by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
It's not for lack of trying. The television show True Blood features a bitter feud between vampires and werewolves, though vampires play the primary role. Earlier this year, Universal Pictures released Joe Johnston's remake of The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro (who looks like a werewolf even without makeup), but its commercial and critical performance was as anemic as the current economic growth. And while they have their fans, I haven't seen Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers or Blood and Chocolate attracting the same kind of attention or spark the same amount of dialogue as, say, Twilight: Eclipse or a single episode of True Blood. Maybe the werewolf lacks the erotic psychosexual angle of the vampire (whatever you say about vampires, they can leave a dynamite hickey; a werewolf is going to show you as much love as a lion feeding off an antelope.) Maybe it's the ultimate sense of tragedy that all werewolf stories inevitably face: no matter how a movie tries to look at it, the lycanthrope will (and must) die.
Maybe the reason is economic: werewolf movies inevitably must feature a transformation sequence.
When Benicio Del Toro succumbed to lycanthropy in The Wolfman earlier this year, he did so under the makeup effects of Rick Baker… a welcome change from, say, the Underworld series or Van Helsing, both of which boasted digital effects in morphing humans into collarless predators. Though the effects in these movies are pretty seamless, they are also much blander, thus entreating the Wellsian problem with digital effects. When you can create almost anything digitally, how do you make it interesting? (And sadly, though Baker's effects were excellent, they added nothing to the pantheon.) I began thinking back to 1981 and the release of the last two great werewolf movies, the ones that transformed the genre into effects laden spectacles. There was The Howling, a straight horror laced with satire, and An American Werewolf in London, John Landis' absurdist take on the genre. I remembered not only how groundbreaking those effects were, but also how much the movies themselves scared me when I was thirteen. I also remembered the ongoing debate in my geek circle as to which was the better picture, and remembered thinking at the time that Landis' effort was the superior one. So I watched both again, in part to enjoy a couple of nights in front of our high-definition television, in part to see if they still possessed the magic that enthralled that young, gawky Houstonian.
Were they what I remembered? Somewhat. Both remain, twenty years later, entertaining, and both have much to recommend them. Both benefit from solid casting, strong scripts (I had completely forgotten that John Sayles had a hand in writing The Howling, though the name meant nothing to me then), and confident directors. And both generate some major shivers, even when you know what's coming.
But twenty years is a long time, especially when you revisit old friends. My tastes have changed; my critical calipers take better measure of what I read and see. I demand more from whatever I read or see. If I am going to spend two hours with a movie (or two to seven days with a book), then it cannot short change me in terms of entertainment or intelligence. It can be fluff, but it should be neither stupid nor boring. Fortunately, neither The Howling nor An American Werewolf in London are either stupid or boring. Watching both, a goofy grin could not help but slowly creep across my face. They still have the magic.
There is much to recommend The Howling, from sly humor (the porn proprietor complains to the cops that a police officer's entrance causes all the other patrons, all male, to leave in a hurry), to satiric jabs at television, contemporary psychology, and cultism. There is also interesting subtext, implying that any attempt to deny our animal selves is dangerous. As in every genre movie, we get some interesting revisions of lycanthropy lore: werewolves, it seems, can transform at will, needing neither the dark nor the full moon to unlock the beast within. And then there are transformation sequences themselves, in which the skins of lycanthropes peel off to reveal the monsters underneath. It makes The Howling a perfectly acceptable B-movie with an A-list budget.
And yet Joe Dante loads the movie with so many knowing references that it becomes distracting and even a little cute. A couple watches the original Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney on television. The movie seems positively giddy with its seamy porn shops and copulating werewolves. One character clearly has a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl on his desk because it's the only non-werewolf book you can really tie in with a werewolf movie, however tangentially. And because Dante was a protégé of New World Pictures, he could not help but place both Roger Corman and John Sayles in cameos. Yeah, they might be fun, but from a personal aesthetic standpoint I'd rather not be jabbed in the ribs so hard.
The werewolves themselves, rather than being the horrifying creatures I saw twenty years ago, looked more like cartoon rendering of monsters with their long, pointed ears and overly large jaws and teeth (which made them look like they were grinning) rather than the stuff of nightmares.
An American Werewolf in London, released in the same year as The Howling, is as different a picture as New York City is to London, but its absurdist take on the genre resonates with me. Think of what would result if Kurt Vonnegut decided to write a horror novel and you pretty much have the tone of An American Werewolf in London.
I was amazed at how much I remembered. Not just the story, but individual shots like the chase through the Underground, scenes like the meeting of David Naughton's victims in a porn theatre and sequences like the anarchic climax in Piccadilly Square. And then there are the dream sequences, haunting in their evocation of the subconscious, brutal in their violence.
The transformation sequences, conceived by Rick Baker (predating Johnston's The Wolfman by nearly thirty years), are extraordinary. Bones crack and rearrange themselves, hair grows rapidly, all while David screams in pain. The key sequence, which takes place as the song "Blue Moon" is played on the soundtrack, is one of the movie's most memorable moments.
And yet, like The Howling, An American Werewolf in London has problems that are fairly obvious to an older viewer. When David Naughton learns that he is a werewolf, his fear and concern for his own sanity are either too muted or not detached enough. Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, he is too accepting of his fate.
Moreover, the climax in Piccadilly Square is as memorable as anything that has come before, yet it suddenly ends. Logically and exactly as necessary, yet it's still abrupt and lacks closure. It's as if director John Landis is trying to solve a Gordian knot by cutting it. The end is fitting, but the movie would have benefited from a third act.
But like The Howling, An American Werewolf in London still amazes. And of the two, it still remains my favorite. Both remain groundbreaking in their subject matter and their makeup effects, something which I cannot say of The Wolfman, for example. And maybe that is why the others mentioned above do nothing for me: these two particular pictures, like the original The Wolf Man directed by George Waggner or Terence Fischer's The Curse of the Werewolf, charted territory few other genre pictures dared to explore. The others moved in after the territory had been mapped.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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