The Depths Of Obscurity: Werewolf Films from the 1980s
Werewolf films are something Hollywood rarely gets right. What took off as a fantastic genre in the 30’s and 40’s was mostly pushed aside in the 1950’s as sci-fi took dominance – and almost forgotten in the 60’s and 70’s when it was reduced to mostly unwatchable trash. Then something happened: the 1980s came at us like a vengeance and the lycanthrope was reborn from the cold dark depths from which it was discarded.
The 1980’s in general was really a rebirth of the horror genre. The majority of horror villains cherished today came out of those 10 years. Horror fans should cherish this decade as it may be awhile before we see another one like it.
The chart of The Best Werewolf Films of the 1980s will bring you 23 titles, and there are a lot of really good flicks on this list such as Silver Bullet (Gary Busey, get that werewolf), Teen Wolf (which taught us the disco inferno, lady stealing power of the wolf) and The Company of Wolves (a reinvention of the Little Red Riding Hood story) – however, let’s focus on the top 3.
Let’s begin with the undisputed masterpiece of werewolf films…..
David and Jack (Americans of course, it’s not just a clever name) are on a walking tour of Great Britain when they are attacked by a werewolf, Jack is killed and David is sent to the hospital. David begins to have nightmares and is then visited by his very deceased and slowly decaying friend Jack who tells David that he is now a werewolf and must kill himself to release the curse. Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors…..David believes he is going crazy, that is until the full moon arrives.
This had been director John Landis’s project for over a decade, he wrote the first draft of the script in 1969 and it was put aside. It took the success of 2 little films he made called Animal House and The Blues Brothers to finally get this green-lit. What set it apart from earlier films at the time was its extremely successful mixture of comedy and horror, the story flows seamlessly between a witty comedy and gore filled nightmare. The howl of the werewolf as David and Jack wander the moors lost has haunted me since I was a kid while at the same I find myself laughing at the rotting corpses sitting in a porno theater enjoying “See You Next Wednesday”.
One of my favorite things about American Werewolf is the seemingly out-of-place upbeat soundtrack featuring multiple versions of “Blue Moon” and CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” however the real star of this movie is the groundbreaking special effects from Rick Baker. The makeup won the first ever Academy Award for this category, and it still holds up to this day. Nothing is off-camera or hidden away in the dark – it’s all right there in your face. Most remembered is the transformation scene which was achieved using a mixture of makeup and animatronics – something that had not been done before. Baker’s talents also shine through on the victims – most notably on Jack who, with each visit to David, we get to see a new level of decomposition. CGI can never match what is done here with good old-fashioned makeup and hard work, I’m pretty sure Hollywood has people locked in a basement trying to make a computer program that can do effects like this.
This is a must watch, and even if you have seen it – watch it again. Then find someone who hasn’t seen it, and make them watch it.
#98 on my Flickchart / #300 All Time
Wolfman’s got nards…..
While some may debate that it’s not 100% a werewolf movie, this 1987 classic fits great on this list.
The Monster Squad, a group of movie monster loving kids, become the only hope for their town when Dracula and his team of monsters – The Mummy, Gill-Man, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein arrive with plans for world domination.
Directed by Fred Dekker (who also directed another cult classic – 1986’s Night of the Creeps. Watch it.) and penned by both Dekker and Shane Black, this movie is still as enjoyable now as it was when I was a kid – though when released it did not get the recognition it deserved. Originally met with mixed reviews and a low box office take, it gained its cult following from video releases. I think one of the things working against it at that time of release was it had been around 20 years or so since the Universal Monsters storylines had been explored – aside from Hammer Horror. Most people at that time were confused on what a Universal Monster should be, and were quick to dismiss this.
One of the challenges faced by Dekker during production was that all the monsters were copywritten by Universal Studios – meaning they could not be directly copied to screen. The solution to this was getting Stan Winston involved; his team created updated versions of each character while staying as close to their original look as possible, which resulted in a fantastic, fresh approach.
This is a wonderful movie to watch again, or introduce your kids to, as the gore is minimal and the scares are tolerable.
#278 on my Flickchart / #957 All Time
#3 The Howling
Humans are our cattle…
LA TV Reporter Karen White (played by the amazing genre queen Dee Wallace) suffers amnesia after an encounter with a serial killer stalker, and is sent along with her husband Bill to “The Colony” for treatment. The Colony ends up being full of interesting characters, and after Bill is attacked by a wolf-like creature, he and Karen start to undergo “transformations”.
Directed by Joe Dante (Who also brought us Piranha, Gremlins, and The ‘Burbs), this was the first movie to be released in the 1980s’s rebirth of the werewolf. The Howling is based on a novel of the same name by Gary Brandner; the screenplay however took a less direct approach then the more serious and straightforward novel. The movie is filled with inside jokes, (the majority of main characters are named after directors of old werewolf movies) and cameos from people such as Roger Corman and Forest J. Ackerman.
There’s always a debate on which movie has the best transformation scene, American Werewolf or The Howling, but both movies were essentially done by the same people using the same special effects techniques. Rick Baker originally had left American Werewolf in London due to delayed production and was actually working on The Howling. After he went back, his assistant Rob Bottin took over. I prefer American Werewolf’s more in your face approach, where The Howling hides everything behind low light – but it is still pretty amazing.
Take note to keep an ear on Pino Donaggio’s score: it’s a lighthearted horror blend that is perfectly balanced and really makes this movie. Please avoid the sequels at all cost.
#524 on my Flickchart / #1266 All Time
What’s your favorite werewolf film – of the 80s, or of all-time? List your favorites in the comments!