In my novel, The Sixth Precept, there are genetically-modified hybrid creatures called Shadow-Trackers wreaking havoc. They’re part human and part dog, the dog part giving rise to their “tracker” sensibility and name. However, when visualizing and describing them, they came out pretty much as werewolves (who could talk and reason but were programmed to hunt). I’ve always had a soft spot for those full moon beasties so it was nice discovering a trio of movies which tried to put a little different spin the whole werewolf mythos.
Dog Soldiers (2002), written and directed by Neil Marshall (who later went on to write and direct The Descent, Doomsday and The Centurion) pits a pack of werewolves against a military unit staging exercises in a remote area of the Scottish Highlands. Starring Sean Pertwee (son of actor Jon who portrayed the third Dr. Who) Dog Soldiers is a combination of gore, black humor and intense, violent action.
The story turns the werewolf mythos on its head by depicting not just one but several werewolves with the point-of-view focusing strictly on the humans being hunted (no touchy-feely, internal human persona vs. animal persona conflict here!). The struggles of the military unit’s members and the mysterious woman who helps them are front-and-center as they can either give in to fear or stand and fight the horror surrounding them.
Some elements of Aliens and Night of the Living Dead are evident in the film but the characterization and action elevate the movie above the usual “monster on the loose” story. And, refreshingly, the werewolves themselves are actors in makeup, not computer-generated.
Skinwalkers (2006 – not to be confused with the Tony Hillerman novel of the same name), directed by James Isaac and starring Jason Behr, Rhona Mitra and Elias Koteas, depicts a pack of dangerous werewolf bikers on the loose. They are “skinwalkers,” according to Navajo lore–humans who are able to change their forms into those of animals.
Opposing them are good skinwalkers who are trying to live their lives without killing. They do this by shackling themselves to the inside of their RV on the nights of the full moon. If they taste human blood for the first time, their animal nature will take over completely. And their human personas must remain intact in order to protect the one member of their family who has the power to end the werewolf curse once and for all–a 13 year-old boy who is half human and half skinwalker.
The expert werewolf facial makeup was done by the late, great Stan Winston, giving credence to the expression, “Less is More.” These werewolves really look bestial without the makeup effects being over-the-top or cheesy.
The big budget entry of this trio of films, Underworld (2003), directed by Len Wiseman and starring Kate Beckinsdale, Scott Speedman and Bill Nighy, reimagines werewolves and vampires as rival gangs engaging in high-tech urban warfare. Stylishly cool and sexy, the film shows both groups adapting very well to the modern era. The vampires shoot bullets containing silver nitrate at the “Lycans” and the werewolves return fire to the “Death Dealers” with bullets that emit ultraviolet light. Both opposing groups utilize laptops, the internet and cell phones as tools in their centuries-long struggle.
In addition, the werewolves are trying to create a powerful vampire/werewolf hybrid to help them in their battle against the blood-suckers. They live beneath the city streets (the “underworld” of the title) while their vampire foes reside in luxurious mansions replete with state-of-the-art technology.
Oddly enough (with a couple of exceptions), the much bigger, more powerful Lycans get their behinds kicked in this film. Preferring to get down and dirty in their werewolf forms, most of them fall easy victims to the Death Dealers’ modern weaponry.
Stylized action sequences and an in-depth backstory on the ancient war between these two toothy groups give this film a little more substance than most run-of-the mill creature features.
At the end of the day, a werewolf is a werewolf is a werewolf, but kudos to those artists who won’t take the easy way out. Their imaginative slants on classic horror tropes make the old seem new again.