director Joe Dante
Back in 1981, the werewolf movie underwent radical transformation. Transformation being one of the key qualities of a werewolf movie, dating back no doubt to Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941), perhaps arguably back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (not a werewolf movie but it does feature an excellent transformation). Back in those days and for many years onward, transformation effects were generally created via a series of fade-in shots, blurring the images together to show growth of hair, fangs, and claws.
But by 1981 (and perhaps earlier — please let me know), a breaking point was achieved in werewolf movies that transformed the genre. It was the special effects, make-up and prosthetics, analog constructions that evolved right in front of the camera. The series of these latex and what-have-you enhanced sequences tapped into new levels of gross-out cinema that would come to be the standard borne by horror films throughout the 1980’s all up until the digital age.
Nowhere were these effects more prominent than in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981). Rick Baker worked on both films, though he left The Howling to Rob Bottin and moved over to the Landis’s production. The Howling came out a few months prior, and while fans and aesthetes can argue which is better, they both individually and together utterly redefined and re-enlivened the werewolf film. Bottin would go on to do the effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a much more free-form gross-out transformation design.
The rest of The Howling is a reasonably entertaining werewolf movie, peppered with Dante’s Hollywood references and loony humor, especially with the aid of the script by John Sayles, who had worked with him on Piranha (1978). It features Dee Wallace as a news anchor trailing a serial killer to a porn shop in LA. After a freaky meeting, in which the killer is killed, she suffers psychological trauma and is sent to “The Colony”, a retreat on the California coast that turns out to be inhabited by a coven of werewolves.
It’s all pretty weird, really.
The star of the film is the effects largely, but it’s an entertaining, oddball, goof-fest featuring cameos from the likes of Roger Corman, Forrest Ackerman, John Sayles, and Dick Miller. It even features a meatier cameo by John Carradine. It’s all part of Dante’s collective homage to the genre plus as many silly gags as he can pack in.
It’s been eons since I’ve seen An American Werewolf in London, but I’m guessing that I ought to queue that up right soon for sharper contrast. 1981 also featured another notable killer wolf film, Wolfen, which isn’t actually a werewolf movie, though you kind of have to work your way through it to find that out. I always actually considered it the best of the three. Though oddly enough, no werewolves mean no transformation scenes.
Today, digital effects make the “anything” possible. I think that werewolves, in movies in which the transformation is still the key element of the narrative, still take their direction from these 1981 films. Though more and more digitized werewolves seem to forgo the gory detail of transformation, instead morphing in split seconds in the no-nonsense immediacy of “Zap! Now I’m a werewolf!” Where’s the fun in that?