A Los Angeles television journalist sent to a back-to-nature community to recover from a traumatic experience learns it’s a secret haven for werewolves. A Polish count executed in the 16th century for being a werewolf is revived in the present day and seeks an end to his eternal torment. A New York homicide detective investigating a series of bizarre murders discovers they’re the work of Native American spirit wolves protecting their ancestral lands. An American backpacking through the north of England survives an animal attack that his best friend didn’t and is told he’ll turn into a monster at the next full moon. A New Jersey high school football star abruptly leaves town after being bitten by a Romanian werewolf and returns 20 years later posing as his own son.
What do these scenarios have in common? They’re the plots of five films released between March and October 1981, ranging in scale from the generously budgeted An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen to scrappy underdog Full Moon High. Even Spain got in on the act with El retorno del Hombre Lobo, the eighth in a series of films starring weightlifter-turned-horror star Paul Naschy as nobleman-turned-werewolf Waldemar Daninsky. At the head of the pack, however, was Joe Dante’s The Howling, which paid tribute to the classics of the genre while marking out its own territory.
Ever since Universal’s Wolf Man series set the standard, the methods used to turn men into beasts hadn’t evolved much beyond what makeup artist Jack Pierce engineered in the ‘40s. Following Lon Chaney Jr.’s final turn as Larry Talbot in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, werewolf pictures became few and far enough between that audiences didn’t seem to notice they all relied on the same tricks: cutaways, lap dissolves, and the gradual accumulation/removal of yak hair. From AIP’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf to Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf to Naschy’s “Hombre Lobo,” the emphasis (if there was one) was on making the monster’s final look distinctive, not the intermediate stages. That would change as the ’80s dawned, though, thanks to the efforts of two special-effects makeup innovators: Rick Baker and Rob Bottin.
Baker had been pondering how to effect a werewolf transformation without camera tricks ever since the days of Schlock, the directorial debut of John Landis, who hired the then-20-year-old to provide the costume for its “missing link” creature and told Baker all about the next film he wanted to make while being made up as the “Schlockthropus” every day. (With such a low budget — $61,000 in 1971 dollars — Landis had little choice but to play his own creation.) For Landis, every job after Schlock was a step toward getting An American Werewolf in London, a script he wrote in 1969, greenlit. For Baker, every subsequent show allowed him to hone his skills, a process fast-tracked nearly a decade later when one-time protégé Bottin brought him in as a consultant on The Howling, a “go” project seemingly destined to steal American Werewolf’s thunder. Then The Blues Brothers became Landis’s third hit in a row and his dream project was bankrolled to the tune of $10 million, $300,000 of which was earmarked for the transformation sequence he and Baker had been batting about for years.
This left Bottin to tackle The Howling’s big moment by himself and he turned it into a literal showstopper, taking three whole minutes to turn serial killer Eddie Quist into a hulking, two-legged wolf man. When the film had its New York premiere on March 13, 1981, audiences had literally never seen anything like it, and what had been tried-and-true for four decades was old hat overnight. The other thing Dante and screenwriter John Sayles (who previously teamed up for Piranha) gave viewers was the uncanny sensation they were watching a werewolf movie in which werewolf movies existed. There’s even a scene where two characters are watching The Wolf Man on TV and one is moved to say “It’s only a movie.” (This comes after they’ve paid a visit to Walter Paisley’s occult bookstore to bone up on werewolf lore.) This is echoed by the moment in American Werewolf where recently bitten backpacker David Kessler and British nurse Alex Price are in bed and he asks if she’s seen The Wolf Man. When Alex asks if it’s the one with Oliver Reed (i.e. The Curse of the Werewolf), David corrects her, then follows up with his belief that a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves him, a conceit Paul Naschy also picked up and ran with.
Released in Barcelona on April 10 (the same day The Howling went into general release in the States), El retorno del Hombre Lobo was just about the last hurrah for the Universal-inspired werewolfery that had been Naschy’s stock in trade for well over a decade. It’s even something of a remake of one of his earlier Waldemar Daninsky films, 1971’s La noche de Walpurgis, a.k.a. The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman. (For its part, El retorno del Hombre Lobo was initially screened in the U.S. as The Craving, a nonsensical title later supplanted by Night of the Werewolf.) Combining the legend of Elisabeth Bathory with elements of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Hammer’s vampire cycle, Naschy brings Waldemar into the 20th century, but keeps his transformations firmly rooted in the cutaway-and-lap-dissolve mode.
No such measures are necessary in Wolfen, the only fiction feature for Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh, since its supernatural wolf creatures are emphatically not shapeshifters. (Edward James Olmos’s character does unnerve Albert Finney’s detective by stripping down and pretending to wolf out, though.) Had it not come out between The Howling and American Werewolf, Wolfen likely wouldn’t be lumped in with them, but it’s still worth seeking out for its gritty sense of realism.
Bringing up the rear (in more ways than one) is Full Moon High, which idiosyncratic writer/director Larry Cohen fills with so many broad jokes, it plays like an overt parody of the films that came before it. (Instead of mauling his victims to death, perpetual teenage werewolf Tony Walker merely nips them in the butt.) It even includes a scene where Tony rents a camera to film himself turning into a werewolf so he can have irrefutable proof, much like Karen in The Howling transforms on live television to prove werewolves exist.
That’s not the only thing Full Moon High and The Howling have in common, as both films boast art direction by Robert A. Burns (most famous for his work on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). And Cohen’s punning newspaper headlines (from the London Express: “Jack the Nipper Still at Large”) are a natural extension of the cans of Wolf Chili, bottle of Wolfe’s Ulcer and Acidosis Treatment, and paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl seen in The Howling. Finally, Tony’s complaint while he’s transforming for the first time (“God, this is worse than a root canal”) comes from the same place as Eddie’s “I’m going to give you a piece of my mind” and David’s apology to his dead friend (“I didn’t mean to call you a meatloaf, Jack”) in American Werewolf. Since the films put so much of the focus on their bone-popping, hair-raising transformations, it’s only natural they would emphasize how painful the process is.
“An American Werewolf in London” is currently streaming on HBO. “Full Moon High” can be seen on Amazon Prime Video. “The Howling” and “Wolfen” are available to rent.