With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
1981 brought the theatrical release of not just one, but three horror movies centered around werewolves. Two of which set a new standard for special effects and werewolf transformation sequences; John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, albeit with vast changes and a lot more humor added in, The Howling follows television newswoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) as she’s sent to a mountain resort after being targeted by a serial killer. The residents of the resort aren’t what they appear to be.
Originally, special makeup effects artist Rick Baker was to handle the makeup effects on The Howling, but he was pulled away by Landis, with whom he had previously worked with on Schlock. The job was then given to Baker’s protégé, Rob Bottin, only 21 at the time. Bottin was given creative freedom for the effects. Prior to this point, a lot major werewolf films employed lap dissolves to convey their transformation sequences. The actor would have to sit for hours on end, motionless, as scenes of the makeup transition was shot frame by frame, though this process did speed up a bit over the decades. Bottin wanted to create a transformation sequence from man to beast that was pure special effect wizardry without the reliance of camera tricks.
The film’s major transformation scene featured serial killing creeper Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) turn into a monstrous anthropomorphic wolf right before Karen’s eyes. It’s a lengthy scene involving complex mechanisms, bladder effects, and an extensive makeup application that would see Picardo stuck in the makeup chair for upwards of ten hours. That he was such a decent sport about the makeup process meant that Picardo would be a favorite of Bottin’s in future projects, like Legend.
The Howling was made on a pretty low budget, though, and not all of the effects could receive the same level of detail and attention as Eddie Quist’s impressive transformation. Other tactics were used to create werewolf effects, too. Visual effects artist David Allen (Dolls, Willow, Freaked) was tapped to create stop-motion animation sequences, namely for the climactic scene that sees the barn full of werewolves trapped inside as it’s burned. But Dante realized that the lighting was way different than the rest of the film, and it didn’t quite mesh. All of Allen’s stop-motion work was cut from the final film, save for one brief transitional moment as Karen flees the resort.
Visual effects artist Peter Kuran (Robocop, Nightbreed) handled the animated sequences, both the main title animation and the werewolf transformation of Bill and Marsha mid-coital, further rounding out the wide array of effects used to stretch out the low budget and create one of horror’s most memorable werewolf features. Brilliant state of the art transformation sequences, puppetry, actors in werewolf suits, and various animation styles all came together to amplify Dante’s blend of humor and horror. It was a lengthy process, and included trial and error, but the final cut resulted in a film that still elicits debate on which 1981 werewolf feature is top dog. Both forever altered the werewolf sub-genre for the better.