‘Dad’s gonna become a werewolf. We gotta do something!’
None of that ‘wait to see the monster’ stuff here – a long-haired, facially streaked wolf man (Paul Baxley), looking a little like the make-ups seen in Return of the Vampire (1944) and The Werewolf (1957), scowls, skulks and howls in close-up even as the credits are rolling. Divorced Robert Bridgestone (a silver-haired Kerwin Matthews), up at his cabin, walks through the woods with his hyper-excited (frankly bratty) young son Richie (Scott Sealey). The werewolf pounces on the kid and Robert wrestles the monster, then gets bitten before tossing it off a cliff only to find a dead human impaled on a stake below. The Sheriff (Robert J. Wilkie) is surprisingly eager to believe the killing was self-defence, especially because the unidentifiable corpse has an unknown blood group. Back in the city, things get soapy as we look in on a 1973 vintage broken family: Dad resents Mom’s job as a feminist editor (‘Women of the world unite and all that garbage?’), Richie won’t shut up about the werewolf but is equally keen on his parents getting back together, and Mom (Elaine Devry) humours her young middle-aged ex as if he were a sulky teen. Dad and Richie head back to the woods on psychiatric advice to get their heads together – Richie looks up this film’s three rules of werewolf-killing (bludgeoning with a silver cane a la The Wolf Man, a stake through the heart a la vampire movies and suffocation by wolfsbane) but hasn’t yet read the chapter which would make him wonder whether that bite on Dad’s arm carries the infection. Also new in the area are a commune of Christian hippies, led by Brother Christopher (screenwriter Bob Hamel), who gets hassled by the Sheriff but stick around to put up their big cross and listen to inspirational sermons — ‘You call us freaks? We’re not freak freaks, we’re freaked out, man, freaked out on God!’
At nightfall, just as father and son bond over a fishing pole, eerie music plays and Dad transforms into a werewolf with even more flamboyant white moustachios than the first beast. Richie sees the monster and runs screaming for his father, not yet realising the beast is his father, and sees the creature blunder into the road, cause a couple of accidents and claw some drivers to death. Richie tearfully runs to the camper of a nice, smug, hippieish couple (Jack Lucas, Susan Foster) who don’t take his story seriously, though they know what a werewolf is because they ‘go to the drive-ins all the time’. The next day, Dad reclaims his son from the neighbours and the Sheriff pokes around the massacre site (‘except for one missing arm, that’s all the same guy’), musing that animals are responsible. The next night, the werewolf creeps again (Matthews plays the monster as savage, but cunning) after the boy, who takes evasive measures but still doesn’t work out why Dad is missing whenever the wolf is in the house. The monster attacks the nice folks by pushing their camper off another cliff, then brings home a cabbage-sized bundle it buries (using a spade) near the cabin. It’s possible that the werewolf is acting out divorced, no-longer-young unreconstructed macho man Robert’s resentments against the free and easy, sunnily comfortable younger couple. Richie finally catches on, but Dad doesn’t remember what happened during his night-spells. Richie spills it all to Mom, who tries to be understanding (‘little boys are always seeing monsters’) but isn’t a whole lot of use. Finally, someone listens – Richie’s analyst (George Gaynes, of Police Academy), who is surprisingly open to the occult and recites the obligatory rhyme (‘the hand of Satan shadows all, touches few with evil’s call’). Now, far from whining about Mom and Dad getting back together, the kid is pleading with Mom not to send him back to the cabin with his father; if the film were made a few decades later, the anxieties around child abuse would be more explicit, but the hints are still there. ‘We’ve got a big problem with Richie,’ Mom tells Dad, ‘he’s on that werewolf kick again.’
A headline tells us the psychiatrist has been murdered, and Dad makes some moves on Mom, who opts to come up to the cabin with her ex and the kid. The more confident, slyly bestial Robert (he now wears a black leather jacket) gets the idea he can get her back. En route to the cabin, the family drop off at ‘the Jesus Encampment’, which Richie rather peculiarly was as excited about visiting as a roadside petting zoo. The freaks sense supernatural evil, and dare Robert to enter a pentagram ‘which shields us from Satan’ – only he can’t cross over an invisible barrier. At the cabin, with the rise of a romantic full moon, Mom starts making amorous moves but Robert is preoccupied by his oncoming transformation and comes across Richie digging up that souvenir in the garage. Dad as much as admits what he is and begs his son to ‘lock me in and don’t let that thing out’ for the night. Mom, still impatient with the werewolf story, is fairly convinced when Dad breaks out of the garage snarling and drives off with Richie, though she is now the one refusing to admit who the monster really is. The werewolf barges into the hippie camp but still can’t enter the pentagram – whereupon they try an exorcism that seems to work when the sun rises. The next night, it creeps back for one last attempt to put R.D. Laing’s theories into practice by eating his family. He’s seen off by deputies, and the Sheriff leads a traditional horror movie gun-toting mob to comb the woods. Oddly, for a film of this vintage, the locals think the hippies are crazy but don’t suspect them of being mixed up in the bloody business. In a finale that stresses father-son bonding, Richie tries to protect the monster which refrains from killing him – though it accidentally bites the lad to set up the obligatory curse-lives-on 1970s twist – and is peppered with bullets before falling backwards, like Christopher Lee in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, onto the jagged stump of the hippies’ big crucifix.
The traditional Jekyll-and-Hyde reverse change has Matthews’ features emerge from under the fur and we freeze frame on no one being happy under the end credits – though (unlike most other films with these twists) the movie refrains from punching up the final omen (Richie’s bitten wrist) with a close-up. Made during a blip of mod, hip, Californian takes on the traditional monsters (Blacula, Simon – King of the Witches, Count Yorga Vampire, Twisted Brain, The Velvet Vampire, Werewolves on Wheels, Deathmaster), this is an odd, interestingly uncomfortable mix of kid-themed monster movie and soap operatic family drama. Hamel updates elements of the traditional werewolf movie, replacing the gypsies of The Wolf Man with Jesus freaks, and making a divorced Dad the furry epitome of male rage circa 1973; but, as usual in werewolf films, the moon seems to be full ten nights in a row. Matthews, a limited but likeable actor, isn’t bad in a demanding role, but Sealey is a strident, annoying presence and severely derails the film. Nathan Juran, who directed Matthews as Sinbad, delivers TV movieish horror, albeit in widescreen: there’s talk of gruesomely severed arms and heads, but not much onscreen gore, and the wolf attacks could do with a touch more of the kind of savagery found in Bob Kelljan’s vampire movies or even Paul Naschy’s sillier but more exciting werewolf pictures.