Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should, and I feel like that goes double when you’re creating a monster. There are so many tools available now to film the transformation of a person into an unholy creature of the night, and yet some of the most effective and memorable transformations are from movies made decades ago with much more limited options. I wonder if it’s a different angle on the classic gap between vision and execution that I first became acquainted with in junior high art class, where the super cool image of a dragon I had in my head came out as a disappointingly perky, cartoonish, two-dimensional creature? Except where my vision failed because I did not add enough, many monster representations fail because they add too much. Like if you really love stripy sweaters and have a huge collection, sadly wearing four of them at once does not make your outfit four times more awesome.
The comparison occurred to me because I was watching the Netflix series The Order, where the main character, Jack, is part of a werewolf fraternity, at the same point in time when my son and I watched the genius 1948 movie Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with Lon Chaney Jr. appearing as his classic Wolf Man. The werewolf transformations in The Order are actually not bad, and in some ways the approach is quite similar to what make-up artist Jack Pierce used for the Wolf Man movies of the 1940s. The shots of parts of Jack’s body with ears and fingers changing shape and hair growing look like a modern version of how Lon Chaney’s feet and face got all wolfish nearly 80 years before.
What made me laugh really hard in The Order though, is how Jack gets turned into a werewolf. The fraternity keeps a bunch of werewolf pelts in big crates in the basement. What looks an awful lot like a bear rug “leaps” out of a crate and he wrassles with it (I’m pretty confident that’s the correct spelling when a man is tussling with a bear rug) as it wraps it’s furriness around him. At one point its head peeks out at the top. The camera angle makes it less campy than I would have liked, but it’s still very entertaining. And not in the intentional way of the Wolf Man transformation scene in Abbot and Costello, where the Wolf Man is on the phone with Costello as he’s changing and keeps growling while Costello tries to be polite and asks him to “stop gargling”.
The 1941 Wolf Man is a classic of existential horror, where the agony of the transformation lies more in the emotional experience of the character than the physical change itself. In the first film, only his legs and feet transform to wolf form on camera, and we only see him change back at the end after he’s dead. In the follow-up 1943 film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the effects expanded to the full on-camera facial transformation that was used in subsequent films, including House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and with Abbott and Costello. Pierce did a remarkably good job of keeping the shape and position of the Wolf Man’s head and the surrounding objects the same as he transformed, which makes it quite convincing despite the fact that they were limited to make-up and cross-dissolve camera techniques to create the effect.
Another early and very creative example of a transformation is the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Frederic March’s transition into Hyde was accomplished with the use of colored filters. New layers of make-up were revealed as each filter was removed, giving the appearance of a continuous facial transformation. They followed it with a POV shot of the room spinning, flashback dream sequences, and finally a cut back to Hyde fully transformed. The prior 1920 movie version had relied mostly on John Barrymore acting crazed and messing up his hair, with different camera angles and a clunky hand transformation. The hands were pretty creepy and it was more effective than you might think, but being able to show a smooth change really did make a huge difference to how believable it was.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) is arguably still the most realistically agonizing werewolf transformation. The full body horror of the experience is made that much worse by the sweet soundtrack of “Blue Moon”, as the bones in his body crack and he screams for help. Rick Baker accomplished it with a combination of prosthetics, make-up, robotics, and reverse filming, and was awarded the first ever Oscar for make-up design. In theory it seems that with computers and more advanced tools it would be possible to create an even more realistic and upsetting transformation, and it may indeed be possible, but it doesn’t actually seem to have worked that way. They certainly didn’t manage it in the sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, which was done with CGI and was nowhere near as disturbing or effective.
Any transformation that significantly changes a person’s skeletal structure quickly or painlessly without using a magic wand or spell seems clearly fictional to me, and consequently on some level less emotionally engaging. True, magic transformations are also clearly fictional, but it doesn’t kick you out of the logic of the story if they are sudden and impossible because the logic of magic is to be sudden and impossible. When someone transforms in a more realistic way but without enough actual transition to bring me along, it causes me to think about how their skull could change shape like that and ever hope to change back. Or, in the case of Van Helsing (2004), how he’s going to get his skin back after he’s peeled it all off.
I don’t even know where to start with the werewolf transformations in Van Helsing. In the first one, he begins by doing something that looks like interpretive dance with shirt-tearing, then impossibly does the backstroke up the wall with his still-human hands and feet in a way that even Spiderman couldn’t manage. After that the the moon comes out from behind a cloud (after?), and he tells his ladyfriend to run as his head suddenly changes shape and he begins tearing pieces of his own, clearly prosthetic skin off to reveal a hairy wolf body. Instead she continues to cry and shuts her eyes against the horror, which I confess I can’t blame her for. Is he like a werewolf Matryoshka doll? When the moon wanes, does he peel off his wolf pelt to reveal another, smaller human-skinned version of himself? I suppose that would make him a Zeno’s paradox of a werewolf, endlessly getting smaller every full moon until he was nothing but a wee snarling pup. The second time he transforms does not appear to involve peeling off his human wrapping, but the third time his skin just splits and slides off of him like sand. I’m not sure what they were shooting for, but it does not succeed at being either body or existential horror.
Of course, film-makers and artists have done all kinds of amazing, non-werewolf-related things with more recent robotics and computer-generated effects, so I don’t really think it’s the technology that’s the issue. What I see in common with the films that really seem to work and have an impact is that they are a combination of approaches, and that some of the greatest things were created when an artist was faced with a challenge to be overcome. There are more advanced monster-creation tools available with each decade, but to loop back around to where I began, just because you could do something better doesn’t mean that you will.
alex MacFadyen would prefer to be magically transformed into a werewolf, thank you very much.