Dean Stockwell Tears up the U.S. Capitol
DIRECTED BY MILTON MOSES GINSBERG/1973
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 21, 2023/KINO LORBER
The streets of Washington DC have been dangerous for quite some time. Sometimes, though, they’re unusuallydangerous. Aggressors prowl by night, in search of ideal victims… With the marbled monuments of American government casting long, dark shadows, one strikes…!
But this is no ordinary mugging. This is the full-on lunar-inspired lunge of the Werewolf of Washington!!! From out of the White House, he attacks! In the highest offices in the land, things are hairy indeed! And toothy! We’ve heard of bloodsucking politicians, but this is ridiculous!
Meet Jack Whittier (Dean Stockwell, at a particularly odd point in his long and varied career), top aid to the President of the United States. Jack is a spineless insufferable jerk, but he’s loyal to the Commander-in-Chief (Biff McGuire, hilariously dense), which earns him a spot at his right hand. The opportunity removes him from old-world Hungary, where he has the misfortune of suffering the exact same rare attack as Lon Cheney Jr. once did.
Once settled in DC, and a mauling or two in, Jack quickly realizes that he’s got to come clean about this whole werewolf thing. He confides in the attorney general (Clifton James, Sheriff J.W. Pepper himself), “I got bit by a wolf, and it wasn’t a wolf.” “It wasn’t a wolf?” “Are you familiar with the mark of the beast? The pentagram?” “What’s the Pentagon have to do with this??” “Not the Pentagon! The Pentagram!! Pentagram!!!” Communication is amusingly trying for these Capitol Hill naval gazers. There are lots of moments where characters repeatedly mistake words for more Washington DC-associated words. “He is marked with the pentagram!” “You say the Pentagon is behind this??” Or “It’s those Russian communists! I mean, liberal columnists!” Also, there’s an inordinately high number of scenes in bathrooms, especially for 1973. The President, as distractable as he is duplicitous, spaces of one werewolf threat after another, but gets fixated on repairing the door of a toilet that he thinks is broken.
Made and released in the time of Watergate, The Werewolf of Washington is a straight-faced absurdist satire of presidential politics wrapped up in a rather conventional lycanthropic horror tale. Filmmaker Milton Moses Ginsberg was all about taking on the scandal that would end Richard Nixon’s career and lane several of his cronies in prison. The problem (at the time) was that he did so via comedy- and rather bizarre, unconventional comedy, at that. More in the Young Frankenstein mold than The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (one year before Young Frankenstein was made), Ginsberg plays it mostly deadpan, sticking close to the horror genre, with only a few swerves into ridiculousness. (Check out that weird scene where the werewolf scampers mistakenly into a dwarf mad scientist’s Frankenstein’s monster lab…!)
Seeing how the political scene swerved something fierce into the realm of “stranger than fiction” around 2016, the satire in The Werewolf of Washington lands a lot better nowadays than it did in 1973. Shudder as The White House declares a “war with the networks”, deliberately scheming to erode national confidence in professional journalism. Cover-ups dominate every agenda. A literal werewolf goes ignored, but Black people manage to get blamed by the administration for getting attacked. One imagines that headlines of QAnon lizard people and Jewish space lasers prompted the late Ginsberg to dig this movie out of mothballs.
Ginsberg, best known for his blistering countercultural burst Coming Apart (1969), starring a combustible Rip Torn, was able to revisit his other notable but very different feature film nearly fifty years after the fact. Thanks to a recovered negative previously written off as gone for good, Ginsberg was finally able to trim the previously mangy original ninety-minute cut of The Werewolf of Washington down to an impressively well-coifed seventy-four minutes. The grizzle is gone, but this effectively lean piece of work is no less tenderized. And that’s a good thing- like the 1970’s films of George Romero, there’s something weirdly indelible about the catch-as-catch-can low-budget garishness of the movie. As far as dissolve-centric werewolf transformations go, the ones in this movie ain’t bad. It’s all too on-point that the werewolf has white fur and wears a three-piece suit.
As the newfangled version begins, Ginsberg offers a brief explanation (paraphrased): “As a child, I was traumatized by the film The Wolf Man. As an adult, I was traumatized by the president Richard M. Nixon. After 40 years, I think I finally got it right…”. When it comes to movies that secure their definitive version decades later, lump this in with Peckinpah’s Major Dundee and Welles’ Touch of Evil. Maybe that’s the only time that The Werewolf of Washington gets lumped in with those two films, but doggonit, maybe it actually deserves it.
Despite a lifetime’s worth of negative and dismissive reviews of the original cut, Ginsberg seems to be correct in having finally gotten it right. (And yeah… that original ninety-minute cut is… not great. But it turns out there was a decent version in there, waiting to get out). I’d never seen any cut of The Werewolf of Washington prior to this redux but did enjoy it immensely for its warped bite at the bureaucratic, and for Dean Stockwell’s full-on committed lead performance. He’s playing it altogether prickish, prickly, sensitive, and as a total hambone. His triangular head and bushy eyebrows help sell Jack’s animalistic side.
Besides the restored 2K presentation of the original 1973 cut of the film, the bonus features menu also offers up two brief new video bits, both Zoom-based. The first is a nine-minute interview with Milton Moses Ginsberg, conducted by Jake Perlin. The COVID-era trappings of the online discourse make sense, considering that Ginsberg died in 2021. (Eerily, so did cast members Dean Stockwell, Biff McGuire and Lenka Peterson). Ginsberg, appearing tired, talks of how the film was initially buried, thus shredding any career momentum he’d garnered from Coming Apart. He also gets into how the serious political tone of the Watergate era which the film comments upon and was released in negatively impacted any public appetite for this manner of topical Washington DC satire.
The other Zoom-y bonus feature is an appreciative analytical discussion with critics Simon Abrams and Sheila O’Malley. This piece, running twice as long as the Ginsberg interview, gets more into the weeds of the film, granting it a deserved due diligence that even the director feels the need to shrug off. O’Malley, quite interestingly, likes to approach films via the actors rather than the more-common directorial pathway. She’s made a study of Stockwell’s filmography, and fascinatingly contextualizes his presence in this movie. Additionally, we find the theatrical trailer and a TV spot on the disc.
The Werewolf of Washington is a must-get for anyone cultivating a collection of off-kilter unlikely movies of years past. Kino Lorber has really done right by this release, allowing it, along with its release of Coming Apart, to serve as a nice remembrance of Milton Moses Ginsberg- a filmmaker who never had it easy, but by the light of the full moon managed to transform The Werewolf of Washington for the better.