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A Hidden Gem: 1987’s Horror Series “Werewolf” Claws Its Way Out of Obscurity

The path to success was not a smooth one for Fox. In 1987, the Fox Broadcasting Company was still new to the TV market, and most of its original shows didn’t last beyond one season, if even that. Yet among the network’s inaugural weekend programming was a brooding horror series like nothing else on the air. The eighties, a banner decade for all things werewolves, saw a resurgence in these hirsute holdovers from the Universal Classic Monsters era. People’s desire to see these horrific manifestations of the human id didn’t stop at the big screen; “lyco fever” had spread to television, as well. 

Frank Lupo’s cult series Werewolf started out as a feature-length pilot before settling into its Saturday-night timeslot along with other Fox obscurities like The New Adventures of Beans Baxter and a TV version of the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Lasting a further twenty-eight half-hour episodes, the show chronicled Eric Cord’s (John J. York) endless search for his ancestral sire after he’s cursed to become a fearsome creature of the night. York, who was cast as the lead only two weeks before the pilot was filmed, was initially hesitant to do a horror series; he later told Fangoria in 1989, “Most of the [horror movies] I’ve seen have scared me to death, but my attitude has changed now that I’ve been on the show awhile.” With Werewolf being a soft anthology with just one central character, it was important to have an actor who could carry the show on his shoulders and keep audiences coming back.

Fox wasn’t shy about using York’s handsome mug for publicity — a vintage network commercial, centered around the ‘87 slogan of “Don’t Let Fox Weekend Pass You By,” has York being comically fondled by a woman proclaiming “I do believe in werewolves, I do, I do!” —  but people also tuned in to see his character’s hairy alter-ego in action. Bringing these renowned monsters to life with realism and credibility intact is no easy feat. So, after getting the go-ahead from Fox, Lupo and producer John Ashley secured the talents of effects and make-up artists Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) and Greg Cannom (The Howling). These practical-effects wizards are a large reason why Werewolf became so considerable, not to mention memorable, for viewers back then.

Baker’s design, a hunchbacked and ursine specimen with gorilla-like arms and handmade, imported fur, was impressive for the budget, medium, and time period. It wasn’t like Baker’s Oscar Award-winning London werewolf seeing as this creature was obviously a stunt actor walking around upright in a suit. Even so, the show’s smoky and dark atmosphere, along with ample fast cutting, provided some guise. Cannom, who admits he wasn’t a fan of television’s pacing and unpredictable schedule, found that the makeup of Eric’s archenemy Janos Skorzeny (Chuck Connors) was the most difficult to pull off. Quite unlike Eric’s comparably docile werewolf, Skorzeny’s was more gruesome and bestial; he literally peeled his face off to reveal a lycan facade underneath. To keep costs down, stock footage was usually implemented for the transformations, but a few more unique effects and sequences here and there broke up the routine.

The series protagonist’s arduous journey begins one fateful night when his best friend as well as his girlfriend’s brother Ted (Raphael Sbarge) confesses that he’s a murderous werewolf. Eric is understandably skeptical, but he promises to stay by Ted’s side all night in a bid to prove him wrong and to prevent him from hurting himself as he had originally planned to do. This lingering dialogue between two men, sitting in the dark with only one another’s company and candor, not only offers vital exposition, it’s a glimpse into Eric’s possible future. This scene also depicts Eric’s stalwart nature and the lengths he’ll go to for those he cares about; he initially refuses to shoot his friend in the event he does become a werewolf, but Ted assures Eric he will because he loves him. When the worst finally happens, Eric is left no choice but to kill Ted.

Unlike in other werewolf stories, someone’s transformation in the show can happen without the presence of a full moon. Another sizable change to the basic mythology is the inclusion of a cure — if your bloodline’s originator dies, the curse is broken — that motivates Eric to find Skorzeny, the man who destroyed his opportunity for a normal life. For Eric, he struggles to maintain control so that he doesn’t devolve into a wanton predator like Ted, but his innate goodness affords him some comfort. Even in beast form, Eric can discern good from bad, and he refrains from harming innocent bystanders. However, as the series progresses, Eric’s willpower gradually weakens and he has to fight harder once the blood starts to pour from the portentous pentagram etched into his palm. He infrequently murders those people he deems dangerous to himself or others; his subconscious takes over at that point. Had Werewolf continued, the writers would have delved more into this subplot of Eric’s ebbing humanity and growing moral ambiguity. Be that as it may, John Ashley assured the show would “not make Eric a mass murderer” like Skorzeny.

While it’s true Eric is the series’ only main character, he constantly ran into a persistent bounty hunter named “Alamo” Joe Rogan (Lance LeGault). Eric was all set to go to trial for Ted’s murder when he fled to find Skorzeny; his lawyer then sicced Rogan on him. From there, Eric was stalked by the inimical and hatted tracker who appeared in more episodes than the show’s actual antagonist. Since he was fully aware of Eric’s werewolf side, Rogan came prepared with silver bullets, some of which he handed out to fellow hunters. He wasn’t necessarily integral to the overall story, but Rogan cast a hefty presence. So much so the writers awarded him a two-parter that examines his own life and why he hunts Eric so madly — in the episodes, Rogan fears he’s been turned by Eric. His panic makes more sense after we see an enlightening flashback; Rogan’s stubborn pursuit of Eric is his own way of dealing with a Native American heritage he resents. The werewolf and hunter never make peace, but there is the rare instance where Rogan sees Eric is the lesser of two evils and helps him in his own distinct way.

Odd jobs during his travels often lead Eric to lost souls who need rescuing in one way or another. This is where the show’s anthology elements come out; in a number of self-contained stories, we meet one-time characters who are never seen again after Eric helps them solve a certain problem. That easy compassion gets him in trouble, but Eric aids those in need regardless of his own predicament. It almost seems like destiny that they would meet because without his affliction, Eric would not have been able to help. Some notable examples of his special kind of charity include Eric giving a domestic abuser a taste of his own medicine, avenging a white witch who’s vilified by her neighbors, reuniting a father with his estranged daughter, and giving a retired boxer a new lease on life. With a college-age Eric being raised in urban surroundings  — what looks to be California based on the license plates in the pilot — and living a moderately privileged life, his tour of rural America is very humbling. His journey ultimately casts a sympathetic light on people regularly forgotten by the masses or abused by those in power.

The series was cancelled before Eric was cured. And with Chuck Connors’ quick dismissal due to a behind-the-scenes conflict with the showrunners, his Skorzeny character was seen less and less before he was eventually killed off. The crew worked around Connors’ absence by using stunt doubles, having Skorzeny appear in only his werewolf form, and using his character’s many disciples as villainous stand-ins. A new storyline eventually came about that did away with Skorzeny altogether: Eric learns that a very powerful, two-thousand-year-old werewolf named Remy (Brian Thompson) is the real progenitor of his bloodline. This revelation is introduced very late so Werewolf ended on a cliffhanger that the Blackthrone comics — the limited run was merely illustrated adaptations of episodes — didn’t resolve, either.

The production values are relatively crude by today’s standards, and there is a lack of narrative focus thanks to an abundance of filler episodes, but the strengths of this original and remarkable series come out on top. We see an endearing hero at the heart of Werewolf who found resilience in the face of adversity. In a decade marred by avarice and self-interest, someone lending a helping hand to characters who are essentially the little man was an important thing to witness at the time; so was the acceptance of those who felt alone and rejected because of an untreatable illness.

Werewolf was at high-risk of becoming another lost TV show after Shout! Factory’s planned release in 2009 was cancelled on account of music rights. Luckily for people with hazy recollections of Eric’s misadventures in lycanthrophy and a longing to revisit the supernatural drama, French distributor Elephant Films just released the series in full. Fans, both existing and prospective, now have access to one of horror television’s greatest hidden gems.

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