Please note: This particular film deals with themes of rape and sexual violence. I realize that sometimes, just mentioning these things can be emotionally or psychologically harmful to certain people. Therefore, please be advised that while I’ve done my best to handle these subjects with great sensitivity and respect, this post should probably be avoided by anyone for whom they might be serious triggers.
As everyone probably already knows by now, werewolves stretch all the way back to ancient prehistory, and they’ve popped up in all kinds of different forms. They haven’t always been evil, gore-chomping psychopaths either. The oldest werewolves were animist holy people who dressed in animal skins and who performed sympathetic magic to ensure successful hunts for their tribes. By imitating the animals they intended to hunt during mock hunting ceremonies, they hoped to impose their wills upon the actual animals that would be hunted for real later. (You can see the same principle being applied when football teams play pranks on their opponents’ mascots during modern football rallies.) There were also holy people who would hypnotize themselves and “become” animals during their ceremonies so they could travel to the spirit world and see ghosts and demons. Animals can sense things humans can’t sense, so in order for us to sense the same things, we have to bring ourselves down to their level. This, in turn, makes it easier to ward off evil spirits that might want to hurt our friends and families. In this way, the oldest werewolves were actually helpful witches and wizards who provided their communities with an invaluable service.
Vendel period depiction of a warrior wearing a wolf-skin
Later on we start seeing groups like the Norse Berserkers, who wore bear skins and drove themselves apeshit with Odin’s “battle frenzy.” These crazy motherfuckers who go into battle without any armor or even weapons, and they’d become so intoxicated with pure animal rage that they could rip people apart with their bare hands. They’d also act like nothing happened even after having their stomachs ripped wide open; they’d just keep on fighting and ripping people to shreds until they themselves bled to death. Have you ever become so angry that you dug your fingernails into your palms, only to realize later on that you drew blood? Have you ever been so filled with rage that even if someone popped you square in your jaw, you barely even noticed? That’s Odin’s battle frenzy, and for the Berserkers, that shit was like Red Bull mixed with diesel gasoline. These guys brought the werewolf idea to a whole new level, establishing the idea of “men who become dangerous animals” as something truly terrifying. (You don’t fuck with the Berserkers.)
Then, after the advent of Christianity, werewolves became “satanic.” Supposedly, they were evil wizards who sold their souls to the devil in exchange for magic wolf skins they’d wear to become real wolves. The strange twist to this story is that most men who were accused of being werewolves willingly confessed to it and were even proud to be considered such (a complete reversal of how witch trials usually went). Take my boy Thiess of Kaltenbrun, who was otherwise known as “the Livonian werewolf.” This guy actually went around his community claiming to be a werewolf from the get-go. He didn’t worship the devil, but was actually much closer to the original animist werewolves. He considered himself to be a servant of Jesus who magically transformed into a wolf at night so he could see and protect his neighbors and their crops from demons. He also went around town, offering folk magical solutions to everyday problems. According to Thiess, he was but one of many heroic werewolves who were known as “the Hounds of God.” Unfortunately, he was prosecuted for heresy…but the good news is that he wasn’t killed; he was just flogged and banished for life. No one knows what happened to him after that, but I personally hope he found a nice witch out there in the wilderness and raised himself a fine passel of werewolf pups.
The interesting thing about all of this is that being a werewolf was almost never a “curse” prior to the 20th century. Werewolves were almost always in control of their own actions; they were werewolves because they wanted to be werewolves, they could transform themselves into wolves and back at will, and they could do so at any time (regardless of whether it was nighttime or a full moon). What’s more, werewolves were more often good guys who played protective roles in their societies. Their ability to shapeshift into dangerous animals (whether this was actually an alleged physical transformation or a purely psychological one) was revered for the most part. The only major exception to this is the Greek legend of Lycaon, an Arcadian king whose hubris motivated Zeus to turn him into a wolf. The problem with Lycaon, however, is that he was only transformed once; becoming a wolf wasn’t exactly a “habit” for him. So while his name became the Latin word for “wolf” (as seen in the word lycanthropy), he actually doesn’t count as a true werewolf in my opinion.
Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Wolf Man (1941)
All of this changed in 1941, when Universal Studios unleashed Curt Siodmak’s The Wolf Man upon us. That film was the first time we were ever given the version of the werewolf legend that most people are familiar with today. This, of course, is the famous story of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), a real nice guy who gets totally fucked when he’s bitten by a werewolf. Unlike previous werewolves, he doesn’t look anything like a real wolf when he’s transformed; he’s more of a bipedal hybrid. He also transforms whenever there’s a full moon, whether he wants to do so or not. What’s more, Larry has absolutely no control over his own actions when he’s in wolf form; if left to his own devices, he would kill and eat his best friend or even the woman he loves without realizing it. Finally, the only way to deal with any of this is by pumping Larry’s ass full of silver. Whereas old-school werewolves could be killed just like most normal humans or canids, Larry can only be put down with things made from silver. (He also has to be killed by someone who truly loves him, just to make things more tragic.)
This story has been told time and time again; in fact, almost every single werewolf film that’s ever been made is essentially a remake of The Wolf Man. At the time, though, these ideas were pretty revolutionary. The story of Larry Talbot is really a modern Greek tragedy in which the hero is doomed to suffer a fate that he can’t escape. On another level, it also re-shapes the werewolf legend into a metaphor about human predators. Larry Talbot is basically a serial killer like Norman Bates; he unconsciously assumes an anti-social alter-ego through which he then preys on other human beings. In cases where cinematic werewolves of the Talbot school attack female victims, there’s also an element of sexual predation to be found. In this context, most werewolves as we see them in horror films are simply degenerate cannibals and rapists. It’s tempting to view them as people who share the same unique ability to re-enter the animal world that old-school animist werewolves had, but who lack the proper socialization and training they need to use that ability in any productive way. Perhaps if Larry Talbot had survived long enough to meet someone like Thiess, he could have learned to control his werewolf powers and become a badass superhero.
As noted previously, most werewolf films following The Wolf Man simply re-tell the story of Larry Talbot over and over again. This is precisely why the werewolf subgenre is generally pretty disappointing; you almost never see anything original or new done with the idea. It wasn’t until 1981 – 40 years after poor Larry was beaten to death with a silver cane by his lovin’ Daddy – that we were finally given something different. This came in the form of not one but two of the greatest werewolf films ever made: John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling. Both of these films changed the werewolf genre forever, and ironically, they have both been consistently xeroxed by virtually every werewolf film that’s come out since (save only for a few noteworthy exceptions, such as 1994’s Wolf and 2000’s Ginger Snaps).
Most film critics and horror fans seem to think An American Werewolf in London is the better of these two films, and there are some pretty solid reasons for this. Perhaps its most memorable quality is the special effects, which were created by Rick Baker over the course of an entire decade. That’s quite a lot of time to work on a film project, and it definitely pays off here. John Landis insisted on shooting a sequence in which a werewolf transformation occurs on camera and in broad stage light. Nothing like that had ever been achieved before; going all the way back to The Wolf Man, previous films had only used time-lapse photography, showing different layers of make-up being applied to the actors’ faces one step at a time. In many cases, this was also done with as few lights as possible so as to occlude the hokiness of the effect. But here, we are shown just how ugly and painful a werewolf transformation can really get, with the actor’s body being contorted into horrible shapes, his bones stretching and his skin ripping apart to expose a pulsating wolfskin beneath. The other point in American Werewolf’s favor is its irreverent humor, which pokes wicked satirical fun at the werewolf genre even while bringing it into fresh visual territory.
The original 1981 poster for The Howling
However, I have to disagree with the majority of viewers and side with The Howling as being the superior film of the two. For as great as American Werewolf is, its power rests mostly on its special effects. Rick Baker’s work was truly extraordinary, the performances are all top notch, and John Landis’ talent as a filmmaker is indisputable; but even still, the story is really just another rehash of The Wolf Man. Nice guy gets bitten by a werewolf, starts changing whenever there’s a full moon, kills and eats people without realizing it, and has to be put to sleep by someone who loves him. It’s a great homage to a classic film, but it’s nothing new. Enter The Howling, which also featured some truly revolutionary transformation sequences (courtesy of Rob Bottin, who would create the nightmarish creature effects for John Carpenter’s The Thing one year later). True, The Howling relents a bit more than American Werewolf does in showcasing its effects; it uses more shadows and keeps things just a bit more suggestive (which means American Werewolf wins in terms of pure spectacle). But the story of The Howling is unlike anything else that had ever been made before that point. It throws all the “rules” established by The Wolf Man out the fucking window, and it tells us a completely different kind of werewolf story.
The film begins by introducing us to the character of Karen White (Dee Wallace), a TV news reporter who’s investigating a serial killer called “Eddie the Mangler.” Eddie apparently has a crush on Karen, who’s agreed to meet with him…but only while she’s wearing a wire. The plan is that the cops will bust in and save her from Eddie before he does something truly horrible to her, but it’s fairly obvious that things aren’t going to turn out quite as planned. Karen meets with Eddie in the back of a porn shop on the seedier side of Los Angeles, where he forces her to watch a snuff movie with him. As Karen meekly watches some assholes strip, rape and murder some poor girl, she starts to hear weird sounds coming from behind her in the darkness…and when she turns around, she gets the fright of her life. The cops show up just in the nick of time to pump Eddie’s ass full of lead, but not before poor Karen gets scarred for life. She’s not exactly sure what she’s seen, and she hasn’t been physically harmed in any way…but by the time this sequence of the film is over, Karen exhibits many of the same effects that rape victims suffer as a result of their trauma.
After seeing Dr. Waggner (played by Patrick Macnee), Karen and her husband Bill agree that they should go on a vacation. They decide to stay at a cabin out at the Colony, a place in the country that Dr. Waggner has put together for many of the people he treats. These people are all pretty weird, however, and Karen starts to hear some really spooky noises outside at night. Then Bill gets attacked by some kind of animal and starts behaving strangely, getting all gropey with Karen. This doesn’t help the poor woman, who can’t help but think about Eddie the Manger licking his lips and leering at her in the dark whenever Bill so much as kisses her. She also starts to think he’s having an affair with Marsha, the freaky hoochie mama who lives down the road (and unfortunately, she’s right). Things really start bubbling to the surface when Karen accuses Bill of infidelity and he hits her square in the face. It’s around that point in the story when we discover that Eddie the Mangler is still alive and that he was once a member of Dr. Waggner’s Colony as well. Then Karen learns that the people who live there aren’t really people at all, and that she probably won’t be getting out alive.
Karen White (Dee Wallace) and her idiot husband Bill (Christopher Stone)
There are several different layers to this story that I find interesting. Most importantly, Karen White is easily one of the most interesting and sympathetic characters I’ve ever seen in a film of this sort. On the one hand, Dee Wallace really sells this character’s frailty and vulnerability, making me want to leap through the TV screen and beat the shit out of everybody who causes her any trouble. (I just love Dee, and I’d probably marry her if I wasn’t already married…and if she wasn’t old enough to be my mother.) On the other hand, Karen White is also incredibly strong. She’s obviously very hurt, very confused and very alienated by the trauma she’s experienced (which is definitely a sexual trauma, even if she hasn’t been physically raped); yet she keeps pushing herself to face her demons and to stop the evil in her midst. The fact that she can stand up to Eddie the Mangler at the film’s conclusion – even after everything she’s seen up to that point – is nothing short of true Goddess power.
Despite some of the disturbing anti-woman subject matter that can be found in this film, I think The Howling actually has a very feminist message (and I think this message is far more important than its effects, superb as they may be). If this sounds strange given that there’s a snuff movie sequence at the very beginning, allow me to clarify that this sequence never becomes what I would consider to be “exploitative.” (And considering that Joe Dante made his name in 1970s exploitation films as one of Roger Corman’s protégés, that’s really saying something.) The camera never lingers on this disturbing footage for very long, and given the situation in which it’s being viewed, I think it’s impossible not to feel uncomfortable about it. As a straight male viewer, I’ve never felt that this scene is encouraging me to become sexually aroused. Rather, it’s always made me feel that Karen is truly in serious danger (despite Eddie’s “seductive” promises to the contrary). If Karen were being played by some busty supermodel who takes her clothes off and bares her breasts for the camera every few minutes, I could see how someone might think this movie actually hates women; but considering how realistic a character she is – as well as the fact that almost every male character is either stupid, selfish or completely evil – I think the film is actually encouraging us to think, “Wow, this male-dominated society is terrible for women, and it shouldn’t be this way.”
I say that almost every male character is either stupid, selfish or completely evil, but there are two exceptions. The first is Chris (Dennis Dugan), who I think is supposed to be the “hero.” (He can’t hold a candle to Karen.) Unfortunately, Chris is probably one of the very few flaws in this film; he’s just not very interesting or remarkable. His only real purpose is to have other characters explain werewolf folklore to him, as well as to show up at the end with a big gun and some silver bullets. Aside from that, he serves very little purpose for the plot at all. Far more interesting to me personally is the character of Dr. Waggner, whom I consider to be the one truly noble male character. As the guy who came up with the entire idea of the Colony, it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that he turns out to be a werewolf as well. But unlike the others lycanthropes, Waggner has successfully integrated himself into normal human society, and he has developed a method of keeping his bestial nature in check. The entire purpose of the Colony, it’s eventually revealed, is for Waggner to provide other werewolves with the therapeutic tools they need to become just as civilized as he has. The real troublemakers in this story are Marsha and Eddie the Mangler, who are actually siblings and who both believe that human beings only exist for them to rape and eat.
The evil that “men” do
The dichotomy between Dr. Waggner and Eddie and Marsha refers back to what I was saying earlier about old-school werewolves and lycanthropes of the Larry Talbot school. Waggner has figured out a way for werewolves to become positive contributors to human society, while Eddie and Marsha insist on following their baser instincts. On the surface, Waggner’s way is “revolutionary” and that of the villains is “traditional”; but I would argue that historically, Waggner’s perspective is really the older of the two. It goes all the way back to animist werewolves with their positive sympathetic magic and their execrations of demons; Eddie and Marsha, however, represent what Larry Talbot would probably have become had he lived long enough to become used to his “curse.” Many real-life serial killers begin following their twisted perversions with a sense of revulsion and guilt; but if they continue doing it long enough (and if they don’t get caught), they eventually start to enjoy their sick deeds. In The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot is right at the beginning of this terrible process; here in The Howling, Eddie and Marsha are right at its conclusion. And rather than being anything “natural,” they are products of our own schizophrenic American culture; had they been born and raised in a tribal culture, they would probably be more like Dr. Waggner. Unfortunately, they succeed in swaying the rest of the Colony to their perspective, and things do not end well for the philosopher werewolf.
That, in a nutshell, is what truly separates The Howling from every other werewolf film I’ve ever seen. This was the first film of its kind to propose that werewolves can actually have a culture as well as a major socio-political dispute with each other. As otherworldly as they may be, these lycanthropes are much more like human beings than either Eddie or Marsha would ever like to admit. Even today, there still aren’t very many films that play with this idea at all. You sometimes see it in flicks like Blood and Chocolate (2007), Twilight (2008) and the Underworld films (2003 – 2012), but personally, I think those films are all fucking terrible. (Well, I don’t think Blood and Chocolate is terrible. It has some interesting ideas; it’s just hard for me to care about any of them.) Even the various sequels to The Howling are all bloody fucking awful, despite the fact that one of them is about benevolent marsupial werewolves in Australia. (Trust me, it’s not nearly as interesting as it sounds.) For some reason, filmmakers are just less willing to try new ideas when it comes to werewolf movies; they’ll try all kinds of experiments when it comes to vampires (e.g., 1983’s The Hunger, 1987’s Near Dark and The Lost Boys, 1994’s Interview With The Vampire, 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, 2008’s Let The Right One In, etc.), but werewolves just keep getting the Wolf Man treatment again and again.
But apart from all of that, I think The Howling is even more significant because it’s really about rape culture, violence against women, and the general reluctance of the American patriarchy to even recognize that these problems exist (or to profit from them when it does). When Karen White says, “We have to warn people, Chris; we have to make them believe,” it seems to me that she’s really talking about much more than just werewolves. When she warns the world about a “secret society” that “lives among all of us” and whose members “are neither people nor animals, but something in-between,” she could just as easily be referring to sex traffickers, snuff filmmakers, or even just regular people who treat other people like objects. Dr. Waggner’s presence in the story demonstrates that this issue isn’t limited to werewolves at all; it exists among humans as well, and this is used by evil werewolves like Eddie and Marsha to their advantage. These elements are what make The Howling a truly frightening and disturbing film. Never mind the werewolves; the real monsters in this film are misanthropy, misogyny, victim blaming, and the American culture of silence.