Between 1764 and 1767 something killed a lot of people in the French province of Gévaudan. Sources vary, but it’s generally agreed that around 100 people were killed in that period, with some 50 or so others mauled but surviving. The jury is also out on what kind of creature committed the rampage: was it a wolf or a pack of wolves, a ferocious dog, a hyena loose from some private menagerie or travelling circus (an actual theory)?
Of course not. Sober minds know it was nothing so mundane.
It was a werewolf.
Not that you’d know that from French director Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf, an otherwise ferociously fun account of the events that see a naturalist (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Native American sidekick (Mark Dacascos) dispatched by the King of France to put a stop to the killing spree. Despite being packed full of bloody mayhem, political intrigue, the odd over-the-top martial arts smackdown and Monica Bellucci, the 2001 film drops the ball when it comes to identifying the notorious Beast of Gévaudan, positing that it was… well, no spoilers here, but you can see for yourself on SBS On Demand.
Which is a shame, because up until that point Brotherhood of the Wolf is one of the best werewolf movies of all time, depicting the clash between modern reason and supernatural menace in a way that the werewolf subgenre rarely does.
From the archives: David and Margaret review 'Brotherhood of the Wolf' (and disagree)
It’s not their fault, really – they’re just drawing on the wrong texts. Pretty much all of modern werewolf lore, including the curse being transmitted by bite and silver bullets being needed to slay the beast, stem from Universal’s 1941 film The Wolf Man, courtesy of screenwriter Curt Siodmak. (The transformative influence of the full moon doesn’t crop up until its sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, in 1943.)
Even Joe Dante’s The Howling, one of the best modern werewolf flicks, carries on these mistruths, along with the now-ubiquitous bipedal monster form seen in almost every film on the subject. On the other paw, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, which came out in the same year as The Howling, eschews silver bullets for its climactic slaying and gives us perhaps the best four-footed werewolf ever seen – and a transformation sequence that still impresses today. It does retain the full moon nonsense, though.
Luckily, we have a robust source for real werewolf lore at hand – the French legal record. From the 15th to the 18th centuries, and roughly concurrent with the height of the European witch trials, France had itself a real werewolf problem. Now, it’s worth noting that this wasn’t during the depths of the dark ages, but took place in an era of increasing sophistication, spanning the tail end of the Renaissance and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. Put simply, it wasn’t enough to just summarily slaughter any lycanthropes found preying on the peasantry – wolf men, like ordinary men, were subject to the rule of law, and a whole bunch of them went to trial for their crimes.
In 1573 the Franche-Comté region was so plagued by a werewolf that the local parliament ordered the peasantry to “…assemble with pikes, halberds, arquebuses and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said werewolf in every place they may find or seize him…” Eventually a local hermit, one Gilles Garnier, was brought before the court and, after some 50 witnesses testified that he was the culprit, he confessed and was burned at the stake.
What’s interesting is how Garnier became a werewolf. He wasn’t bitten; by his own testimony he was given a magical ointment by some kind of ghost or demon, and by applying it to his skin he could assume the shape of a large wolf and terrorise the countryside. That sounds like a wild tale – but it’s not unique.
In 1603 another werewolf, teenager Jean Grenier (isn’t it odd how similar their names are?) was brought to trial for killings that took place in Gascogne. As recounted by the occultist Sabine Baring-Gould in his 1865 tome The Book of Were-Wolves, Grenier testified that he’d been given a magical wolfskin and ointment by a mysterious man he met in the woods, one “M. de la Forest” and, like Garnier before him, used them to transform and to hunt. Now, isn’t that peculiar?
Once is happenstance, and twice is coincidence, but three times? Well, no less a personage than Sir Walter Scott, author of the romances Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, recounts in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft the story of an unnamed boy in Besançon, “…who gave himself out for a servant, or yeoman pricker, of the Lord of the Forest – so he called his superior – who was judged to be the devil. He was, by his master’s power, transformed into the likeness and performed the usual functions of a wolf…”
So what we have here is a mysterious supernatural presence, probably the devil by light of the beliefs of the time, traipsing around the forests of France, handing out magical salves and wolfskins in order to unleash slavering monsters on the unsuspecting countryside – a deliciously dark and magnificently macabre bit of lore that has somehow never made it onto the big screen in any of the dozens of werewolf movies made over the years. No filmmaker has ever got close to the truth about lycanthropy.
As for the real Beast of Gévaudan? It was reportedly shot by a hunter named Jean Chastel on 19 June 1767. Accounts from the time say that Chastel actually used a silver bullet on the creature, although they failed to record the animal’s species.
I do wonder, though, whatever happened to its skin.
Brotherhood of the Wolf is now streaming at SBS On Demand: