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02 May, 2009

Dueling Werewolves

Quick… without thinking, choose one of the following:

¨ Ginger or Mary-Ann?
¨ Coke or Pepsi?
¨ Rolling Stones or Beatles?

If you’re like most people, you didn’t spend much time thinking those choices over. These are some decisions that tend to be automatic, and divide us into one camp or another. Forget politics or religion… you want an argument, just try to hand a Coke-drinker a bottle of Pepsi, or vice-versa. Another of those decisions, and one that is of the most interest to horror fans, concerns two Werewolf films that were released less than six months apart, and have divided fans ever since: THE HOWLING, and AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

The late ‘70’s- early ‘80’s were pretty good years to be a Horror fan. We were riding the crest of the HALLOWEEN / FRIDAY THE 13TH wave; the best of the Eurohorror films were beginning to show up here, albeit in truncated form; and the Special Effects geniuses, people like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Stan Winston were beginning to be noticed by Hollywood. They saw Make-Up as more than paint and latex; they saw breathing, stretching, growing, bursting parts of the human anatomy. They saw the potential.

The technology of movies was finally catching up to the filmmaker’s vision, and we were the lucky witnesses to that transition. And among the most important of the early films to fully explore the possibilities of Make-Up as a special effect were two Werewolf films that premiered in the Spring and Summer of 1981. The first of these was Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING.

Based on a novel by Gary Brandner, THE HOWLING was a dark, brooding, psychologically driven look at Lycanthropy, told from the perspective of a young news-anchor named Karen White who was the unwitting victim of a werewolf’s attack. The anchorwoman, played magnificently by Dee Wallace Stone, went in search of an explanation of what happened to her, and for the dreams, thoughts and desires that were beginning to haunt her. That search leads her and her husband (Christopher Stone in a mediocre performance…) to a retreat on the California coast, populated by all manner of odd inhabitants. They soon discover, though, that the retreat is more of a commune, and the inhabitants are far more than odd.

By comparison, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON couldn’t be more different. Directed by John Landis, better known for comedy with such hits as ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS to his credit, it expertly combines humor with horror, without becoming a parody or a spoof. This is first and foremost a Horror Film, a story about two young American men attacked by a werewolf while hiking on the English moors. One dies, and the other, though bitten, survives, awakening in a London hospital weeks later. He is shocked to receive a visit from his deceased companion, informing him that he now bears the curse of the werewolf in his blood, and will become one with the next full moon.

Though there is comedy in the film, it never overpowers the horror elements, and is only sparingly combined with them, even when David (David Naughton) and his dead friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) are discussing the ins and outs (pardon the expression…) of lycanthropy while viewing a porno movie in a Piccadilly theater.

Both films are generally hailed as two of the best werewolf movies of all-time, certainly the best released between 1962’s CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and 2000’s GINGER SNAPS. Each is imaginative, fresh, and innovative in the use of Make-Up effects, and each is now considered a cult classic, 25 years after they first premiered. Something else these two films have in common is their ability to polarize werewolf fans.

Rarely have I spoken with fans of one who would admit even liking the other. Fans of THE HOWLING will point out that it’s a far more modern look at werewolves, with the werewolf colony presaging the vampire / lycanthrope subculture popularized in films such as BLADE and UNDERWORLD. Those whose choice is AMERICAN WEREWOLF… tend to dislike THE HOWLING for that very reason, and enjoy the fact that their film harkens back to the classic Universal Wolf-Man movies.

Speaking personally, I do happen to enjoy both, though AMERICAN WEREWOLF… is by far my favorite. I look at it as a tribute to Lon Chaney Jr. and the great Universal horrors of the 1940’s, and of course that strikes a deep chord with me. Though THE HOWLING is full of referential tributes of its own, they’re more the throwaway type, with the characters bearing the names of great Horror directors.

AMERICAN WEREWOLF… is just such a finely balanced movie that it’s hard not to love it. The humor is carried off to perfection by a very talented cast, and Rick Baker’s effects supply all the horror the story demands. Even though I enjoy THE HOWLING, I have to side with AMERICAN WEREWOLF… here. It’s by far the better movie. At least, in this Unimonster’s opinion.

And for the record, it’s Mary Ann, Coke, and Mick and the boys.












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