(Content warning: discussion of sexual violence. In Part 1 of this two-part examination of werewolf movies and the 1980s, I touched on the ability of werewolf stories to express social anxieties over the years, and on the unusually large number of these stories that 1980s horror cinema produced.)
An American Werewolf in London is widely recognized and hailed for many things, its practical special effects (which remain as grotesque and fascinating in 2021 as they were in 1981) in particular. For a multitude of reasons, I think that American Werewolf deserves to be considered in a separate column at some point, and so I won’t be using it as a touchstone for discussing the larger trend of 1980s werewolf films. American Werewolf was a successful enough mainstream effort, artistically and commercially, that I feel it transcends the genre to an extent. Likewise, it’s hard to even consider a werewolf film like Teen Wolf to be a horror movie at all. It has more of Sixteen Candles or Three O’Clock High in its shaggy DNA than it does The Wolf Man or I Was a Teenage Werewolf.
For our purposes, it’s better to examine “pure” werewolf movies. Two werewolf films in particular from 1981 – Wolfen and The Howling – provide us with an intriguing peek into what anxieties moviegoers were dealing with in those days. As I touched on briefly in Part 1 of this post, modern concerns about urban crime are largely unfounded and even silly, given the current comparatively low crime rate and high level of safety in cities. In many ways, the continued irrational fear of urban crime is a scar left on the national psyche by the historic crime waves of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1981 – the year that both Wolfen and The Howling were released – urban crime was very much a problem. Poverty, coupled with a policy of intentional neglect of Black and brown neighborhoods and an influx of guns and narcotics, created a very real sense in large metropolises like New York City and Los Angeles that society was coming apart completely.
Which may help explain the phenomenon, examined in so many 1980s werewolf movies (including Wolfen and The Howling), of the big-city werewolf. Traditionally, werewolf stories have been stories anchored in and responding to nature. Going all the way back to my favorite werewolf story of all time, the true story of Old Thiess, werewolves have been humanity’s way of sublimating our fears of our own animal nature, the part of us that would love nothing better than to give in to our more, shall we say, primitive desires. Since the dawn of the fairy tale and the era of the fireside legend, such stories have been set in undeveloped nature (usually, but not always, the deep woods and forests that have stood for darkness and the natural unknown since time immemorial). Not so the werewolf stories of the 1980s. Wolfen and The Howling, for example, are both set in enormous, blighted, and crime-ridden modern urban environments – Wolfen in New York City, and The Howling in Los Angeles.
Both films use the “urban jungle” as a stand-in for the wild, untrammeled places more traditionally haunted by werewolves. This is quite revealing: throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the dehumanization of people living in America’s “urban jungles” was a constant in the political rhetoric of the powerful from Ronald Reagan to Bill and Hillary Clinton (not to mention now-President Joe Biden). Describing America’s cities as “the wilderness” and the folks living in those communities as “superpredators” is a literal act of dehumanization; one that an astonishing proportion of Americans were comfortable with both then and now. Now, either Wolfen or The Howling could have fallen into the trap of dehumanization. Instead, both films use anxieties about the “urban jungle” to talk about other issues in surprisingly subtle ways.
The first ten to fifteen minutes of The Howling are a joyously grimy journey back to the more pervert-friendly nooks and crannies of Los Angeles circa 1981. The leering men, the porn stores and peep shows, the alleyways where anything terrible can happen (and often did) – it’s a little like the grossest time capsule imaginable. In fact, as The Howling slowly unspools its story of monstrous killers (and unnatural killings), the bodily autonomy and integrity of women is a central theme. The protagonist, a television news anchor named Karen White, is subjected to vile and sexually coded treatment by killer Eddie Quist. She is both objectified and commodified by the all-male management of her station. Her partner, despite his straight-from-porn moustache, seems a decent sort (at first), but he’s the rare exception. While the werewolf conspiracy that unfolds largely takes place in “the Colony” (a rural resort), the perspective of the film is primarily colored by the predatory, you-are-meat paranoia gifted us by the seedy light of the opening scenes. While every decade since the 1920s (and many decades before that) has seen both progress and setbacks for feminism in America, the 1980s were a particularly rough time and an age of backlash, from Rush Limbaugh to horrifyingly trivializing portrayals of sexual assault in mainstream comedies. The Howling – which was directed by the one and only Joe Dante – both reflects and occasionally criticizes the predatory male gaze; the leering Big Bad Wolf, if you will.
While The Howling kicks off in Los Angeles, Wolfen is as New York as that distinctive New York subway smell (a unique bouquet of piss, long-dead cigarette smoke, burned rubber, hot wiring, and ageless dust). Wolfen is worth watching as a detective story in its own right, and the protagonist – an NYPD Captain named Dewey Wilson – is that rarest of animals in cinema: a cop character that I did not immediately hate. In fact, I found Wilson’s cynical, oft-drunk character to be a likable tour guide to the wasteland of the South Bronx in 1981. Wolfen’s plot revolves around a series of grisly murder/mutilations that mysteriously circumvent the walls of money and power separating the super-rich capitalist ruling class from the ruin that they had made of the less fortunate sectors of their conurbation. I am not exaggerating when I say that the South Bronx in 1981 looked like it had been carpet-bombed into submission:
That, comrades, is the grisly front-line impact of class war. As Wolfen’s plot resolves itself, (spoiler alert) the mystery killer turns out to be less werewolves than a sort of uber-ur-wolf, a piece of nature disturbed by human habitation and real estate development alike. While the wolves at the heart of the plot turn out to be, in my opinion, disappointingly ordinary, the film has several threads that offer subtle and insightful critiques of New York’s – and America’s – class system. Through the god-ghost-whatever Wolfen, Wolfen uses a fairly direct metaphor to shine a light on the predatory environment of a New York City where billionaires may as well live on a different planet from the city’s poor, rather than just a few short blocks away.
The 1980s were a predatory time – a time that celebrated predators and predation, “peace through strength” and ecstatic consumerism. The culture celebrated those who could climb the ladder of success – or kill their way up the food chain, if you like. A decade of neglect and mismanagement of big cities like Los Angeles and New York rendered the contrast between “killers” and “prey” apparent in ways that were too stark to ignore. Horror will always be a way for us to work out social anxieties we may not be ready to confront directly. After all, werewolves – in all their shaggy, toothy physicality – can often be slain by a silver bullet. Not so with complex issues like the exploitation and commodification of women, poor people, people of color, and other groups with less access to the “rising tide” of the 1980s.
A Baptism for the Dead
Historical horror set in the mountainous West, in a landscape of death and madness.