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Wolves of the 1980s: It’s a Jungle Out There (Part One)

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

As we all know, 1980 was the year that Ronald Reagan materialized within a sacred pentacle constructed from cocaine and junk bonds, dispatched to Earth on a mission of economic renewal, eternal morning, and orbital defense. I kid (or do I?), but the 1980s certainly left their mark on American – and world – culture. Emerging from the funky bellbottomed depravity of the late 70s, culture and politics took a different tack: a hypercapitalist, conservative, Police State tack, not to put too fine a point on it. As is ever and always the case, this seismic cultural shift was richly represented in horror, and fortuitously it happened to coincide with the pinnacle of practical effects work in horror cinema. At the time, some of the best work of SFX wizards like Rick Baker, Tom Savini, and Stan Winston was used to portray (in grotesque and loving detail) the hairy, gooey transformations in what would turn out to be another staple of the 80s: werewolf movies.

Now, werewolf fiction is one of the very oldest forms of horror storytelling, and wolf-men (and occasionally wolf-women) have been growling and slobbering their way through horror cinema since 1913’s The Werewolf, although they did not really come into their own until 1941’s genre-defining The Wolf Man, starring the inimitable Lon Chaney Jr. The 40s and 50s saw many werewolf movies, although “the” wolf man was often featured as a bit player in other monsters’ features (examples include 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula – one supposes that “Doghouse of the Wolf Man” wouldn’t have had the same eerie ring to it). The golden age of 1950s horror also prominently featured werewolf stories, my favorite of which is the unforgettable I Was a Teenage Werewolf, immortalized in Stephen King’s It and a very good song by psychobilly pioneers The Cramps.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf is exemplary of horror’s tendency to sublimate social anxieties into concrete and monstrous forms. While it’s difficult to get a mental handle on “juvenile delinquency” (inexplicably a tremendous concern at the time), it’s easy to comprehend a hormonal teenager who literally turns into a ravening, uncontrollable animal. It’s therefore interesting to chart the journey from I Was a Teenage Werewolf in 1957 to Teen Wolf, which romped into theaters in 1985. There is commonality in the barest bones of both movies’ plots: a fairly ordinary high school student is transformed into a shape-shifting werebeast. Aside from these cosmetic similarities, they could not be more different. Teenage Werewolf was a sort of incoherent cautionary tale about youth run wild, while Teen Wolf emphasized the difficulty of fitting in and finding one’s place when one is extraordinary or unusual. One film is a message of social conformity and the fear of bloodthirsty, heedless youth: the other is, if anything, a celebration of American teenagers and youth culture (albeit a highly commercial, highly commodified version of it).

Then again, perhaps the comparison isn’t entirely fair. I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a B horror movie, whereas Teen Wolf was a big-budget, big-name comedy that used horror tropes as hooks on which to hang its jokes. If we want a more authentic understanding of what werewolves represented in the 80s, we have plenty of examples to work with. The 1980s were a boom era for the genre. Notable examples include Silver Bullet (1985), The Company of Wolves (1984), Night of the Werewolf (1980), The Beast Within (1982), Waxwork (1988), and, of course, a film that was a towering achievement in horror, An American Werewolf in London (1981). American Werewolf deserves to be considered here by itself at some point; the excellence of its writing, direction, and (especially) its SFX work both transcended and redefined the horror genre. If we want to understand the direction of 1980s culture and ideology and better comprehend the decade’s emerging anxieties, it helps to look at two werewolf films in particular, both released in 1981: The Howling and Wolfen.

When one thinks of wolves, one doesn’t naturally think of the largest major metropolitan areas in the US (in fact, Salt Lake City – where I reside – is probably closer to the nearest wolf than most). Despite this, both Wolfen and The Howling use lycanthropy as a framing device to talk about issues of urban blight and social decay. Wolfen takes place in New York City, which was not exactly the safest spot on Planet Earth at the time, and The Howling’s setting is Los Angeles, which was almost as dangerous. Perhaps “the urban jungle” is an obvious metaphor, and one that is racially coded in a strikingly unsubtle way. Despite this, both films approach werewolves and big city living in ways that are instructive, interesting, and (for their era) surprisingly progressive in some ways. Predators do prowl the streets of these metropolises, The Howling and Wolfen suggest: but they aren’t the predators you’d think.

Next week, join me on an in-depth look at The Howling and Wolfen, and what the two films have to say about 1980s America.

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