death of werewolves and Bigfoot. A plastic Ben Cooper Halloween mask could have done the trick on me.

Aside from the mostly effective makeup, there were several elements of The Werewolf that clearly forced the film to stick in my cranium as much as it did. The first was the fact that most of the action in The Werewolf takes place in the light of day. There is no full moon affecting Marsh's behavior. He can change into his wolf form by merely being angered or scared. Most importantly, there is no silver bullet to cure his condition; a regular bullet will do. It is an important note to make, though I doubt that I took notice at the age of eleven, but there was nothing supernatural at all about this version of the werewolf. His condition was brought upon him, like the monsters of many a film from the 1950s, from exposure to radiation; in this case, after Marsh showed signs of amnesia after waking up from a car accident, two scientists gave him a dose of irradiated blood from a wolf. Why wolf's blood? Well, they had it on hand, having one of the creature's caged for study. And did I mention that the main scientist is just a bit mad in nature, being not just thoroughly committed to his study, but also absolutely intent on saving his own hide by murdering Marsh before the authorities can catch the poor man.

The setting, too, was instrumental in my fascination with the film. While so many monster flicks took place in far off places like jungles or Transylvanian villages or in big, thriving cities that I could only dream about visiting, The Werewolf was in a world recognizable to me. Shot in Big Bear, California, The Werewolf takes place in the mountains, with homes and buildings surrounded by forest, not necessarily the same types of trees that I had in my mountain area home in Eagle River, Alaska, but the mood was the same. Likewise, the opening shot in the film of a small town street lined with bars, restaurants, and pharmacies could have been a crawl through Anchorage's then grungy downtown area – namely 4th Avenue – of my memory. Additionally, some scenes rely on the werewolf's tracks being seen in the snow, which was also a new touch for me, and instantly reflected upon my own walks home from the bus stop, where the snow became a most willing participant in giving away my whereabouts to the creatures lurking about me in the trees.

While The Werewolf takes place in the 1950s, it it not a 1950s of sock hops and teenagers, fast cars and girl chasing. The men are hard drinking (the very first scene takes place in a bar and eventually ends up in an alleyway mugging), their basic clothes are not much different from the working class people of my Alaskan neighborhood not quite twenty years after the movie was lensed. At the very least, the men in the film looked like the photos of my relatives that I saw in family photo albums, where several deer would be tied across the front of an automobile while men and sometimes women stood stiff-armed and awkwardly for the picture. Most of our own neighbors were at least weekend outdoorsmen, if not consistent in that behavior. My own parents loved fishing, and my dad hunted occasionally, and so the gear that went with such a lifestyle was as apparent in our lives as it was in the people populating this film. And while seeing a car from the 1950s on the street today is an indescribable pleasure (for the most part, depending on condition), 1975 was not so far removed that I didn't see cars from that then slightly older decade pretty regularly both on the road and in surrounding neighborhoods. The world of The Werewolf, with some minor differences in behavior and dialogue, was close enough to my own forest and hill-filled town to add an extra layer of verisimilitude to its "B" movie plotline.

Something that would come to me on my second showing of the film that I rather missed in the first was the sympathy that the picture has for its lead character. The first time around, I pretty much just entered the story with the transformation that I described, and then the rest of the picture is Marsh being captured, the scientists breaking into the jail to do away with him, his escape from the jail, and then the pursuit and stopping of the werewolf. What I missed was the large amount of character work that goes into establishing Marsh, his wife and small boy who feared him dead, the local doctor, the evil scientists, and others. Marsh is completely sympathetic, and even some of his actions as the wolf are him fighting against this uncommon nature that has been thrust upon him. Certainly there is much about the picture that is patently ridiculous, but it is played so straightforward, and the drama is never allowed to be anything but true to its characterizations, that – perhaps apart from some of the werewolf shots (and this depends entirely upon the viewer's tolerance for such things), the film never truly comes off as campy.

Piling a viewing of The Werewolf on top of the book of werewolves with the picture of Les Lupins was nearly a deadly combination for me. If I was scared to walk home because of werewolves having just seen the Maurice Sand's picture, I was practically crapping my pants after seeing Duncan Marsh drool in the cave and then tear apart two evil scientists in a jail cell. (Luckily, I never actually crapped them.) Les Lupins, with its grouping of werewolves lounging about in sinister suggestion in front of that cemetery wall may have overtaken my imagination, but that scene suddenly had a companion: The Werewolf's full, cinematic close-up of a werewolf's face – however silly the makeup might seem today – and it took just that single look at half the film for me to springboard my fears to even greater heights.

If you are among those who think that growing up and getting past such irrational feelings is easy to do, keep in mind that I have been a lifelong pedestrian. I catch rides where I can, and take the bus as often as I am able, but walking about is usually my main means of transportation. Sure, it is by my own design, and I could be locked comfortably behind the wheel of a car in scary situations like the rest of you if I only changed my habits. So in most ways, it is my own fault that I have often found myself in some pretty dark, secluded places in my meanderings, in some fairly awful neighborhoods by accident, and sometimes in situations where I have gotten more of the night world than I really wanted to get. My life has actually been threatened a couple of times but I managed to get out of them. 

But even with that, finding myself all alone on a quiet road, at dusk, with the moon peeking through the trees along the sides of the road, is something that still triggers those childhood fears, albeit for a brief moment or so. It is in those moments where often a stray thought of Duncan Marsh from The Werewolf, snarling and drooling, desperate in action and quick of claw and fang, will enter my mind. However, as time has passed for me, most often those thoughts have receded from the primeval fear of the monster and drifted instead to identifying not just with the monster, but as the monster. Just another lost, lonely creature who must keep fighting, howling in rage, and running constantly to distance himself from an increasingly senseless and uncaring world.

Sure, such thinking is maudlin and counter-productive, and it's not like my life isn't filled with both love and long-standing friendship. Sometimes, though, I can't help it. One cannot always control one's emotions, and one cannot help but let irrational fears sneak in from time to time to subvert one's worldview. Such slips can affect any one of us, or even masses of us, as we have seen recently in how our country seems so split apart right now. For my part, almost without noticing it, I slowly grew past my ridiculous, early fears of such imaginary things as werewolves (though I have still maintain a healthy respect for Bigfoot, just in case he actually does exist). I have new fears now, some brought on by a prolonged and unwanted spell of unemployment (which is only in recent months starting to break down) and money concerns, and others brought on by political upheaval and uncertainty in the bonds of certain close relationships. I'm a grown-ass man, as one variation of a current popular catchphrase goes, and as such, I can't worry about werewolves anymore.

But, goddamnit, I am going to snarl and claw and fight like one when the time calls for it. Who says I never learned anything from all of these silly cartoons and movies?

RTJ

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