Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wacky Werewolves

NOTE: This commentary gives away the entire plot, but it shouldn't stop you from seeking out this masterpiece for yourself.

It's been a while since I gave a celluloid turkey a slapdown, so today I'm doing just that. Our target is a 1996 direct-to-video goofathon, Tony Zarindast's Werewolf.

Who is Tony Zarindast, you may fairly ask? Well, I thought he was a one-shot auteur in the same way that Tommy Wiseau, whose thoroughly incompetent The Room has been playing midnight shows on both coasts for years and developed a loyal, Rocky Horror-style following of bad movie connoisseurs. But alas, Zarindast is a seasoned exploitation director who, although educated in California, started in Iran (he also uses his real first name, Mohammad, from time to time), and came back here in the '70s to make English-language cheese starring the likes of Peter Graves, Sybil Danning, Cameron Mitchell and buxom Los Angeles billboard legend Angelyne. He also likes to write parts for himself in most of his movies.

I don't know how the others stand up to Werewolf, though. While it doesn't quite achieve an Ed Wood-ian level of incompetence, it has a hallucinatory quality all its own. It's very hard to describe the plot, but I'll try. A team of archaeologists, led by Noel (Richard Lynch, who usually portrays heavies) uncovers a human skeleton with a lupine skull in the Arizona desert. This provokes an inexplicable and drawn-out fistfight among the diggers, one of whom is played by Martin Sheen's sort-of-lookalike brother Joe Estevez. During the fight, one of the diggers, Tommy, is scratched by the skeleton and soon falls ill. The actor demonstrates the extent of his illness by panting heavily and looking like his mommy just told him he was a bad boy.

The skeleton is transported to a lab in Flagstaff where Noel reveals to his assistants, Yuri (Jorge Rivera) and Natalie (Adrianna Miles), that they are in possession of the skeleton of a werewolf. Miles, whose sole expression is "deadpan" and English is tenuous at best, says "Whore-wolf?" Anyhow, according to Indian legend, a witch doctor can infect a man with lycanthropy by means of special powders. The infected man will then take on animal-like characteristics, like sleeping nose-to-anus (whose anus he doesn't say), and cause all sorts of havoc. Noel suspects that Tommy may have gotten ill from some of those powders dropped into the burial mound. Meanwhile, at the hospital, Tommy is getting hairier and Yuri draws blood from him in a scheme to create a race of modern werewolves. Why? Who knows? Soon Tommy is fully transformed, attacking a security guard and running out into the night. His friends are waiting for him, armed with silver bullets, and they shoot him down.

At a party, Natalie meets a young writer, Paul (Federico Cavalli), and her libido goes into overdrive. Yuri is furious—he'd had designs on Natalie himself, and Noel boots him from the soiree. Undeterred, he goes to the lab and drugs a security guard (Zarindast himself), injecting him with Tommy's blood. The guard finds himself transforming while he's driving home—and this is the most hilarious scene in the film. You can't make a werewolf driving a car not funny. He's steering just fine, too, but suddenly he throws his hands up into the air for no reason, the car rolls over some barrels that appear out of nowhere, and it explodes.

You didn't think I'd tease you with that description and not let you see it, did you? Here it is! The guard wolf is driving along with Yuri in hot pursuit, looking pleased as punch (Yuri, not the guard). Then, when the car flips, he looks as if he's thinking, "Oh, shit. I forgot that werewolves can't drive."

Later, Natalie brings Paul to the lab to show him the skeleton (after some establishing shots of that famous Flagstaff landmark the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum—huh?) and Yuri is furious to find them together, so he picks up the werewolf skull and whomps Paul with it. Yes, you read it right. A supposedly professional archaeologist destroys a valuable, one-of-a-kind find in a fit of jealousy. Paul is scratched by the skull, of course, and over a series of nights (the moon is full every night, by the way), he realizes he's becoming beastly—and it's not just his acting.

Scenes depicting Paul's struggle with his inner wolf involve showing the shirtless actor laying face-down on his bed and grinding his crotch into the mattress. He attacks a young couple making out in their car and, of course, the girl jumps out and takes off. Her dress is muddy before she falls into a puddle, and although there are about five different screams heard on the soundtrack, none of them come from her. But boy, is the werewolf happy when he's committing mayhem. He smiles and snarls, and his hand gestures (claw gestures?) suggest that he's singing "For Once in My Life."

Yuri and Noel want to cage Paul up at the lab, but Natalie wants to rescue him. Naturally, Yuri is creeping around outside, and the werewolf, at its most rubbery (see picture below) attacks and kills him. Well, at least I think so. You don't actually see the creature ever touch him and they are never in a shot together. Yuri just keeps covering and uncovering his progressively bloody face until he pops his clogs. And the big shock ending is—surprise!—that Natalie is a whore-wolf too!

What keeps Werewolf from being a completely jaw-dropping riot is its pacing. It's rather slow, and repeated shots of the full moon are used to pad out the running time. There are lots of scenes of people walking around. Even a scene in a bar has a lo-o-ong sequence that does nothing more than slowly pan across a mural hanging on the wall! This is not to say it isn't worth watching, though. The goofy parts are what Archie Bunker would call "cherce." Never does the werewolf look like a proper werewolf. Sometimes he looks like a bat, sometimes like the little creep in the Leprechaun movies, and sometimes like a rubber wolf mask. The full-body suit werewolf looks like a big teddy bear. Rivera's hairstyle and color change dramatically from scene to scene, and actors disappear without explanation.

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 gave the film a well-deserved skewering during one of its last Sci-Fi seasons, and you can see it here. If you're a purist and would prefer to watch it as the director intended (ha!), it's easily available on DVD. One version is even paired up with a Corey Feldman masterpiece, Voodoo!

Either way, you must see the Mystied version of the closing credits, during which the gang sings a medley of unrelated songs. It gives you a taste of just how annoying the score is. Combining '80s-'90s style synthesizer with "authentic" Native American music that sounds like it was lifted from one of those tapes you'd buy at a truck stop in the desert, it really adds to the—ahem—horror. Check it out:

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