October Horrorshow: The Werewolf of Washington

Writer/director Milton Moses Ginsberg had something to say about the rot infecting Washington D.C. in the early 1970s. It was the time of Watergate, when the president, the attorney general, and all the rest of the president’s men were a pack of felons working to undermine the rule of law. How times have changed. Ginsberg’s response to the constitutional crisis posed by the ongoing criminal conspiracy that was the Nixon administration, was to make a movie satirizing the president. And he chose to make it a werewolf flick.

From 1973, The Werewolf of Washington stars Dean Stockwell as Jack Whittier, a reporter for a national newspaper. Besides covering the White House, Jack has been having an affair with the president’s daughter, Marion (Jane House). He wants to break off the affair, and the best way he can think to do that is to volunteer for an overseas assignment in Hungary. But, it turns out the president (Biff McGuire) has taken a liking to Jack. Believing that he was assigned to Hungary as part of some newsroom intrigue, the president offers Jack a job as an assistant press secretary. It’s too good of a job for Jack to turn down, and he, along with his local squeeze, Giselle (Katalin Kallay), rush through the Hungarian night to catch a flight back to the States.

Along the way he wrecks his car in some deep, dark woods. He and Giselle are attacked by a wolf, which Jack beats to death with a silver-headed cane. Before his eyes, the wolf turns into a man. Jack turns himself in to the authorities, but they don’t want anything to do with him. As far as they are concerned, Jack has lifted a curse under which the locals suffered. Having been injured in the attack, the locals warn Werewolf of Washington movie posterJack that he now carries the curse of the werewolf. He, of course, doesn’t believe a word of it, says his goodbyes to Giselle, and carries on back home to take up his new post.

There’s not a lot of satire up to this point. Jack is something of a scoundrel who runs from his problems, while the werewolf curse is very real. It’s back in Washington where Ginsberg turns up the commentary.

The president and the attorney general (Clifton James) are the highlights of this movie. The AG is a zealot, seeing enemies everywhere he looks. Black people and young people in particular. He flies into rages at the very sight of hippies and openly promises persecution. When his character gets flustered and angry, he’s a real treat.

McGuire was quite good as the president, as well. His portrayal of the Commander-in-Chief is of a bumbling incompetent who cannot absorb the true import of events around him. He is scattershot, prone to wandering, and refuses to believe anything that doesn’t fit into his narrative.

The president, the attorney general, and all the other government officials we meet in this movie, with the exception of Jack, are straight out of Dr. Strangelove.

As for Jack, he is, indeed, a werewolf. Every full moon he turns and claims another victim (full moons seem to happen every night in werewolf flicks). Unluckily, his victims all have ties to the administration, creating a panic in Washington.

James and Clifton may have been the highlights, but Stockwell was merely excellent. His portrayal of Jack was frantic and believable, and very, very professional. A film with such modest production values was lucky to have him.

Another performance of note came from Michael Dunn, whose character, Dr. Kiss, appears somewhat out of nowhere in the last half hour. I don’t wish to spoil his character, so I’ll just say that when the werewolf comes across him in the basement of the Pentagon, this flick gets weird.

At first Jack doesn’t know what’s happening to him, and he fears that he is losing his mind. As he comes to believe that he is a werewolf, he tries to get help, but the president and wonderfully-named Commander Salmon (Beeson Carroll), a navy head shrinker, don’t believe him. There is a great scene in a helicopter where the president finally sees Jack as a werewolf. This film may have been satirizing Nixon, but in many ways McGuire presages Reagan, in about as unflattering a light as possible.

All of this leads to the inevitable finale wherein the werewolf is dealt with. Denouement. The end.

A film this cheap has no business being this good. It’s no Oscar contender, to be sure. Ginsberg was working with a budget measured in the thousands rather than the millions. Were it not for the strong performances and inventive dialogue, this film would be indistinguishable from some of the worst dreck at the bottom of the Index. It’s that low-rent.

There’s no gore and nary a sign of blood, which is disappointing in a shitty horror flick, but horror wasn’t Ginsberg’s main focus. As a horror flick, The Werewolf of Washington is silly and stupid. As contemporary political commentary, its witty and sharp. It’s still shitty, though.

The Werewolf of Washington is a fine addition to the Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index. The poor production values hurt it some, but it still makes it into the higher reaches, displacing Ghosts of Mars at #50.

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