Wednesday 1 June 2016

Massive names sign as the War Wolf howls

It’s all about the lupine this week, as we focus our thoughts on those fearsome wolfish things that prowl the benighted woods and moors on two legs, often in the glare of an icy full moon, snarling and slashing and snapping and biting, and tearing anyone they encounter to gory shreds for no more reason than the demonic rage that possesses them drives them to do it …

Sorry if that seems like an OTT intro, but I’ve got some exciting news on the movie-making front (and what a rarity that is these days!), as WAR WOLF, my medieval action/horror screenplay suddenly starts moving towards preproduction, with big budget movie maestro SIMON WEST slated to direct.

On a conveniently similar subject, I also cast my eye this week over one of the great werewolf novels of our time, Whitley Strieber’s THE WOLFEN, which first hit the shelves way back in 1978 (as a teen horror buff  back in those days, I remember buying it on the very day it appeared in our local bookshop, which kind of places me in history … I think).

As usual, that review can be found at the lower end of this post. Feel free to get straight down there now and check it out if you wish. But if you’re as interested in ‘movie werewolves’ as you are in ‘novel werewolves’, then you might want to read the next few paragraphs first as I'm now in a position to fully update you all on WAR WOLF and to lay bare all these meaty new developments I've so tantalisingly hinted at.

In concept, WAR WOLF started life as an original horror movie idea, which I first pitched way back in 2013 to top production company, AMBER ENTERTAINMENT.

The idea sprang from my fascination with medieval history and my lifelong love affair with ancient European legends. Throughout my writing life, I’ve enjoyed merging the real with the unreal. That hasn’t particularly applied to my crime writing, but when it’s come to fantasy and horror I’ve found it the perfect vehicle. There is truly nothing I enjoy more than invoking one of those tumultuous events in western history (in The Gods of Green And Grey it was the Roman Conquest of Britain, in Sparrowhawk the massacre of British troops in 19th century Afghanistan and the subsequent penning of a great Victorian novel) and then dovetailing it all with weird and mythical horror.

In this regard, the Hundred Years War was something I'd always fancied having a bash at.

Waged between the kingdoms of England and France between 1337 and 1453, this was an incredibly bitter and prolonged struggle, which saw five generations of kings on either side of the English Channel fight furiously for control of the French Crown. A series of horrendous battles, apocalyptic sieges and protracted campaigns responsible for the destruction of numberless towns, villages, vineyards and harvests, went on to cost an estimated 3.5 million lives (and remember, this was with axes, swords, spears and arrows, not modern mechanised weaponry, so in terms of pure carnage it was unimaginably up close and personal).

This was truly the conflict to end them all, one of the very bloodiest of the Middle Ages, but it struck me that I could make it even bloodier if I factored in the medieval French legend of the Loup Garou, a man/wolf hybrid created either by sorcery or a curse, which though it most likely had passed into Frankish folklore from Scandinavian mythology via the Viking invasions of the Dark Ages (Berserkers and all that!), would soon become archetypally French and the prototype for all werewolf tales to follow (not to mention the cause of a good number of real-life werewolf trials – France had vastly more than any other European country, most of which resulted in burnings at the stake or breakings on the wheel!).

Anyway, enough with the history lesson. I’m sure most of you already have a pretty good handle on where werewolves come from. And this may possibly explain why my pitch found such a positive response.

At first I'd thought it the longest shot conceivable. Imagine offering a modern day movie house a period piece (and I mean a real period piece, with armour and castles and a cast of thousands!), which would be prohibitively expensive in its own right! And then imagine adding lots and lots of werewolves, with all those costly fur and blood effects! But what I maybe hadn’t accounted for was the new age of high fantasy we are currently living in – Lord of the Rings really kicking things off on the big screen of course, and Game of Thrones continuing the good fight on TV (not to mention the huge interest generated by games: The Elder Scrolls - Skyrim, Witcher 3 - Wild Hunt, Dragon Age - Inquisiton and the like).

All of a sudden these kinds of projects are HOT.

I should add that this is only my theory for the reason WAR WOLF received the immediate thumbs-up, though I think there’s something in it. Suffice to say I was very surprised by the response – delighted, but still surprised.

AMBER, who are nothing if not an ambitious and forward-thinking media company, subsequently commissioned a script from me. I got stuck into it, and though it went through several drafts, as is always the way these days, and another top writer of my acquaintance, ANDY BRIGGS, was brought on board to assist (as is also the way in the modern movies), we gradually made progress until we finally reached the stage early last month when ace Hollywood director SIMON WEST (who's been responsible for such hits as Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Expendables 2) took the helm, while make-up experts DAVE AND LOU ELSEY also signed up (their roster of spectacular successes includes Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Where the Wild Things Are and X Men: First Class).

What we have now is a planned franchise of ‘War Wolf’ movies scheduled for production through a partnership of AMBER, FORTITUDE INTERNATIONAL and SIMON WEST, with the first installment set for a November shoot in Italy.

Now, I must admit that I’ve been in this heady position in the past. I’ve penned many movies over the years, only two of which have ever made it to the screen – THE DEVIL’S ROCK (2011) and SPIRIT TRAP (2005) – and while several of the others have reached the stage where they were apparently only weeks from preproduction, the chances of anything really happening still felt slim, before, somewhat predictably, they began to fade (fewer and fewer phone-calls, fewer and fewer invitations to lunch, etc) until the whole thing had whispered away like smoke.

But this is distinctly NOT the feeling I have on this occasion.

I doubt I’ve ever been involved with a movie project to which as much A-list talent was so enthusiastically attached. It feels good, folks, I mean really good. So you’ve simply got to keep watching THIS space.

The ‘Wolf of War’ could be howling very, very soon. 


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Whitley Strieber (1978)

When two beat-cops are murdered in a Brooklyn scrapyard, ‘fire and water’ detectives Becky Neff and George Wilson are put on the case. But it soon becomes apparent that this is not going to be just another day in Homicide. The murder scene is utterly repellent, the two victims having been mutilated, disembowelled and partially eaten, and then things turn even more bizarre when forensic analysis uncovers traces of unidentifiable ‘canine’ assailants.

Neff and Wilson consider various possibilities. Is a pack of particularly dangerous strays stalking New York? Or has someone trained himself a couple of killer dogs?

And of course, it doesn’t end with these two crimes. Soon there are more unexplained mutilation-deaths, usually in the most deprived corners of the city, the victims invariably drug-users or homeless alcoholics. In fact, it transpires that many Skid Row types have gone missing in the recent past without anyone really noticing.

Has something terrible been living concealed alongside the normal citizenry for decades maybe, feeding on the flotsam of modern urban life?

This ‘something’ is introduced to us in short-order, because a big part of this famous crime/horror crossover novel’s appeal is that it gives us the chance to assess the unfolding drama from both viewpoints – man’s and beast’s.

The Wolfen themselves are a kind of werewolf pack, only they don’t live normal lives and then suddenly grow hairy at night and start howling at the moon. They retain their hybrid form 24/7, and are incredibly strong and ferocious, and very, very agile – when they launch their murderous attacks, which we get to see unstintingly, it is in a blood-spattered blur of immeasurable speed. They are also hyper-sensitive and intelligent, and it isn’t long before they realise the cops are hunting them. As such, they opt to strike back hard, pre-empting their own demise by killing their two main opponents, Neff and Wilson.

When our heroes wise up to the fact they are next in line, they go to ground themselves, but that isn’t easy when the predators on their tail are the most proficient, the most savage and the most relentless the modern world has ever seen …

How to start discussing this superior and extraordinary horror novel of the 1970s without saying that I’m completely bamboozled it ever dropped from sight the way it has? This is partly, I suspect, due to the rather poor movie adaptation made in 1981, which, though it had its moments, strayed a long way from the original, preferring to talk politics and Native American mysticism, and starring Albert Finny as Wilson and Diane Venora as Neff, two good actors but sadly miscast here.

The worst mistake the film made, however, was with the Wolfen themselves, which it basically depicted as large, cute-looking dogs who panted more than they snarled, and whose complex nature and society it completely failed to examine. In the novel, the Wolfen are hellish antagonists for our hapless cop heroes, especially as at first no-one even believes they exist; they are literally a pack of killing machines – as curious Dr. Carl Ferguson, from the New York Museum of Natural History, discovers when he tries to make friends with them – and yet you sympathise with their position. This is their world as much as ours, but they know that if they were to come out into the open they’d be exterminated. Despite this, they are remarkable creatures; not just physically impressive, but reasoning and emotional – they have strong family ties, individual personalities, an order of rank and loyalty, and a strong survival instinct, which naturally resists a world they know would unhesitatingly destroy them.

On top of all this, the original Neff and Wilson are a great pair of down-at-heel heroes, the former a cool and attractive but tightly-wound officer who is constantly having to deal with the fall-out of cop-husband Dick’s dodgy dealings (he is now being investigated for corruption), and who wages a daily personal war against the institutionalised chauvinism that embattles her (this is the 70s, remember – female detectives were few and far between). Wilson, on the other hand, is more an archetype: slobbish, a drinker and a time-served veteran who, though he’s good at the job, is often unmotivated these days. He drives his partner mad with his lackadaisical approach and cynical attitude (not to mention his unspoken desire for her), but on the whole they work well together and trust each other, and you genuinely fear for them as the danger intensifies.

One accusation aimed at The Wolfen was that its hardboiled crime atmosphere jars with the underlying horror story, and that many of its protagonists are too willing to accept the mythical supernatural killers in their midst. But I don’t buy that. To start with, the Wolfen are basically animals – monstrous for sure, but non-supernatural. Secondly, Neff and Wilson only come round to accepting this via a long learning-curve, during which they encounter increasingly persuasive and gory evidence.

Meanwhile, the vast, grimy sprawl of the city has a role too. Yes, superficially The Wolfen is a crime thriller: it goes heavy on the legal speak and the police procedural, and as I’ve said, the cops are real cops with real-life problems – everything in The Wolfen, aside from the beasts themselves, is real. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which any city, least of all the Big Apple, is as dingily and desolately portrayed as it is here.

I swear, it’s almost dreamlike: the endless dirt and garbage, the graffiti, the urban dereliction, the towering hulks of empty, boarded-up buildings – it’s a despair-ridden Hellscape, a darkly fantastical necropolis where almost any type of badness could be lurking. And it is used particularly well in one scene, where the two cops are drawn into the hideous environment of a derelict apartment block by the persistent crying of a baby, only to suddenly get suspicious that this isn’t what they are hearing at all but someone, or something, mimicking the sound in order to lure them. This is easily one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in any novel … for which reason I’ll say no more about it because that would really spoil things.

Suffice to say that Strieber corkscrews the tension from this point on, creating fewer and fewer places where our heroes can feel safe, until eventually there is nowhere at all – and what an explosive finale results from that.

At the end of the day, you just have to read The Wolfen yourselves. Okay, it’s an oldish book, but it’s still incredibly fast and taut, and beautiful writing – even when it’s ‘beautifully horrible’ like this – is beautiful writing, whatever its era. 

As usual – purely for fun, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if a more truthful version of The Wolfen ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (the first film was okay in parts, but in my view it made the big mistake of veering way too far from the source material; if it ain’t broken, why fix it?):

Detective Becky Neff – Bridget Moynahan 
Detective George Wilson  David Duchovny 
Dr. Carl Ferguson – Chiwetel Ejiofor

(In terms of the images used in this blog, from top to bottom we have: Paul Campion's pre-production design of a minion werewolf from the early days of development on War Wolf; an original medieval portrayal of the bloody battle of Aljubarotta in 1385; two 17th century woodcuts depicting werewolves; Andy Briggs; Simon West;The Devil's Rock; more Paul Campion preproduction artwork, this time depicting the War Wolf as it encroaches on an enemy stronghold; and last but far from least, the original 1978 cover of The Wolfen - the very one I bought all those years ago, heheheh ...)