Leave it to the geniuses running the Hollywood studios to offset each other by delivering three legendary lycanthrope movies, 'The Howling', 'An American Werewolf in London' and 'Wolfen' during the same seminal genre year: 1981.
It is truly unbelievable how often Hollywood filmmakers appear to completely run out of fresh ideas. The results are obvious, of course: the substantial stream of uninspired sequels; unnecessary remakes; derivative movies that haunt our cinema screens and TV sets. And equally astonishing is the fact that, sometimes, the exact same concept is developed almost simultaneously by more than one studio. As a consequence, 1998 was the year of the meteor (Armageddon and Deep Impact), 1997 belonged to uncontrolled lava (Dante’s Peak and Volcano), while in 1989 we nearly drown under a rash of underwater adventures (The Abyss, Deep Star Six, and Leviathan).
In a similar fashion, 1981 will forever be remembered as the “Year of the Wolf”. Indeed, within a few months of each other, we saw the release of three outstanding horror flicks featuring the lycanthrope and lupine: Joe Dante’s The Howling, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, and Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen. At the time of their original release, The Howling and An American Werewolf in London became instant classics due to their spectacular special effects, while Wolfen was mostly ignored by general audiences and horror fans. Considering that these genre stalwarts are more than a quarter of a century old, it may be insightful to revisit them and explore how well these movies have aged.
The Howling is based on the book of the same name written by Gary Brandner in 1977. However, while the novel presents a serious horror story, the film adaptation by John Sayles and director Joe Dante is full of irony, tongue-in-check humor, self-awareness, and social satire. Such an approach wasn’t wholly expectedly. Dante and Sayles wanted to make a movie with the same sense of sarcasm and dark humor as they had done with their previous collaboration, Piranha (1978).
In The Howling, Karen White (Dee Wallace-Stone) is a news anchor that is being stalked by the vicious serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). Trying to the help the police to catch Eddie, Karen agrees to serve as bait. When Eddie invites Karen for a rendezvous at a porn shop, he shows her a flick of a brutal rape before being shot and killed by the police. With Karen suffering of post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) sends her to a secluded resort he has developed for his mental patients. Unfortunately for her, the place is infested with werewolves, and her husband’s infidelity transforms him into a monster.
Most of the humor comes from the multiple references to horror film culture. For instance, characters such as George Waggner and Terry Fisher are named after werewolf movie directors (The Universal classic The Wolfman  and Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf  respectively). Also, there is a particularly ironic scene where the characters are attentively watching The Wolfman on a TV screen. Finally, the cast includes several names commonly associated to the horror genre: sci-fi veteran actor Kevin McCarthy, beloved publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland Forrest Ackerman, and the legendary director Roger Corman.
Similarly, An American Werewolf in London also took a lighter posture with reference to the monster mythos. In a sense, this movie can be best described as a humorous romantic comedy, where one of the characters happens to be a werewolf. According to director John Landis, he wrote the script for this flick back in 1969, but he was unable to secure funding until he proved himself a reliable director. After the smash success of his National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), money was not an issue.
In An American Werewolf in London, David (David Naughton) is a young American tourist visiting rural England, where he is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Upon recovery at a London hospital he meets and falls for Nurse Price (Jenny Agutter). And just as in The Howling, An American Werewolf in London is full of comedy and references to horror culture. For instance, David refers to The Wolfman to explain Nurse Price about the nature of his condition. And in a favorite scene of mine, David undergoes his second transformation inside a porn theater, while the other members of the audience believe that he is having too much fun watching the skin flick.
However, the combination of vicious werewolves and mordant humor is not the only thematic connection between The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. Both films appear to openly subscribe to Freudian theory, and present sexuality and savagery as two interrelated forms of human behavior repressed by artificial social norms. Indeed, the violence of killer Eddie Quist is connected to his fascination with brutal XXX flicks, and David’s second transformation and the slaughter that follows occur inside an adult movie theater.
The Howling -- The Transformation
Perhaps more telling is the fact that David and Karen’s husband (Christopher Stone) transform into werewolves after spending a night of steaming sex (David with Nurse Price and Karen’s husband with one of Dr. Waggner’s retreat members). Thus, the monsters in these films are clear representations of what celebrated film scholar Robin Wood terms “The Return of the Repressed”. That is, the werewolves are acting on the repressed impulses and desires of their alter egos. In other words, what society inhibits (sexuality and violence), is what the monsters exemplify in order to challenge the rules of the social establishment. Thus, lycanthropy in these two films boils down to a metaphor for social and moral freedom.
Another striking similarity between The Howling and An American Werewolf in London is the way they showcase the transformation from human into monster as a process of excruciating and agonizing pain. Thus, these films go beyond the representation of shapeshifting as an identity crisis (as was most often the case in werewolf movies made before the '80s) into a process of bodily disintegration, deterioration, mutation, alteration, infection, and contamination. Taking into account their explicit Freudian overtones, one could further argue that these movies work as an allegory to the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. Clearly, The Howling and An American Werewolf in London are deeply indebted to the early works of David Cronenberg (Shivers , Rabid , and The Brood ), and contributed to the establishment of the “Body Horror” subgenre that boomed during the early '80s.
Quite amazingly, there is a further connection between The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. While John Landis was trying to get investors to finance his film, special make-up artist guru Rick Baker was hired by Dante to work on the effects for The Howling. And when Baker left to go to work on Landis’ film, he left the production in the charge of his young apprentice Rob Bottin (a genius by any means, Bottin was only 22-years-old at the time he made The Howling). Because Baker and Bottin had already spent months brainstorming about the novel techniques that they needed to develop in order to create impressive transformations, these scenes ended up being quite similar in both films.
Indeed, The Howling and An American Werewolf in London revolutionized the fields of prosthetic make-up effects. They also illustrated the effectiveness of animatronics - complex mechanical systems controlled by servo-mechanisms used to mimic the movement of a hand or a head, allowing faces to expand and deform into snouts, and fingers into paws. But even so, the effects of An American Werewolf in London were evidently superior to those in The Howling. Thanks to Landis, the main transformation sequence occurs in a brightly illuminated room, while in Dante’s flick it happens in a dark office. As a consequence, for his work on An American Werewolf in London, Rick Baker received his first Oscar on the newly created category of “Special Make-up Effects”.
As evidence to the technical brilliance and aesthetic sensibilities of Baker and Bottin, even after 26 years, the special effects for both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London look as amazing now as they did on their original opening night. Even with the use of sophisticated computer graphics, the werewolf transformations seen in recent movies such as Van Helsing (2004) and the Underworld series (2003 and 2006) are unable to match the drama, quality, and organic texture of those featured back in ’81.
An American Werewolf in London - The Transformation
Arguably, the outstanding movie magic presented by The Howling and An American Werewolf in London is the principal reason for their success and continued popularity. On the other hand, a more serious effort like Wolfen featured actual wolves, and it did not have any of those new and novel special make-up effects sequences. As a consequence, even today Wolfen continues to be underrated and/or ignored by critics, scholars, and horror fans. However, careful analysis reveals that Wolfen was a deeply inspired and visionary horror flick.
Wolfen is a solemn horror movie based on the extraordinary debut novel written by Whitley Strieber in 1978. As the film begins, a politically influential tycoon, his wife, and chauffer are brutally killed and mutilated by unseen assailants. Veteran New York Police detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) and security consultant Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) are assigned to investigate. Ultimately they discover that a race of super wolves that posses highly developed vision, hearing, smell, and intelligence are the ones behind the killings. It is also revealed that these creatures feed on the homeless, drug addicts, and other outcasts of society that inhabit a decrepit section of the Bronx. These highly evolved wolves, known as the ‘Wolfen’ by the local Native Americans of the area, murdered the entrepreneurial tycoon because he planned to build elegant skyscrapers in their hunting territory.
Directed with flair and a good feel for suspense by Michael Wadleigh, Wolfen sports a series of highly accomplished sequences showcasing the super-senses of the creatures. These awesome scenes use artificially colored subjective shots and sound effects that were incorporated to represent the point of view of the Wolfen (a similar narrative technique would be used years later for Predator ). Also, thanks to cinematographer Gerry Fisher, Wolfen features some of the best shots ever taken of Manhattan and the Bronx. These views are aptly used to highlight the insurmountably deep class segregation between both boroughs. In addition, in this film the cosmopolitan city is presented more as a character of the story than a mere background.
While The Howling and An American Werewolf in London had powerful Freudian subtexts, Wolfen is a film rich in social commentary regarding complex issues such as race and segregation. Indeed, Wolfen makes a rather explicit connection between the creatures and the Native American Indians. As explained in the movie, the Wolfen and the tribes used to coexist peacefully until the arrival of the European colonizers. At the same time as the Native Americans were being slaughtered, abused, robbed, and segregated, the Wolfen were dispossessed of their hunting territory and had to learn to survive and avoid detection in the urban jungles.
The film also suggests that the Wolfen have lived for centuries in a very sophisticated and utopian society where dishonesty is non-existent (the creatures use their infra-red vision as a form of detector). As one of the Indian elders explains to Wilson: “In their world, there can be no lies, no crimes. In their eyes, you are the savage.” According to the racial politics legitimized by the film, the victimized Wolfen and American Indian societies are presented as smart, peaceful and heroic, while the Western culture is showcased as corrupt, greedy, irresponsible, intolerant, and evil.
In the ethnic and moral discourse presented by Wolfen, all the horrors of the film are born out of bigotry and intolerance. And quite expectedly, corporate avarice and overpopulation conspire to further catalyze the violent confrontation between Wolfen and humans. Indeed, reckless urban expansion has driven the Wolfen out of their natural habitat into our cities. Also, the lack of a natural hunting ground has forced the Wolfen to feed on those social derelicts that human society will not miss. In a sense, the Wolfen function as garbage disposal units, targeted with the cleaning of the urban landscape. This grants Wolfen a strong ecological subtext which deeply resonates with today’s grave concerns about the man-made destruction of the environment due to global warming, contamination, and unrestrained population growth.
In addition, it is interesting to note that Wolfen presents a subplot dealing with terrorism. Although this issue is never fully resolved nor explored with detail, Wolfen showcases what appears to be an irrational fear for foreign and domestic terrorist groups attempting to hurt corporate America. Indeed, at several times during the film, the police and other authority institutions are fully convinced that either international extremists or radical American Indian activists are the ones behind the brutal slaughtering of the tycoon. Therefore, Wolfen brings to mind the relentless xenophobia and paranoia that haunts our post 9/11 world.
Aptly dealing with complex issues such as terrorism, chauvinism, and ecological destruction, Wolfen ought to be considered as a truly innovative horror movie that almost foresaw our chaotic modern world. While The Howling and An American Werewolf in London continue to be undisputed classics by virtue of their gruesome sense of aesthetics, scary tactics, mordant humor, and unmatched visual effects, Wolfen still stands a thematically sophisticated and mature film. Personally, as I grow older I find myself more attracted to the socially conscious Wolfen rather than the other two werewolf flicks. Therefore, even though the three films that made the “Year of the Wolf” so memorable continue to be outstanding masterworks of the genre, Wolfen is the one that rightfully deserves to be revisited and revaluated.