S.M. Douglas

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Tag: Gary Brandner

Three Must Read Werewolf Books for Your Holiday Shopping Season

In October I commented on two of the best werewolf transformation scenes of all time and then broke down one of the all time great werewolf movies – The Howling. To complete my series of werewolf themed posts I would like to change media formats; from movies to books.

More to the point, and in light of this being the silly season, if you have loved one’s who enjoy a good scare then I have three must read werewolf books any one of which would make a wonderful gift. In addition, and this being the season of lists, I have ranked them in my order of preference from third to first, with this post focusing on the third of my recommendations (and follow up posts tackling my top two choices):

3.) The Howling – by Gary Brandner

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First off, for those of you clicking on the link provided above note that I have chosen to include the original book cover in this post (from its publication in 1977). This decision was made for a number of reasons. Most notably it is because the werewolf pictured on the cover of the 2011 edition looks nothing like the very wolfish four-legged werewolf described in the book. In that regard I think Brandner’s publisher did his work a disservice. On the other hand I am also a traditionalist, and enjoyed the simplicity of the original cover.

With that out of the way the book’s plot is fairly conventional in terms of many of its larger points – the werewolves can only transform at night, there is a clear progression of victims, etc…But beyond that the book does a number of things well, all of which elevate it to being quite a nice read.

Two of the most important decisions made by Brandner were discussed in my previous post regarding the 1981 movie “The Howling” which otherwise has little similarity to this book. That being the sheer malevolence of the werewolves, and their communal nature. Not to gloss over these decisions as they were truly innovative for their time – but again read the other post….Go ahead, I will wait….In the meantime I will discuss several other things Brandner did that were worthy of praise.

For one he crafted a tightly written work (at 200 plus pages) that absolutely nails the right mood and tone for a werewolf novel. The town of Drago, the home of the werewolves, is about as creepy as it gets. It is a genuinely scary place that exudes evil. That is to Brandner’s credit as a writer. Striking the proper atmospherics is one of the trickier aspects of writing, and Brandner nails it. Drago is the kind of place that if you stumbled across it you would promptly roll up the windows, lock the doors, and speed on through even as you tried to shrug off the inexplicable chill running up your spine.

In addition, in a book that features an almost pornographic sex scene and features a horrible act of violence against a woman Brandner manages to create a female protagonist named “Karyn Beatty” who is brave, sympathetic, and admirable enough that one almost forgets about the otherwise more sordid aspects of his work. Had her character been written the same way for the movie that she was for the book she might have gone down as another of that era’s great fictional female champions every bit as strong as her onscreen peers Ripley (Alien) and Sarah Connor (Terminator). This is because Brandner’s Karyn suffers through a series of tragic circumstances including: a rape and miscarriage; a less than supportive slut of a husband who ends up abandoning her during her time of greatest emotional need; the loss of her dog (who can’t sympathize with that); and one closed door after another everywhere she turns for help.  Yet through sheer force of will she overcomes. This strength of the book is perhaps the greatest failing of the movie version – as the film’s character Karen White (played by Dee Wallace-Stone) somehow comes across as more of a damsel in distress than a heroine.

Finally, I have to single out for special attention the book’s introduction. It is a tidy little vignette taking place hundreds of years ago in an Eastern European town named Dradja, and it is fantastic. I would rather have you read it then describe it. As much as this introduction pulls the reader in however, it leads into perhaps the book’s greatest fault. And as a side note on the book’s faults say what you want about Brandner’s decision to create werewolves that look like wolves – I prefer by far the film’s two-legged version of a werewolf – but for some reason the almost literal man into wolf somehow works here. Now back to the good stuff….

The introductory chapter setting the book’s back story was so well written, so horrifically compelling, and unfortunately brief that it left this reader wanting more. It is almost like he created an outline in that first chapter that easily could have been blown out into several large chunks inserted throughout the story; pacing the present with the past and in effect telling the twin stories of these evil towns (Dradja of the opening vignette and Drago of the novel’s main body) side by side. Yes this would have blown out the length of the book into something more Stephen Kingishly long, but in this case that wouldn’t have been a bad thing. As it was the horror in Dradja that Brandner dangles before the reader is so compelling that the rest of the book’ first act almost pales in comparison. And this is in spite of the horrific rape that otherwise dominates the first part of this work. In fact the book doesn’t really pick up again until we enter Drago, where Brandner regains his stride and carries the reader through a fast paced second and third acts.

For sure I would have loved to see Brandner follow-up and expand that opening scene into a full-blown novel or even a novella, but the book is still an enjoyable read (regrettably he passed away late last year at the age of 83). That is why I have the book “The Howling” at number three on my gift giving list for the werewolf fan. Please come back next week for my second selection.

How The Howling Raised the Bar For Werewolf Films

A few weeks ago I raised the issue of great werewolf transformation scenes. Today we can fondly remember any number of such examples over the past three decades that helped frighten, horrify, and entertain us. But what many people don’t understand today is that in the nearly four decades following the 1941 classic The Wolf Man the werewolf film as a sub-genre of horror had largely floundered. This was for a number of reasons, many of which were caused by the very brilliance of The Wolf Man itself. Directed by George Waggner, featuring the great Lon Chaney Jr.  and Claude Raines in starring roles, as well as showcasing Jack Pierce’s pioneering work creating the beast himself; the film on at least an emotional level still stands up today.

Problematically however, The Wolf Man so thoroughly established the Hollywood version of what a werewolf is, how one can defeat such a monster, and what he should look like that the werewolf films that followed ultimately ended up being pale imitations. This was so much so that what many regard as the golden era of B-Movie “creature features” – the 1950’s – almost excluded the werewolf all together (with one notable exception being I Was A Teenage Werewolf starring Michael Landon of Little House on the Prairie fame. It did little to challenge the conventions established by The Wolf Man but ended up being an enjoyable film nevertheless).

It is thus with that context established that one must regard 1981’s The Howling.

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As I mentioned in my last post and though 1981 featured one of the other truly great werewolf films, American Werewolf in London, what many people forget is that The Howling came not only first but lacked the budget of its brethren film. Yet it still ended up producing a near equally satisfying experience for the horror/werewolf aficionado. But the question remains: how?

The answer to that question is of course complex. But at its core it involved a significant reinvention of what the werewolf film should be, and in doing so remains a classic that even younger viewers steeped in CGI effects will find genuinely scary. To that end we must give special credit to Director Joe Dante, his screenwriters John Sayles and Terence Winkless, and a young barely old enough to legally drink special effects wizard named Rob Bottin (himself an understudy to the great Rick Baker).

Dante and Sayles set the tone, crafting a screenplay that featured a humorous semi-comedic and self-deprecating subtext that ended up working brilliantly. John Landis would do the same thing in American Werewolf in London – which truth be told was played much more overtly and to such an extant Landis’ film must be regarded almost as much a comedy as a horror film. What is astonishing about Dante and Sayles’ work however is that they had a successful book (Gary Brandner’s The Howling) from which to craft the story, feel, and theme of the film but instead largely junked it. They started over from scratch (as well as significantly reworked Winkless’ initial drafts of the film version).  Consequently, the movie is almost nothing like the book – though both ended up great in their own way (and I recommend that you read the book).

From there Dante filled the cast with a number of superb character actors including Slim Pickens, John Carradine, and Dick Miller among others. In addition he cast the newcomer Elisabeth Brooks; who performed brilliantly as the one character who remained somewhat faithful to the book (the sexy seductress Marsha). Beyond that the film featured additional layers of social commentary poking fun at the media, self-improvement/psychotherapy, and more. Furthermore, Dante, who has a Tarantinoesque reservoir of knowledge regarding 1950’s to 1970’s pulp fiction, paid homage to those who came before him. The film features characters named after great directors and others involved in past werewolf and B-Movie films, plus even includes cameo’s by the great director Roger Corman and Forrest J. Ackerman (he of the well known fanboy magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland).

Moreover, and this is important, Dante and crew did two things that elevated The Howling from merely entertaining to actually reinventing the genre. To that end they made their werewolves not only nearly completely malevolent whether in human or changed form, but also communal. Up until The Howling Waggner’s Wolf Man held an influence so strong that almost nobody had challenged it in any real way. Meaning that Lon Chaney Jr.s anguished portrayal of a guilt ridden Lawrence Talbot had been so brilliant that it had been (as per Hollywood conventions) repeated again and again. Dante cast all of that aside. His werewolves embraced their wolfishness. They reveled in their bestial sexuality and violence, and for the most part accepted themselves for whom they had become. Secondly, the classic werewolf film featured a lone wolf (pun intended), not an entire community of them. This is an aspect of the story that Dante wisely carried over from Brandner’s book. For the audience this was something brand new. And so would be something else….

One of the greatest transformation scenes ever came from The Howling. The scene was so great it served in many ways to overshadow the actual intended climax of the film.  Bottin and Baker (who left during filming to work on American Werewolf in London) dramatically raised the stakes in almost a similar way to what the special effects in Star Wars had done for science fiction/space fantasy films.

Though the effects used in The Wolf Man were revolutionary for their day, by the early 1980s they had become decidedly passe. Bottin and Baker rejected the old conventions of applying makeup filmed slowly over time and melded together to produce the effect of shape shifting.

They also rejected the stop-motion animation craze widely present in that era (that had even showed up in The Empire Strikes Back and doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the other special effects techniques of the time). There actually is a stop-motion scene in The Howling and it is not that bad, though it is jarring in comparison to the remainder of the film’s effects. Mercifully that clip is the only one. Other such scenes that were actually filmed but not used were laughably dreadful, and regretfully sucked up enough of the limited budget that the broke production team had to employ actual animation in one scene and to ill effect.

Instead of those techniques Bottin employed the revolutionary use of bladders, mechanical prosthesis, and a whole range of contraptions to create a truly horrifying werewolf:

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The Howling is not perfect. The ill advised use of animation to close out a scene of werewolf intercourse/transformation was as mentioned truly lamentable. In addition, and though some viewer’s enjoy the film’s ending, in my opinion the effects actually hindered what could have been an all time classic climax. In this case the film’s final transformation, which began quite horrifying enough and with perhaps Dee Wallace-Stone’s best acting performance of the film (featuring a soul shattering scream of terror followed by genuine sadness and fear) paradoxically was accompanied by a final transformation that left her looking more like a Pomeranian than every other werewolf shown in the film. If Dante and crew could just scrape together a few bucks, re-shoot that final up close shot of her transformed face (substituting in something more like the other werewolves), and put out a new “director’s cut” it would be one instance where I am all for changing part of a classic (ahem Mr. Lucas for the opposite extreme).

Nevertheless, for all of the reasons listed above The Howling is still one of the best werewolf movies ever made. It was groundbreaking for its time, and played an enormous role in ushering in a decade that ended up featuring an inordinate number of the all time best werewolf films. But that is the subject of another post.

 

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