The Nixon administration and its misdeeds inspired this queasy horror comedy set in the august halls of the White House. Writer/director Milton Moses Ginsberg could have gone for a more on-the-nose scenario with vampires sucking blood out of bodies and the body politic, but instead he unleashes a malevolent hound on the Oval Office. In this curio from 1973, playing on the Metrograph‘s virtual screen Oct. 16-22, Dean Stockwell is the hapless assistant press secretary for whom things get a little hairy at the full moon.
It is the director’s cut that the Metrograph is screening and Ginsberg has added a note to the beginning of the film that it has taken him 40 years to come to terms with Nixon’s presidency and find the right cut to The Werewolf of Washington. The statement seems innocuous enough until you watch this slim – only 70 minutes – but wild feature and are left to wonder what ended up getting cut and what might have been restored at some point. This film is bonkers.
Among the few oblique references to the actual Nixon administration is newly minted deputy Jack Whitter’s (Stockwell) address in the Watergate apartment complex. A one-time reporter who used to cover the White House and dated the president’s (Biff McGuire) daughter Marion (Jane House), Jack leaves his latest post in Hungary to take the new job. But he brings a little bit of Eastern Europe back with him in the form of a curse, something Jack only becomes aware of at the first full moon after his arrival.
Ginsberg juggles two narratives, one a satire of Washington politics, with a boorish blowhard (no, really) installed in the Oval Office. McGuire is terrific as a crass pol who never listens to anyone and blusters his way through every situation. In one of the film’s funniest moments, the president is bowling in the bowels of the White House when his ball gets stuck in the return. He insists that Jack accompany him down the lane to retrieve it. The site of McGuire and Stockwell gingerly making their way down adjoining gutters is hilarious.
The rest of the movie is taken up with Jack and his problem. He tries to explain it to Marion’s fiancé (Beeson Carroll), a Navy psychiatrist, only to be met with derision. As the body count around Washington mounts, Jack’s panic mounts, but no one will take him seriously. He is tortured and cannot stop staring at his hands, but the president and others are not sympathetic. Instead, they question Jack’s masculinity.
A two-time acting award winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 for Compulsion and 1962 for Long Day’s Journey Into Night and a future Oscar nominee in 1989 for Married to the Mob, Stockwell attacks his role here full-throttle. He makes grand use of those expressive eyebrows of his as he begins his transformation, signaling another wild night out on the town. It is not a subtle performance, but Jack is a role that cries out for over the top and the actor delivers.
In the waning term of our own century’s shambolic presidency, a scant two-and-a-half weeks before the election and two weeks before Halloween, the time is right for the return of this monster mashup. It’s a howler. – Pam Grady