Monday, October 10, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: 80's Werewolf Movies Double Feature

80's Werewolf Movies: The Howling and An American Werewolf in London

When I think '80's werewolf movies' these are really the only two that come to mind. I mean, I know there's The Wolfen (also released in 1981), but I actually don't think of it as a werewolf movie. There are also more Howling movies after the first one. I've watched... five of them, I think? I don't really remember much about them other than Christopher Lee and Sybil Danning in the second,and that I didn't hate the fourth one. There was also a sequel' to Landis film called American Werewolf in Paris, which was... not very good.

The 80's even got to Sir Christopher Lee.

 American Werewolf in London was the first R rated movie my wife ever saw. She'd never seen The Howling before, so I fired that up first. Unfortunately, she really hated the first 10 minutes - which do play out like a skeezy 70's crime/slasher flick. She ended up opting out of the rest of the movie. I got a migraine during American Werewolf, so everything after the attack on the moors was viewed through a drug/pain haze.

The Medium
I've got the 'special edition' DVD of The Howling with a lenticular slipcase cover. I've never actually watched any of the extras, nor listened to the commentary, which is pretty rare for me. Picture quality was fairly decent. I expect the Fright Factory Blu-ray release is even better.

For American Werewolf in London I've got the Full Moon release from 2009. I've heard the recent re-release is a better transfer, but for my money and on my screen this looked pretty damn good.

The Movies

The Howling
Released in 1981, Joe Dante's second feature (after Piranha) feels like a 70's movie for the first 10 minutes or so. Part of that is the grimy, rundown look of the streets of LA - including a sleazy porno shop. It's also partly the subject matter - attractive reporter meeting with her serial killer stalker as part of a police sting, which of course goes horribly wrong. This could be the final scene of a Dirty Harry movie.

Dee Wallace, who plays the reporter, Karen White, would grace screens as the mom in E.T. a year later. I'm fairly sure I saw that movie first, so it would have been a bit weird seeing her in this role a couple of years later when The Howling was out for rent. (And I was finally old enough to rent it.)

Karen survives her meeting with Eddie Quist - a barely recognizable Robert Picardo - but the trauma of it leaves her with amnesia. Her therapist, Dr. Waggner  (the always awesome Patrick Macnee) sends her and her husband to 'The Colonly' - his retreat in the country.

Man, I HOPE this screencap isn't from ET.

Now it feels like we're squarely in 80's country. The whole self-help aspect is a genius take on the need for werewolves to fit into modern society. And yeah, it's werewolves - the whole damn place is full of 'em. It seems dumb of Waggner to send her there. I know he's trying to discover if she remembers Eddie started transforming in that porno booth, but it seems like something he could easily do in therapy sessions. Sending a reporter to a place where werewolves can 'be themselves' just makes it seem like he's hoping to be discovered.

It's not like having John Carradine doesn't give the whole "I'm in a horror movie" thing away.

And of course that's exactly what happens. Karen's husband is seduced by the less-than-subtle wiles of Marsha (a Quist as well, it turns out), and is turned into a werewolf. Her friend Terry arrives and promptly runs afoul of the Quists - including Eddie. Yeah, .38 Special slugs don't work too well on werewolves. The scene in which Terry is going through the files only to have a claw reach into the shot and take the file form her is one of the all-time great jumps.

Terry's husband Chris rushes to The Colony, armed with silver bullets and there's the requisite fight/chase sequence before a public transformation - on national television. Of course it's the 80's - we're all too savvy to believe everything we see on TV, right?

John Sayles provided the screenplay, which is  the usual dark delight from him (he'd previously worked on Piranha with Dante and also penned my favorite killer alligator movie, Alligator). Much of the fun of the movie for long-time horror fans is picking out all the Easter eggs and cameos - including Roger Corman, Forrest J. Ackerman and John Sayles himself as a morgue attendant. In-jokes include stuff like The Wolfman playing on TV, Allen Ginsburg's Howl on a table, and cans of Wolf Brand chili. Even the names of the characters are references to old monster movies.

Why does she look so calm? Like, "if I play my cards right, I could get out of this."
Spoiler alert - you don't get out of this.

Lots of fun to be had and the effects are pretty great (by Rob Bottin, who would outdo himself on The Thing in 1982). I really love the werewolf design in The Howling, long snouts, big ears, and standing on two legs. They're tall and lanky looking and I just prefer them to the stumpier wolf in Landis' film. The big transformation sequence is excellent (if including a little too much bladder work), but it goes on a bit too long and some of it is re-used in a later scene that ends up feeling repetitive. The fireplace/werewolf sex transformation is - as budget required - a letdown of simplistic animation.

The Bottom Line
The Howling was my favorite werewolf film for a long time and I still like it a lot. The creature designs are still my preferred 'wolfman,' though the transformation is a little 'bubbly' for me now. It's a b-movie, but it handles the limitations of its budget well and is generally a fun ride.

An American Werewolf in London
 Watching this so soon after The Howling I was immediately struck by just how much higher a level of quality this film has. Part of that is the setting of course - the moors and London provide a larger scope - but it had a budget of 10 million dollars (compared to The Howling's 1.5 million), and it shows. Part of that budget went to music rights, and the soundtrack is a delight - full of moon themed songs like Bobby Vinton's "Blue Moon" (and The Marcel's doo-wop version of the same), "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedance and Van Morrison's "Moondance." It's too bad Landis was unable to secure the rights to Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London," as that would have been perfect.

The soundtrack is upbeat and there's a lot of humor in the movie - a more obvious type of humor than in the Howling - but it's really a tragic tale. David Kessler and his buddy Jack Goodman (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are hitchiking across northern England. Unfortunately, they stumble across the town of East Proctor, which is under a kind of curse. Forced to leave the local tavern, the boys are attacked by a large wolf. Jack is killed and David is wounded before the repentant townsfolk arrive and kill the beast - which David sees as a man before he passes out.

"I think I pooped my pants."

Weeks later David returns to consciousness in a London hospital. Jack is dead, David's story about being attacked by a wolf is dismissed (in the face of 'eyewitness accounts' of the villagers) as trauma. He's cared for in his recuperation by a nurse named Ales (the always lovely Jenny Agutter), but she doesn't believe him either. Especially when he tells her that his dead friend Jack is visiting him, warning him that he (David) will become a werewolf at the next full moon.

Naughton is not the most polished actor, but he has a certain wholesome charm that makes him extremely likeable. His chemistry with Agutter and Dunne is part of why the movie works so well - you actually care for him and his relationships. Even if one of them is with a slowly rotting corpse. Dunne in particular is great fun to watch and his humorous acceptance of his condition - slowly skeletonizing over the course of the film - is chuckle and wince inducing.

"I'm afraid I may have left a stain on the chair."

I've always found the dreams that David has while in the hospital to be the most effective and frightening parts of the film - particularly the assault on his home by the Nazi creatures. I saw a still from that scene in an issue of Fangoria when I was a kid and I actually had a nightmare that was pretty similar to the one David has. This was before I saw the movie!

Aaaand... there goes another good nights sleep.

Alex ends up taking David home to her flat when he's released, and they start a relationship. Unfortunately for them both, the full moon occurs the next night and while Alex is on the late shift, David begins to change...

Still, for my money, the best werewolf transformation sequence in film. It looks horrifically painful and realistic. It looks like bones break as they rearrange, hair grows as we watch, the face pops and cracks as it elongates. All under the bright lights of the apartment, so we can see every little detail. As much as I like the first big transformation in The Howling Rick Baker's work in American Werewolf is just soooo damn good. And if it stopped about halfway through it might have been my favorite werewolf design.

I don't think Advil is going to touch this.

But it doesn't - the transformation is complete, meaning David turns into an actual wolf - albeit a large and extremely scary looking one. The head is fantastic - all teeth and eyes, snarling and snapping and drooling - but the body is... well, it's stumpy. I think it's supposed to look powerful, but unfortunately to me it looks like a werewolf by way of a Corgi. Luckily Landis doesn't show us the creature in full very often, preferring to prowl along with it through the neon London night, as it growls and howls.

When David wakes up in the zoo (in the wolf enclosure, natch) he knows there's definitely something wrong with him. (And I always feel a little bad for Naughton, in that sequence - the whole balloon/coat thing is funny, but damn does it look cold!) But it's when he sees a newspaper detailing several brutal killings (all effectively done, but in particular a stalking through the London tube network) he realizes that his friend Jack has been right this entire time. He's become a werewolf. He's killed people. And the killing won't stop until he kills himself.

And this is why I ran or walked everywhere in London.

There are not many movies I can think of where an emotional (and blackly funny) discussion of life and death occurs in a porno movie theater. It's one of my favorite scenes in the film, however, and the discussion of HOW he should kill himself is hilariously mean spirited. David can't quite commit, however, and so a lot more people have to die before a final confrontation between the wolf, the police and his lover in an alley in Piccadilly Circus. All under a Blue Moon.

The Bottom Line
I think I've always placed An American Werewolf in London on a rung below The Howling in my mental rankings of werewolf movies and I'm no longer sure why. It's hilarious and gory and sexy and moving. It's awesome, and now rises to the top of that particular list.

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