There’s a monster in the White House.
The Werewolf of Washington, written and directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg, takes a very literal approach to the idea that some of the people wielding power on a national scale might be not-quite-human — but it’s not your typical political horror story. The director’s cut, which screens October 16-22 in an exclusive digital engagement through Metrograph Live Screenings, is a monstrously fun movie that brings pentagrams to the Pentagon.
Jack Whittier (Dean Stockwell) is a political journalist traveling to Hungary on assignment, where he is bitten by a werewolf. Unaware, he returns home, and takes on a new job as the press secretary for the President of the United States (Biff McGuire). Soon, Jack finds himself transforming into a beast under the full moon.
Writer-director Ginsberg takes aim at and sinks his teeth into the Nixon administration, highlighting the utter absurdity of politics’ paranoid atmosphere. When presidential staff members keep getting attacked and Jack starts to notice more strange occurrences, he wonders if it may be communists at work. Jack jaunts about town believing he may have been brainwashed in Budapest to cover up covert political activities, and, perhaps finding fresh social liberation in his lycanthropy, carries on an affair with the President’s daughter Marion (Jane House) — although it eventually comes back to bite him.
He plots the murders on a map and notes their pentagram pattern — as well as the pentagram mark that appears on his own skin — and starts to suspect what’s really afoot. However, everyone to whom he tells his strange little tale refuses to believe him; incompetence and denial run as rampant as wolf-men in Washington, and pose perhaps an even greater danger.
The film pairs frenzied supernatural satire with political details lifted straight out of the Nixon administration, tapping into the fear-mongering and paranoia of that political moment. After a shadowy black and white prologue, we get life in color, and scenes of Jack’s work at political parties or press conferences are intercut with ominous shots of the glowing moon and women shrieking as they are attacked. The murders start to become even harder to ignore: prominent middle-aged women are found ripped to pieces near national monuments, with the wolf-man also indiscriminately disemboweling political figures and Black Panthers alike.
Public panic ensues. The President attempts to negotiate with China and navigate foreign wars while containing the havoc at home. The administration also uses the chaos as an excuse to attack the credibility of the press and push for campaigns for “law and order” loaded with thinly-veiled racism. The President’s team talks of winning back the hearts and minds of the American people, but they do so by covering up scandal and concealing their own monstrosities.
When the film first opened in 1973, it was met with less-than-stellar reviews, and drew most of its viewers from German television — thus making minimal money. Today, however, Werewolf stands up. Stockwell in particular sinks his teeth into the role with vigor, capturing the tormented guilt of Jack and the gleeful abandon of the werewolf as he eviscerates people. Makeup artist Bob O’Bradovich’s werewolf design is simple and stripped-down, allowing the beastliness of the creature to shine through in Stockwell’s chest-beating. The screaming sound effects and cutaways to bodies being discovered are wondrously cheesy, and there are endless moments of physical comedy, like when Jack desperately tries to tell the President he is a werewolf in the Commander in Chief’s private bowling alley, only to get his hand stuck in a bowling ball and have his words go unheeded.
Silliness aside, there’s a subversiveness and scariness to the events that unfold onscreen. In the lead-up to the presidential election, Ginsberg’s campy horror story takes on some newly nightmarish resonances. Werewolf might have exploded out of Watergate, but it feels equally like it was born out of the flames of the current political dumpster fire, suggesting Trump’s presidency might make a good basis for its own monster movie — albeit one that is far less funny.
Ginsberg’s film highlights the way the administration consistently twists press coverage to be in the President’s favor, so that it portrays politicians as having the people’s interests in mind regarding the wars in Southeast Asia. Werewolf also shows how the administration claim that Jack is actually a “hero” trying to save the President in order to cover up the fact that the threat was lurking amongst the President’s own staff.
Jack might be the one transforming into a fanged and fur-covered werewolf, but the President is also concealing his true dark form behind a phony facade. The most menacing beasts are not werewolves or creatures that lurk in the night, but the myths that men make up, and the monsters they make of themselves in the process.