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.