White House Press Secretary Jack Whittier gets bitten by a werewolf during an assignment in Hungary. After he returns to the halls of American power, he finds that the full moon has a strange and dismaying effect on him – which, as it happens, turns out to disrupt things for his boss, as well.
The Werewolf of Washington is a comedy, that much goes without saying, although it’s a long way from the cartoonishly broad humour typical of monster comedies since Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Instead, it turns out to be an oddball film that mixes dry political satire, distinctly understated genre parody and the occasional bout of out-and-out weirdness.
The sequence in which Whittier gets bitten by the werewolf is essentially a remake of Lon Chaney Jr’s first lycanthopic encounter in The Wolf Man, so much so that the protagonist’s jaunt between countries feels like an analogy for a switch between genres. Whittier heads from political drama to Universal horror, taking something of the latter back with him on his return trip. The overall aesthetic, meanwhile, is very much the product of 1970s New Hollywood: erratic visual storytelling, hazy cinematography, and a steadfast refusal to pick a tone and stick with it.
The Werewolf of Washington was made during the Watergate scandal – and, indeed, actually uses the Watergate hotel as a location for the climax. While Biff McGuire’s fictional president comes across as a bumbling centrist rather than a Nixon caricature, the film makes a point out of giving him some very circa-1973 political issues like troop withdrawal, institutional racism and diplomatic relations with China (You know, issues that were very topical at the time and have all been thoroughly sorted out since then, or something.)
Some of the political humour is simple wordplay (a running gag involves confusion between pentagrams and the Pentagon) while other jokes are more biting: after a witness describes the mysterious assailant as dark and hairy, the authorities are quick to blame the Black Panthers. Sitting alongside this material is goofy physical comedy, as when Whittier gets his fingers stuck in a bowling ball because his hands have stated to transform before the rest of him. And then we have Dr. Kiss…
Played by dwarf actor Michael Dunn, Dr. Kiss has almost no bearing on the plot whatsoever and yet turns out to be one of the most memorable aspects of the film. During one of Whittier’s rampages, Dr. Kiss manages to subdue the lycanthrope by treating him like a puppy; Whittier then runs offscreen and Dr. Kiss frolics after him. The incident is never alluded to again, save for a brief scene where Dr. Kiss makes a futile plea for the werewolf be spared, and ends up feeling like some weird hallucination.
Like The Beast Must Die, The Werewolf of Washington is a self-conscious attempt to update the werewolf genre for the 1970s. But while that film strove to capture the more obvious pop-cultural aesthetic of the era, The Werewolf of Washington tries for something less tangible by presenting the decade’s political atmosphere and cinematic experimentation. It doesn’t entirely live up to its ambitions, but it remains an intriguing relic of its time.