In 1981, cult horror fans were experiencing the fallout from a twin set of subgenres. Movies like The Omen and The Exorcist had firmly established the Satanic Panic of the 70s that arose out of the Christopher Lee Dracula films from Hammer. The counterpoint to the ultimate supernatural threat of the devil himself became the slasher film. By that time, slasher films materialized in the form of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, all of which were extremely popular with cult audiences. At first slashers were designed to be all-too human in the template of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, accentuating the everyday kind of horror all around, but they would quickly evolve into something supernatural simply because horror fans love their monsters. But at the same time, the traditional monsters weren’t really evolving to keep up with their audiences. Frank Langella had just re-romanticized Dracula for a new generation, firmly reinforcing the stereotypes already in place from the likes of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. The thing is, this was also a new age of wonder brought about through special effects. Movies like Star Wars changed everything in terms of what could be achieved, and for the purposes of horror, what could be seen in terms of creature effects. The vampire in the opera cape just wasn’t enough anymore, regardless of how well it was done. Audiences were looking for something different. The logical conclusion was to push forward a classic monster with state-of-the-art effects and the in-your-face terror of the modern slasher film.
1981 would forever be known to horror fans as the year of the werewolf, and The Howling would be the first of the trifecta to dominate imaginations that year, quickly followed by Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London.
The plot of The Howling is pretty straightforward. Adapted from the novel by Gary Brandner, the film follows a TV newswoman who has had a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer. She is sent to a mountain retreat to rest and recover, unaware that the locals are werewolves. Just to make the point that these are a new kind of a werewolf, there are clips from the 1941 Lon Chaney, Jr., film The Wolf Man playing on the TV here and there (as well as many other tributes if you know where to look) that reiterate all of the classic bits that do not apply to these creatures. These werewolves, you see, can shift at will, and they are neither a man with yak hair pasted to his face, nor are they just plain old wolves. It’s something that transcends both worlds that has stuck in the popular consciousness.
Originally, the effects were going to be done by creature maestro Rick Baker, but at the 11th hour he was tapped to fulfill his promise to work on An American Werewolf in London, a film that no one thought was actually going to get off the ground. Baker recommended his protégé Rob Bottin, as the two of them had worked in tandem to create some cutting-edge effects specifically for the hoped for day when American Werewolf would see the light of day. Bottin had previously worked with director Joe Dante on Piranha, so the path was already clear there. Both Bottin and the design work were given Baker’s blessing. Bottin would quickly go on to do work for The Thing, Legend, and RoboCop, establishing his name alongside that of his mentor for generations to come. Meanwhile, the success of The Howling spawned a series of sequels and got Joe Dante tapped by Steven Spielberg to direct Gremlins.
It’s been a lot of years since I’ve seen this film, and revisiting it with modern eyes… let’s be honest, the thing about cutting-edge effects in any era is that eventually they become dated, and visually this sort of thing just does not hold up. That’s to be expected when you push the bounds of traditional makeup into the mechanical realm to achieve the effect. A warp engine (that doesn’t look like a beer brewery) will always look more advanced than a jet engine, which in turn will always look more advanced than a steam engine. But that doesn’t mean something like this isn’t a technical marvel to be appreciated. Just as steampunk is popular, so too are mechanical and practical effects being appreciated in new ways in the era of digital wizardry. I was discussing this recently with a friend of mine who scoffed about it, complaining about how fan films today made on an iPhone are every bit as sophisticated or even more so than professional films of this time. I challenged him to remake the transformation sequence, and to do it better. It seems it’s far easier to make lightsaber effects than something like this:
That’s when we discussed what it took to do the first time. When you understand how art is achieved, under what technical advances, mechanical restraints, and cultural circumstances, that’s when understanding dawns as to why it’s art. I live for this sort of thing, be it a Botticelli painting or a quality creature feature effect. I was so glad to have had that conversation, because it really amped up my own appreciation more than anything else. As goofy as the aesthetics are, there is magic on that screen. And ironically, it’s made even more dramatic and impressive by the infamous transformation sex scene where the werewolf couple is very obviously a cartoon animation (an art form I also appreciate when corners aren’t cut). Turns out, that was for budgetary reasons. If it had to be done, then I think Dante made a good call of placing it earlier so that the real transformation in the moment of dread would resonate more in people’s minds. The rest, as they say, is history.