Bad Moon does a lot of things wrong, beginning with the fact that it hit theaters the day after Halloween in 1996. Perhaps Warner Bros. mistakenly believed people taking down their cardboard skeletons needed a rousing werewolf picture to carry them to Thanksgiving. It’s the time of year when people are more in the mood for the existential terror of Planes, Trains & Automobiles’ bizarre subplot about John Candy’s secret dead wife rather than the in-your-face horror of a shaggy Muppet hulk stomping heavily through west coast suburbia like he’s trying to lure the Power Rangers into a showdown. Plainly stated, November of 1996 was simply not ready for Bad Moon.
In the film’s opening, Ted (Michael Paré) and his girlfriend Marjorie (Johanna Lebovitz) are boning in their tent in the jungles of Nepal after a successful photography mission when they are attacked by a werewolf. The werewolf mauls Ted and kills Marjorie, but Ted manages to send the creature to Werewolf Hell by blasting its head apart with a shotgun (more on that later). Ted returns to the U.S. and parks his Airstream in his sister Janet’s (Mariel Hemingway) backyard, and proceeds to wolf out on random passersby including a surveyor inexplicably working in the middle of the night and some asshole trying to run a low-stakes personal injury scam from the 1920s. Janet’s precocious son Brett (Mason Gamble) and their hyperactive German Shepard Thor are suspicious of Ted, and Thor eventually gets carried off by Animal Control after he attacks Ted for being drenched in werewolf musk. Brett Goonies his ass to the pound to bust Thor out, and they get back to the house just in time to stop Tedwulf from killing Janet. (This is a gentle way of saying that Thor knocks Werewolf Ted out of the goddamn window.) Ted carries his gravely-wounded werewolf ass off into the forest and Thor follows, killing Ted the following morning after he transforms back into a human.
Despite its many flaws, Bad Moon has always held a certain amount of charm for me, partially because I love all things werewolf. (They are the most accidentally hilarious monsters ever created and I will not hear otherwise.) I aim to spend the next several paragraphs doing my best to explain why I will go to my grave defending this movie, even though I recognize with my rational mind that it is schlocky garbage (please note my grave will be adorned with stone angels who are also werewolves).
First of all, schlocky garbage doesn’t have to be bad! Sometimes those are the most fun movies to watch. The opening sequence of Bad Moon makes a strong argument in this department, slapping us in the face with one of the most buck-fucking-wild werewolf attacks I have ever seen on film. When the werewolf bursts into Ted and Marjorie’s sex tent like a mid-level celebrity searching for his own name on Twitter, it yanks Marjorie into the air like the titular storm in Twister and proceeds to chew on her head and neck for approximately 60 unbroken seconds. Ted scrambles feebly towards a gun with an impressive claw slash on his chest, while the film frantically cuts between him and extreme close-ups of the werewolf just going to town on Marjorie. It’s intense, it’s disorienting, and it’s actually pretty frightening. Then, we cut to a wide shot of the werewolf as it holds Marjorie away from its body and delivers an overhand smash so devastating it could rewind time. This needs to be emphasized: the werewolf abruptly slaps her into the ground like a poisoned wine glass and it is positively shocking. Dennis Miller could’ve strolled out of the jungle in blue jeans and a blazer and delivered a rant about Bob Dole’s chances of winning the ’96 election and it would’ve been less shocking than watching a werewolf smack a woman into the earth like a vaudevillian strongman. Anyway, Ted finally manages to drag himself to the shotgun and uses it to obliterate the offending monster’s dome in a fantastic display of a Halloween mask stuffed with movie gore getting blasted off camera by powerful air jets. You actually see the wind of the jets ruffling the werewolf’s fur as its head jellies before our eyes. Honestly, the movie could’ve ended after this scene.
The second and arguably most notable aspect of Bad Moon is that the main character is a dog. The entire film is told from Thor’s perspective, and Thor goes through what would traditionally be the hero’s arc in a film like this. His journey is not dissimilar from a Denzel Washington thriller in which nobody believes Denzel (there are many, it’s an entire subgenre of Denzel movies). Just to quickly break it down, Thor suspects something is wrong, he constantly tries to warn everyone but his desperate warnings just make him look crazy, he’s finally provoked to attack the bad guy and it just makes him look like a lunatic, he’s taken away by the authorities, and finally has to break out in the middle of the night to rush back and save the day. Bad Moon is secretly a dog movie, and it handles this aspect of its narrative so well that you don’t even really notice it until it’s too late to ask for your money back. The trailers didn’t really push it either, so it was like going in to watch The Basketball Diaries and being shown Air Bud. I can’t believe we’re all not still talking about this.
Writer/director Eric Red knows a thing or two about subversive horror – in addition to penning classics of the genre like Near Dark and The Hitcher, he also drove his truck into a bar and killed two people, then tried to slit his own throat with broken glass before the cops arrived. (Yes, this actually happened, in 2000.) Bad Moon was his last feature before the accident, and he understandably hasn’t done much since then, having effectively written the book on sudden existential terror after turning The Howling into Homeward Bound and parking his vehicle in the middle of an eatery. I’m not entirely sure what else to say about this incident, other than the fact that it absolutely knocked me on my ass when I found it while researching this piece, and I absolutely had to share that experience with all of you.
To be fair, there are many lessons to be learned from Bad Moon, and while I would like to focus primarily on the teachings of “intense werewolf violence” and “secretly having an animal protagonist,” the film offers some powerful examples of what not to do with your horror feature. First of all, the entire movie takes place primarily in a single backyard. No, really – the majority of the action unfolds in the maybe 50-foot stretch of grass separating Ted’s Airstream from Janet’s back door. It’s admittedly difficult to stage an effective horror movie in a well-lit backyard, and the reason why Tedwulf doesn’t just tear his way through Janet’s back door like the banner at a homecoming football game until the last six minutes of the movie is never addressed nor explained. It is a Choice™, and while I don’t necessarily advocate for the results of that decision, I admire its boldness.
Second, Thor kind of sucks as a hero. I’m not coming down too hard on him, as he lacks both the power of speech and the capacity for critical thinking, but his efforts to protect Janet and Brett are shortsighted to say the very least. His primary strategy is to harass Ted every waking moment of the day, even when Ted is trying to shuffle off into the woods to handcuff himself to a tree before he wolfs out for the evening. Thor actually prevents Ted from restraining himself in this scene, which results in the gruesome death of the Depression-Era Grifter and brings Tedwulf the closest to busting into Janet’s house he gets before actually busting into Janet’s house the following night. I just, I’m not seeing the strategy here, Thor. Way to screw the pooch, a.k.a. yourself.
Finally, Ted isn’t doing nearly enough to keep his wolf condition a secret. He goes to a few doctors when he gets back from Nepal and then just throws up his hands and parks his Airstream by a lake at the edge of a dense forest with a popular hiking trail, otherwise known as “the best possible location for a werewolf to create and dispose of bodies without getting caught.” He’s also constantly dropping hints that he’s a werewolf, with lines like “We’re two of a kind, aren’t we old pal?” and “He knows an old dog when he sees one,” and “I’m a wolf, man.” (Only one of those is a joke.) Plus, he keeps close-up Polaroids of his extremely dead girlfriend’s body in his camper. Why would you hang onto those, Ted? I guess you take the photographs for the sake of filing an incident report and an accurate death certificate to explain what happened to her, but it’s a weird thing to keep in your trailer, my guy. Also, at one point in the movie Ted returns to his Airstream after a solid night of wolfin’ with his sweatpants intact, suggesting that he either removed them before he transformed or that the werewolf took the time to carefully take them off and leave them folded neatly beneath a tree for Ted to find the next morning.
The climax, in which Janet has a nightmare about Thor turning into a werewolf, brings up an interesting point about the werewolf curse. Why doesn’t it spread to other animals? Or does it? Are there a bunch of werewolf foxes and trout running around out there in Oregon or wherever they are? Was the question of Thor’s lycanthropy meant to be addressed in an unproduced sequel? Is it something specifically in the werewolf’s blood or saliva that transmits the curse, or is it spread via werewolf dander? Are squirrels picking through mounds of Tedwulf’s shit and then hulking out on their forest rodent brethren under the next full moon? Sadly we may never know the answers to these questions, as a Bad Moon 2 is growing less and less likely with each passing decade.
Bad Moon is not what you would typically refer to as “good” or “entertaining,” but it is hands-down one of the daffiest werewolf movies I have ever laid my two eyes upon. I would stack the opening attack sequence next to the entirety of most horror movies from the past 20 years and I’m pretty confident it would come out on top every time, in terms of both appreciably gnarly effects and flat-out batshititude. It pairs well-done werewolf gore with a unique creature design to create an effective on-screen monster, despite several contemporary reviews slamming its supposedly cheap look. (Seriously, the werewolf looks fine? I don’t know what these people were complaining about.) And the chaotic impulse to make the main character a spunky dog is an artistic achievement that deserves to be the subject of several concept albums featuring guest vocals by Thom Yorke. Seriously, it’s Lassie Meets the Wolfman, and it was somehow made in 1996. Bad Moon is an all-time champion of things that absolutely shouldn’t exist, and its teachings continue to inspire me to create things like this article to this day.
In case you’ve never seen a crime thriller about guilt and obsession before, here’s another one.
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