Benicio Del Toro’s The Wolfman might be getting mauled by critics baying for blood on a full moon, but there’s one thing we’re pretty sure everyone can get behind: the return of make-up master Rick Baker, the man whose iconic work on An American Werewolf in London set the standard for man-wolf transformation — and one that’s arguably yet to be surpassed. As the new film shows, CGI morphing can’t quite replicate the physical aspects of a prosthetic shapeshift — pounds of make-up looks like it hurts, dammit, which is what you’d imagine becoming a wolf would feel like. So to honour Rick — and indulge our primal love of watching men become savage beasts — here are our picks for the best and worst werewolf transformations in movies. Sparklepooch included.
“I didn’t mean to call you meatloaf, Jack!” John Landis’ incomparable scene is a mixture of icky body horror and wry humour, with David Naughton’s nightmarish transformation at the hands of Rick Baker’s prosthetics scored to the crooning “Blue Moon”. The mix of comedy and freakish visuals makes it that much more uneasy — and, like the best of wolfman moments, this looks physically unbearable. Landis and Baker, of course, went on to repeat their trick for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” clip — albeit in a campier, ’50s style. See them both here.
GAAAAAAAARRRRGGGGGGGGHH! That’s about all we can say about this. Where most werewolf transformations involve the man bursting forth from his skin, this unfortunate gentleman actually peels his own skin off and then transforms — resulting in a blood-covered wolf beast that’s not for the squeamish. Happy nightmares, kids!
1981’s other great American wolf pic was the work of Rob Bottin (the man behind the unforgettable terrors unleashed in John Carpenter’s The Thing), with Rick Baker consulting. The transformations are thus geared toward outright nightmare creature horror, with weird elongated faces that are as amusing as they are frightening. But nothing could top the WTF weirdness of the otherwise awful sequel Howling III: The Marsupials, which, among such delights as a were-supial pup bursting forth from a human mother’s womb, offers up this feral transformation. Is that a werewolf or a pig man? Director Philippe Mora actually does a nice job in this scene — check the negative exposures and epileptic TV screens flashing.
By the mid-’90s CGI had started to dictate werewolf transformations, bringing us laughable atrocities like the subway scene in An American Werewolf in Paris, and later rubbish like Cursed. But this overlooked wolf movie manages to get it pretty right — not least because it’s mixed in with some old-school fur and flapping puppet jaws, which seal the deal in this scene’s killer final moment. Also priceless for Michael Pare’s line preceding it: “You shoulda listened to the dog, Janet!”
This underrated Stephen King-scripted flick has its fans among werewolf aficionados — trust us, they’re out there — and justifiably so. This early transformation from the film shows a deft mix of classic horror makeup and post-American Werewolf ingenuity; plus, it offers the particular pleasure of watching a one-eyed priest transform into a wolf. Naturally, he’s carrying a baseball bat. As priest-wolfs tend to do.
“Aroooo, operator?” Short but wonderfully sweet, this earns its spot for efficiency — and Method mouth foaming. In just over 20 seconds he’s done, crashing through a phone booth door and staggering into the night with a classic howl. Hope he called collect.
It’s one of the most vivid B-movie titles ever devised, and is actually a well-made and performed little schlocker, but there’s no denying that young Michael Landon’s transition from teen rebel to adolescent lycanthrope — skip to the 7-minute mark — ain’t exactly convincing. Achieved with a shimmering series of dissolves, this is actually a step backwards from where the man-to-monster make-ups were at in the 1940s. Still, the upside-down angle as he stalks into the gym is a nice touch. Not so sure about keeping his letterman’s jacket on, though.
Low-to-zero budget parodist Mark Pirro — who you may remember from such films as Rectuma and Nudist Colony of the Dead — followed up his spoof A Polish Vampire In Burbank with this alleged satire of male sexual hang ups. The gay gist is that our hero Larry Smallbut (pronounced “Small butt”… and his friend’s name is Dick Cheese) is bitten on his ass by a queerwolf (also known, no kidding, as a “dickenthrope”) and thereafter when the moon is full he turns into howlingly cliched homosexual transvestite. As the movie’s mantra warns, “Even a wrist that is strong and firm and holds up straight by day may become limp when the moon is full and the Queerwolf comes your way”. Like Pirro’s other movies, its cheesy appeal is it knows how stoooopid it is, which makes the extreme bad taste feel kinda harmless. Kinda.
Like Benicio Del Toro, you take one look at Jack Nicholson and instantly think, ‘That dude’s a werewolf in real life’. So it was disappointing that Mike Nichols’ big budget flick didn’t quite capitalize on its star and concept. The earlier scenes in which Jack comes to grips with his new lycanthropic senses and instincts are delicious, but it’s when we get to the transformations that the movie seems a bit half-hearted, as if it doesn’t know whether it’s okay to switch into horror mode. What it results in is us looking at Wolfman Jack with his bed hair and wondering whether this might not be how he looks on a particularly hung-over morning.
That the 1985 original, which starred Michael J. Fox, was a box-office hit was all the justification that was needed to produce this dreadful sequel. Fox stayed away, politely saying that he’d rather not endure the make-up process again. Into his breeches stepped newbie Jason Bateman. The transformations are awful — his claws aren’t too far off queerwolf’s — but they’re possibly the least offensive thing about a comedy that appears to have been scripted without any thought about actually trying to make anyone laugh. What is odd is that, just as I Was A Teenage Werewolf marked Michael Landon’s film debut, this was the first big-screen appearance from Bateman — who had made his TV debut playing a kid adopted by Landon in Little House on the Prairie. Strange also that his sister, Justine, was back then starring opposite Fox in Family Ties.
Michael Sheen has transformed amazingly during his career, most notably into David Frost in Frost/Nixon and Tony Blair in The Queen. But along with those critically lauded flicks, the British thespian has also scampered across screens as lycan Lucien in the increasingly unliked Underworld flicks. The third and last one (so far) wields CG even more clunkily than the first two and Van Helsing and Cursed, which is no mean feat. Directors, production designers, please take heed: man-to-monster sequences need to be done with physical effects if the eye is to be deceived! As if he’s trying to obscure the shoddiness of the effects, director Patrick Tatapoulos appears to have had the entire film shot through an oil slick. Underworld? Underlit, more like it.
Regardless of where you stand on Twilight (from “OMG! Best thing ever!” to “*&*^& Worst movies ever made!”), it’s hard to make an argument that the transformations of the werewolves — sorry, shapeshifters! — are in any way realistic. In this pivotal scene, the first hunk-to-howler moment just passes muster, although the eyes recognize the weightless of the digital wolf. But Taylor Lautner’s mid-air transformation makes us howl with laughter. No doubt the majority of the audience would have only thought the scene could be improved by Jacob doing his lycanthropic leap shirtless.
Finally, a bonus scene: Yeah, we couldn’t resist another Oscar moment from The Howling III. Enjoy…