It’s been said that Hollywood and the entertainment industry is an incestuous environment and by that I mean that people work together so much that there’s degrees of separation. Sometimes, producers, writers, actors and directors hear things on one set or at one party and pass it along to others.
It’s not uncommon for two movies to come out with similar plotlines so close together. The Missing in Action movies were like the first two Rambo movies. We had two volcano movies (Dante’s Peak and Volcano) in 1997. In 1998, Deep Impact was about a comet on course to hit Earth. Armageddon was about an asteroid heading to doom Earth. We even had two very awful Christopher Columbus movies in 1992.
But what are the odds there would be three movies released focusing on werewolves. That was the case in 1981. Now, this was when slasher movies were in peak, so one could argue that every weekend or month, there was another movie about someone in a mask with a knife, axe or chainsaw killing young high school, college, conservatory and trade school students. But three movies about werewolves?
The first movie to be released was The Howling on March 13, 1981 directed by Joe Dante and written by John Sayles. It was loosely based on the novel of the same name written by Gary Brandner. The plot starts out with a Los Angeles TV reporter, Karen White (Dee Wallace) being stalked by a suspected serial killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) who asks her to come to a sleazy porno store where he confronts her in a small booth theater. The police who have been working with her arrive and shoot Eddie dead when they hear on the wire she’s in trouble.
Experiencing amnesia, Karen and her husband, Bill (Christopher Stone) are advised by her therapist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) at come spend some time at “The Colony” along the coast in the countryside in northern California. Initially welcomed with open arms by the others at the place, Bill is attacked by a werewolf late one evening. Karen’s friend and colleague, Terri Fisher (Belinda Balaski) comes to visit but notices strange things such as the sounds of wolves howling in the distance, but they’re actually Bill now in werewolf form having sex with Marsha Quist (Elisabeth Brooks), who is Eddie’s sister, as she is transforming herself.
Terri also notices something familiar about a hilltop view of the coast and realizes it’s a drawing she found in Eddie’s apartment. The body is also missing from the morgue with violent scratch marks on the inside of the door. It’s later revealed the Colony is a commune for werewolves to live in more modern sophisticated ways. They feed on livestock belonging to a local wealthy rancher, Charles Barton (Noble Willingham). Even the local sheriff, Sam Newfield (Slim Pickens) is a werewolf himself.
Fearing they might all be in danger, Terri’s boyfriend, Chris Halloran (Dennis Dugan) is able to acquire silver bullets for his rifle quickly to head to the Colony.
The movie is mostly straight horror with a few comedic elements, but both Dante and Sayle give it a more satirical look. Coming out in 1981 after a decade where the 1970s were mostly about people leaving metropolitan areas to “become one with nature” or study Far Eastern spirituality or live off the grid, it pokes fun that a supernatural creature of folklore would do the same. However, Brandner has publicly denounced how the movie strayed from his tone, but I feel it works.
Made on only $1.5 million, which is impressive considering the great special effects by Rob Bottin, The Howling made almost $18 million at the box office and garnered some good reviews. Unfortunately, it led to a string of sequels that weren’t nearly as good. Howling: New Moon Rising would make Edward Wood Jr. lower his head in shame at the awfulness of it all.
Then, during the summer, Wolfen was released on July 24 switching events across the country to New York City as two NYPD detectives, retired Capt. Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) and Det. Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) are investigating two violent killings in the Battery Park in which a high-profile businessman and his bodyguard are killed.
Later in the South Bronx, a homeless man is killed in similar fashion in an abandoned building that was soon set to be demolished by the same company the businessman owned. Eventually, they discover that wolf hairs have been discovered and believe that it might be connected to Native American folklore.
Dewey is aware of a Native American militant activist, Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos) who works in construction. Eddie claims to be a shapeshifter. It’s revealed that Eddie and others are changing into wild wolves. The focus on Indigenous Native American folklore is a nice change. Is it a werewolf movie? Yes and no. Skinwalkers and shapeshifters are similar to other folklore of other regions. I guess folklore is incestuous too.
While I don’t like Wolfen as much, I appreciate what it tries to do. Set in NYC, the area was once home to many indigenous people before they sold the island of Manhattan to the Dutch settlers for what would be $24. Battery Park is on the southern tip of Manhattan. The Bronx is north of Manhattan and Eddie and Dewey meet up and talk on the Manhattan Bridge.
The pack of wolves seem to be targeting real estate developers and high-profile politicians quick to destroy NYC natural land for buildings and exploitation. Unfortunately, this political overtones didn’t help the movie at the box office as it only grossed about $10 million against a $17 million budget. In the Reaganeighties, speaking out against business and progress was considered a big no-no. And I guess audiences didn’t want to see a movie about Native American shapeshifters targeting crooked businessman. Even though now you realize that they were doing a good scene considering how bad things happened toward the latter part of that decade.
The movie doesn’t really have a big resolution, which is why I think it also didn’t do well. It builds up a lot of suspense and then has a very meek climax even though it’s more subtle. In many ways, the plot is a little too long at times. This is the last movie made by Michael Wadsleigh, who had made the Woodstock documentary. I think if he continued on making movies, he would’ve found his niche more. I haven’t even yet mentioned Gregory Hines, who appears as a coroner in such a basic role, you could cast anyone in it and have the same effect.
The last movie is probably my favorite of the three and probably the favorite of yours. An American Werewolf in London hit theaters on Aug. 21, 1981 and was able to make $62 million at the box office. It became so popular that its director John Landis was approached by Michael Jackson to do the music video for “Thriller.” Jackson said he had not seen Landis’ previous movies The Blue Brothers or National Lampoon’s Animal House, but knew he wanted Landis based solely on this movie.
The plot involves two American college-age young men, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) who are backpacking through Europe. At the start of the movie, they are going through the England countryside when they arrive in the small village of East Proctor located in the moors of Yorkshire. They step into the pub The Slaughtered Lamb to get in from the cold and get some food or drink, but immediately find all patrons are standoffish to their presence.
After some uneasy silence, an older man playing chess tells a joke to lighten the mood but when Jack asks about the five-pointed star on the wall, the laughter and good cheer ends abruptly and they are told to leave despite the bar maids insistence they stay. Feeling the tension, David and Jack leave quickly and walk down the road but don’t heed their words to “stick to the roads, keep off the moors.”
Back at the Slaughtered Lamb, the patrons still a little upset hear a loud howling in the distance as do David and Jack who realize that there’s a full moon and they’ve wandered off the road on to the moors. As they try to go back to East Proctor, they are attacked by a werewolf that kills Jack but wounds Dave. The patrons arrive in time to shoot it saving David who passes out after he sees a naked man lying next to him bleeding.
David wakes up a couple of weeks later in a London hospital where Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) tells him that his wounds were cleaned and dressed before he was brought to the hospital after reports David had been attacked by an escaped madman. However, David says that he wasn’t attacked by a human being and becomes confrontational at first when he learns that Jack died and his body was taken back to America for burial.
David begins to have nightmares. In one, he is running naked through the countryside and attacks a deer, ripping its head off and eating it. In another nightmare, he is back home when a group of monsters and demons wearing military fatigues and brandishing firearms kill his mother, daughter and younger brother and sister before killing him.
He becomes attracted to one of his nurses, Alice Price (Jenny Agutter) who takes pity on him especially after Jack appears in his room with his wounds fresh and showing. Jack tells David that they were attacked by a werewolf and he had been infected and will transform at the next full moon and kill people, unless he chooses to take his own life. Alex invites David to stay with him at her apartment where they have sex and become more intimate. Jack is still showing up, his body now starting to decompose to tell him to avoid his upcoming transformation. But David dismisses him again.
However, the next night, he does change and after a very long and painful sequences, he leaves the house and goes on a bloody rampage around London. The effects were supervised by Rick Baker, who won the first ever Oscar for Best Make-Up for his work. The transformation is very impressive, a lot more than the ones in The Howling. Incidentally, Bottin had worked for Baker in his teens.
What I like about this werewolf movie is that Landis knows how to tell the story. He may have a lot of problems on the set and with actors and crew, but there’s a good story here. The humor mixed in with the gruesome violence and gore is an odd combination that others would’ve ruined. The Howling was like an ensemble that after a while the focus shifts from Karen to Terri for a while, even though it does gives up one great scare.
American Werewolf, instead, gave us a sympathetic character through David, as a young man in a different country having to deal with something he can’t control. Naughton does some good work here and Agutter is great in a role where she is more than just his love interest. Part of the criticism of the movie is that it ends too soo”Blue Moon” in three different versions plays on the soundtrack. The first is by Bobby Vinton over the opening credits. Another version sun by Sam Cooke plays right before David has his transformation and the version by The Marcels plays over the end credits in an odd contrast to the tone of the movie’s ending. Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” also are on the soundtrack. I think for all the good emotions the actors give and the plot, Landis is reminding us this is a movie and don’t take it as serious. Naughton was already well known as the spokesperson for Dr. Pepper as well as having a hit song, “Makin’ It.” Unfortunately, because of the profanity, graphic violence/gore, nudity and sexual content in this movie, Dr. Pepper dropped him as a spokesperson.
Which is your favorite of all these or do you have another favorite? Please comment.