Saturday, 5 October 2019
October Horrors 2019 # 3:
(Eric Red, 1996)
So, who’s up for a totally standard ‘90s werewolf movie?
I may not normally have been, but, as any readers who dutifully memorised my 2018 Best First Viewing list may recall, I was completely blown away by Eric Red’s directorial debut ‘Cohen & Tate’ (1988), so, the fact that that guy waded into the midst of American horror’s most boring decade for some lycanthropic hi-jinx certainly piqued my interest.
Ok, so, first off - ‘Bad Moon’, which was adapted for the screen by Red from Wayne Smith’s novel ‘Thor’, isn’t really big on werewolf mythology (cinematic or otherwise), but proably the most interesting thing it does in this regard is to entirely jettison the familiar lore laid down by Curt Siodmak’s script for 1941’s ‘The Wolfman’, and to instead take its inspiration from Stuart Walker’s oft-overlooked Werewolf of London (1935).
Red signals this most obviously by featuring a clip of the latter movie, which is playing on TV in the background at one point (at breakfast time, no less – what kind of wild TV station is this?), but he also echoes Walker’s film by positing the idea of lycanthropy reaching the western world from ‘exotic’ eastern climes when a caucasian interloper has the misfortune to get himself bitten, and also by (briefly) exploring the idea that the victim may try to cure himself using science.
Unfortunately, he also replicates what most critics have deemed to be ‘Werewolf of London’s biggest flaw by short-circuiting the pathos generally expected of the werewolf narrative and instead making the cursed individual an inscrutable, misanthropic ass-hat… but, we’ll get onto that later.
For now, let it merely be noted that things do not exactly get off to a good start. During the pre-credits prologue, we are introduced to Ted (Michael Paré) and his girlfriend Marjorie (Johanna Marlowe), who appear to be intrepid gap year explorer types or something, leading an expedition comprising a bunch of heavily moustached, furry-hatted tracker/guide types who could have come straight from ‘30s Hollywood Central Casting through a back-lot recreation of what I assume to be some unspeakably remote place in Asia minor.
In the midst of a drearily non-explicit hard body sex scene which definitely did not come from ‘30s Hollywood, the couple find themselves interrupted by a bloody, hulking great yeti-like werewolf, which kills the furry-hatted men and rips through the side of their tent. Though Marjorie is torn to pieces in the ensuing melee, Ted, though severely wounded, manages to reach for a rifle and promptly blows the creature’s head off.
All of which, I’ll admit, sounds like a lot of fun on paper, but something about the execution here is just *off*. The film cuts choppily around the werewolf as if worried that the effects simply weren’t up to scratch, and, though the setting and situation is goofy and exploitative in the extreme, it all seems to have been realised in a spirit of mundane, soap opera earnestness. To be frank, for a filmmaker whose earlier work as both a writer and director relied on tightly-wound, hard-boiled drama and careful attention to detail, this is some sloppy, trashy shit right here.
We cut directly to the good old U.S. of A – somewhere in the Great Lakes area I’m assuming, in view of the stirring, National Park scenery and references to nearby Chicago. Janet (Mariel Hemingway) is a high-flying lawyer and single parent, who has recently given up her big city practice, and now lives in an isolated house on the edge of the forest with her young son Brett (Mason Gamble) and the family’s beloved dog, a German Shepherd named Thor.
Shortly after we are introduced to this family unit, Janet receives a call from her estranged brother, who is back in the area after some time away and would like to re-establish contact. It’s Ted from the prologue, of course, and he is now living in a pleasingly retro Airstream trailer parked in a picturesque lakeside beauty spot. When Janet & co visit him, he confesses to his sister that his girlfriend is “gone”, and that he’s “not doing so good”.
Thor, needless to say, doesn’t like Ted one bit, and Brett, whilst snooping around in his trailer, discovers a bunch of mysterious test tubes and lab equipment and…. a big old book about werewolves! (This being a movie of course, he naturally finds this to be frightening and suspicious, rather than just thinking, wow, what a cool book, my Uncle’s into some interesting stuff.)
Before long, the police are cordoning off the area around Ted’s trailer, investigating a spate of mysterious hiker murders apparently involving wild animals, and Ted is once again on the phone to Janet, who invites him to park his trailer out behind her house and come spend some more time with the family.
And thus, the stage is set for an epic territorial battle between Ted’s lupine alter-ego and the protective Thor, who of course is the only family member to initially grasp the nature of Ted’s affliction. Indeed, as the film goes on, Thor increasingly takes on the role of protagonist, with the dog who plays him in close-ups and character scenes (credited as ‘Primo’) delivering a loveable and emotive performance that should have swept the board at the Doggie Oscars, if only they existed.
Not that it is exactly difficult for Primo to overshadow the human cast here, it must be said. Gamble is pretty much yr average Hollywood child actor, but neither Hemingway nor Paré really seem to be able to make anything of the characters they’re playing, or to connect with us in any tangible fashion – which is an issue, given that they’re basically the only human adults in this story.
Paré does his best I suppose, but the inconsistencies in the way his character is written are maddening. In classic Paul Naschy fashion, Ted manfully attempts to keep his wolfen self in check by spending his nights handcuffed to a giant tree, but he also seems pretty careless about ensuring that he actually achieves this before nightfall, and seems dismissive of the accidental carnage which results.
Ted claims that he has moved in with his sister in the hope that, with all else having failed, good old fashioned familial love may cure him of his affliction (and he writes this in his private diary, so we know he means it). But, we never see him reaching out to his sister and nephew or showing any warmth toward them. Instead he remains sullen and withdrawn, and, in the film’s final act, he inexplicably begins acting like a full-on villainous asshole, deceiving and threatening his relatives, goading their dog into attacking him, and triumphantly pissing in the poor mutt’s dog-house to assert his territorial dominance after Thor has been taken away by the police dog handlers.
Why does he do this? Is his “wolf side” affecting his day-time, human behaviour too? Or has he always basically just been a horrible person? Despite being treated to voluminous extracts from his diary, we basically never get into this guy’s head or get a handle on what he’s up to, making it difficult for us to answer these questions, or even to gauge whether he is still fighting, or merely enabling, his own lycanthropy.
As such, it is impossible for us to empathise with him in his plight, as the script – reliant on decades of werewolf tradition – seems to demand. (Actually, Paré’s performance could have worked a lot better if the film had explored the idea that his character may just be a common-or-garden human psychopath, but with the reality of the werewolf always front and centre, thins never really go in that direction.)
In other respects meanwhile, ‘Bad Moon’ seems content to proceed upon what I can only describe as a defiantly unrealistic basis. This is, after all, a film in which an average joe who wants to find out about werewolves in 1996 is forced to resort to a massive, leather-bound grimoire, and in which a local sheriff responds to a case in which a family’s dog is alleged to have torn a man to pieces just outside their driveway not by examining the dog or seeking to gather any forensic evidence, but instead by merely having a quiet word with the owner, suggesting she “might want to think about getting a new hound”. (Small town policing at its finest.)
As if not content with this kind of silliness meanwhile, Red later also gives us a world in which a ten-year-old boy with a pair of wire-cutters can cycle to the local dog pound – whose security arrangements consist solely of a chain-link fence which can be easily scaled by a large dog – and liberate his pet in a matter of minutes.
Of course, such Argento-esque mutations of real world cause-and-effect wouldn’t bother me in the slightest in the context of an exciting, fantastical horror film, but sadly ‘Bad Moon’ struggles too in this regard, and ultimately offers little to distract our attention from its assorted inconsistencies.
Perhaps reflective of its big studio status (the film was backed, and presumably carefully overseen, by Morgan Creek, the production house whose biggest hits included ‘Last of the Mohicans’ and ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ amongst others), ‘Bad Moon’ keeps it slow and steady, carefully adhering to the middle of the road. Photography remains bright and clear, framing and lighting are conventional, and colours are muted. No hint of atmosphere or otherworldliness is allowed to accrue, despite the promise offered by the rural locations.
Likewise, Red’s script is largely devoid of the kind of symbolism or psychological / metaphysical thematics which could bring a story like this to life, and the film’s take on werewolf lore remains just as sketchy and ill-defined as the deeply unsatisfactory character relationships. (Despite Ted telling us that his transformations are not limited to full moons and basically occur every night for instance, we’re still treated to regular stock shots of the moon, which, I’m duty-bound to report, remains full for about six consecutive nights or something. Again, we’re in goofy b-movie territory here, however much the film might strive to achieve a tone of earnest, dramatic sobriety.)
Although I’m not familiar with Smith’s source novel, I can well imagine that, in the grand tradition of post-Stephen King horror doorstops, it must surely have been full of digressions and sub-plots and such, which I can in turn suppose must have been ruthlessly excised by Red in order to ensure the story adheres to his trademark narrative minimalism.
In the process of hacking the novel into shape for a ninety minute three-hander though, he seems to have lost the thread of whatever this story was actually supposed to be about, leaving its human characters feeling empty and opaque, and draining the on-screen events of any wider resonance.
In fact, a minimal amount of research reveals that the novel is actually written from the point of view of the dog, which immediately invites a far more interesting set of conflicts than is presented in the film, and also helps explain why Thor is the only character here who actually manages to establish an emotional connection with the audience. (Did I mention that the scene in which he is taken away by the dog-handlers is more harrowing than all the werewolf stuff put together?)
On the plus side, Red’s insistence on using practical effects to realise the werewolf should be commended (it must have been a hard sell in ’96), even if the transformation scenes are marred by some very dated CGI ‘warping’ effects. The film’s finale meanwhile is staged in impressively brutal and uncompromising fashion, delivering on the promise of a German Shepherd vs. werewolf vs. gun-toting mother showdown in a blood-drenched, bone-crunching manner that many studio filmmakers would have understandably bottled on (I mean, just imagine the complexities of throwing actors, animals, animatronic monsters, gore, guns and stunt-work all into the same shot, and actually making it work), reminding us, for a minute or two at least, of ‘Cohen & Tate’s similarly crazed final act.
But, it’s too little too late. Overall, ‘Bad Moon’ just doesn’t work, in spite what I assume must have been Herculean efforts on the part of its crew and director. Admittedly, it does at least make for a pretty great dog movie, and Primo is an f-ing star, so if you’re, say, a big fan of the Lassie movies who wishes they could have been a bit more edgy and hardcore, well, you’re in luck! If you’re looking for a werewolf movie (or indeed a human movie) though, this one is a bit of a bust I’m afraid.