If you’re a Roger Corman fan, you know Dick Miller . If you enjoy the films of Joe Dante, you know Dick Miller. Hell, if you’ve watched movies for the past sixty years, you know Dick Miller, maybe not by name, but certainly by sight. Dick Miller, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90, was one of those character actors who elevated everything he did, even the schlockiest of schlock. He’s in some of my favorite films, never a big star but always a welcome presence, and the ultimate Familiar Face.
Miller was born in the Bronx on Christmas Day 1928 and caught the show biz bug early. By age 8 he was working as a “boy singer” in the Catskills, and as a teen he worked in various stock companies, doing everything from acting to painting scenery. After a hitch in…
This October, I’m going to be doing something a little bit different with my contribution to 4 Shots From 4 Films. I’m going to be taking a little chronological tour of the history of horror cinema, moving from decade to decade.
I always thought that Joe Dante’s 1981 horror film, The Howling, has been overlooked just a little bit due to it’s release being the same year as John Landis’ own horror film, An American Werewolf In London. Both were werewolf films and both were good in their own right.
Dante’s film has been called silly by some critics, but it was the more serious of the two with Landis’ own film mixing in more black humor in the narrative than Dante’s which took on a more traditional approach to the werewolf horror. Even the transformation scene from both films took on opposite sides in terms of mood and tone. Where Landis’ film treated the scene with both a mixture of horror and camp (due to the music playing in the background) in The Howling the scene went for full-on horror.
This has been one of my favorite horror scenes and it’s all due to the work of the very person who made John Carpenter’s The Thingsuch a memorable piece of horror filmmaking: Rob Bottin.
This man should be handed every award for every effects work he has ever done and will continue to do. It’s a shame that he hasn’t done anything of note since 2002’s Serving Sara, but until Hollywood decides that if they want great practical effects paired with advancing CG ones and hire Bottin once again we can always fall back on his past work such as the one’s he did for The Howling.
1981 was a great year for wolf movies. There was the excellent An American Werewolf in London by John Landis and Joe Dante’s equally creepy The Howling. To finish off the trifecta of werewolf films for the year there’s Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen. Wadleigh’s film was a very good werewolf tale that added a bit of Native American folklore to the typical lycanthrope story, but it’s slightly overlong running time keeps it from being as great as Landis’ and Dante’ contributions.
Wolfen takes place in the city of New York and its growing urban jungle of decaying and condemned buildings in the city’s ghettos. One has to remember that the late 70’s and through on the mid-80’s the inner-cities of most of the major metropolitan cities in the US have turned into rundown ghettos rife with drug problems, high-crime rates and unemployment. It is in this setting that Wolfen takes place in. The film used the screenplay co-written by horror veteran novelist Whitley Strieber and his quirky style heavily influences this werewolf story. Strieber’s screenplay mixes together a police procedural, political intrigue, business corruption, race and class relations, Native American lycanthrope folklore and horror. Wolfen tries to combine all these different elements together as well as possible and it mostly succeeds, but there’s times when the film gets dragged down a bit trying to accomplish this.
The cast was made up of mostly new actors (well young and new at that time) with a few veteran actors holding things together. Albert Finney gets the choice role of NYPD Detective Dewey Wilson who begins investigating a series of brutal murders of three individuals whose race, class and personal status brings no discernible clues that ties them together. Joining him in his investigation — which Wilson gradually suspects has some sort of supernatural angle to it — were the very young Diane Venora and Gregory Hines. Edward James Olmos plays a Native American whose knowledge ties to who or what was involved in the killings might be closer than everyone thinks. The performances from all involved were pretty good though Hines comic relief performance was a bit too blackface in its tone and execution. 1981 Hollywood was still not ready to discount such racial stereotypes and it gives Wolfen a certain sense of creepiness and insensitivity. Maybe the screenplay was written just that way to highlight one of the film’s themes of racial and class inequality. If it was then Strieber sure did an excellent job of hammering home the point.
There’s a point in the film where we find out the nature of these wolfen and it does stretch the usual definition of the typical werewolf story. But looking back on it now this version told by Strieber and Wadleigh does lend credence to native folklore about wolves who were cunning as men and who preyed not just on the animals in their territory but hunted men as well. Whether they’re wolves or men in the shape of wolves really is left to the audience’s imagination even after the brief explanation of the wolfen and it’s role in the legends and myths of Native Americans.
The film had very creepy moments whenever the story switches over to be told through the viewpoint of the wolfen. The skewed perspective the camera takes on to signify that we were seeing things through the eyes of the wolfen was disorienting and creepily well-done. Wolfen never really has pure horror moments in the film though in the hands of a director like Carpenter these sequences definitely would’ve raised the level of dread and horror. Wadleigh does a good enough job, but it seemed like he was treating the horror aspect of the story with less attention than it was its due.
Wolfen marks the weakest of the werewolf trilogy of 1981, but thats not to say that it was a bad film. The finished product was a well-done film and its attempt to be very ambitious in its storytelling has to be commended. The fact that the filmmakers and all involved were able to keep all the different themes and genres together without having the film spiral into utter confusion makes it a worthwhile werewolf film. It may have been the weakest of the three films mentioned but it wasn’t by much.