Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Werewolf:The Series" (1987) - television review

Part of the original line up when Fox launched it's own network in the 80s, and an early sojourn into today's rampant late night episodic soap opera/action television (I'd argue you would never have your precious "24"s or beloved "Lost"s without "Werwolf:The Series"), I was a huge fan of this show when it originally aired, and actually have memories of it being pretty intense, as did my wife, so we were both stoked to check it out again. Sadly, due to the cost of obtaining the DVD rights to the ridiculous 80s pop music used in the pilot and a few episodes, the remastered/extras loaded Shout Factory box set has been canceled and the odds of seeing this released anytime soon are slim to none. Where does a loyal woofman fan turn? Trusty old bootlegs!

As one might guess, the quality of the bootleg making the rounds that I obtained through my nefarious back alley contacts is VHS (at best), but still watchable. Made up of a mixture of dubs from Fox originally airing the show, and some better quality episodes that were shown on the Chiller Network at some point, I lowered my high horse from my 2010 standards of remastered pristine looking dvds only to watch these less than stellar copies, because the show is just that good!. Yup, it does actually hold up pretty damn well, albeit in a very odd way. Allow me to explain...

Lead actor/ lycanthropy victim and 80s soap opera heart throb John J. York turns in a masterfully cardboard performance as Eric Cord, the show's "Fugitive/Incredible Hulk by way of Werewolf By Night" main character. Equally great is his majestic and awe-inspiring 80s hybrid afro/mullet hair-do, It's hard to say if his amazing locks are naturally styled that way, or if it's the work of the lost art of 80s style perms (Abby claims she saw a curler in his hair in one episode), but his helmet of impeccably styled blond tresses is almost as entertaining as his stilted, robot like soap opera acting. His wooden, glassy eyed thespian chops combined with the hilariously sappy, weeping Reagen-era keyboard and rock guitar during every remotely emotional scene really makes you feel for the victims of the awful wolfman curse, and his interactions in the pilot with his best friend, especially in the scene where he learns about the curse and wimps out on killing his buddy until after he is bitten and infected by him, should have won him every acting award of 1987. I would pay good money to see that scene in particular done as a one man show (if you're reading this Mr. York, please consider it!).

The over the top 80s-ness of the show may feel dated (although totally fun as all hell), but it's balanced out completely by the AMAZING late-great Chuck "The Rifleman" Conners as the "one armed man" of the show, the originator of the werewolf plague and series over-arcing bad guy Capt.Janos Skorzeny. Mr. Conners is completely out of control bonkers as the creepy as fuck , patch eyed mysterious sea captain and possible original start to the werewolf plague that has infected our wayward hero. No joke here, he is truly fucking great on this show. His dialogue scenes, where he rants and raves, cackles and breaks out into dubbed in wolf howls are so amazing, I actually had to rewind a few and watch them again. Not only that, but, while all the transformation sequences on the show are top notch-state of the 80s-art, his are completely crazy and have to be one of the best in the history of werewolf lore. As his patch is removed to show his crazy wolf eyes appearing from beneath huge gnarly scars, he actually PEELS OFF HIS FUCKING FACE to reveal this disgusting, mangy wolfman that Eric Cord speculates might actually be a satanic wolf who changes into a man instead of the other way around. If this sea captain comes at you, you better hope to all fuck you melted down your Grandma-ma's china into some bullets, because he is going to scare the ever loving piss out of you!

Another cast member who makes "Werewolf" work so damn well is the grim faced, relentless bounty hunter who knows Eric is a wolfman, "Alamo" Joe Rogan (played by none other than total bad ass Col. Decker from the A-Team, Lance LeGault!). Constantly clad in cowboy hat, a duster and aviator glasses (even though the show takes place at night and in the fog 90% of the time) and always toting a shotgun, Alamo Rogan is way more effective at pursuing Eric than he was the A-Team, and is pretty darn menacing as he stalks around, flashing his photo of Eric to the various characters they encounter as Eric travels across the country taking odd jobs and befriending the downtrodden. Rogan knows that Eric killed his best friend in self defense due to lycanthtopy, but he doesn't care - he wants the bounty. Nothing stops this guy! I'm not going to spoil it, but as the series progresses his motivations are revealed to maybe be deeper than just cash. A lot of episodes have him just show up in the end, much like Col Decker, but nonetheless the combination of LeGault and Conners as the series heavies was casting genius, and is a huge part of what makes the show work.

Speaking of wolfmannery, the shows monsters (courtesy of creature designs by effects god and werewolf master Rick Baker) are the bees mother fucking knees. Huge, slavering, howling, canine behemouths, they look like some kind of unholy cross between a grizzly bear, a gorilla and Rob Bottin's lycanthropes from "The Howling", the transformation scenes and werewolf parts you get guaranteed in every episode are top notch. Granted, the werewolve's huge, slavering jaws might suffer from "Rawhead Rex lock jaw" (they don'[t really close all the way), but when they hit the slow motion and the werewolf leans back and howls at the moon it hardly matters.

The transformations always start with a super cool bleeding pentagram on Eric's hand (fantastic!) and leads to an excrutiating, painful looking sequence of claws splitting hands, and fangs and muzzles extending from jaws until the huge grizzly bear like werewolf appears, and usually jumps through a door or plate glass window like an unholy, rabid Kool Aid Man. Another great touch is that they actually came up with different styles of transformations for different werewolves, which makes the changes that occur every episode obviously not just re-used stock footage as many of the "Incredible Hulk" sequences transformations often seemed to be.

The werewolves run around with lots of wolf POV shots (with that weird video toaster effect that they used in "The Wolfen"), and Eric always ends up attacking the evil doers by throwing them across the room and charging after them with his fists planted in a menacing, gorilla like run that is a unique idea I'm surprised no one ever came up with for werewolves before. These parts of each episodes are usually the money shot, and they don't disappoint. The effects work is top notch and still holds up well today, shaming the wonky CG werewolves that have plagued the horror genre for the last decade.

As you probably guess, the basic gist of each episode is Eric Incredible Hulking from town to town, hitch hiking and trying to do battle with Capt. Skorzeny (and possibly other mysterious werwolves) to end his curse, while he dodges the bounty hunting shenanigans of "Alamo" Rogan. Meanwhile, he Kung Fus up with various people who need help, and ends up Fugitiving the bad guys and setting things right before he Ghost Riders his way out of town and onto the next episode. The over arcing story gets touched on usually at the end of each episode for a minute or two (popular cable TV series "Burn Notice" and it's ilk are clearly rip offs of the famed "Werewolf:The Series" format), and moves forward at a pretty good clip as Eric discovers more and more about his awful curse and the world of the lycanthropes in general. All the usual 80s TV cornerstones are touched upon (evil land developers and housing foreclosures, crooked cops, scary motorcycle gangs) but he also encounters lots of cool horror villains from serial killers and vampires to witches, ghosts and haunted houses! Throughout these adventures, John J. York is joined a parade of B list 80s tv guest stars and character actors, making it feel at times almost like a horror version of "The Love Boat". In one of the first couple stories, pay special attention to the red headed kid from Different Strokes who plays the COOLEST FUCKING KID IN THE HISTORY OF KIDS, who carries around a my pet monster and has a giant "Q-The Winged Serpent" poster on his wall. Kid, I want that poster!

Anyways, I will be re-visiting "Werewolf" in my upcoming "action shows: the biker gang episode" feature, but in the meantime, throw out your stupid "24" box set, erase "Lost" from your DVR, toss the "True Blood" files into the recycle bin, and get ta' watching "Werewolf:The Series", the king of all episodic television shows!

10 out of 10 fucking Oscars!

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