Friday, November 2, 2018

Movie Review: Feature Film Face-Off: "Wolfen" (1981) vs. "The Howling" (1981) vs. "An American Werewolf in London" (1981)

You thought Halloween was over? We've got one last surprise for you! Today, we are here with another installment in our series, FEATURE FILM FACE-OFF! In this series, we take movies and pit them against each other in a battle for the ages! We break down each film and see which one will be the winner.

1981 unquestionably was the year of the wolf. That year, three killer wolf movies were released within a five-month span. The first was Joe Dante's "The Howling," which was released on April 10th. The second was Michael Wadleigh's "Wolfen," which came out on July 24th. The third and most popular of the three was John Landis's "An American Werewolf in London," which was released on August 21st. Despite each of these films being about fantastical wolf creatures, they handle the subject in very different ways with some taking the more dramatic route and others going a little more tongue-in-cheek. So who did it best, Dante, Wadleigh, or Landis? We will try to find out in this 1981 wolf movies Feature Film Face-Off.

lololovesfilms wolfen the howling an american werewolf in london


"Wolfen" star Albert Finney is a fantastic actor, but his character Detective Dewey Wilson doesn't seem all that fleshed out. There is the talk of his troubled past, but that never really comes into play in the overall narrative. Our favorite character in this film has to be Whittington, played by Gregory Hines, who offers up good doses of comedic relief in between all of the brooding.

As for "The Howling," Dee Wallace is a horror icon and does a wonderful job playing Karen White, a reporter who suffers from PTSD following a very traumatic experience. Though she does fall into the "damsel in distress" role a little too often, Karen is still a great character most of the time. There are also a lot of eccentric supporting characters that add some intrigue to the story.

In "An American Werewolf in London," David Naughton is good as David, the confused survivor of a werewolf attack. However, Griffin Dunne as David's undead friend Jack is really the one who steals the show with his dry humor as he tries to convince David that he is a werewolf and attempts to goad him into killing himself for the greater good.


"Wolfen" plays out like a mystery as a rough detective searches for murderers that are mutilating people and stealing organs in New York City. We like this approach, and it can be engaging at times, but it doesn't help the mystery aspect any that movie is named after the killers. It's also a little all over the place with talk of terrorists and Native American animal transfiguration that are red herrings more than anything. The final climax also feels a bit underwhelming. Though it takes a more serious approach to the subject, that doesn't automatically make it better.

"The Howling" revolves around a reporter who suffers from PTSD after she helps police apprehend a serial killer during a sting operation. Most of the film takes place at a therapy camp that is secretly a werewolf commune. Though "The Howling" isn't entirely treated like a mystery, what mystery it has is far more compelling than anything found in "Wolfen."

Finally, "An American Werewolf in London" is all about wrestling with inner demons. David tries to come to terms with whether or not he is crazy or whether or not he's a werewolf after his traumatic attack. It's not a deep or in-depth narrative, but it is more focused and is much more fun and entertaining overall. This section is close to call, but we were slightly more taken by the narrative of "The Howling" over the other two.

lololovesfilms wolfen the howling an american werewolf in london


Michael Wadleigh made "Wolfen" a slow-burning crime thriller, and unfortunately, this causes the film to be a little dull and boring at times. He also uses a color effect we really disliked that we call 'Wolf Vision.' Imagine what was used in "The Predator" a couple of years later, but less consistent, more distracting, and much faster moving. Yuck.

"The Howling" is one of Joe Dante's earlier films. It's apparent to us that even early on in his career, Dante knew what was relevant, crucial information. He knew what needed to be kept into his movie to push the plot forward. Dante does a great job building tension and creating an eerie atmosphere, something Wadleigh failed to do.

John Landis blends humor and horror well together in "An American Werewolf in London," and though some may call it a bit tonally uneven, his directorial choices worked for us. That being said, this flick doesn't have much tension and relies more on gore and a few jump-scares to creep the audience out. Still, we think "An American Werewolf in London" is the best directed of the three films.


"Wolfen" has a decent body count that is spaced out throughout the movie. The visual effects work surrounding these deaths looks really cool as hands are severed, throats are torn out, and people are decapitated, which adds to the horror factor. The antagonists, however, look like regular old wolves. When you wait for a movie's entire (very long) runtime to reveal the killers and they turn out to look like any other run-of-the-mill wolves, well, we couldn't help but be disappointed.

Whereas the deaths in "Wolfen" are sporadic, "The Howling" opens with one big moment and then waits until the end to have a climax of carnage where bodies pile up in the last few minutes.

"An American Werewolf in London" has many moments of massive carnage from the initial attacks on Jack and David, as well as crazy dream sequences with Nazi werewolves, mid-film werewolf feasting, and the climax carnage at Picadelli Circus.

The revealing of the werewolves and the transfiguration scenes are fantastic in both "The Howling" and "An American Werewolf in London." We actually prefer that classic bipedal look of "The Howling" werewolves compared to the large quadrupedal one in "An American Werewolf in London" and the boring regular ol' wolves in "Wolfen." That being said, the makeup work winner has to be "An American Werewolf in London," not just for its iconic transformation scene, which "The Howling" also handles well, but for the makeup work on the continuously decaying Jack. There are so many astonishing details, including a hanging little flap of skin that moves whenever he shakes his head, that is so, so perfect. Rick Baker deserved the Oscar for that touch alone.

As for use of music, "An American Werewolf in London" wins that contest, too, for its several variations of the song "Blue Moon."

lololovesfilms wolfen the howling an american werewolf in london

*Naming the Winner*

Each one of these wolf-centric films has some admirable qualities. That being said, "Wolfen" is a little too dull and underwhelming to hang with the other two. "The Howling" has good characters, the most interesting narrative, the best werewolf design, and great visual effects overall. "An American Werewolf in London" has excellent characters, is the best-looking of the three films, is the most fun and entertaining of the trio, and has stunning makeup work. This Feature Film Face-Off wound up being a lot closer than we expected.

Winner: "An American Werewolf in London"

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