The Werewolves of ’81

1981 saw the release of two werewolf movies by upcoming directors: “The Howling” by Joe Dante and “An American Werewolf in London” by John Landis. These two films must be considered together, as befitting their conjoined history.

“The Howling” tells the story of a TV news reporter (Dee Wallace) who discovers a colony of werewolves living in the woods outside Los Angeles. As to be expected from a Joe Dante picture, it blends humor and horror, appropriately adopting a tone that acknowledges the silliness of the subject matter while still delivering the necessary thrills. It must also be said that “The Howling” is a competently made motion picture with a solid script that tells a complete, if forgettable, story.

The same could not be said about “An American Werewolf in London,” which is often so baffling it gives you the distinct feeling that director John Landis was covertly making an experimental film disguised as a werewolf thriller. The story sounds straightforward enough. A pair of American tourists are attacked by a werewolf. One dies and the other becomes the titular lycanthrope. He meets a girl, transforms, and kills a bunch of people. Simple, yes, but maybe too simple for a feature film. With a lot of screen time to kill, Landis introduces a subplot that goes nowhere involving the werewolf’s dead friend (more on that later), a dream sequence featuring machine gun wielding Nazi orcs, and an extended sex scene that seems plucked from “The Red Shoe Diaries.” It whips from comedy to horror to romance and back again with such velocity that your brain gets confused. What exactly are we supposed to feel during the interminable scene where the main character kills time in his girlfriend’s apartment? Is it supposed to be funny? Tense?

Now, if you’re the type of person who likes bad movies, the foregoing might make “American Werewolf” sound like the perfect film for a drunken Saturday night with your buddies. It probably is perfect for that purpose, and I probably would enjoy it in that context. However, when I saw this movie, I was expecting a bloody great werewolf movie. In that respect, it’s a disappointment, and therefore a deplorable waste of the phenomenal makeup effects by Rick Baker. Because while “The Howling” is a better werewolf movie, “An American Werewolf in London” has the superior werewolf transformation effects.

That transformation scene has a place in the pantheon of the greatest effects sequences in film history. It conveys the true horror of the experience; the character looks and sounds like he’s in anguish as his skeleton cracks and reconfigures itself, and his mind slowly dims as it’s replaced by a carnivorous animal instinct. If you watch that scene in isolation, it’s so good that you’d expect the movie to be a masterpiece – maybe the best werewolf movie ever made? Not so.

The film avoids greatness by straying too far from its simple premise. That subplot I mentioned about the dead friend, for example. After surviving the werewolf attack, the main character, David, wakes up in a hospital bed and is confronted by his friend, Jack, who died in the attack. Jack is trapped in some sort of limbo and can’t rest in peace until the last werewolf dies. David is now the last werewolf, so Jack returns throughout the film to humorously invite David to kill himself. Jack is a totally original movie monster, to be sure. He has some properties of a ghost (he’s invisible to everyone but David), a zombie (he has a seemingly corporeal body that continues to decay as the film progresses), and a vampire (he’s undead but retains his full mental faculties, including speech and wry humor). Jack apparently lacks any ability to harm David himself. Is Jack just a figment of David’s imagination? Hard to say. When David is finally killed by his girlfriend in the end, the film just comes to a full stop. What happened to Jack is left to our imagination.

Speaking of the ending, David, in werewolf form, is cornered in an alley by the police. His girlfriend tearfully begs them not to kill him. She approaches, carefully. David’s snarl relaxes, and for an instant, we think she can break through to him. But he lunges at her and she is forced to shoot him. A perfectly good ending to an actual werewolf movie, but the drama is undercut by the soundtrack; David has barely hit the ground before the credits start to roll over an upbeat doo-wop rendition of Blue Moon. It’s the kind of ending that leaves you stunned for a moment. “I guess it’s over,” you think. Also, “I want to slap this movie.” That music at the end is actually the biggest insult to the audience. It’s as if Landis were embarrassed about making a werewolf movie, and didn’t think the ending could actually be touching, so he added the discordant silly music as a way to say, “Nevermind, it was all a joke!” You pay your money to see a werewolf movie and in the end you finally realize you got punked.

Compare this ending to the ending of “The Howling.” I actually won’t. I’m inviting you to do it. I think it’s possible that there are some people in the world who haven’t seen this movie after 35 years, and it shouldn’t be spoiled. Like I said earlier, Joe Dante found the right tone for “The Howling.” It’s funny but it’s also dramatically and logically coherent. The earnest performance by Dee Wallace makes her the perfect focal point. She’s in a campy B-movie, surrounded by comic supporting characters, but she doesn’t act like it. She’s utterly sincere, right up to the last scene, in which she becomes the hero. It is hysterical, but also poignant in a way, and it provides a proper ending to the story.

Dante and company knew that viewers of “The Howling” would want to see a fun, thrilling movie about werewolves, so that’s what they dutifully provided. You will not find machine gun wielding Nazi orcs anywhere in it.

 

My Dad, the Muppets & Me

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My lifelong love of cinema began with my dad when he took me to see “The Great Muppet Caper” in 1981. I was two years old and already a devoted Muppet fan.

I have wondered whether my memory of this experience is wholly accurate. Can you be a devoted fan of something at two years of age? I recently asked my dad for confirmation. I called him up, catching him before he headed outside to do yard work, and our conversation spanned from comparative meteorology to veterans’ affairs to that time he accidentally swallowed gasoline as a kid. Somewhere along the way, we came to the Muppets.

I asked if it were possible that I could have been two years old when I made him take me to see that movie, wondering if maybe we’d seen a reissue at a later date.

“Oh, yeah. You loved the Muppets as a little guy. When I’d come home, the first thing you’d do is tell me the Muppets were on. You were so excited you’d run around and around in little circles. That’s why we had to go see that show.” (He said “show” but meant “movie.”) As to the details of our Muppet caper, he was quite confident.

He must have been excited to take his son to the movies for the first time. He too has been a lifelong movie buff. In the 60’s, he worked as a projectionist in one of the old-time movie palaces. His friends filled the auditorium but paid more attention to their girlfriends than the movies. To them, the theater was an air-conditioned oasis, away from obtrusive parents and the dry heat of California’s Central Valley. But to my dad, it was serious business, and as the hours spent in his projection booth multiplied, he began to develop a sophisticated appreciation of film.

So maybe his love of movies made him jump the gun. My dad seems like a sane person, but only a maniac takes a 2-year-old to a movie theater. Maybe I was very persuasive, or insistent. In any case, off we went to see the new Muppet movie. I imagine my dad buying me popcorn and candy, trying to provide a complete moviegoing experience. I imagine myself wide-eyed, absorbing all the details of the theater, marveling at number of seats and the enormity of the screen. The previews likely included Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound,” and I no doubt made clear my desire to see that movie next.

Finally, the film itself. “The Great Muppet Caper” opens with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo riding in a hot air balloon as they make knowing comments about the opening credits. (Fozzie: “Nobody reads those names anyway, do they?” Kermit: “Sure. They all have families.”) The magic of this scene is that these three characters are so fully realized in our minds that we don’t think of them as puppets, and therefore we don’t wonder how each of their performers fit into that little basket. Jim Henson and company always slip in these tricks to make you forget that any puppeteers were involved. You simply see the Muppets.

Such tricks work especially well on children. As my dad said, I loved the Muppets so much that I lost all bodily control when their show came on TV. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why they were so special to me, but it had something to do with that magic of their existence. It’s clear that the Muppets are real. They have physical forms of fur and felt and cloth and plastic, and yet, they are unreal and impossible. Children can’t reconcile that contradiction. Their existence is subconsciously attributed to some sort of magic.

But when you kinda believe that the Muppets are real, there is a down side: the scary ones are really scary. Like every once in a while I’d catch a glimpse of Uncle Deadly in the background on The Muppet Show, and a chill would shoot up my spine. Sweetums was my biggest fear though. You know him. He’s the shaggy, 9-foot-tall Muppet with the big nose, the mean-looking eyes, the huge mouth, and the sharp teeth.

This brings us back to the movie. After the credits roll, the hot air balloon lands on a busy street and a raucous musical number ensues, replete with car accidents, explosions, and a horrifying shot of Sweetums running toward the camera, growling and grumbling. Typical Muppet stuff, yes, but it was all too much for me to bear. I was overwhelmed. We had barely reached the five-minute mark and I was screaming and crying. My dad had to carry me out of the theater for the benefit of the other patrons.

I wouldn’t be consoled. Not only had I endured the trauma of a 40-foot-tall Sweetums, I’d also missed my chance to see the Muppet movie. My dad promptly figured out a remedy. He took me to Toys“R”Us and let me pick out anything in the store. I selected a puppet. A cuddly, furry creature of indeterminate species, whom we named Beaver-Bear. I felt better, and I had a new friend.

My dad has always been a tough guy, a muscular, ass-kicking, shit disturber. He was an ex-army paratrooper. And now he had a new son who was terrorized by a puppet musical. Some dads might have taken this as a cue to sign up their son for the first little league team that would take him. Instead, my dad wrote me a letter. He said he knew I wasn’t going to be a tough guy. He said he knew that I would grow up to be sensitive. He said that was okay. He tucked the letter away in the basement for delivery at a later date.

In the intervening years, the letter was lost. He delivered it verbally though, around the time of my 18th birthday, after I came out of the closet. He said he had always wanted me to be me. It was okay.

*  *  *  *  *

Last week, the Museum of the Moving Image screened “The Great Muppet Caper” for its 35th anniversary. The film has a special place in my heart, so I made the journey up to Long Island City to see it. When I arrived in the auditorium, I sent my dad a photo and a message.

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Thanks, dad, for taking me to the movies. Thanks for carrying me out. Thanks for letting me be me.


Here is the opening musical number from “The Great Muppet Caper.” Viewer discretion is advised.

Friday the 13th Part 2

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“Friday the 13th Part 2” (1981) has the distinction of being the first slasher sequel. (“Halloween II” would be released later the same year.) As such, you’d think it would be a pioneer of the Sequel Rules, as famously articulated in “Scream 2” (1998), i.e. a higher body count and more elaborate, gory kills. In this respect, “Part 2” is a disappointment. The body count is roughly the same, and it didn’t seem to occur to the filmmakers to get more creative with the ways the killer disposes of the horny teens. That said, “Friday the 13th Part 2” is an improvement on the original.

It should be said that this film is basically a remake of “Friday the 13th.” The setting and story are the same and the characters even look strangely similar to the original cast. But, like any smart sequel, it uses the events of the first film to fortify its own story. In the original, the backstory of Jason and his mother was spilled out suddenly at the end, but here, those details are used throughout the film to humanize the killer, if such a thing can be said about Jason Voorhees.

The major upgrade that was done for the sequel was ditching the mystery angle. The original film used a first-person camera to conceal the identity of the killer until the end, when the killer was revealed to be an elderly woman. The fun of a mystery plot can be totally undone by an unsatisfying conclusion, and while this was a funny twist, and Betsy Palmer’s performance as Mrs. Voorhees was appropriately creepy, she was not at all threatening. The reveal made you reconsider the story and wonder why any of the victims were not able to run away from her or overpower her, forcing you to conclude, “Oh well. It’s just a dumb slasher movie.”

In the sequel, there are a few first-person shots, maybe used as a callback to the original, but it’s made fairly clear that the killer is Jason, the son of Mrs. Voorhees. This allows us to explore the character a little, as when the sheriff discovers his crazy ramshackle shed in the middle of the woods. You can’t help but imagine Jason building it. One character mentions that he hunts woodland animals to survive. Another expresses sympathy for Jason and his mother, both trying in their own deranged ways to cope with the loss of the other.

So, little by little, a picture emerges of Jason as a human; a dangerous and demented one, to be sure, but one who needs food and shelter and the love of his mother nonetheless. It may also be significant that at this point in the franchise, Jason has still not donned his signature hockey mask. He’s not yet Jason the Horror Movie Monster. He’s a guy who lives in the woods. All of this gives the sequel a bit more depth – just enough to make this stupid slasher movie feel more substantive and satisfying than the original.

 

Scanners

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Is David Cronenberg’s “Scanners” (1981) an early attempt to make a darker, grittier superhero movie (i.e. a predecessor to Christopher Nolan) or is its more realistic tone a result of it being an original story, devoid of any comic book influence?

“Scanners” is set in a world where certain people have developed uncanny mental abilities. There are obvious parallels to the X-Men, which was by this time an almost twenty-year-old comic book franchise, but also around this time there was a bizarre pop culture fascination with “mentalists,” people who claimed to have actual telepathic and psychokinetic powers. They went on tour and appeared on talk shows, mesmerizing people with magic tricks touted as genuine superpowers. So was Cronenberg an X-Men fan or a mentalism enthusiast?

In 1981, the superhero genre was in its infancy. Early television adaptations of Batman and Superman were campy and cartoony, as was Richard Donner’s “Superman” (1978). Please don’t misinterpret this as criticism. “Superman” is a colorful adventure filled with humor and light-hearted fun. It leaves you with a good feeling. This was the leading and only comic book movie until “Superman II” in the summer of 1981. Hence, if Cronenberg had been trying to steer the superhero genre into darker, grittier territory, he would have been very much ahead of his time.

“Scanners” does have some surface similarities to the X-Men. The scanners are essentially mutants. Two rivals emerge, one a maniac bent on the subjugation of non-scanners and one a scientist intent on stopping him. Still, it seems unlikely that anyone could read those comics, filled with color, goofy costumes, and disco dancing, and be inspired to produce a film like “Scanners” with its shoot-outs and corporate intrigue.

The film’s realistic tone is more likely a result of the fact that it’s an extrapolation of the real life mentalism phenomenon. It accepts the mentalists’ claims and then tackles the questions that naturally arise: Where do their powers come from? How exactly do they work? And why are they just bending spoons on Donahue? Wouldn’t some of them eventually try to use their powers to control or dominate normal people?

All of the above I was pondering during the movie, which tells you something about how engaging it is. The most glaring problem with “Scanners” is its lead actor. I don’t remember his name and it’s not worth looking up. His character has an interesting backstory (revealed as a surprise near the end) but the actor has an inexplicably vacant affect and when his character takes over the story it becomes tedious to watch him in scene after scene.

It’s unfortunate because Michael Ironside is a treat as Revok, the villain of the picture. He delivers an intensity that recalls the best of Jack Nicholson. The scenes that focus on him are filled with tension (especially that one unforgettable scene…), and we’re left to imagine how neat it would have been if the film had focused on him and his relationship with Dr. Ruth, the unfortunately-named scientist determined to stop his plans, instead of the bland and forgettable Hero. But I guess that’s the problem with most superhero movies.

Oh, but this isn’t a superhero movie. Or is it? I’m still wondering.