Friday, October 7, 2011

Second Age Battle: The Howling vs. An American Werewolf in London


Alright so, this week at the Avon, they showed 2 great 1981 Werewolf films, The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. Rather than waste your, my and everyone's times doing another damned 2 page review each where I tell you that they're both good and you should see both of them (oh, spoiler: They're both good and you should see both of them, because I'm probably going to be spoiling them both. In fact, I KNOW I'm going to be spoiling them both.) I thought I'd mix it up a little. Variety is the spice of life eh?

So this time, I'm going to be comparing them in a series of scientific (shut up it is) trials to determine which is best. The trials will be: Story, Scares, Werewolf Design, Transformation Sequence, Script, Direction, Acting, Makeup & Special Effects and Uniqueness. By having 9 categories and a stubborn refusal to let any category come out a draw, I can guarantee a lack of ties. Also I would once again like to hang a MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT over the entire article, as I'll likely be spoiling the stories of both films repeatedly. So, go see them first, then come back for my opinion.

So, with that in mind, away we go:



Story:

The Howling:

The Howling is concerned with a female reporter who, while pursuing a lead for a story about a possible serial killer who is obsessed with her, is attacked by him and witnesses him getting killed (probably not a good idea to be alone in a booth with a serial killer who's obsessed with you eh?) Recovering from what is clearly PTSD, she is sent off by her psychiatrist to a haven in the north of the state, while her friends investigate the serial killer and why he seems to have come back to life (Hint: Werewolf). The film is at it's best in the slightly surreal presentation of the main characters shattered psyche, but kind of abandons that aspect towards the end.

The story is mostly good, even if it invites a little cliché here and there and doesn't seem to be up to much until the end of the 2nd act rolls around at which point it proceeds to go batshit insane. This doesn't NEED to be an issue, but a huge amount of the event in the 3rd act hinges on several characters making some baffling decisions and a few too many reveals that didn't seem to be teased. It even manages to drag out the tired old cliché of “Oh look a spooky house, I think I'll go inside, no chance the killer is there” near the 3rd act, and I thought we could avoid that with werewolf movies, since werewolves are primarily outdoor creatures. It's never precisely bad, and it's a hell of a lot better than some horror films, but it really is hanging together with floss by the end.

An American Werewolf in London:

AAWIL for short, introduces us to two American college students who are backpacking England for...reasons that are never made abundantly clear. They're established with names and slightly thin personalities, before they get kicked out of a pub and mauled by a werewolf. One is killed, the other hospitalized which means, you guessed it, he's gonna start turning into a werewolf while his dead friend advises him to kill himself to stop him from killing other people. Like The Howling, the movie is at it's most truly unique when it veers into the surreal and let's be honest here, when it goes surreal, AAWIL goes SURREAL. There's a fairly lengthy sequence where the main character has a dream about wolf faced nazi's massacring his family that you have to see to believe.

If I had to complain about it's story I'd say it has trouble keeping a consistent tone. It seems to want to be a horror/comedy, but doesn't know how to gel those two aspects together as later entries into that subgenre like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland do. As a result it has several truly JARRING shifts of tone, especially near the middle and the music choices don't help too much either.

Comparison and Winner:

Hmmm, well AAWIL seems to have trouble holding together near the middle whereas The Howling has trouble holding together near the end. Of course since the end is one of the things you remember the best, it means The Howling gets marked down more.

Winner: An American Werewolf in London

Scares:

A brief introduction: Horror is a twin sibling to comedy, in that it has a final arbitrator of quality. If a horror movie can scare you, or a comedy can make you laugh, it can make up for a hell of a lot of flaws, and most horrors and comedies know this. So this'll be an important category.

Also because I don't feel like explaining it in depth during the actual commentary, the term for the day is a Bus. A Bus is when a noise that sounds similar to the one the thing we're fearing makes is blared in a tense moment, occasionally to then present the creature more quietly but usually to keep us tense without needing to pull the creature again. It's named for a sequence in the 1950's film Cat People in which a woman being stalked by the heroine turned feline, is passed by a bus which makes noise uncannily like a big cat's roar. Some of you may be familiar with it's other term, a Cat Scare, named for it's primary use in the film Alien, IE the cat. It might be technically called a Cat Scare, but I was taught to call it a Bus and thus I shall call it a Bus. And with that in mind, moving on:

The Howling:
This one has the habit of telegraphing some of it's scares way too early. I spoke earlier of the sequence of the woman entering the obligatory spooky house? Well it's like a 10 minute sequence and the entire thing might as well have giant neon letters below it reading 'SOMETHING SCARY IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN.' But when it gets out of that kind of nasty habit and lets go, it can actually be quite alarming, especially when it throws the creature at you mid-telegraph or when they actually let you see what's going on.

An American Werewolf in London:
This one tries to mix it up by going telegraph, scare, bus, which is unique if nothing else, but doesn't quite work. Of course, this one also has the slightly strange desire to be a comedy, so that means that lot of scares get pushed off to the side in favor of the jokes. As with the story, the scares are at their best when it's being outright surreal, and that's only in the first act. Although, it must be said, the appearance of the main character's dead friend and how he looks (just roll with it) is rather disquieting.

Comparison and Winner:
The Howling uses the scare cliches and makes them work for it, whereas AAWIL tries to mix it up and it just gets muddled. Good effort though.

Winner: The Howling

Werewolf Design:

The Howling:

The Howling has perfectly good werewolves, when we see them outright. No I'm not kidding, they look great, when we SEE them completely. The two legged design really brings it, they move easily, they're big and scary enough to be a credible threat, etc. What the designers seem to have forgotten is that since a werewolf will mostly be seen half-lit or in the dark, the thing we will see the most of it will be it's silhouette, and this where The Howling falls flat on it's face.

The things have tall thin ears, that look in silhouette (and occasionally not in silhouette) like bunny ears. I understand what they were going for with them, but it complete undercuts at least 2 scenes and is hard to forget. And it must be said, the last werewolf we see looks like a pomeranian.

An American Werewolf in London

AAWIL opted for a slightly less traditional (at least at the time) 4 legged werewolf, that seems to resemble a wolf the size of a lion. And while this is a tiny bit incongruous with an early half-seen werewolf, it really works. It's done by Rick Baker (who's name, on the opening credits, got a well deserved round of applause from the theater) who is pretty much the best in the world at this shit, and while the 1981 limitations and low budget apparent, it really works when it needs to.

Comparison and Winner:

The Howling would have won this one if it had just done something about those ears. Oh well.

Winner: An American Werewolf in London

Transformation Sequence:

The Howling:

This is where The Howling really shines, and while it's a little too long in getting to it, when it finally hits it's worth the wait. The actual transformation sequence is a fantastic makeup and special effects job, that's more than a little reminiscent of The Thing. Of course it takes it's sweet damned time about it, but that's closer to a nitpick than an actual complaint.

An American Werewolf in London:

I hate having to be as harsh to this as I'm going to be. It's not a bad transformation, by any means and I can see where they were going with it. And they came so close that I almost want to give it a pass but...yeah it doesn't work. A lot of it comes with the style of the transformation and the design of the werewolf itself. Since it rocks the all fours look, the hands and arms transform first and while that COULD work, the head goes last which means for the most part his head is out of proportion with the rest of his body and it breaks the illusion.

Comparison and Winner:

Sorry American. Nice effort though.

Winner: The Howling

Script:

The Howling:

This is one the primary failures of The Howling so it's going to get marked down fairly hard on this. The characters are all clearly various stock characters from the different genres thrown together and the dialogue could stand to be better. What's more, as I said earlier, LARGE parts of the plot hang on certain characters acting like massive idiots, which is never a place you want to end up as a storyteller (unless you're doing it intentionally and well, ala Burn After Reading but that's not the point). The dialogue is unsubtle and occasionally wooden. It's certainly better than it could have been and usually better than it strictly NEEDS to be, but it's got it's share of problems.

An American Werewolf in London:

Okay so this one still rocks the odd cliché and and is kinda all over the map, but it manages to structure it's cliches in a way to be engaging and unique. The characters are MOSTLY well rounded and the story is well structured enough to keep it's pretty rote and predictable story enjoyable. The dialogue flows and each character has a solid voice. And while the comedy and horror never come together in any meaningful way, each is good enough in it's own segments.

Comparison and Winner:

Sorry The Howling, you're not bad, but you're not too good there either.

Winner: An American Werewolf in London

Direction:

The Howling:

The Howling was directed by Joe Dante, who did what is still the worst movie I've seen at the Avon Hollywood Boulevard, but also Gremlins and...well nothing else of interest until 2009's The Hole and it's competently directed, but never feels the need to rise higher than that. It runs down the list of what you need to do in a movie like this, and has a couple of interesting moments, but all in all it's fairly rote horror direction. Which isn't bad, trying to push past your limits is how Dune got made, but it does hurt in comparison with...

An American Werewolf in London

American Werewolf was directed by John Landis, who's best known for comedies like Coming to America and Blues Brothers and while his inexperience at horror occasionally shows, he's got some unique ideas and some amusing in-jokes (for example, every song in the soundtrack has Moon somewhere in it's title) and the outright absurdities of some of the surreal sequences are impressive and unique.

Comparison and Winner:
Sorry Howling, but uniqueness and inventiveness count in my book.

Winner: An American Werewolf in London

Acting:

The Howling:

Now this one is definitely going to hurt The Howling, because no one seems to be on the same page either. Dee Wallace is doing a traumatized performance, which doesn't fit with Christopher Stone's 'discovering his manhood/wolfhood' performance, which doesn't fit with most of the rest of the cast's 'hillbilly from hell' performance (Hellbilly?) which REALLY doesn't fit Robert Picardo's slick serial killer performance, which occasionally veers out of nowhere into the hellbilly stuff. None of it's bad mind you, and David Carradine is great in a bit role, but it's all going in different directions.

An American Werewolf in London:

Overall AAWIL's acting is a little simpler, but it's all going in the same direction so it works. The two American kids do good jobs as the outsiders and the British and Scottish characters do great jobs making them feel unwelcome. It's all rote stuff and it really drags with Jenny Agutter's uninteresting performance as 'the girl' but it all works when it needs to.

Comparison and Winner:

It's strange, because while The Howling has better acting, AAWIL's is all going the same place, so it seems that it gets the prize. Weird huh?

Winner: An American Werewolf in London

Makeup & Special Effects:

The Howling

Aside from the werewolf transformation, The Howling has the fantastic makeup used to realize a character who's face has been burned with acid...and that's more or less it. There's a brief shot of someone of what I think were two people who were transforming while having sex (roll with it) and a couple explosions and fire effects, but those last two are fairly standard, and the other is just...odd.

An American Werewolf in London:

Now this one goes all out: Dead people wandering around with their wounds on display, werewolf nazis, one truly horrifying shot of the main character with some intense monster makeup during a dream sequence, lot of great makeup on hand. Not for nothing was this the movie that made the Oscars create the Academy Award for Makeup (no really). With that in mind, it's hard to compare them.

Comparison and Winner:

Kind of hard to compare with: 'I made the academy awards create a new award for me?' isn't it?

Winner: An American Werewolf in London

Uniqueness:

The Howling:

This one at least tries to mix it up: Making werewolves able to transform whenever, having a group of them instead of just the one, etc. Sure it falls back into werewolf and horror cliches as the story runs on, but hey it's still good, and the 'werewolf as serial killer' thing really works.

An American Werewolf in London:

While it rocks the story well and adds some interesting spins on the usual cliches, AAWIL reads a little too close to The Wolfman for comfort. The 'your victims are doomed to limbo' thing is alright but it only really comes up in the third act and with the main character's dead friend, so it doesn't add TOO much. The sanity slippage aspect adds much more, but it's only in the first third or so.

Comparison and Winner:

Howling gave a valiant effort and this one is REALLY close, but I think I have to give it to American.

Winner: An American Werewolf in London


Conclusion:

And the victor is...hold on, let me count...wow, An American Werewolf in London at 7 to 2. I thought that would be closer. Oh well, so American is the better film. Go see it. And The Howling, it's good too. Go see them both.

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