Special Feature: Year of the Wolf: 1981

With all the expected (and almost certainly short lived) hoopla surrounding Joe Johnston’s remake of The Wolf Man, I thought it might be interesting to reflect back upon something that happened twenty-nine years ago; a rare occurrence proven by the passage of time to be one of the great anomalies in the history of horror movies: The Year of the Wolf. Dig on Jonathan Dornellas’s article below!
First a few words about the creative team behind 2010’s remake of the immortal classic. The director, Joe Johnston, is no stranger to high profile films set in the past. He’s responsible for “The Rocketeer” (which fell heartbreakingly short of the greatness it was capable of achieving), “October Sky” and “Hidalgo”. While none of his films have been financial disasters, almost all have failed to deliver the expected box office dollars. His great strength as a filmmaker is crafting movies that look like old-fashioned, big budget Hollywood spectaculars, yet nearly all of his films seem to lack some vital essence. His biggest hit to date remains his first film: “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (which everyone from my generation remembers as the movie we went to go see because “Batman” was sold out). All things considered, I think he was an excellent choice to direct “The Wolfman”, and the fact that it’s set in 1880’s plays to Johnston’s strengths, provided he has a decent script to work with.

The screenplay is a collaboration between David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker. Self’s carrier is undistinguished — a very short list of credits consisting mostly of unoriginal material; one hopes he wasn’t chosen just because “The Haunting” was a huge hit (he wrote the screenplay for that horrible 1999 remake of the Shirley Jackson classic). Andrew Kevin Walker’s best known original work is “Se7en” but he also wrote the underrated “8MM” (which I believe was inspired by Paul Schrader’s similarly underrated “Hardcore”). Although he hasn’t written much produced material since the late 90s, I think Walker’s take on the Wolf Man story could be a very interesting one.

The only other member of the creative team who warrants mentioning here is special effects makeup artist Rick Baker. I have yet to see Baker’s finished work on the Wolf Man, but there is no doubt that this was a dream project for him. The original Wolf Man, of course, was one of the Four Great Universal Monsters, and the transformation scenes inspired generations of special effect makeup artists.

Which brings us to the Year of the Wolf: 1981. The year that saw the release of “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London” and “Wolfen”. All three movies dealt with the subject of werewolves in three very different, intriguing ways.

It should be remembered that this spike in lycanthropy occurred during the absolute height of the Slasher Craze: “Halloween II” was the biggest horror hit of the year, followed closely by “Friday the 13th Part 2″, followed by all kinds of holiday-themed imitators. Which makes this historical anomaly all the more curious: there was no clear financial incentive to produce a werewolf movie, yet three of the greatest werewolf movies of all time were released that year.

“The Howling” originated as a 1977 novel by Gary Bradner. It was marketed as an occult tale “in the tradition of Salem’s Lot” (it says this on the back cover; some years ago I obtained a dog-eared copy from Ebay), and to this end it even borrows the idea of the nearly pitch black cover used famously on the first few paperback editions of Stephen King’s influential account of vampirism. “Salem’s Lot” of course was a huge bestseller, and the 1979 mini-series was a ratings winner, so it makes sense that “The Howling” was optioned around this time (perhaps solely on the strength of the easily pitchable “Salem’s Lot with Werewolves” concept). The project eventually fell into the lap of Joe Dante, whose previous film “Piranha” was one of the better (and funniest) “JAWS” rip-offs.

Here’s where things get interesting. “An American Werewolf in London” was already in pre-production as Dante assembled his “Howling” team. Bradner’s novel was eventually completely tossed in favor of an original script by John Sayles (nearly nothing from the novel, which wasn’t particularly well written, made it into the film apart from the title and the general idea of werewolves). Dante originally approached Rick Baker to do the werewolf makeup, and from the beginning the transformation scenes were intended to be one of the film’s selling points. Apparently Baker agreed to work on “The Howling” in tandem with his work on “American Werewolf”. But when John Landis got wind of this arrangement, the young “Animal House” director wasn’t pleased. Landis threw a fit, prompting Baker to quickly back away from any involvement with “The Howling”.

This created an opening for Rob Bottin, the twenty-year-old wunderkind who had previously worked with Dante on “Piranha”. Bottin was very much Baker’s protégé — the young man who, by all available accounts, had learned everything he knew about special effects makeup from Baker, who had hired Bottin when he was just fourteen-years-old.

One gets the sense that Baker, still a young man himself in those days, was something of a father figure to Bottin. They worked together on big budget projects like “Star Wars” and the underrated 1976 remake of “King Kong”. Bottin was Baker’s most gifted student, but Baker was very much the boss of his own shop. Young Rob often felt stifled, and increasingly frustrated each time his creative ideas were vetoed in favor of Baker’s own. Rob Bottin, unbeknownst to Rick Baker, had something to prove to the world. “The Howling” was a golden opportunity for him to demonstrate that his skills were equal, if not superior, to his mentor’s.

The stage was now set to see who could create the best werewolf the movies had ever seen, and the race was on.

It’s easy to assume Baker encouraged Bottin to branch off on his own, but twenty-nine years worth of interviews and accounts from various people involved in the Great Werewolf Race suggests otherwise. There’s a curious lack of documentation when it comes to Baker’s opinion of Bottin’s “Howling” work. It’s a very touchy subject to this day.

The fact is Baker felt betrayed by Bottin, not only for abruptly quitting Rick’s shop, but also for smuggling many of Rick’s “American Werewolf” techniques into “The Howling”. Rick had given Rob his first job and taught him all the tricks of the trade. Rob’s defection had to feel like a punch in the gut.

At the same time, Baker probably expected Bottin to fall on his face; his protégé was just too young and too temperamental to make it on his own in the movie business. And Baker possessed one vital skill which he knew Bottin essentially lacked: the ability to work well with others.

In terms of the Werewolf Race, Baker had a head start, an experienced team, and more money to work with. But Bottin possessed one key advantage over his former teacher: near total creative freedom. And as Rob Bottin has proven over the years, when given such freedom, he delivers incredible, sometimes legendary work. Baker’s design had to conform to specific characteristics ordered by John Landis. Bottin was allowed to do whatever he wanted to, and what he wanted to do was create the most amazing werewolf transformation of all time.

At first, the reach of both wolf designers very much exceeded their grasp. They have both stated that they initially desired to show one continuous transformation WITHOUT CUTTING AWAY; a goal which was essentially impossible in 1981. Both quickly realized this.

The transformation scene in “The Howling” is the scarier of the two, and totally unlike anything ever before seen in film up to that time. The transformation begins after a character says “Let me give you a piece of my mind” and proceeds to pluck a morsel of brain out of a bullet wound on his forehead. The use of standard horror movie fare — shadows and sound effects and creepy music — greatly enhance the impact of what we see, which includes bubbling skin, cracking bones, growing fingernails, growing teeth, growing ears, an elongating snout. Bottin became obsessed (to the amusement of Dante and his cinematographer) with his designs being carefully masked with the use of darkness and shadows. Rick Baker, on the other hand, intended to show his transformation in a bright, well-lit room.

“An American Werewolf in London” was made for one reason: John Landis wanted to make it. He wrote the script for the film back in 1969 and originally wanted it to be his follow-up to “Schlock”, but Landis was a nobody in Hollywood until the enormous popular success of “Animal House” in 1978. After that he could write his own ticket for a while. Even after “The Blues Brothers” underperformed, Landis was one of the hottest young directors in the business. “American Werewolf” would be a radical, bloody departure from his previous work.

Which isn’t to say the film wasn’t funny. To this day, I honestly don’t think any film has *ever* blended comedy and horror as effectively as Landis did in “American Werewolf”. He achieved a near pitch perfect balance between the two, yet people who don’t like the film generally cite the use of humor as their biggest criticism. In some ways, however, the film is actually darker than either “The Howling” or “Wolfen”.

None of the films in the Year of the Wolf end on a particularly hopeful note, and things do not turn out well for either of our appealing protagonists. “American Werewolf” has one of the most jarringly abrupt conclusions I’ve ever seen — he’s dead; the end; get out. “The Howling” ends with my single favorite closing shot ever.

The transformation scene in “American Werewolf” takes place in a brightly lit room; the standard horror movie fare utilized so effectively in “The Howling” — spooky shadows and creepy music — isn’t to be found here. And while I think the transformation in Dante’s film is the scarier of the two, “American Werewolf” is the easily the more disturbing of the two.

What struck me the most about the latter transformation had nothing to do with special effects — the thing that made the biggest impression on me when I first saw it was the fact that the character is *screaming in agony* while he changes. This was, as far as I know, a first. Previously in films where the lap dissolve was used to depict the metamorphosis, you never got the sense that turning into a werewolf was a painful process.

Many of the techniques used in “The Howling” are on display here — the elongating snout, the growing ears, the growing hair, etc. The biggest stylistic difference between the two is that the skin on Bottin’s creature *bubbles* while the skin on Baker’s creature *stretches*.

To this day, fans are very much divided over who crafted the best werewolf. Both transformations were brilliantly executed; trying to accurately gauge which one is liked best is as futile as attempting to resolve the IMDB Shawshank-Godfather calculation. It’s too close to call. And this is another aspect that makes the Year of the Wolf so fascinating; neither film is clearly superior to the other. All three are very good movies. I personally think “An American Werewolf in London” is a better film overall, but I prefer Bottin’s werewolf design over Baker’s. Both werewolves, however, are actually scary creatures — and there’s nothing more important than that in a werewolf movie.

The key stylistic design element ordered by Landis was that his werewolf be a four legged creature — he wanted it to be a demonic hound from hell, and Baker certainly achieved the look his director demanded. This werewolf is a *monster* in every sense of the word — it looks like a cross between a wolf, a bear, and a lion — a hideous hybrid escaped from the book of Revelation.

Bottin gives us a nightmare on two legs — a rabid version of the Big Bad Wolf who menaced the Three Little Pigs. For my money (all fifty cents of it) Bottin’s creation represents the quintessential werewolf — the most satisfying version of the mythological creature I’ve ever seen. Which is not to say the Bottin design is flawless — seen from a distance the creature looks rather absurd (the same is true for the alien in Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece–the moment the monster looks like a man in a suit, it loses some of its impact).

The film that is always overlooked when discussing the Year of the Wolf is “Wolfen”. Some would argue that it’s not really a werewolf film at all (for reasons I won’t touch upon here), but I absolutely disagree with that view. Of the three films, “Wolfen” actually has the best story, and is far more suspenseful than its special-effects laden brethren.

Something of an anomaly within an anomaly, “Wolfen” has its roots in the mind of Whitley Strieber, best known for his supposedly non-fiction tome “Communion” — an account of his abduction by aliens in 1985. Before going off the deep end, Strieber wrote “Wolfen” which was published in 1978. The novel was adapted into a screenplay by Michael Wadleigh, who also directed the film. Wadleigh is an enigmatic character in his own right, whose only other film credit to date is the groundbreaking documentary “Woodstock”.

“Wolfen” is a nerve-jangling experience and contains a genuinely intriguing mystery (complete with perfectly legitimate red-herrings) — and while the final truth cancels out some of the thrills, it remains an entertaining experience throughout. Those who dislike the film generally fault the conclusion, and have little patience for Wadleigh’s rationalizations about man’s callousness toward nature.

All of three films of the Year of the Wolf were mildly successful, but none of them came close to matching the success of the holiday-themed slasher movies, so the Wolf Trend lived and died in 1981.

Of the three, “The Howling” can be considered the most successful financially, making all of its money back and then some. It had the lowest budget of the three films, and took a big chance by hiring a kid who wasn’t even old enough to buy alcohol to do the special effects. Almost everyone connected with the film went on to bigger and better things. The star, Dee Wallace, jumped out of the “Howling” and into “E.T.” Joe Dante’s talent was noticed by Steven Spielberg, who hired him to direct the phenomenally successful “Gremlins”. And Rob Bottin became an overnight star.

For all practical purposes, Bottin won the Great Werewolf Race of 1981. The incredible footage of his transformation sequences reached the media first, while Baker’s work remained strictly under wraps (on orders from John Ladis) almost until the film’s release, which hit theaters nearly five months after “The Howling”.

Bottin would go on to do perhaps the greatest pre-CGI special effects movie of all time — John Carpenters classic 1982 remake of “The Thing”, another project on which he was given near-total creative freedom. He would find less freedom on subsequent projects, and often clashed with high profile directors like Paul Verhoeven. He was originally chosen to write and direct “Freddy Vs. Jason”, which rolled around in development hell for years, but finally decided he wasn’t interested. In recent years he’s become a veritable recluse — Joe Dante couldn’t reach him to secure his involvement in “The Howling” Special Edition DVD a few years ago, and compares Bottin to Howard Hughes. His list of credits after 2000 dwindles to essentially nothing. One gets the sense he has nothing left to prove.

“An American Werewolf in London” was a financial disappointment for John Landis, who was perhaps spoiled by the mind-boggling success “Animal House”. The 80s would be a trying time for Landis, and despite scoring some big hits with Eddie Murphy, the creative ferocity of his early work would never return.

Baker won the first ever Academy Award for Makeup for his “American Werewolf” work, and has gone on to win even more over the years. Taking his entire body of work into account, a strong case could be made that Rick Baker is the greatest special effect makeup artist of all time. Unlike Bottin, Baker has made himself consistently available to the media, and is always happy to talk about his work on “American Werewolf”. On the Special Edition DVD of that movie, he muses that he’d like another shot at doing a werewolf. He got one.

A few months ago Baker expressed concerns that some of his werewolf makeup would be replaced with CGI enhancements. While I have yet to see the film, the trailer clearly shows that his concern was justified. Not that you can really fault the producers for utilizing a tool that today’s moviegoers have come to accept. The good old days are over.

Or are they? For at least the past ten years, movies have been pillaging the past for material. “The Wolf Man” and the upcoming “Elm Street” remake underscore the desperate lack of originality which prevails today. The Year of the Wolf represents a brief shining moment of abundant excellence in horror history that likely will never be repeated. A movie should be made about the Great Werewolf Race.

-Jonathan Dornellas

Source: Bloody Disgusting