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An article by Denver Grenell

This article contains spoilers for these 40 year old films.

The moon rises into the night sky, a luminous orb bathing the countryside in an eerie light. Two figures stroll briskly along a country road, joking with each other to stave off the cold and nerves. They inadvertently veer off the road and into the mist-shrouded moors. An inhuman howl rings out into the night, stopping the men dead in their tracks. Was it a dog? The howl rings out again, closer now. They remember the advice they had been given at the Tavern they had just come from, “Beware the moon lads and stay off the moors.” Oops. They realise their error. The howl is closer now. Whatever it is, it’s circling them now. An animalistic growl. The men panic and run. One trips. The other goes to help his friend up and – you know the rest. This iconic opening attack sets the scene for John Landis’s horror-comedy classic An American Werewolf in London, one of two seminal modern werewolf films to be released in 1981.

Prior to the 1980s, there arguably hadn’t been a really good werewolf flick since the early ’70s. But in the first half of this decade, there were a pack of werewolf movies released, including two of the greatest ever made – Landis’s film and Joe Dante’s The Howling. Why was the Wolfman suddenly back in vogue? Was it a coincidence? Or another case of film producers eager to make a quick buck by cashing on what they thought to be a growing trend (thus helping create the trend). In actuality, both films had been in development for a few years, with Landis first concocting the idea for his film after encountering some gypsies in Yugoslavia while working on Kelly’s Heroes in the late ’60s. Dante’s film was based on Gary Brandner’s 1977 novel of the same name and had also been in development for a while. So it may have been mere coincidence that these two films came to the screen in the same year although, as is often the case, the productions would’ve been aware of each other. In fact, the Howling did lose its original Makeup, FX artist, when Rick Baker left to go and work on Landis’ film, leaving the vacant FX chair open for his protege, a 21-year-old Rob Bottin, who the very next year would create the incredible practical FX for John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing.

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Apart from the proximity to each other and the interchangeable FX artists, the two films really are quite different from each other. American Werewolf tells the story of David, the survivor of the initial werewolf attack as he recuperates in London, and slowly realises that he has become infected with lycanthropy and will become a werewolf on the next full moon. Landis set out to make a horror-comedy, possibly the most difficult genre mashup to get right. If your comedy isn’t funny or your horror isn’t scary then it all crashes and burns, pleasing nobody. With his background in comedy (Kentucky Fried Movie and Animal House), he probably needn’t have worried about the comedy aspect, but it is the horror side of things where he really excels. He treats lycanthropy as a terrifying, uncontrollable disease that cannot be reversed or stopped, except by death. David’s undead and rather put out friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) keeps visiting him, warning him of the changes and imploring him to kill himself. Complicating matters further is David’s burgeoning relationship with his nurse Alex, who he ends up staying with during his recovery. Throughout the film, David is inundated with nightmares of running naked in the woods, killing and eating a deer and later, a horrific home invasion by Nazi werewolves. Often, nightmares in horror films can be a cheap gag, throwing in extra scares whilst not really forwarding the plot. But here, Landis treats them as literal nightmares, showing David what he fears becoming and the chaos he will bring to the outside world once he transforms. 

Then there is David’s transformation, a lengthy scene scored to the breezy tones of Sam Cooke’s ‘Blue Moon’ and featuring the legendary FX work of a young Rick Baker in full flight. Landis and Baker make it look tremendously painful to turn from human into wolf. David screams in agony as his limbs elongate, his face stretches into a muzzle and his body sprouts tufts of hair. There is nothing sexy or desirable about becoming a wolf here. Despite David becoming a murderous werewolf, our sympathies remain with him, due to Landis’ script and David Naughton’s winning performance. His relationship with Alex (Jenny Agutter) is the heart of the film and gives him a reason to go on living if possible and resist Jack’s appeals to kill himself. 

Poor dead Jack gives the film much of its gallows humour, admonishing David for selfishly going on living, causing the death of a great many innocents. David’s other victims come back to visit him too, in the porno cinema scene, some of them merrily echoing Jack’s sentiments and suggesting ways David could kill himself. The humour and the horror become so intertwined that the viewer laughs uneasily, never so much as when confronted by a hideously mutilated and increasingly decomposing Jack cracking jokes to his distressed friend.

The ending of the film where David as the wolf is cornered and shot by Police (no mention of silver bullets here) is played like a classic monster movie tragedy as Alex weeps for her lost love, ending the movie on a sombre note.

The Howling could also be classified as a horror-comedy, though not as overt as Landis’ film. Joe Dante was coming off the relative success of his Jaws knockoff Piranha, when he came on board, bringing his collaborator from that film John Sayles to rewrite the script. The tone they strike is one of a surreal, disturbing nightmare laced with dark humour. Lycanthropy is not a disease here but a desirable affliction, chosen by the self-help resort/cult The Colony run by Patrick Macnee’s seemingly friendly doctor. News reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) is sent to The Colony to seek treatment for PTSD following her run-in with serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). There she finds a group of oddballs, eccentrics and creeps under the care of Macnee’s Dr Waggner. Weird shit ensues, including the seduction of her husband by Quist’s sister Marsha; numerous werewolf attacks and the return of the supposedly dead Eddie himself. Karen discovers the whole colony are werewolves and eventually escapes. The ending is an all-timer with Karen returning to her job as a news anchor and transforming into a wolf on live TV, before also being shot dead. 

Despite being released in the same year, the two films are markedly different in tone and construct. Landis’ film has a slick big-budget feel, whilst Dante’s has the chaotic energy of a low budget maverick having fun wrestling his vision to the screen. Landis works from his own long-gestating script. Every beat feels considered and developed, whereas Dante’s film rises and dips in an offbeat way but builds to a fun climax and that great final scene.

One can also look at the differences between the two films transformation scenes. Baker’s scene is still the gold standard for werewolf transformation FX, brightly lit and fluid in motion. Bottin’s scene, which is instead bathed in shadow and blue light is more horror movie-like in its use of bulging air bladders, curved fangs and long talons. While less slick than Baker’s, it is equally horrific (and lengthy), especially given that it is Eddie the ghastly serial killer who is wilfully ‘wolfing out’ rather than our reluctant hero David in Landis’ film.

American Werewolf uses (alongside Elmer Bernstein’s score) a lot of popular songs with ‘moon’ in the title (Blue Moon, Moondance, Bad Moon Rising etc) a practice that would normally cause a huge eye roll from me, but here it works wonders. Placing a sunny upbeat song over a vision of terror is a tremendously effective juxtaposition that Landis nails. Now when I hear Van Morrison soulfully crooning Moondance, I am immediately taken to early ’80’s London replete with scary subway tunnels, porno theatres populated with the undead, crashing double decker buses and rampaging lycanthropes. The Howling, by contrast, uses an evocative score by the maestro Pino Donaggio who utilises synths, orchestra and a full band to weave a potent and sinister aural brew.

As a young horror fan in the ’80s, American Werewolf was one of the first horror movies I saw and I was transfixed by the deft balancing of scares and humour. Years later I finally caught up with The Howling on VHS, and while liking it a lot, it didn’t hold a flame to the other film, which was then and still is in my top 5 horror films. But over the years, I’ve come to love it more and more, growing very fond of its more gonzo nightmarish tone. 

Other werewolf films have come and gone but arguably none have captured the raw, horrific feeling of having your own body rebel against you and mutate into a ferocious beast-like in American Werewolf or the nightmare of being surrounded by predatory wolves all baying for your blood like The Howling, two stone-cold classics that have yet to be bested. 

Keep on howling.

Author

Denver Grenell is an emerging author whose short fiction can be found in various anthologies including Bitter Chills, Follow Denver on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Visit Blood Rites Horror for more information.
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