The early seventies saw a lot of effort to bring more of a “cinematic” experience to television; the networks really wanted to try to keep folks at home instead of heading off to the theaters on Fridays and Saturdays. This was no easy task; believe it or not, we had only three television channels, and to see a flick only cost about a buck-fifty around where I grew up , so the impetus to stay home wasn’t near what is is these days…you know, when you have to donate an organ to head to the picture show…and that’s when you go alone. Out of this network exec push to catch our collective attention came a forgotten artifact, a magical two-hour window every seven days that was our mutual retreat; that’s right, I’m talkin’ the late, great MOVIE OF THE WEEK. From this one-time institution came a wealth of wonderful gems for us horror-type peeps: The Night Stalker, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The House That Would Not Die, Trilogy of Terror…I could go on for pages. Talents like Dan Curtis, Richard Matheson, and even Steven Spielberg made some of their bones during this oft-overlooked period of horror history.
One little flick from that golden time that took an old idea, put it in a new setting, and peppered it with original characters played by some familiar faces (at that time, anyways) was the 1972 film Moon of the Wolf.
Somewhere deep in the Louisiana bayou, a father and son are awakened by the baying of their hunting dogs. They quickly rise and dress, grabbing their trusty shotguns, and we learn from their quick conversation that wild dogs are causing problems, and they aim to put an end to it. Heading out into the foreboding marsh, it’s not long before they happen along the body of a woman, bloodied and torn apart.
Recognizing the girl as a local (it’s a small town), they rush to call the sheriff, and soon the local law and medical establishment have determined that although it seems as if wild dogs might have killed her, a sharp blow to the head was the killing stroke; undeniably, there’s a murderer on the loose. Methodically, the sheriff investigates the crime; his list of suspects grows quickly, as he discovers the girl’s rather socially unacceptable connections to several important people in the community, and even strain in her own family. However, that suspect list is diminished by yet another murder, and this time it can’t be denied that something beyond a madman is responsible; steel cell doors are ripped like paper from their hinges, and again, people are torn apart; not cut, no…the doctor is certain that nails or claws were used…and soon, evidence begins to point to the unfathomable; a werewolf is loose in the bayou…
The little made-for-TV flick has the advantage of some skillful writing; old folklore was incorporated well (the Cajun French legends of the loup garou, as well as old customary wards against lycanthropes are played up nicely), and although the plot isn’t the most original (a local murder leads to dark discoveries in a small town), the characterizations are fresh and interesting to watch.
The local swamp folk are contrasted by the Old Money in the little town, but all is not what it seems even then. Unexpected turns come from several directions, and you begin to relate to the sheriff, bogged down by local politics, personal feelings, and the intrusion of the supernatural into his formerly “normal” world. The actors in the movie are television staples of the era: David Janssen, the original Fugitive, hits all the marks as the small-town lawman, digging in places he’d rather not dig. Barbara Rush, ’50s sci-fi royalty and television regular, was a refreshingly flirty and vivacious Louise Rodanthe, heiress of the richest family in town, and her brother was well-played by Bradford Dillman, another television regular that we Fellow Fans likely best remember from his portrayal of Paul Grogan in 1978’s Piranha. The film was well-shot for the period, having the limitations that all made-for-TV films had (there’s no gore, and the werewolf makeup…well, it’s like Lon Chaney Jr.’s 1941 Wolf Man with a clean clothes, a shave and a haircut); still, it had its creepy moments, and enough story to keep at least a schmuck like me watching.
It really comes out of the box as a mystery, and it takes time to develop its characters and sub-plots, and you don’t even really get to the werewolf until halfway through.
I can see where this could be a deal-breaker, especially with modern audiences, but it works in this flick somehow; it builds the suspense, dropping enough clues to keep you wondering even as you’re getting interested in the Peyton Place goings on in this little Louisiana ‘burg.
It’s a 1972 telefilm, folks; that will tell you a lot of what you need to know; there were some of those that were outstanding, and others that were just liked by peeps like you and me. This one will not be everyone’s cup o’ tea, and I hasten to say again that most modern film-goers will find it somewhat flat; it’s a slow-burn, and the lack of blood ‘n’ guts or advanced makeup are understandable deficits. However, like I always say, you have to look at it for the time it was made. I’ll go as far as to say that if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool werewolf fan, it’s one you should check out; if you’re more than a casual horror fan and can look at it with lowered expectations, I think you’ll find it an OK way to kill and hour and fifteen minutes.
Two more pennies gone.