Given last week’s discussion of Barbara Rush, plus the revelation that my most visited post is Satan’s School for Girls (and with nearly twice as much interest as its nearest rival), I felt inspired to spend some time on Moon of the Wolf, another made-for-television horror film of the early 1970s.
It starts David Janssen, who was a titan of the made-for-television film and mini-series of the 1970s, until his death in 1980 at the age of 48. He had made his name as Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (in which Rush had made a notable appearance as a guest star), and he would also star in the detective series, Harry O, which I remember fondly and premiered on television the year after Moon of the Wolf. His tired, world-weary persona never really took off in cinema, but it proved irresistible to television.
He therefore starred in a whole series of things, although there are two mini-series that are particularly worthy of note. The first of which was Centennial (1978-1979), an absolute monster of the blockbuster television mini-series, which told the history of Colorado across two centuries and, in the process, had ambitions to being a microcosm of the American story. It even ends with major ecological questions about the future. In this monumental narrative, Janssen took the role of narrator, his gravelly voice acting as television’s ‘Voice of God’ in much the same way that Charlton Heston’s voice has come to operate in cinema.
The same year, he also became God’s voice (in a different way) in The Word (1978), a really interesting mini-series (and kind of television horror story), in which he is hired by publishers to check the veracity of a new set of biblical documents that seem to provide a first hand account of the Christ, and that might finally authenticate the story of Jesus. However, his investigations reveal a far more complex story that involves conspiracy and deceit, although his ‘truth’ is eventually rejected and the ‘fake’ documents are finally accepted as genuine. The effect seems to be no less than the creation of a new society based upon virtually universal faith; but also one that is as much a dystopia as a utopia, given that it is not only based on a lie but also on faith rather than doubt. Here, of course, Janssen’s persona is perfect for the final revelation and the whole story works around that familiar suggestion that it is the struggle with doubt that is ultimately meaningful and valuable, rather than blind or uncritical faith. The mini-series even implies that the ‘faith’ on which the new society is based is actually a kind of mindless conformity and the ends up feeling like something from a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or one of those Star Trek episodes where the crew of the Enterprise encounters a Utopia but decide that paradise must be destroyed in order to stop people wandering around in a blissful daze.
After discussing The Word, I am eager to re-see it and wish I was writing about that, rather than Moon of the Wolf, which really isn’t that great, although it certainly has its pleasures.
Anyhow, the story involves a body that is found badly mauled and the local sheriff (Janssen) starts to investigate. As suspects start to emerge, the nature of the attack looks increasingly strange and anyone in the audience who has any familiarity with this kind of thing soon begins to catch on (if the title hadn’t already alerted them) that a werewolf is on the loose. But who is it? Suspicion is directed at various characters, although the brother and sister of a wealthy, local family seem to be central to events. This couple is played by Bradford Dillman and – you guessed it – Barbara Rush.
Also, Rush and Janssen’s characters clearly have chemistry in the story, and one of the nice thing about 1970s television was that, unlike the cinema of the period, it was happy to provide roles for women like Rush who was in her mid-1940s at the time, roles in which they were not only leading ladies but were also supposed to be sexual beings with a past.
There isn’t a lot else to say about the plot, without giving the game away, but I should probably add that the creature effects are predictably awful (which never put me off a monster movie) and that the local color is excellent. Rather than simply being filmed in LA on studio lots, it uses a lot of Louisiana locations that give the rather slight story a considerable sense of atmosphere. Yes, there is a noticeable absence of explicit gore but that wasn’t what made-for-television horror films were all about. They excelled in atmosphere and suspense, qualities that are central to most of the classics of the type: Duel, The Night Stalker, etc.
And it is this quality that the stars also bring to the film. Janssen was capable of drenching a story with atmosphere without appearing to doing anything – not talking, moving, or anything at all. Similarly, Bradford Dillman is a fantastic character actor who was everywhere in the 1970s (he even ends up in Joe Dante’s wonderful Piranha) but has never seemed to get the credit that he deserves. He seems to have a permanent aura of self-disgust born of corruption or compromise, an aura that works perfectly in this story. Oh, and Barbara proves fascinating, too – obviously – and she conveys a peculiar mixture strength and vulnerability (or should I say fragility). After my last entry, Kevin Heffernan (author of the wonderful Ghouls, Gimmick, and Gold) rightly observed on facebook that Rush ‘is a *huge* part of why Nick Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE works as beautifully as it does. Her quiet, terrified defiance of steroid-crazed patriarch James Mason is what keeps the film from tipping over into bathos and unintentional comedy’. He is absolutely right, and I love that phrase: ‘quiet, terrified defiance’. Anyhow, it is a similar balance of conflicting elements that makes her perfect for this story, too, so that it remains uncertain, right up until the final revelation, whether she is a potential monster or victim.
So, Hour of the Wolf is certainly no masterpiece but I have to recommend it for its sense of atmospherics, atmospherics that are largely due to its careful use of locations and its casting (in addition to the three main actors mentioned, the film is packed full of other great character actors).