31 Days of Horror: Film 28: The Werewolf of Washington (1973)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

Some movies are just so absurd and ballsy that I’m able to overlook a ton of flaws. By most definitions, The Werewolf of Washington is not a good film. It’s haphazardly plotted, is often sabotaged by its lack of budget, and eventually stumbles to an ending that feels like the filmmakers just stopped working on it without having an end game. But it’s hard to disregard a werewolf film that tries to satirize the Nixon presidency while he was still in office.

Jack Whittier (Dean Stockwell) is a former journalist who is called back from his assignment in Budapest to work as the assistant press secretary for the unnamed American President (Biff McGuire). Before he can return to America, a wolf bites him. While dealing with the various public scandals the President is going through, Jack transforms into a werewolf at the full moon and starts killing the President’s enemies.

The satire of a crooked American President turning a literal wolf loose on his political enemies is beyond obvious, but it’s still very funny. On to this premise, writer/director Milton Moses Ginsberg layers the paranoid hysteria of the far right wing with the Attorney General (Clifton James) blaming the killings on the Black Panthers, Jack wondering if he is possibly the victim of a Manchurian Candidate­-style Communist plot, and an over-arching concern in the President’s administration about supposed anarchists plotting to overthrow the government.

Seen from today’s perspective, this satire sounds too on the nose, but considering when the film was released in 1973, it scores a lot of points at the expense of Nixon and his cronies.

Not all of the jokes hit their target. Jack lives at the Watergate Hotel, but Ginsberg never finds anything interesting to do with this point. He seems to think just referencing the famous hotel is enough. The same goes with introducing a mad scientist character with a lab in the basement of the Pentagon and naming him Dr. Kiss (Michael Dunn). Referencing Henry Kissinger and turning him into a Dr. Frankenstein-like character doesn’t make any point and is just silly.

But Ginsberg is willing to take the film down increasingly silly alleys for a laugh. When Jack is told to watch out for the sign of the pentagram, he mistakenly believes that means the Pentagon is behind his transformations. The President is presented as a man concerned with just about everything except running the country. In a bizarre but funny scene, Jack tries to explain what is happening to him, but the President just wants to teach him how to bowl and scolds him for scratching at his palms because it’s “unmanly.”

Truth be told, the film only works in spurts. There is a subplot about Jack being a former boyfriend of the President’s daughter (Jane House) that goes nowhere. The same can be said for the early moments in the film when Jack kills the wolf that bit him. Whether these plotlines were included to pad out the running time or were just the result of an unfocused script isn’t clear. Either way, they are distractions from the goofy main thrust of the film.

It’s hard to recommend The Werewolf of Washington to most people. The satire is dated and dependent on more than a passing familiarity with the Nixon administration and the film doesn’t work as a straight werewolf tale. But Stockwell’s slightly demented performance and the straight up absurdity of the premise keep it interesting even when it doesn’t work.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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