Horror films go through a number of prominent trends, most notably Found Footage. But running a close second are those movies who attempt to achieve a Grindhouse/70s feel, usually by scratching the film, skipping a scene here and there, and sticking in drive-in style commercials. Sometimes that works. Sometimes that doesn’t.
It’s those less frequent attempts to recreate a different era that intrigue me more, perhaps because more effort is required to recreate those black and white bygone eras. One which sticks in my mind still is CALL OF CTHULHU, a 2005 film by Andrew Leman, graphic designer for such films as SCREAM 3 and GALAXY QUEST, where he presented HP Lovecraft’s most famous short story as a silent, expressionistic horror film (I might have to review that one in more detail sometime). Maybe it’s my age, but I just love me some Retro.
Similar, but perhaps more accessible to general audiences, is Eden McGarr’s HOUSE OF THE WOLF MAN. With this, director/writer McGarr (SICK GIRL) has produced a fine homage to the Universal horror cycle of the late 30s and early 40s. For those not in the know, the studios’ Golden Age of Horror began in the early 30s, with classics such as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE and many others. It dipped for a while, especially after the Production Code kicked in, but then re-releases of the monster movies in the late 30s brought them back to public attention. The studios cashed in on it, as studios are wont to do, until the box office dropped, and so they looked for variations on a theme, notably multiplication; if the public won’t come out for one monster, maybe two, or more? Universal gave us FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, and then later HOUSE OF DRACULA HOUSE OF FRANKENTSTEIN, when they threw in Dracula and a couple of hunchbacks for good measure.
They were classy. They were beautiful. Even with what should be the expected nadir of this cycle, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEETS FRANKENSTEIN, it remained an entertaining and reverential entry to the mythology. And let’s face it, in the pre-Godzilla days, they were the only way to see two or more monsters clash (which is why I still have love for FREDDY VS JASON, even if few others do). But the Wolf Man, though possessing as good a pedigree as Dracula and Frankenstein, never got himself a HOUSE movie. Thankfully McGarr has rectified that omission.
On a dark and stormy night, five individuals, apparent strangers, have been invited to the spooky old mansion (actually a castle, but who’s splitting hairs here?). We’ve got athletic college kid Reed Chapel (Dustin Fitzsimons, THE SOCIAL NETWORK), his Plain Jane “scientist” sister Mary Chapel (Sara Raftery, GINGERDEAD MAN 3: SATURDAY NIGHT CLEAVER – Wait, did I just really type that?), smart aleck nerd Conrad “Sully” Sullivan (Jeremie Loncka, ZOMBIE DRUGS), vampish bad girl Elmira Cray (Cheryl Rodes, MY TRIP TO THE DARK SIDE), and boisterous Great White Hunter Archibald Whetlock (Jim Thalman, BLOOD MONEY), who arrives with his small party of African manservants. These last were not expected by their host, the mysterious doctor Bela Reinhardt (Ron Chaney, and no, the surname is not a coincidence, he is the grandson of Lon Chaney Jr), but Reinhardt will ensure that his own servant, the hulking Tor Johnson-a-like Barlow (John McGarr).
On their arrival, the master of the house, informs them that they have all been selected for a great experiment that will determine who will become his heir, and get the estate and his vast collection of arcane books. The rules? They’re not specifically stated, though Reindhart mentions that it’s a “contest of elimination” (heh heh), and assures them that each possesses a particular trait (intelligence, strength, cunning, perception, a great rack) which will help them survive.
And while the Chapels, Sully and Elmira investigate the eyes peering at them through eyeholes in the paintings in their respective rooms, and learn they may have more in common with each other than they suspected, Whetlock and his party investigate the large, feral footprints in the grounds outside. What could it all mean? Could Vadoma (Saba Moor-Doucette, CAVEGIRL), the crippled, one-eyed Gypsy woman in the attic, hold the key to the mystery, before the full moon rises the following night?
Okay, the positives: McGarr has done a superb job of recapturing the look and feel of the era: the dialogue, direction, cinematography, incidental music, title cards, everything screams a level of authenticity. Even the staginess and camp level of acting of the period is here. There are chills, particularly when Elmira meets the Gypsy VadomaAnd the monsters, while not looking exactly like their Universal counterparts (presumably due to licensing), are still Old School Cool. There are even the now-embarrassing aspects of the old movies here, such as Whetlock’s treatment of his black servants, and their stereotyped bug-eyed reactions to the monsters (though their ‘African’ dialogue is intentionally hilarious: “Bwana, Bwana, Cowabunga, Ungawa!”). A few things don’t ring true: once or twice someone uses the expletive ‘Bastard’, which wouldn’t occur in a mainstream Hollywood film until 1961’s THE HUSTLER, and Elmira’s Betty Page-style underwear would also have been a no-no (though she wears them so well I can be forgiving).
McGarr’s script attempts to fuse together the Wolf Man and Frankenstein mythologies, albeit with limited success. But it’s the battle between the aforementioned monsters which is the highlight here. It actually improves on what we saw in the original movies, with each monster employing different fighting styles, the Wolf Man leaping about (some good wire work here, no CGI bullshit) versus the Frankenstein Monster (stuntman and stunt driver Craig Dabbs, THE GREEN HORNET), a more lumbering but also more resilient opponent.
There is a big negative here, and I’m loathe to go into detail because it’s full of spoilers, but I feel like it’s necessary to address. The movie is 75 minutes long, and the first 60 minutes is taken up with the principals unraveling the mystery. The Wolf Man appears, attacking them, and then from the cellars below, the Frankenstein Monster steps in, without warning or preamble. And then Dracula (Michael R Thomas, an actor and makeup artist for 40 years) and three of his brides appear, claiming to have prior business with Reinhardt – and the movie just stops! It practically demanded a sequel.
But sadly, I expect we will not get one. Mere days after completing his work as the Count, Michael R Thomas passed away. And on March 24, 2010, John McGarr, Eben McGarr’s brother who played the servant Barlow, was knocked down and killed by a drunk driver while attending the Indianapolis HorrorHound convention.
HOUSE OF THE WOLF MAN is available on Amazon here and its trailer is here. Despite its flaws and failings I would not want to put people off seeing it if they’re curious, because there was a lot of love and attention put into it, which still raises it above a heap of perfunctory, shoddy, unimaginative offerings I could name and shame.
Director: Eben McGarr (also writer)
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 1 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien