Year of the Wolf: A Triptych Of Lycanthropy From 1981

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · September 1, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT
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Artwork by Jason Kauzlarich

There are not enough werewolf movies. Thanks to a rich mythos, the subgenre's history is broad, yet the limited output over the past century, especially compared to other classic monsters, has always made those who love a hairy beast salivate for more. Ever since the first example — Henry MacRae's lost silent film, The Werewolf (1913) — audiences have witnessed the "trick" and sort to explore, define and redefine a lore inherent in the most ancient of stories. By the time Universal horror established the rules — courtesy of novelist and The Wolf Man screenwriter, Curt Siodmak (more on him later) in 1941 — werewolves had been "shaped" into a more tragic and vulnerable monster; men who would resist the urge to change rather than welcome it. Often, the protagonist would be cursed, bitten or born from rape; demonized afflictions that lead to tragic outcomes.

Three "wolf movies" were released in 1981 — forty years after Lon Chaney Jr.'s curse. Although it is debatable that one of the films presented is considered a werewolf movie per se, there is no question that it remains an important entry into the canon, providing a critical social commentary of the time period and still carries a potent message today. Produced during the dawn of a new decade, none of the examples feel "of their time"; they are, at best, horror that explored different approaches to the craft to develop something groundbreaking that remains influential today.

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Mass Media and The Howling (March 13th, 1981)

"We get 'em all: sun-worshippers, moon-worshippers, Satanists. The Manson family used to hang around and shoplift. Bunch of deadbeats!" — Walter Paisley[1]

No stranger to exploitation with his Jaws knock-off, Piranha (1978)[2], it is this approach to The Howling that Joe Dante took advantage of to separate it from its ferocious contenders. During the first act, the uncomfortable atmosphere on display is closer to Abel Ferrara's '70s output than the Spielberg-infused tones we see later on in his work. Originally working under Roger Corman, Dante's encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and confidence in filmmaking not only came from a genuine love but, in editing trailers for Corman, it only reinforced his appreciation of the B movies.

After the title scratches the screen, the television smashes and the credits roll to the sound of media; adverts, and television shows, news punctuated by analog warps and TV static. Filmed in a TV studio, psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee in a nod to The Wolf Man director) hits us over the head with, "We should never try and deny the beast. The animal within us." Meanwhile, our lead protagonist, news anchor, Karen White (Dee Wallace), is being used as bait to help catch serial killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). She is invited to a backroom porno booth by her stalker, and she is forced to watch a woman being raped as he stands behind in the dark. There is something more disturbing happening as we hear his breathing change and Karen sees something monstrous in the dark, unable to gasp. He is presumably shot dead by the police, and Karen, suffering from shock, is sent to a retreat to recuperate.

Inspired by the novel by Gary Brandner, The Howling has a genuine mean streak, a vibe especially present through the eyes of the vicious Eddie. Things become more sinister once she finds herself at the 'Colony'; this isn't the seedy backstreets and underbelly of the city but something that creeps from the forest that begins to reveal a cult with disturbing parallels to Charles Manson and his followers. However, the more obvious cold-blooded killers are merely a distraction. Through his representation of the media, Dante shows that they are part of the problem, that the mainstream is really no different from the underground; where are those who express those more primitive desires. As a media "hound," Karen has now left that thirst behind and now attempts to embrace "normality." But where she finds herself is far from normal.

Once Eddie is revealed to have survived his shooting, we return to his transformation hinted at during the opening. Rob Bottin's [3] phenomenal sequence remains one of the best examples of special makeup effects in the history of horror. In contrast to John Landis and Rick Baker's pivotal daylight transformation sequence shot for An American Werewolf In London, Dante and Bottin retain the contrast of light and shadow, keeping the monster in the dark and opting for a more lupine bipedal design. Bottin's sequence is more brutal and atmospheric, while Baker's is the most plausible and realistic of the two.

Aside from the design and transformative effects, what really sets Dante's werewolves apart is that they embrace change rather than reject it. They embrace the past and reject the normality of civilized behavior. Stepping back into the forest, they become the monster, never losing sight of their desires and their appetite. But the radicalization is a ruse; their Eden may be tucked away from what they oppose but their predatory behavior reveals their true nature when their true leader of the pack, Dr. George Waggner reveals himself as part of the Colony.

The Howling forces us to question what we believe, and the idea of using the media to convey this seems an obvious angle. We question the media now more than ever, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas perfectly summarizing, "At stake are questions of faith: do we believe what we're told on TV or is it, to borrow a phrase, 'fake news'? At the heart of The Howling lies a brutal interrogation of just how heavily mediated our culture was then, and arguably this is even more poignant today than it was when the film was released in 1981.[4]" The end scene is more than reminiscent of the infamous incident surrounding news reporter, Christine Chubbuck[5] where even (albeit, hokey) Karen's final transformation and her own death is dismissed, ironically, as a "special effect."


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Manifest Destiny and Wolfen (July 24th, 1981)

"In arrogance man knows nothing of what exists. There exists on this earth such as we dare not imagine; life as certain as our death, life that will prey on us as surely as we prey on this earth." — Dewey Wilson

There is perhaps a reason why Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen tends not to be recognized primarily as a werewolf movie. But, we are led to believe it is. Whether it is what the title provokes or the red herrings littered throughout, the wolf through Native American myth and lore helps distinguish it. This contrast between ancient ancestry and the modern world builds a fierce and compelling plot that plays out as a police procedural. It is not a perfect film by any means — a disjointed affair with Albert Finney dangerously close to an Edward G. Robinson caricature — and is understandable why it is often lost amongst the rubble of early '80s horror.

Where The Howling and An American Werewolf In London presented body horror through pioneering practical makeup effects — setting the standard for the decade — Wolfen tends to succeed more on a political level. All three examples have valuable commentaries but the "Big Two" work better as entertainment first and foremost without feeling weighed down by pretense.

Director Michael Wadleigh's background in the counterculture is most notable with his documentary, Woodstock (1970), in which he shot 120 miles of footage. This experience as a documentarian is evident in Wolfen as we are witness to the urban decay and class divide. There is a deep sense of oppression and, due to how pedestrian it feels, tends to linger and overstay its welcome; a film that explores rather than moves on. But, an element that stands out the most is the use of in-camera phantasmagoric effects couple with extended POV shots. Like thermography, the technique is immediately reminiscent of "Predator vision", with pulsating sound adding to the inspired effect.

Based on the novel by Whitley Strieber — who, in 1985 would claim to have been abducted by aliens; documented in his book, Communion (1987) — the story follows police detective, Dewey Wilson (Finney) as he investigates a series of grizzly murders that resemble animal attacks. The "Wolfen" are revealed to be god-like wolf spirits who, gradually over the centuries, have lost their land in much the same way as their human counterparts and now feast on the rich and the abandoned. The Native characters in the film, notably Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), believe they can shapeshift, and, although it becomes somewhat of a ruse, these characters and their belief system become integral to our understanding. The fact there is (spoiler alert) no transformation only reinforces the argument more; it isn't about werewolves but rather the relationship between man and wolf. If familiar, the concept is closer in tone to the overlooked anime series, Wolf's Rain that takes a similar shamanistic concept and projects it into a post-apocalyptic world.

We are used to the apocalypse. A global pandemic, wildfires, global warming, corrupt governments and leadership, and economic inequality destroy the planet and bring us ever closer to the end. Watched today, Wolfen feels more mystic than ever before, as though the wolf spirits had it right all along but have given up on their feeding. As Holt highlights, "For 20,000 years, Wilson — ten times your fucking Christian era — the skins and wolves, the great hunting nations, lived together, nature in balance. Then the slaughter came." Thematically, Manifest Destiny is transparent in the narrative — the genocide of indigenous tribes at the hands of the white man as they expanded west — as Wadleigh presents a bold piece of counterculture at the dawn of the Reagan era.

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Persecution and An American Werewolf in London (August 21st, 1981)

"It's a pentangle. A five pointed star. It's used in witchcraft. Lon Chaney Jr. and Universal Studios maintain that's the mark of The Wolf Man." — Jack Goodman

There is perhaps solid reason why there are not enough werewolf movies. The change from man to beast is a difficult one — as discussed here and in my previous piece dedicated to Landis' masterpiece[6] — the benchmark was set 40 years ago. Equaled, perhaps (to some) but never topped. We are talking practical effects and innovative use of makeup and not so much the influx of CGI that began to take over during the '90s. There is no denying that Rick Baker's work on An American Werewolf in London was integral to the film's success, but, as with any standout piece of cinema, it is one of many factors that came together. It ticks every emotional beat — relatable characters spouting countless quotable lines, great music, horror, and humor — one moment you're laughing, the next you're terrified. All proof that studios are often unable to see past their desk, "I always got the same two comments," stated Landis on Paul Davis' documentary, Beware the Moon (2009), "'This is much too scary to be funny, and this is much too funny to be scary.'"

Landis' simple premise of the stranger in a strange land was the perfect plot device to not only explore the subgenre but, in turn, also use the werewolf to highlight concerns about national and religious identity. Cinema and Jewish culture are often intertwined with many immigrants, contributing to major movements, the building of studios and at the forefront of film production. Yet, there have still been many stereotypes over the years.

To lend further context to stereotypes and the persecution of the Jews, it is worth highlighting how much Adolf Hitler was inspired by "men as wolves". "Adolf" literally translates to "noble wolf" — he referred to himself as such in his speeches — his SS paramilitary death squad were known as wolf packs; his East Prussian base the Wolf's Lair, and Jospeh Goebbels' radio station was called "Radio Werwolf". We all know the story from there; lambs to the slaughter.

At the time of the Nazi's rise to power, Curt Siodmak was a novelist and on hearing anti-Semitic[7] tirades via the propaganda machine, he departed for England to work as a screenwriter before moving onto America in 1937. Now, instead of the wolf as an ordered pack hound — who drove the Jews away from Europe — Siodmak used the monster to depict the struggles of the innocent. This concept of the werewolf as allegory for the modern Jewish experience became The Wolf Man (1941), directed by George Waggner and starring Lon Chaney, Jr. in the lead role. Siodmak was instrumental in defining what is seen as common werewolf lore, such as the pentagram and silver bullets.

The pentangle on the wall of The Slaughtered Lamb works as a supernatural and occult symbol but becomes something far more insidious when seen as anti-Semitic, a slur on the Star of David[8]. It feels not too dissimilar to the inversion of the Catholic cross, once again the notion of demonizing a particular religion and/or group of people. Take it or leave it, these points of discussion carry a great deal of weight and only reinforce An American Werewolf In London further; it not only acknowledges the past in terms of cinematic history and understanding of werewolf movies but makes the characters aware, too. The fourth wall more explicitly broken when David briefly reaches out and looks directly at us during his (classic) transformation.

An American Werewolf in London is not a film stuck in the '80s but, as with The Howling and Wolfen, have something important to say about the end of an era and the start of a new one.

1 You’ve got to love Walter Paisley; Dick Miller’s recurring character who first appeared in Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959). Miller was Dante’s equivalent of the Stan Lee cameos and, much like Landis’s own in-jokes, loved a good cameo and recurring gag.

2 Guilty of a lazy reference; truth be told, Piranha more than stands up on its own.

3 This is a year before his benchmark work on John Carpenter’s The Thing and incredible to think Bottin was only 21 at the time of working on The Howling.

4 Read her 2018 article, ‘News Hounds: Media, Myth and The Howling over at www.diaboliquemagazine.com.

5 The first person to die by suicide on live television, once again, eloquently written about in Alex’s Diabolique article.

6 ‘Beautiful Beast: An American Werewolf in London at 40’.

7 Persecution of the Jews and anti-Semitism isn’t a new story, even when it comes to the demonization of their culture. Similarly, what is seen as the classic image of the witch is often illustrated with large chins, hooked noses, dark eyes, and black hair. Even the witch’s hat resembled the judenhut (Jew-hat) that Jewish people wore and forced to wear during the 16th century in Europe; not only to show their ethnicity but also, prior to this in 1349 when the plague broke out, the hats were used to show them as outcasts. Hence, during the Middle Ages, the pointed hat becoming iconic of non-Christian outsiders, such as witches, sorcerers, and dwarves.

8 Many keen observations are made in Jon Spira’s video essay for Arrow Video’s release, ‘I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf's Secret’ (2019) along with his BFI essay, ‘Why I love... An American Werewolf in London’.