Friday, October 02, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 92: Werewolf (1987 - 1988)

"There are those who believe...and those who will..."

-- early ad line for the TV series Werewolf (1987 - 1988)

Well, I'm suffering from the flu right now (for the second time this season...), so I am going to leave today's Brian De Palma retrospective installment for next Friday when I (hopefully...) can do it justice.

Instead, I'm going to present this piece that I have been working on all week: a look back at a terrific horror TV series that I'm not watching, primarily because the official DVD has been canceled due to a stupid tussle over music rights.

On July 11, 1987, a new network called Fox aired the first installment of a horror series called Werewolf. It was created by the appropriately named Frank Lupo, and it featured on a weekly basis Rick Baker''s and Greg Cannom's remarkable man-to-wolf transformation effects; much like those seen in 1981's An American Werewolf in London.

The series -- which ran for twenty-nine half-hour installments -- depicted the tragic destiny of Eric Cord (John J York) a typical American college student who, one day, learned that his roommate, Ted, was a werewolf. Eric himself became a werewolf after being bitten by Ted. He skipped out on his trial (for the murder of Ted), and -- like a latter day version of Dr. Richard Kimball -- went out in pursuit of Captain Janos Skorzeny (Chuck Connors), the one-eyed man whom Ted believed had turned him into a werewolf (by bite...) the previous summer. Only by severing the original bloodline, by killing the brutish Skorzeny, could Eric hope to return to a normal life and end his curse. Meanwhile, he was pursued across the country by a half-Indian bounty hunter named Alamo Joe (Lance Le Gault).

On Werewolf, Eric always knew when the metamorphosis to wolf man was impending because a bloody pentagram formed like a scarlet letter on the palm of his left hand. The only thing that could kill the werewolf was a silver bullet, and Eric's lycanthropic cycle was not tied to the full moon. The series often featured werewolf-vs.-werewolf fights.

Critics were not too pleased with Werewolf. Rolling Stone said it was basically "The Incredible Hulk with a body Afro" and noted that "York is treated to every form of humiliation...you wonder when some grizzled yokel cradling a shotgun will walk up to him..and say 'Boy, you sure got a pretty mouth." ("Terror By Mattel," May 5, 1988, page 32).

The New York Times opined that the series pilot was "slow, turgid and self-conscious," ("Werewolf on Channel 5," July 10, 1987) while Variety noted that "what is missing...is the vitality, chilling fun and imagination of those 1940s Lon Chaney Jr. films." (July 15, 1987, page 50).

I disagree, for the most part, with these slams. Looking back, Werewolf boasted some intriguing distinctions. For one thing, it was one of the rare prime time horror series (at that time) to feature regular characters, a continuing storyline...and even the inkling of a story arc. Before Werewolf, I can think of only two such series off-hand: The Sixth Sense (1972) and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). Dark Shadows did it on afternoon television too, but that was a different ball game. Other horror efforts that had been prominent and well-received (the likes of Night Gallery, Ghost Story, The Evil Touch, Darkroom, Tales from the Darkside, etc.), were all anthologies. Today we sort of take this accomplishment for granted, post-Buffy, post-X-Files, post-Twin Peaks but it's no small matter. Werewolf attempted to forge an internally consistent world with "rules" and consistent characters when such an effort was not the norm.

Also, Werewolf exhibited a legitimate sense of danger (if not outright terror...) on a weekly basis. Again, no small feat. Even though Eric Cord (York) was our handsome, young lead, he seemed generally imperiled and overwelmed by his situation. Accordingly, the world of Werewolf was unpredictable, dark, and constantly changing. Mid-way through the series, for instance, Cord learned that Janos Skorzeny (named after the vampire in the TV-movie The Night Stalker) was not the head of the bloodline after all. On the contrary, it was a powerful yuppie tyrant (think Ted Turner or Donald Trump) named Nicholas Remy (Brian Thompson) who was the real head werewolf. The overwhelming sense of unpredictability and danger was also heightened by the very thing that has now kept Werewolf off our DVD shelves: a revolutionary, unconventional, hard-pounding rock score.

It's tempting to gaze at Werewolf and dismiss it as a "man on the run series" like The Fugitive, The Phoenix, The Immortal, Starman, or indeed, The Incredible Hulk. But here's the thing about those shows: for the most part, life on the run seemed pretty easy. The leads were often well-coiffed, comfortable-looking, and seemed to have the money to get from one place to another.


By contrast, on Werewolf, Cord grew dirtier, scuzzier and more-emaciated the longer the show continued. He went from Izod-wearing preppy boy to homeless, crazy-eyed derelict. He was forced to beg for food and money in an episode called "Amazing Grace," a fact which reflected the uptick in America's homeless at the tail end of the Reagan Era (when the president noted callously that many of them were actually "homeless by choice.") I remember that Eric bedded down in a train car with bums in one episode ("King of the Road,") and spent all night in a bus depot in another ("Nightmare at the Braine Hotel"). The result was that this was no typical glamorous TV trip. As I wrote in my review of the series for Terror Television (2001), even the extras cast on Werewolf appeared scruffy and menacing. Thus there was this atmosphere of a seamy, unfriendly America; one existing just underneath the "don't worry be happy" surface.

What I also appreciated about Werewolf was the manner in which the series was willing to let go of The Fugitive-style format when necessary. In other words, the program frequently discovered ways to be innovative within the contexts of format limitations. For instance, Alamo Joe's history was studied in depth during an episode called "A World of Difference." Remy's and Skorzeny's long histories were also excavated in various installments. Forecasting myth-heavy efforts such as Highlander, Forever Knight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other modern series, Werewolf explored the notion that monsters carry long legacies from the past into the present.

When Werewolf was bad, it was because formula and TV convention simply overtook the series' better instincts. We could have all lived without the episode in which Eric helped a cute old Lady escape from a cruel nursing home ("Amazing Grace") or "Nothing Evil in These Woods" in which he predictably fell in love with a sexy new age witch. And sure, it was awfully convenient that Eric would always transform into a werewolf just when those werewolf abilities could do some good and he could defend/save/rescue the "good" guest star of the week.

Still, given the late-1980s vintage, Werewolf often played like Miami Vice on acid, and the series would frequently strike this trance-like groove of pounding rock music and startling, music-video era imagery. Non-linear story lines (the kind you'd see in Jackie Brown [1997] or Out of Sight [1998]) were featured from time-to-time (before they were cliches...) and some episodes felt positively avant garde in the dedicated use of bizarre symbols and cryptic characters. And remember, this was pre-Twin Peaks (1991).

When Werewolf hit these spiky chords -- like a drug trip gone bad; like a sleazy Sid and Nancy (1986) horror venture dominated by startling imagery -- it was truly a great, even trail-blazing series. A unique and memorable fusion of genre horror mythology, rock music and TV conventions, Werewolf may have begun life as Fugitive rip-off but it quickly transformed itself into something monstrously entertaining.


And it's about bloody time we got to see it on DVD.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent review. I have never seen this show before but your post has my curiousity piqued. It's a shame about the DVD. I have a feeling that is what's keeping a lot of great shows from being released. It reminds me of how DARK SKIES was supposed to come out on DVD a few years ago and then the studio suddenly got cold feet (mostly over music rights, I believe).

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  2. What is it about Fox and cancelled good series (remember Brimstone, and we won't even go there about Serenity). Check that, I know what's wrong with Fox (especially their faux news division), but that's another discussion. I think I remember some of the episodes you describe (the good and bad). Nice look back, JKM.

    I hope you feel better soon, John. Take care and isolate yourself from the family ;-).

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