There are good reasons why Britain is the home of the wolf.
In 1281 King Edward ordered the extermination of all wolves from his kingdom. Organised hunts had been going on for years and bounties had been offered by monarchs in the past for wolf pelts, but this was a full on attempt to wipe the creatures out. From this point on, any reference to wolves are vanishingly rare in the British Isles and any attempt to spot the last wolf or pinpoint the date is silly. A throat was cut, an animal trapped, or a lonely sick old thing died in the depths of the forest and they were gone. But things that we destroy entirely have a tendency to haunt us in our imaginations. Hollywood shoots its Indians throughout the early days of cinema and right into the 70s as a tacit admission of the genocide. They have to be the threat. They have to be an existential threat. After all, there’s no point killing a whole population so entirely if you’re not going to do them the honour of dancing on their graves and pretending they constituted some kind of threat. Like muscle memory we are forced to kill what we have already killed over and over again.
And so the howling of wolves has a peculiar place in the British imagination, wrapped up with guilt and the prevailing westerly wind blowing through the ghosts of forests long since chopped and burnt. It is an atavistic fear, for once upon a time we were torn apart by those teeth, felt those eyes watching us from the dark, detected the movement of the pack out there where the flickering light from the camp fire wouldn’t reach.
The two earliest Universal adaptations of the ‘wolf man’ are both set in the British Isles. Interestingly the first less successful version, Werewolf of London (1935), has the threat come from foreign parts as a kind of revenge of Empire narrative. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is a botanist hunting an exotic plant in far-flung Tibet when he is bitten by a creature. On returning to England, he is warned by a mysterious stranger that he has been bitten by a werewolf and will ‘attack the thing he loves most’, clumsily tying lycanthropy up as the animal lust that stands in opposition to romantic love. Although the first werewolf in the cinema feels very much like a vampire/Jekyll and Hyde mash-up and was probably influenced by Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, it firmly establishes the werewolf on British soil and will leave a clawed paw print on Warren Zevon’s hit song ‘Werewolves of London’ and John Landis’s 1981 comedy horror An American Werewolf in London.
Watch the trailer to The Wolf Man (1941):
The breakthrough came with Lon Chaney Jr.’s more famous follow-up The Wolf Man (1941). Set this time in Wales, the film sees a distinctly burly Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.) return to his ancestral home to reconcile with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry becomes romantically interested in a local girl named Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), but following a wolf attack Larry begins to change. The change itself became a moment of cinematic magic as the man transformed before our very eyes and a highpoint in all the subsequent sequels and spin-offs. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, the Universal wolf man had no literary precedent – if not the animalistic Mr Hyde or perhaps a hint of the demon dog from The Hound of the Baskervilles. This meant that screenwriters such as Curt Siodmak were free to invent and manipulate the lore as they wished. A popular character, the wolf man would reappear in early mash-ups like Frankenstein Vs The Wolfman, and with She-Wolf of London even get a female make-over in 1946, re-establishing the English location.
Unfortunately, the quintessentially English Hammer production The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), introducing Oliver Reed to cinema audiences for the first time, was set in Spain, somewhat oddly as it was based on Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris mentioned earlier. But An American Werewolf in London (1981) quickly recognised the home of the wolf. Sure, there was The Howling and Albert Finney in Wolfen, all released that same year, but wolfs in the backwoods of California or prowling New York City seem silly and will always seem silly compared to a foggy night on the Yorkshire moors, interrupted only by a brief respite in The Slaughtered Lamb. The Americans are natural innocents abroad, similar to Henry James’s heroines. And it isn’t only in the damp of the English evening that they find the horror, but also in the grimier reaches of Soho.
Watch the trailer to She-Wolf of London:
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1983) took on the grisly adult themes of fairy tales, bringing the sexual, erotic and violent subtexts to the surface. Unfortunately, this idea has curdled into a lumpy mess of origin stories such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Maleficent (2014), but Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Carter’s story The Company of Wolves (1984) is an imaginative and at times genuinely disturbing take on the wolves that plague the English mind. Beginning in present day, the film frames everything as the nightmare of a pubescent girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). Her dream begins with the ‘nightmare’ of her sister being hunted and devoured by a pack of wolves, signalling immediately that nightmares – as Freud taught – are nothing more than fantasies we don’t want to admit to ourselves. A series of tales told by her Grandmother (Angela Lansbury) all warn of the wolf as a male threat to a young girl, a husband who might respond to a call of nature at night and come back changed, a travelling man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, an aristocrat with frivolous interest in destroying a girl. Set in the woods of Shepperton Studio, Jordan complained about having to film the same 12 trees on an obvious sound stage, but the sunless dreariness of the woods, the claustrophobia – we are after all in a young girl’s head – all lend themselves to a growing sense of entrapment. In fact, there are animals throughout the film waiting to burst out, under the skin, in dinner parties, eyes shining in the night. And so it is with a dreadful inevitability that, as the film draws to a close, the line between waking and sleeping is also breached and the wolves crash through the windows of our cottages hungry for their ultimate revenge.