The Year of the Wolf

The anthologies are behind us, and we're on to Werewolf Week.  The truth is, I've been sitting on a bunch of werewolf movies with the intention of writing a Best Werewolf Movies list, but this is probably the closest I'm going to get to doing that.  The truth is, there just don't seem to be enough truly great ones to make it worth a Best Of list.  That being said, I expect to hit a lot of the high points this week.

Speaking of high points for werewolves, 1981 was it.  In one year, three major werewolf movies were released, then they disappeared back into the b-list.  I decided to watch all three of them in a row.  The things I do for you people...


Wolfen - 1981
Written by David Eyre & Michael Wadleigh
from the Book by Whitley Strieber
Directed by Michael Wadleigh

Wolfen essentially presents as a mystery, opening with the grisly murders of a couple of big-deal New York socialites and power-brokers.  Evidently the case is so instantly startling to the NYPD that they feel obligated to call in hard-boiled and harder drinking retired cop, Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) to investigate the case.  While the rest of the department is investigating the murders on the premise that they were the act of an anarchist terror cell, Dewey along with not-quite-age-inappropriate lady-cop Diane Venora (Rebecca Neff) and jiving medical examiner Whittington (Gregory Hines) are following a trail that leads from canis lupus hair fibers to Native Americans to shape-shifting werewolves.  Yeah... it makes more sense in the context of the investigation, although Dewey does Goldblum his connections once or twice.

This is one of those movies where the director would be justified in saying things like "The city of New York is really a character in the story" and yet we're not talking about a case where there's some romantic encounter on the Circle Line leading to dinner at Tavern on the Green and a stroll through Central Park.  This isn't the "family-friendly" corporatized post-Giuliani New York.  This is the urban decaying New York of the post-70s which conservatives still imagine when they think of the big scary city.  The Bronx, which feature prominently in the story, look like Dresden.after the bombing, creating a unavoidable example of the themes of class division that enter into the plot.  There was also some fascinating New York "inside baseball" about Native Americans as steelworkers that clicked neatly into the story.

The werewolf aspect seems to serve to illustrate some of these same themes of old ways versus new ways, natural people versus money people, rather than that to be the primary excuse for telling a "werewolf story" with the running and the biting.

I was really very pleasantly surprised by Wolfen.  I'd been given the impression that it was the lesser of the three werewolf movies from '81, but instead what I found was a slightly twisted police procedural with a strong sense of momentum, some enjoyable characters, and a unique take on werewolves that bucked convention in a clear way that wasn't overly hung up on its own mythology.  The special effects were certainly the least complicated, never showing us a true transformation and primarily using real wolves.  I didn't feel that this took anything away from Wolfen, and in fact, served not to distract, but I can see how that might be significant to some people.  Special effects were a big deal to me when I was a kid too.  So if the "least of these" was this good, I was eager to move on to the rest.

The Howling - 1981
Written by John Sayles & Terrence Winkless
from the Book by Gary Brandner
Directed by Joe Dante

If Wolfen is a mystery with a werewolf elements woven in, then The Howling, you could say, is a werewolf movie with a mystery woven in.  It uses elements of a mystery, but they're only mysterious to the characters who, by and large, come off as a bunch of self-absorbed nitwits.

The Howling opens with tough-as-nails TV news reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) on her way to meet a serial killer/her stalker down in the seedy part of town with the porn stores and the ethnic people.  There are a couple problem right there, just for starters.  One, Dee Wallace is not believably "tough-as-nails."  She presents as a cream-puff, and, despite the roles she's played over the years, never convincingly exhibited strength in a role until she was into her 50s.  Secondly, are you freakin' kidding me with this meeting a serial killer who also happens to be your stalker shit?  The BEST excuse available is career ambition, which isn't actually a virtue taken on its own.  If she's not believably tough and she's demonstrably stupid and self-serving, why on Earth should we care what happens to her?  I certainly didn't, and that presents a problem.

Okay, maybe we got off on the wrong foot.  What follows is actually kind of interesting.  After meeting with the killer and getting rescued by a shoot-first-and-well-at-least-I-shot-first! rookie cop (seriously, the guy fires blindly THROUGH A DOOR in the direction of a scream), what follows is, I have to assume, a satire of modern life as the self-examining 70s turn to the self-without-the-examining-part 80s.  As she returns to the TV station, we're introduced further to a collection of crass, self-obsessed characters and their apparent guru, putting-the-self-in-"self-help" psychiatrist Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee).  When Karen folds up on camera when she's supposed to tell her tale of confrontation with a killer, the news director decides she needs to get away for some rest and self-actualization at Waggner's woo-woo Colony in the woods.

So Karen and her husband, the Marlboro Man (henceforth known as Bill) head off to camp where they meet a bunch of people as flaky as they are and Marsha (Elizabeth Brooks) the resident "nymphomaniac" sets her sights on Bill (Christopher put-the-Stone-in-Dee-Wallace-Stone).  Things are a little "off," and Karen is increasingly disturbed by strange sounds from the woods.  Soon enough, Bill has been attacked in the woods by some kind of creature, but he's doing fine. ...except for the part where he's suddenly making the filthy werewolf whoopee with Marsha.

Meanwhile, back home, Karen's co-workers are following up on the killer's story which picks up the stink of a wolf marking territory.  When the killer's body disappears from the morgue, things are definitely showing signs that there's more here than meets the eye.  The mysteries aren't so much solved as revealed, and the third act is a werewolf bonanza, featuring a major transformation scene that was a pretty big deal at the time.

For my money, I felt that The Howling had the weakest story of the three, by a considerable measure.  I didn't engage with the characters or care what happened to them.  I enjoyed the satire, but I'm not sure to what extent it was intentional versus me looking back at the early 80s with sharpened hindsight.  Given the involvement of Joe Dante and John Sayles, I'm prepared to believe that it was intentional.  I like the use of practical effects, but I found the werewolves to have kind of a silly (and inconsistent) design (due largely to ridiculously long ears and hair) and the transformation, while impressive for its time, hasn't aged well, and was never as good as American Werewolf's.  It makes no sense to me that the skin should bubble that way, other than that effects artist Rob Bottin felt obligated to distinguish himself from his mentor, Rick Baker, who was working on American Werewolf at the same time.  At one point during the transformation, Wallace actually looked bored and impatient in a cutaway shot, creating the only moment at which I sympathized with her in the movie.  Of the three movies here, The Howling is the most unabashed about its b-movie heritage, to the extent that it isn't really not one.  Why should it come as a surprise to me that this is the one that spawned a litter of sequels?

An American Werewolf in London - 1981
Written & Directed by John Landis

An American Werewolf in London is, in many ways, the most simple of the three, and that's not a bad thing.  There's very little mystery, and yet there is a consistent ramping-up of tensions.  Like See You Next Wednesday, the porno movie featured in its penultimate scene, it's long on foreplay, then obscenely explicit and orgiastic in its climax.  It also most deeply embraces its relationship with Lon Chaney's original Wolf Man, in all the best ways (except perhaps for a lack of gypsies).

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are American college students doing the whole European backpacking thing.  For reasons unexplained, they have chosen the rainy ass-end of England to start their journey.  In a quaint-but-not-in-a-welcoming-way Welsh village, they're met with instant suspicion when they walk into the pub.  If a record had been playing, the needle would have fallen off.  They manage to cajole the surly bar mistress into a cup of hot tea, but when they inquire about the pentagram scratched into the wall, it becomes evident that it's time for them to leave; tea or no tea.  As they leave, they're granted a foreboding warning to stay on the road, off the moors, and to beware the moon.

Leaving rural hospitality behind them, they're once again on their way, and without so much as a word, soon off the road and trotting across the moors by night.  Rain comes.  Then howls in the distance.  Worry turns to panic as they realize they have no sense of direction.  The howls become nearer, and almost always in front of them, almost as though it were circling them... whatever it is.  They run.

Whatever it is attacks.  Jack is down.  David runs on, then turns back.  He finds Jack, horribly mauled to death, and then whatever it is attacks him too.  The villagers arrive with rifles and cut it down, and David loses consciousness...

He awakens in a London hospital three weeks later, nearly healed, but haunted by nightmares of everyone he loves being killed.  The nightmares seem to be seeping into his waking life, as a mangled vision of Jack appears to tell him that he's going to turn into a werewolf at the next full moon and he needs to kill himself to save others and to free the souls of the restless dead killed by the lineage of werewolves that ends with him.

Like in The Wolf Man, American Werewolf treats David's lycanthropy as a curse, a horrible burden.  For several days, David believes that he's losing his mind and the visions of a decaying Jack are merely the face and voice of his guilt.  That's both reasonable, but also an act of denial in its own right.  Leaving the hospital, he's taken up with a charming English nurse and found happiness that he doesn't want to end.  When, after a prize-winning transformation (literally -- Rick Baker won the first ever Oscar for Best Makeup for this) David wakes up naked in the wolf cage at the zoo to news reports of several murders, he comes to believe the unbelievable truth.

The story here is clean, unconvoluted, leaving plenty of room for humor and character-building.  The threat builds slowly after the initial attack.  In that way, it works more like a haunting, gradually drawing the unseen enemy within nearer to the surface, and conveniently working in the ever-more-disturbing visions of Jack, decomposing much more quickly than a corpse actually would but who cares, you've got Rick freakin' Baker showing his stuff here.  Meanwhile the romance builds and so does our investment in these characters.  Hope and despair tug back and forth, destined to collide.

It should go without saying that I enjoyed this one most of all, but there I've gone and said it anyway.  It simply wins every category by which a film can be judged against another, as far as I am concerned.  I was startled to find that there were people who prefer the effects in The Howling, because this was just masterfully done.  While much wolfier, my only complaint is that, like in The Howling, the wolf's hair is far too long.  Do these people never look at actual wolves?  Rather than the silly bubbling effect, the werewolf stretches into his transformed self.  David howls in pain as his bones change shape, his organs shift and his skin distends.  What clearer depiction of a cursed man could there be?

In the end, I'm glad I saw all three, and that I made a triple feature out of the whole affair.  They were three distinctly different takes on a sub-genre that doesn't always strike one as fertile ground for variety.  That being said, An American Werewolf in London is the only one that I expect to watch again, and that certainly should say something about what it has to offer.

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