The Howling, Dog Soldiers, Wolfen, Wolf, Teen Wolf, and An American Werewolf in London (review)

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When the moon hitsa you eye like a big pizza pie, that’s bad. It means the whole fangs-and-fur thing is coming.

It’s not too suspicious, is it, that the every-28-days, beware-the-moon rhythm to werewolf tales is so similar to the female menstrual cycle? Are lycanthropes a mythic way for men to appropriate some female sexuality, so legendarily mysterious and arcane to the male gender? Werewolves are almost exclusively male, after all, and lycanthropy is almost exclusively tied to a ramping up of male libido. (Insert your own “Oh, you’re such an animal…” joke here.) And it seems like the last 30 years — and in particular the 1980s — were rife with werewolf movies, in a period when women were becoming more sexually independent than they’d ever been before.

In 1981, for instance, in The Howling, Dee Wallace (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) got threatened with rape by a werewolf in, of all places, a peep show video booth, wherein she was terrorized by said creature of hell while being forced to watch a rape on the screen in front of her. That’s not too telling, huh? She doesn’t know he’s a werewolf before she agrees to meet him in the booth — she’s hotshot TV reporter Karen White, from Channel 6 Update News!!, which has its own groovy wack-a-chicka theme music, and she’s hot on the tail of Eddie the Mangler, aka Star Trek‘s Robert Picardo, who looks so much like Mr. Show‘s David Cross (when he doesn’t look like a werewolf) that it’s eerie and disconcerting that it makes the film even funnier than it’s intended to be. Eddie’s been terrorizing Los Angeles with a string of bizarre murders — which turn out not to be so bizarre when you factor in his status as a werewolf — and he likes Karen a lot, and you can figure out the rest.
The rape thing could be seen as a form of punishment for Karen, whose unwomanly career has forced her husband, Bill (Christopher Stone), into her shadow, which is no place for a proper man to be. He gets her back later, though, by having naughty, illicit sex with a freaky chick by a bonfire in the woods while (were)wolves howl — very elemental and earthy, to be sure, and it’s supposed to be erotic, I think, but it’s kinda silly. By this time, Karen and Bill have gone up to “The Colony,” run by celebrity shrink Patrick Macnee (The Avengers), to help Karen get over her amnesia about her terrifying first meeting with Eddie in the porn booth. If only she could remember that Eddie was a werewolf… So then she would’ve just run like hell when that howling in the woods scared her. Instead, it’s “La la la, let me walk in the woods and find out what that dreadful noise is.”

From the twisted minds of director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers) and screenwriter John Sayles (who cowrote with someone else who hasn’t had the luck to have since become as famous as Sayles), The Howling is kinda like a teens- having- sex- and- getting- killed- in- return horror movie, except everyone is grown-up and should either know better or should be allowed to have sex with whomever they want. And the big bad wolf is simply hilarious.

(Fun cameos for The Howling: Roger Corman is the guy waiting outside the phone booth; John Sayles is the coroner.)

This year’s British flick Dog Soldiers is more gloriously goofy (and gory) midnight movie stuff, sans any of the psychosexual nonsense: it’s straight-up horror, guys gettin’ picked off one by one in the most gruesome ways imaginable, and sometimes surviving in the most gruesome ways imaginable. It played on the Sci-Fi Channel in the States earlier this year (and also at this year’s Dark Wave festival, sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society), but surely its impact was diminished by the editing to which it must have been subjected to make it suitable for commercial cable. Because part of what makes Neil Marshall’s stylish and naturalistic movie so entertaining is the highly inventive vulgarity of his cast of characters, a squad of British soldiers on a training exercise in the Scottish Highlands. Much of it is along the shite and bollocks line, and hence likely incomprehensible to the majority of an American audience, but there’s a constant stream of fouks and foukers and foukin’s that eventually even the dimmest Yank will catch on… but the rudeness is part of the film’s impudent charm, and what a shame to have it gone.

So anyways, there’s a werewolf, obviously, loose in the Highlands, which is a damned creepy place under the best of circumstances, and this small band of brothers, led by Sean Pertwee (Love, Honour, and Obey), has been dropped in the middle of it with nothing but blanks in their guns, since the aim is not to actually kill the Special Forces guys playing the enemy. But when the monster attacks, things go very bad very fast, and we’re treated to truly sick and truly funny spectacles, like a soldier crazy-gluing his own guts back into his body. When the guys finally retreat to a remote farmhouse for safety, and the film becomes yet another Aliens/The Thing thing, humans getting picked off till there’s just a couple left (at which point someone is invariably secretly one of the monsters) it’s this kind of matter-of-fact black humor that keeps it so much damned fun — you will never, ever look at sausages the same way again. Plus, Marshall’s script is full of genre references, including one throwaway allusion to Star Trek that only the truly geeky will get, and delight in.

The sarge alerts his guys early on in the exercise, before events turn supernatural, that “I expect nothing less than gratuitous violence from the lot a ya.” Expect nothing less than that from Dog Soldiers.

If Dog Soldiers is a product of today’s geeky Gen-X mindset — and it is — then Wolfen springs from the environmental awareness of the 1970s (and it was still the 70s in 1981, when the film was released). Again, no psychosexual stuff, unless you count the whole “rape of the earth” approach, which we probably should, especially since it’s such a nice parallel with The Howling, from the same year.

Somebody VanderSomething, a rich developer and the Donald Trump of his day, is brutally killed in Lower Manhattan. Homeless bums are brutally killed just a few miles, and an entire world, away in the war zone of the devastated South Bronx. Connection? Albert Finney thinks so. The authorities think it was eco-terrorists who killed VanderWhatsit, as revenge for his ravaging of the environment all over the planet, but not Finney’s (Erin Brockovich) Dewey Wilson, rogue crazy loner of a cop that he is. There’s Indians involved, he thinks, wanting their land back (VanderSnoot’s family were among the first colonists– er, rapists of the New World). Or maybe wolves — coroner Gregory Hines keeps find canine hairs on the victims — or maybe shapeshifting Indians who turn into wolves. Like Edward James Olmos’ (The Road to El Dorado) Eddie Holt, who, setting the tone for many a werewolf flick to come, gets naked and howls, au naturel, to the full moon, connecting with nature or something.

Terrorism, or lycanthropy? The title of the film gives you a hint in which direction the mystery will unravel.

Full of the kind of mystical-gaian stuff you’d expect from a werewolf story with a social conscience from the same guy — novelist Whitley Streiber — who later wrote a supposedly nonfiction book about his own alien abduction, Wolfen is half silly and half profound, with much likening of the genocide of the Native Americans to the trashing of the natural world, and much harping on how white people aren’t so nice — though, it must be said, most of this harping is done by white people themselves. The silly part involves hilarious showers of blood and body parts flying majestically through the air, as well as a fair amount of ominous dum-DUM music; the profound part lends a genuinely spiritual air to New York City that I can’t remember ever seeing on screen before — from the Battery to the Bronx and the top of the Brooklyn Bridge looking down, you feel the ghosts inhabiting this ancient land. Though that’s probably down to director Michael Wadleigh, and not to Strieber at all.

Thirteen years later, wolves were back in NYC courtesy of Jack Nicholson and Mike Nichols. Though whereas in the 70s everything was politicized, in the 90s everything was about feelings, so now lycanthropy is a metaphor for the male midlife crisis instead of a commercial for Earth Day. Wolf, from 1994, actually works really well along those lines for far longer than it deserves to, thanks to the always wolfish Nicholson (The Pledge) giving, ironically, one of his more subtle performances.

Nicholson’s elegant book editor, Will Randall, is accused of being “the last civilized man,” of having “taste and individuality [that] are something of a handicap.” A series of unexpected betrayals — both professional and personal — come at precisely the moment when his culture and sophisticated enlightenment threaten to be washed away. Will was bitten by a wolf during a road trip to Vermont, and now he’s starting to feel funky: he no longer needs his reading glasses, for instance, he feels “20 years younger,” women suddenly find him irresistible, calling him — yes — an animal.

For a good hour and 20 minutes, Wolf is a refreshing new twist on an old tale. It’s not scary — it is, actually, the first werewolf drama, an astute exploration of a civilized man horrified and yet also exhilarated by his suddenly animalistic behavior. He does nothing wrong, nothing bad — he just becomes more alive, more in charge of his own life, more fully human for reconnecting to his own carnality. Nicholson has rarely been better than here, walking the line between the refinement of society and the pleasures of things more elemental.

Alas, no one knew where to go from there, because in the last act, the delicious metaphor is lost in favor of far more traditional — and unnecessary — horror action. Wolf could have been a great film. Instead, it defeats itself with its shaggy-dogginess.

(Fun cameos for Wolf: Alison Janney is the sycophant at the cocktail party; David Schwimmer is the cop in the zoo.)

At the other end of the spectrum of male sexuality is, of course, the nightmare of adolescence, which 1985’s Teen Wolf covers very well. Perhaps the nicest werewolf movie ever made — and how could it not be, when it stars sweetie pie Michael J. Fox? — this is an unexpectedly charming little movie about accepting oneself and developing confidence and learning how to get through high school with your self-esteem intact, which is a lot harder than it should be.

Fox’s (Stuart Little 2) Scott Howard is, you know, going through changes, he says, his voice cracking. Hair is growing in places it wasn’t before, and wow, girls are awfully pretty, aren’t they? Scott especially likes that one popular girl, even though she’s a real bitch and holds him in nothing but disdain. Scott is considered something of a dork, you see, mostly because of his presence on the school’s losing basketball team.

Yes, Michael J. Fox as a basketball player. That’s the kind of movie this is.

When his dad (James Hampton: Sling Blade) reveals that the men of the Howard family tend to get a lot more hair growing in a lot more places than other men, Scott is devastated… and then elated, when his new feralness makes him the star b-ball player and the hit of the school, even though he looks more like a monkey than a wolf. Scott gets a “he’s a hero now” montage, but can it last? Of course not. With a trail of alienated true friends in his wake and a slew of new pals who like him only for his popularity, Scott gets some somber lessons in What’s Important.

Sure, Teen Wolf is simple, and silly in places — in a lot of places — but it makes some cogent points without succumbing to overearnestness.

Earnestness was not John Landis’s primary concern with his black comedy An American Werewolf in London, also from that wolfy year of 1981. Instead, he wanted to send up the classic horror flicks of yesteryear while simultaneously updating them for modern audiences, and he succeeded splendidly.

American hitchhikers David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne: 40 Days and 40 Nights) are making their way across dark and creepy rural northern England, where folk actually warn strangers to stay off the moors and the ooky locals in the pub are like something out of the Addams family. Spooked by the unfriendly reception, the guys head out… across the moors… under the full moon… to the eerie baying of wolves. Not good.

Weeks later, David wakes up in a hospital in London. Jack is dead, mauled by the werewolf that attacked them, but he still visits regularly, scaring the crap out of David not only by his undead presence but by the plea he has for David, who holds the only key to releasing Jack and other victims of the werewolf from their ghoulish misery.

Snide and sharp, Landis explores the psychology of descending into lycanthropy with a straightforward realism while also acknowledging that no one could go through such an experience in the late 20th century without being thoroughly steeped in werewolf lore, and without being thoroughly skeptical of that same lore. The intellectual divide between accepting the oddness of physical metamorphosis and denying the reality of it manifests itself in what must be one of the most gruesome and graphic transformation scenes ever — the horridness of it makes the audience, as well as David, want to reject such a spectacle, and yet the authenticity of it dares us to do so.

Before things go too far south, there’s some randy sex for David — who made friends with a pretty nurse (Jenny Agutter) during his recuperation — and the traditional running-naked-through-the-streets-and-woods bits. But like Wolf, American Werewolf connects lycanthropy to something deeper than sheer physicality, as David finds that love may be the key to breaking the evil spell that bewitches him.

Spare and clean, with an uncluttered look rare for a horror film, American Werewolf doesn’t fool around: It gets in, makes its point, and gets out, and nobody gets hurt. Well, not actually, of course — many people get hurt — but this is what I’m saying: when it gets to the end of its simple story and has nothing more to say, it stops.

The end.

The Howling
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R

Dog Soldiers
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R for strong violence/gore and language
official site | IMDB

viewed at home on a small screen
rated R

viewed at home on a small screen
rated R

Teen Wolf
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG

An American Werewolf in London
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R

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