It’s not very common that two classics featuring the same type of monster get released within mere months of each other. But that was very much the case in 1981 when both Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London both hit cinemas.
Both films have certainly lived on to become well-loved classics, and while they are completely different in story, style, and tone, they are forever linked as the two werewolf movies with modern (well modern to 1981) effects that still very much hold up today.
So in honor of both films celebrating their 40th anniversaries this year, we thought it would be fitting and fun to look at them both and compare them as objectively as possible. Over five different rounds, we’ll try to determine which is the superior werewolf film from 1981!
Round I – Characters
The Howling features a cast of characters centered around TV reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) who spends most of the movie with everyone around her gaslighting her. We see everything play out from her perspective, and she’s never really sure if she’s onto something truly supernatural or if she’s losing her mind.
She’s definitely a sympathetic protagonist, who makes a bold play at the end that’s worthy of massive respect. But the rest of the characters are concealed under a veil of mystery that leaves it difficult to get as much development or intrigue from them.
As far as protagonists go, David Kessler (David Naughton) is a lot of fun and relatable. We too could have seen ourselves as the young carefree traveler who’s just trying to have a good time with his friend. He’s not quite as active as Karen in the other film, but the supporting characters really shine in this movie.
While admittedly a cliché since the days of Florence Nightingale, Nurse Alex’s relationship with David feels genuine, even if brief. There’s a real tragedy that his adult life was just beginning only to be taken over by this curse.
But what really wins this round for An American Werewolf in London is the cadre of random side characters who are all so memorable and entertaining. Everyone from the bar patrons who tell inappropriate jokes and get offended when you make them miss at darts, to the incredibly sarcastic Jack who seems to find the dark humor in being dead.
Round I Winner – An American Werewolf in London
Round II – Story
Of course what’s a movie without an interesting plot? An American Werewolf in London plays out like a vacation comedy at first until the werewolf horror sets in. Plotwise, it’s pretty straightforward with things happening to David rather than his own actions driving the plot.
It’s entertaining to watch, but it doesn’t really contain many twist, turns, or other trope subversions. And there’s nothing wrong with a story playing out like that. It just means that the most memorable components of this movie don’t have to do with its story structure.
The Howling on the other hand is a mystery/thriller from the very beginning and right from Karen’s initial trauma at the porn shop, it pulls the audience in with intrigue. With any movie that relies on a twist or mystery, a second viewing reveals a myriad of details you didn’t see before.
At first you think that there’s foul play going on at this resort, but the fact that literally everyone is in on it but her reframes the entire story when you watch it again. John Landis’ film might have more memorable and entertaining characters, but Joe Dante’s movie has a much more compelling and interesting storyline.
Round II Winner – The Howling
Round III – Style/Tone
It is in this arena that both movies are the most different. One is a dark and brooding mystery that has elements of humor here and there. The other is more of a horror/comedy with a few moments of genuine tragedy infused.
Both movies do their prospective styles very well so this category is very much comparing apples to oranges. So the only way to do it fairly is to look at how tonally consistent each movie is with the remainder of its plot.
The Howling goes for the more straightforward creepy horror movie tone, with a bit of sensual eroticism thrown in there. The iconic sex scene in the fog brings out a primal side of werewolves usually only reserved for vampires.
In most horror fiction, it’s vampires that get to be the “sexy ones” so it was really cool to see werewolves getting that same treatment. There’s an animalistic energy to it that hasn’t really been matched in a horror film until Ginger Snaps or the werewolf subplot in Trick ‘R Treat.
An American Werewolf in London never really loses its comedic edge. Everything from the banter at The Slaughtered Lamb to David running around naked at the zoo, to him trying to get arrested by insulting the Royals, to the ghosts glibly describing ways he could kill himself, there’s a very dark and twisted sense of humor throughout. Usually when horror and comedy are blended, one dominates the other, but this movie (along with perhaps Scream) is the only one that both styles feel pretty even.
Screams and laughs go hand-in-hand, but it’s damn near impossible to flawlessly mix them in such a way that both work perfectly despite each other. So while this round is incredibly close, the slight edge goes here only because it perfectly meshes two styles that are diametrically opposed.
Round III Winner – An American Werewolf in London
Round IV – Themes
A common theme in both movies is that of the outsider. Karen has gone through a recent trauma and later discovers that everyone has been gaslighting her, while David is a tourist in a foreign country right from the get go. There’s a sense that both characters are very much against the world themselves.
But where The Howling goes the extra mile is in its ending and the implications that it makes. In an effort to expose the coven of werewolves and the reality of their existence, Karen returns to her job at the news station and transforms live on camera.
Yet no one watching the live news broadcast seems to be shocked or horrified. Rather, they think it’s merely some sort of special effect, meaning that everything she tried to show them was for nothing. And in the current age of deepfakes, this ending is frighteningly more relevant now than in 1981.
Round IV Winner – The Howling
Round V – Technical Specs
Of course the final deciding round would come down to this. And of course “technical specs” is a thinly veiled cover for what the round is truly about: which movie had the better werewolf design/transformation.
In a strange but fun way, both of these movies are actually connected in this department. Famed makeup artist Rick Baker (The Fly, Jurassic Park, Men in Black) was initially going to do makeup effects for The Howling, but left to go work on An American Werewolf in London.
With The Howling still needing a makeup artist, Baker’s assistant Rob Bottin (RoboCop, Se7en, The Thing) took over. So this round is actually something of a teacher vs. student dynamic. All that said, both Baker and Bottin are ridiculously good at what they do, and their career-long work has been amazing.
Both designs are absolute marvels of practical effects. But there is one clear winner. The Howling’s wolves look amazing, but the transformation itself is largely done in the dark and in closeup because unfortunately the movie was under a strict budget ($1.5 million compared to American Werewolf’s $5.8 million)
Meanwhile when David makes that first transformation, you absolutely believe he’s really turning into a wolf. Everything from the hair we see growing on him, to his hands and nose extending, it’s an absolute marvel of practical effects and remains the Gold Standard for all werewolf transformations, 40 years later!
Round V (and overall) Winner – An American Werewolf in London
Which movie do you like better? Let us know in the comments!