Written by: Daniel McDonald
As the season of witches, ghosts and things that go bump in the night is just around the corner, my thoughts are not only anticipation for new thrill experiences, but warm fuzzy (hairy?) memories of Halloween, cinematic glories gone by, remembering the wealth of my favorite Werewolf films.
I can’t help but smile thinking about watching my first horror film, 1941’s iconic classic The Wolfman at the age of 6, in 1963 from the safety of my Mom’s Lap.
The year 1981 was a particularly bountiful one for fans of the Full Moon fright fests with three terrific examples, interestingly similar and different in vision, tone and quality.
An American Werewolf in London, The Howling and Wolfen were all released within months of each other, with Micheal Waldleigh’s Wolfen a visually stunning, well-acted “beast on four legs” vision so common (Twilight) today, but not so in ‘81.
Today I’m going to focus on the first two, An American Werewolf in London and The Howling.
These two films, while featuring the same monster, are radically different in just about every way, yet each of them found success critically and financially.
Joe Dante’s low budget black sheep surprise, was released without much fanfare to very solid reviews. It suffered from serious pre-production issues; a major overhaul of Terrance H. Winkless’ script by an up and coming John Sayles (adding a comedic, fanboy homage filled tone). Then Joe Piranha Dante took over the director’s reigns due to “creative differences” in pre-production. This proved to be a ridiculously happy accident, as Dante’s background in animation and previous working connection with Sayles on Piranha resulted in a highly stylized, easy to accept mixture of horror and fan boy comedy. The Howling has a gritty, down and dirty feel with plenty of gore courtesy of a very young Rob Bottin, who took over FX after Maestro Rick Baker was lured away by big money from the studio producing (ironically) An American Werewolf ln London. Once again a happy accident, as Bottin’s spectacular Practical make-up FX astounded critics and audiences alike. He went on to become the phenom who created the state-of-the-art brilliance that were the high point of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Creating a mini masterpiece that grossed $20 million on a budget of $1.5 million, using puppetry, stop motion FX and even animation. Dante’s expertise with color, lighting (cinematographer John Hora and editor Mark Goldblatt /Joe Dante use unique eye catching camera movements) and angles to keep the audience on edge while making an extremely low budget film look like it cost 10 times its budget. A glorious score from DePalma’s go to maestro, Piino Donnagio (the gentleman has provided some of the greatest film scores, such as 1976’s Carrie) added Bernard Herrmann like atmosphere. Solid performances by old time horror stalwarts and excellent leading players guided by Dante to a “just this side of over the top” perfection are the cherry on top of this cinematic sundae.
Later that year a very well promoted, slick, $10 million, seemingly terrifying major studio production with the odd title An American Werewolf in London opened to a $25 million box office surprise and very positive reviews. Major press junkets regarding the fact that Dr. Pepper spokesman (I’m a Pepper wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?) David Naughton was the monster and the fact that he appeared fully nude were used to promote the film.
Landis created a hip comedic tone with an Old World 1940s horror film feel, and of course those amazing Rick and Elaine Baker Oscar winning Make-up FX garnered more press coverage. The combination of truly horrific sequences (the first act attack on Dunne is quite savage) and laugh out loud clever dialogue worked as well (If not better) as it had for The Howling.
Dante’s hyper stylization was wonderful “eye candy“ and his everything but the kitchen sink methods to tell the visual story the way that he wants to tell it makes me very fond of The Howling. One caveat: by allowing the fantastic transformation sequence so early in the piece, Dante and Sayles give the rest of the film an anti-climactic feel.
Landis as writer/director of An American Werewolf in London, gives himself some wonderfully ambitious set pieces, capitalizing on his penchant for car crash sequences. While the combination of Baker’s make-up genius, Naughtons terrific performance, Robert Paynter’s clean, crisp cinematography and especially Malcom Campbell’s razor sharp editing helped Baker to win yet another Oscar. I prefer Baker’s prodigy, Rob Bottin’s transformation of the two.
One final bit of irony, the multi-storied, big budget The Twilight Zone was filmed in 1983. Both Landis and Dante had a segment to direct. Upon completion, Dante’s segment (once again drawing on his love of animation…yeah, pun intended) received far and away the best reviews of all of the segments (including Spielberg and George Miller). Landis on the other hand had a disastrous accident on the set. Three actors (including two children) were killed when an ill-timed FX explosion caused a helicopter accident, beheading all three actors. Landis spent months in court, and his career (it could be said) never completely recovered.
One final and interesting observation: both Dante and Bottin have not been involved in any major projects that I’m aware of since… if anyone knows different, please fill me in… (editor’s note: Dante would go on to helm fan favorites Gremlins, The ‘Burbs, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, two successful installments in the Masters of Horror series, and the spirited Burying the Ex, which featured the late but great Anton Yelchin; meanwhile Bottin would go on to craft effects for successful works The Witches of Eastwick, Legend, Robocop, The Great Outdoors, Total Recall, Se7en, Mission Impossible, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club and the wildly successful Game of Thrones) I’m just saying….
Just for fun, here’s the trailer for Wolfen, as well!