Volume 2: Le Poil de la Bête (The Hair Of The Beast) (2010) and The Howling (1981)
How bad does a film have to be to win Quebec’s version of a Razzie for worst picture? Not that bad, turns out.
Le Poil de la Bête (2010), is a peculiar, genre period film set in 1665, New France (Quebec). The story touches on a compelling part of Quebec history: The choosing of the King’s Daughters (les filles du Roi) - purported to be hand-picked, young woman, some prostitutes, taken from France to wed Quebec settles and populate New France. This influx of beautiful, young French women to Quebec is said to be the reason for the abundance of fetching women that Quebec enjoys to this day.
Le Poil de la Bête was directed by Philippe Gagnond, and cleaned up at the 2011 Aurore awards - Quebec’s version of the Golden Raspberry awards ‘honoring’ the worst in Quebec filmmaking. I should note that the Aurores are decidedly more light-hearted than the Razzies (the worst film award is referred to as the ‘best’ worst film). I suppose the industry is too small to really insult and alienate people. Plus, the nominees usually show up.
I didn’t know anything about the story going in, except that there was werewolves, of course. Now, that I’ve got it in focus and read it back, it really does look interesting on paper. The film stars Guillaume Lemay-Thiviergeas as the hard-drinking, womanizing fur trapper, Joseph Côté. The English promotional material for the film translates the title directly to The Hair Of The Beast, but ‘la poil de la bête’ is the French equivalent of ‘a hair from the dog’ so it’s a double entendre. Sadly, the English title translated directly is nonsensical at worst, and silly most likely. How about The Fur Trapper?
As the film opens, Côté has just been condemned to hang for innumerable petty offences. While Côté’s captors await the arrival of famed Jesuit priest and werewolf wrangler, Father Brind’ Amour, Côté escapes and breaks for the countryside. He’s not gotten far before he stumbles onto the body of the late Father Brind’Amour, the victim of an apparent non-grisly attack en route to town. Côté puts on the priest’s cloak, gathers his effects and heads into the hamlet of Beaufort. There, Côté falls in with a colorful gang of trappers and their caretaker who feed and shelter him. The rag-tag group of backwoodsmen are anxiously awaiting the arrival of les filles du Roi - The eccentric Lord Beaufort (Gilles Renaud) is to return from France with a new group of girls, from which his sons are to have first pick, the rest married off to local men.
While Côté recuperates, the gang discovers Father Brind’Amour’s possessions among his things, and conclude that Côté must be the legendary werewolf-fighting priest. Being a wanted man, Côté plays along, and is immediately put to the test when the gang’s camp is ambushed by a monster. Côté is bitten in the attack, and a faction of the gang begins to suspect that he’s going to turn.
Meanwhile, les filles du Roi arrive in the New World. Among them is Marie LaBotte (Viviane Audet), who dreams of marrying nobility. But, both Marie and the men’s hopes are put on hold when Lord Beaufort quarantines the girls in the chapel upon their arrival.
At nightfall, Marie escapes the quarantine to find her missing friend, and ends up in the arms of the seductive Côté. That same night, there’s another werewolf attack and Côté finds himself the prime suspect.
Now Côté must evade superstitious vigilantes, the law and the lycanthropes if he’s to thwart the sinister plan that’s unfolding, and save Marie and the girls trapped in the chapel.
In a part of the world where the politics of language is a part of everyday life, Le Poil de la Bête was mostly derided in Quebec for an ostensibly inappropriate mix of Old World and modern Quebec French. And to a lesser degree, a supposed egregious use of puns. I say ‘supposed’ because most of the puns, like the linguistic nuances, went over my head. And they probably won’t bother you much either. In addition to worst picture, PDLB took home the ‘Worst Dialogue’ award at the Aurores.
For a film that Wikipedia classifies as a ‘historical fantasy adventure’ the most immediate problem for most of us will be that the film’s too small for the scope the story demands. You would assume it’s because of budgetary constraints, and it is - but then you look at ‘Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning’ (2004) - the original Canadian werewolf period film - which cost 2 million dollares less to produce. And Ginger Snaps Back gets a lot more bang for it’s buck as far as effects go. I don’t know where the money went in PDLB, but it wasn’t the creature effects.
We don’t see a lot of werewolf in this movie, but don’t get me wrong, PDLB is a werewolf movie and embraces it’s subject matter. Unlike Night Wolf (2010) which I reviewed in The Full Moon Double Feature Review, Volume One on this site. Werewolves, and werewolf lore, are a big topic of conversation, and the monsters are tied to the plot in more than one way. There’s just no real shots of the creature at all, until the last 20 minutes. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I usually like the delayed gratification, but then you have to blow our hair back! And when these werewolves are in motion, they’re Van Helsing-bad - if Van Helsing was made in 1995. When the creatures are still, they’re more convincing. Especially in darker shots. I couldn’t tell if the werewolf was 100% CGI, or a combination, like there was a practical costume design that they Rotoscoped over in that Attack The Block-style. I’m probably giving them too much credit, but If I’m wondering how the filmmakers did it, I guess that’s a good thing. But let me be clear, overall the effects are dog shit. And surprise, PDLB also took home the Aurore for worst effects.
Pacing is a huge problem in Le Poil de la Bête. The first 70 minutes plod along, which makes the conclusion all the more jarring - and the final confrontation is the ultimate cop-out. What should be the film’s biggest effects blitz is non-existent. This is not a stroke in the art of omission either. It never feels like it’s anything other than ‘it woulda cost a lot to show all that’. And worse, the unseen confrontation is not even with the film’s main antagonist. Of course, they tease a sequel (I read a trilogy, the second installment of which is currently in production), but it leaves this film without any kind of resolution... None.
All in all, to a guy for whom a bad werew olf movie is like a bad strip of bacon - even the worst one is still pretty good - PDLB is unique and interesting enough to recommend to fellow werewolf movie fans. Though, the creature design is in the lower tier of werewolf designs. The monsters are bipedal, posture completely upright - like fucking Chewbacca. And one of the most strikingly un-wolflike things about the werewolves in PDLB is their apparent lack of ears. Which is okay, because our next film has enough ears for both of them.
It’s The Howling, folks!
I’ve made it no secret that when it comes to The Dueling Werewolf Films Of ‘81, I'm An American Werewolf In London man.
There’s a long history of rival studios ‘counter-releasing’ similarly themed films to do battle at the box office: There’s The Not-So-Great Volcano Films Of ‘97, Dante’s Peak and the cleverly titled, Volcano. There’s also The Mediocre Meteor On A Collision Course With Earth Movies Of ‘98, Armageddon and Deep Impact. But the broader audiences those films appeal to would never be so invested in them as to feel they had to choose sides. Which is the way I’ve kind of always felt about An American Werewolf In London and The Howling. That’s why I felt a little guilty enjoying The Howling as much as I did this time around.
Of course, The Howling was directed by the terrific Joe Dante, who was hand picked by Steven Speilberg to helm Gremlins (1984) on the strength of it. The screenplay was based on the 1977 Gary Brandner novel by the same name, and started off fairly faithful to the source material. But Dante would bring in John Sayles who eventually made it all his own. The Howling also has the distinction of being the only real werewolf franchise. Besides maybe Ginger Snaps, which is up to three films, but The Howling has spawned seven universally panned sequels.
You probably know the broad strokes: TV newswoman Karen White (venerable scream queen Dee Wallace) is traumatized and suffers amnesia after an encounter with mysterious serial killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). I always found this sequence legitimately chilling. Dante’s super soft -lit scenes with Dee Wallace, and Eddie Quist obscured by shadows - it all works best here.
At the behest of her new doctor, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), Karen leaves town with her husband for the doctor’s retreat where they’ll stay with his ‘colony’. Once there, things get weird, as you’d imagine. And the inhabitants probably aren’t all that they seem.
The Dr. George Waggner character is named for the director of 1941’s The Wolfman. The first of countless winks to horror fans, and nods to forbearers for which The Howling has always been exalted. It’s funny to me that what is probably the most meta, post modern werewolf film, is over 30 years old... It’s time for the next great werewolf movie, folks!
An obvious requisite if you’re going to be considered the greatest werewolf movie of all time, is a kick-ass transformation scene. And The Howling touts one of the best. I think the Academy Award-winning transformation effects by Rick Baker in An American Werewolf In London are more visceral, and impressive overall, but I’d argue the transformation of Robert Picordo at the hands of Rick Bottin, is more frightening. If for no other reason than the fact of who’s changing - a serial killer in The Howling versus a college dude in AWIL.
The story goes that years before An Americam Werewolf In London got off the ground, writter /director John Landis told a 20-year-old Rick Baker about the project, and Baker was intrigued. Baker would imagine possible creature designs while he worked on It’s Alive and King Kong in ‘74 and ‘76 respectively. Fast-forward 5 years and Baker is the lead effects supervisor on The Howling when he gets the call from Landis: An American Werewolf In London is a go. From there, you know the story - Baker chose to leave The Howling, and Rob Bottin, Baker’s former apprentice who had worked with Dante on Piranha (1976), stepped in. Though Bottin’s werewolf work beat Baker’s to theatres, Baker would go on to win the inaugural Oscar for Best Make-Up & Hairstyling for AWIL. And Bottin would go on to nearly die of exhaustion working on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) the following year.
I have to give John Landis a lot credit. Not only did he write AWIL at the tender age of 19, and poach the most celebrated make-up effects artist of all time, but he also really championed the idea of a quadrupedal werewolf design. You see, Baker wanted the creature in AWIL to be a two-legged werewolf like the ones he designed for The Howling. But Landis wanted his werewolf to be more of a hell hound, and that’s what he eventually got. It really makes you wonder what the films would’ve been like if Baker stayed on The Howling. Could anyone but Baker have actually brought Landis’s vision to life? And what would Baker’s bipedal design have looked like? - Maybe Michael Jackson’s Thriller video is an clue.
I always found Bottin’s creature design most frightening in mid-transformation. I’ve heard more than a few people say they think the fully formed werewolves were undone by their antenna ears. And I wonder how much of Baker’s design lingered - He did retain credit as an effects consultant. So, these truly are The Dueling Werewolf Films Of ‘81. And credit where it’s due to Bottin, who’s amazing work surely couldn’t have been showcased at a worse time.
One of the biggest problems I had with John Sayles script was his decision to make Karen a news anchor. As mentioned, Steven Speilberg was a fan of Dante’s work on The Howling, and would even cast Dee Wallace to play Mary in E.T. (1982). I read a story in Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book Save The Cat about Steven Speilberg and the lesson he learned on E.T. about keeping the media out of your story. Apparently a draft of Mellisa Mathison’s script had the media discovering The Extraterrestrial, but they eventually realized bringing the media into the story took the heft out of the secret - that the secret didn't have the same gravitas once the characters were no longer alone with it. So, I wonder what Speilberg thought of the final scene in The Howling, because I think this soft rule of storytelling applies doubly so to horror movies.
The final scene in of this movie is the stuff of 80’s horror movie legend, and an example of what happens when you ignore your instincts and listen to a test audience. Dante never intended to show Karen as a werewolf, but the test audience begged for it. Dee Wallace was concerned about the creature’s appearance and asked that it have some ‘vulnerability’ (read cuteness). The result was a ‘pretty’, blonde werewolf-hand puppet that had horror fans jeering and throwing popcorn at the screen.
If nothing else, the ending is wonderfully bizarre. As are both the major werewolf films of 1981. Both considered to be the very best, yet strangely unlike all other werewolf films, and each other. I think more than almost any sub-genre of horror films, werewolf movies are the least uniform in tone, theme, structure etc. In short, they’re the genre least like a genre. They range from slow period pieces, to post modern social commentaries, to straight-up slasher flicks, more than say, zombies films. Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily have the finest canon of films, but I’m holding out hope there’s more great werewolf movies to come. And Joe Dante has certainly given us one in The Howling. It seems implausible that my favorite film of a director’s wouldn’t be the werewolf one - but I was obsessed with Gremlins for the first ten years of my life. Even though I prefer Gremlins as a film, werewolf fans will most likely consider The Howling to be Dante’s ‘peak’.
My name is Vance, you guys have been great!