Bright Lights Film Journal

Carnivorous Lunar Activities: The Origins of 1980s Metamorphosis Cinema

“I didn’t mean to call you a meatloaf, Jack!” — David (David Naughton), An American Werewolf in London

During the production of his seminal feature film, the ape-man-runs-amuck adventure Schlock (1973), in the sweltering summer heat of 1972 California, 22-year-old director/star John Landis confided to his 21-year-old make-up designer Rick Baker that he was fund-raising for a passion project he had written in 1969 while working in Europe as a production assistant on Don Siegel’s Kelly’s Heroes. Upon hearing Landis’s initial story treatment for the project, Baker immediately began brainstorming make-up techniques. This would be the most integral crewmember acquisition in the history of An American Werewolf in London (1981).

Eight years and three non-werewolf John Landis films later, Baker was approached by the equally cinema-savvy Joe Dante to create werewolf effects for his own lupine extravaganza, The Howling (also 1981). Though Dante at that point was coming off of a minor hit in his 1978 Jaws rip-off Piranha, he did not command anywhere near the clout that Landis had after two massive smash comedies in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). Assuming Landis’s fund-raising effort for American Werewolf to be dead, Baker jumped at the chance, chomping at the bit to commit his innovative make-up techniques, which fused mechanical creature rigs with old-fashioned metamorphosis character make-ups, to celluloid.

Early into pre-production on The Howling, Landis got wind of Baker’s involvement and called him up, berating him for his involvement in a rival werewolf picture. Landis had also, incidentally, by this time acquired $10 million in financing for An American Werewolf (a budget that was roughly ten times that of The Howling), meaning production could finally ensue on his werewolf movie, and he wanted Baker on board. A man of his word, Baker left the production of The Howling in the very capable hands of his apprentice, 22-year-old Rob Bottin (Baker at the time was 30), and split up his own make-up team on that picture, bringing half of them along with him on American Werewolf and leaving the rest to work under Bottin. This ended up being mutually beneficial to both parties and created two of the greatest special make-up effects in the history of motion pictures.

In fact, so monumental were Baker’s effects, in particular, that in the winter of 1982, a new Oscar category was introduced to honor the year’s greatest achievement in special make-up design that, in tandem with Bottin’s creations for The Howling, would completely change the face of movies for the following decade.

Though both were box-office successes at the time of their release, spawning seven very loose sequels between them, they could hardly be defined as world-beaters. And for a while they faded to the background, until history could effectively illuminate a greater context for their quality. It is now apparent that these two films were responsible for a distinctively ’80s subgenre, the metamorphosis film. I have previously defined metamorphosis cinema in reference to a particular canon of 1980s-produced feature films that are about the painful process of severe physical transformation, less focused on the pre- or post-transitioned bodies than they are on the process of change itself. Between The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, the blueprint for the future of metamorphosis cinema was fully and finally constructed.

In American Werewolf, the pivotal transformation arrives at the 58-minute mark of a 97-minute-long movie. Up to this point, college-age American David Kessler (David Naughton) had been backpacking through the English countryside when he and companion Jack (Griffin Dunne) were waylaid by a rampant werewolf, which slaughtered Jack and bit David. Now recuperating from his injuries in the London flat of his comely attendant nurse Alex (British genre picture vet Jenny Agutter), he is thrust by the appearance of a full moon into his first werewolf transformation.

The shot that actually leads into David’s transformation scene proper happens in the hospital, where Alex tenderly treats adorable child patient Benjamin (Colin Fernandes) as cinematographer Robert Paynter’s fluid camera dollies across Benjamin’s bed and tilts up until an adjacent hospital window fills the frame. The camera zooms in toward a beaming full moon, as rendered through the window. We continue to pull in until the moon and the night sky surrounding it are engulfing the film frame, and the window is no longer visible.

Shot 1: (a) Medium bedside shot of Alex and Benjamin; (b) Medium low-angle shot of the full moon.

The next frame transitions from a medium shot of David, covering the top of his torso through the area immediately above his head, to a tight close-up dollying in toward his face as he reads Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. As the framing limits us to merely his upper chest and his head, David suddenly reacts, violently, to the influence of the moon. He closes his eyes and runs his hands through his hair as we continue to pull in and the book flies off his lap, screaming “Jesus Christ!”

Next, in a wide shot that encompasses a majority of the living room space, he collapses onto the carpeted floor, shredding his already sweat-stained NYU t-shirt and light blue jeans until he is completely nude. The camera swoops out, extending the width of the frame and lingering on David. The fourth shot of the scene is static. David starts with his back to us and turns to face the camera, holding a sustained agonized scream as he holds a single hand in front of his face. This will be the final shot preceding Baker’s transformative hydraulic effects.


Shot 2 (left): Dolly in to David; Shot 3 (right): David shreds clothes, camera swoops out. Shot 4 (below right): David turns and lifts his trembling hand.

Of course, the application of this transition as a framing device for the scene is quite deliberate, as Landis had to storyboard the entire sequence months in advance to allow Baker and his team to prep transformations according to Landis’s breakdown of shots. At this point in the film, David and Alex have been intimate (to the tune of Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” a typically unsubtle ominous soundtrack selection courtesy of Landis), and their gentle flirtation and ensuing happy relationship (up to this point) has served as one of the few positive emotional highlights of the film’s first hour, the rest of which has been mired in darkness and death. A moment of brevity, then, with Alex having a cute moment with Benjamin, her cutest patient, serves to fully disarm us in anticipation of what is to follow. Beyond this story-satiating thread, however, there is a deeper subtext to this initial shot: Alex represents romantic possibility, and by extension hope for the future, where there would otherwise be none, for David. Her affable rapport with the child hints at the natural extension of her effectiveness as a nurse: she would make a great and nurturing mother. The fact that their exchange happens at a bed, while at first glance merely a functional necessity of Benjamin being sickly and subsequently bed-ridden, insinuates a supplementary element of domesticity and homeliness into the proceedings. This is what David’s life could become.

The significance of Alex’s existence as a symbol for David’s potential is reinforced in the second shot of the transformation sequence, the initial close-up frame of David reading. This is because he is wearing his NYU t-shirt, a shirt that a post-coital Alex had donned to console him during an unfortunate episode the night before. The shirt stands as the reiteration of the domestic and nurturing attributes that Alex is signified to possess in the prior shot, and David’s wearing it prior to his transformation serves notice that the very fabric of his future is about to be literally ripped to shreds (in the next shot).

In the interest of full disclosure, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is not merely the perfect novel for David to read, it is John Landis’s favorite book, and like “See You Next Wednesday,” it is a recurrent title throughout his films. Where “See You Next Wednesday” is nothing more than a private Landis colloquialism, Connecticut Yankee operates here as a metaphoric text that clarifies the state of David in the film: he is the ultimate incarnation of the Other, the cinematic embodiment of that novel’s titular Hank Morgan, an American man coping with a wholly foreign element of English life — in Hank’s case, he is a transplant to an archaic past century; in David’s, it is because he is about to be plunged into the twisted Welsh mythos of the werewolf.

As we cut to the wide shot and draw away from David, he begins shouting “I’m burning up! JESUS!” while he tears off the NYU shirt (i.e., his emotional connection to Alex) and sheds his pants until he is fully nude. His nudity in the wide framing serves to again highlight his presence as the Other, now more than before a disparate component of the otherwise complacent living room, which we can finally drink in during what is only the third extended wide shot that covers it in the film.

The pre-effects coverage, then, is all about establishing David across two potential future trajectories: the potential domestic integration he could experience with Alex and, in stark opposition to this, the possible isolation from all things British and domestic and ultimately (vis-à-vis the shirt) human. And all this is indicated before the fifth shot of the sequence.

The pre-effects coverage in The Howling strikes a very different chord; really, everything about the crucial transformation in the film feels almost antithetical to its more expensive metamorphosis counterpart. Everything except for the transformations’ placement in their respective films, which contextually happen within 15 minutes of each other. Whereas in Werewolf, the American David’s transformation happens against his will in isolation in Jenny’s English flat as he reads a book about an American man whose difference necessarily marks him as the physical embodiment of the Other in medieval England, in The Howling, the Other is television news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace), the lone human at what is essentially a werewolf retreat in a secluded California forest, nicknamed the Colony, and she is very privy to the first full werewolf transition we witness.

Karen White had been tracking serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), but her association with his apparent murder had so scarred her that her therapist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), impressed on her the need to seek consolation in the Colony, which he had billed to her as a kind of New Age retreat for victims of severe trauma. By the point of the transformation scene, Karen is at her wits’ end, as the true nature of the Colony has come to light. The transformation happens in the middle of the scene, and indeed everything preceding it stands as a sinister slow-build, unlike the unexpectedly blunt rapidity of the American Werewolf shift. Karen has fled to Dr. Waggner’s office, only to discover that it is abandoned. As she riffles through files, searching for clues as to her doctor’s relative awareness of the werewolf infestation at the Colony, Karen quite obliviously backs into what appears to be a cadaver, covered in a white sheet on an operating table at the far end of the room. Of course, the cadaver is in fact very much alive — it is Eddie, who leaps to attention and lunges for Karen, who smartly dives onto all fours away from him.

Ultimately, Karen stands as he begins to grill her, backing away from him all the while. This is captured in a shot-reverse shot set-up, where we dolly amidst atmospheric high-contrast lighting coordinated by cinematographer John Hora, moving with Eddie as he approaches and Karen as she retreats.

Shot 1 (left): Track with Eddie as he rises from the table. Eddie approaches Karen, wide shot; Shot 2 (right): Reverse of 1 on Karen, over Eddie’s shoulder.

In the next cutaway from Karen, Dante and Hora pull in closer to Eddie, still effectively shrouded in relative darkness (again, in direct contrast to American Werewolf), for a facial close-up, lobbing off the top and bottom of Eddie’s head. This gives the viewer a better opportunity to register Picardo’s malevolent red contacts and the gored bullet wound in his forehead, simply emphasizing Eddie’s inhuman qualities. A menacing bed of pulsating synthesizer tones ramps up the tension, courtesy of composer Jerry Goldsmith.

Finally, we reach the pinnacle of Eddie’s speech as he informs Karen, “I want to give you a piece of my mind. I trusted you, Karen. You can trust me now.” And as the music swells, Dante cuts to a high-angle shot, the final pre-hydraulic effects shot in the sequence. Hora applies a wide-angle (or fish-eye) lens to his camera for the frame, distorting the top of Picardo’s dome like a funhouse mirror as he extracts a literal “piece” of his brain from his forehead. The wide-angle lens also adds depth to the scene space, broadening the distance between Eddie and the room’s only motivated light source, the window behind him.

Whereas the prelude to the physical transformation effects in American Werewolf hones in on David’s complex relationship with Alex, England, and his impending lycanthropy, the equivalent moment in Howling serves as a cumulative pinnacle for the film’s prime thematic and subtextual foci: the destruction of sexual and sociological norms and the threat of a group mentality.

Everything in the sequence is hypersexualized, all components of the mise-en-sceneworking in tandem to maximize the notion of Karen’s physical instability. The first shot of the transformation sequence, the establishing wide shot that tracks Eddie as he rises from beneath the white sheeting he had draped over himself on the doctor’s operating table is suggestive of nothing so much as a phallic awakening and unsheathing. Of course, because this sexual attention is wholly unwanted, Karen’s reaction to it is one of sheer terror and discomfort, and her scrambling away from him is as much a manifested rejection of his misplaced sexual advances as it is a literal fleeing.

The second shot, the over-the-shoulder reverse of the first, heightens the note of impending sexual dread by showcasing Eddie’s shoulder in the foreground as it struggles to overtake the frame, just as Eddie slowly suggests himself toward Karen. A pervasive and unrelenting note of sexual dread overwhelms the scene, as everything about Eddie’s person, from his blood-red eyes to his partially agape mouth to the ambient lunar lighting, screams animalistic libido.

Shot 3 (left): Close-up of Eddie, note how the eyes are drawn to the nose and teeth. Shot 4 (right): Wide-angle lens close-up as Eddie “gives Karen a piece of his mind.”

On to the effects that stoked the bloodlust of a generation of gore hounds. The first effects shot, fifth overall in the scene, for American Werewolf is static, locking us in to an uncomfortably tight frame, as David is equally uncomfortable bearing witness to his first physical change — the extension of his fingers as they begin their transition into werewolf claws. The coverage for most of the rest of the sequence will be notable for its relatively static frames lacking background depth.

By the sixth shot, a subtle wide-angle close-up capturing David’s sweat-heavy reaction to his finger extension, the message is clear: the framing is designed to evoke claustrophobia. By constructing a tight, personal space-violating area for the camera around David’s person, and generally restricting all the movement to whatever is in front of the camera (i.e., no pans, tilts, zoom adjustments, or dolly movement), Landis is forcing the transformation upon us, and insisting that it be an unpleasantly visceral viewing experience.

The immaculate realism of Baker’s hand transformation gag works in concert with Paynter’s naturalistic lighting to cast a glare of mundane ugliness over the duration of the proceedings. There is almost a clinical distance implicit in the sequence’s raw intimacy, in that, by breaking down David’s transformation under the harsh glare of a well-lit living room, Landis strips the real-time mutation down to its very essence.

It feels more like a horrible series of painful blows pummeling a boxer than it does a man becoming a feral hell beast. And this notion is only strengthened by the succeessive two shots, the last of the exclusively hand-oriented coverage for a while. The seventh shot is a repetition of the framing of the fourth, albeit with the hand now stretching and twisting as over the soundtrack, sound editors Don Sharpe and John Poyner cultivate a grotesque crackling aural effect that is mixed loud over David’s numbing screams. The eighth and last hand-only shot is a static point-of-view shot illuminating patches of werewolf hair popping up on his still-stretching hand.

Shot 5 (left): David’s fingers extend in the first effects shot. Shot 6 (right): Close-up of David, emphasis on sweat beads streaming down cheeks.

Shot 7 (left): Close-up of David’s prosthetic hand, now growing patches of fur. Shot 8 (right): Aping the framing of Shot 4, this shot necessarily extrapolates the hand extension effect.

The first transformative bursts rendered in hydraulic special effects by Rob Bottin are covered in a swirling, dreamlike dolly sweep, and the first area of the body afflicted is Eddie Quist’s forehead, which bubbles like a boiling primordial ooze as the camera moves around it. Where David’s initial impacted area is his hand, a functional extension of his person used primarily to acquire and discard items, Eddie’s is his very skull, the root of his evil scheming. Where the bones in David’s hand merely stretch and crack like an expedited growth spurt, layers of muscle tissue and brain cavity contort and distend in Eddie’s head like the darkest surrealistic impulses of Salvador Dali.

There is a definitive edge to Eddie’s entire transformation, precisely because it is self-produced. It is as if he is making an expressive statement; the artistic flourishes of his first bodily changes, then, feel deliberate, their implicit darkness pre-planned. David’s transformation is raw and ugly and natural and real; it is about his definitive and permanent severance from civilized domestic life. Eddie’s serves as a surreal window into his own dark twisted soul, the grotesque internal reality of the serial criminal’s emotional designs externalized.

Expounding on this, the subsequent body parts affected by Eddie’s transformation are his fingernails and his chest as his eyes change color to a sickly yellow (one of the few transformative links between the two films). His reaction clarifies the nature of the changes: it is a pseudo-sexual, mildly masochistic reveling in every grisly, gory moment of the process (blood and stomach expansion).

Shot 5 (left): Dollying profile close-up as his forehead begins to bubble. Shot 6 (right): Dollying full-face close-up as his nose becomes engorged and his eyes go a diseased yellow.

Shot 7 (left): A close-up as Eddie’s fingernails sharpen. Shot 8/10/12 (right) Eddie’s chest expands. Shots 9/10 (below right): Eddie’s chest expansion covered closer.

Both transformations kick into high gear after these initial body elements mutate. American Werewolf details David’s transition thusly: he collapses to the ground as hair grows on his chest and back, his feet extend just as his arms did, he sprouts fangs. But the most integral development preceding his facial metamorphosis is covered across the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth shots in the sequence. Here, the transformation is broken down like a medical textbook spread of a particularly unsavory condition: covered in clear, unforgiving light, we observe as coarse brown hairs stem from the surface of his flesh in shot 14, and David’s spine pops out of his back in shots 15 and 16. In both shots 15 and 16, visual cues are strategically placed in the spot to dictate important tonal elements of the lycanthropic change. In 15, it is his copy of the book, also spread out with its spine protruding upwards, to link the text and David visually. David is the physical embodiment of the story, and nowhere is that clearer than it is here. In shot 16, the only cutaway shot in the entire sequence is subtly foreshadowed, as an out-of-focus Mickey Mouse doll on a nightstand behind David overlooks the scene.

Shot 14 (left): Hair sprouts from his skin in an extreme close-up. Shot 15 (right) His spine protrudes from his back. Note the presence of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court near David’s hand, clearing indicating David as the Other. Shot 16 (below right): A new perspective on his elevated spine. Note the Mickey Mouse doll (foreshadowing the transformation’s sole cutaway shot) out of focus in the background.

The twenty-second shot in the sequence is primarily significant in its function as a preamble to the twenty-third, where the fourth wall is shattered, for the only time in An American Werewolf in London, as David does a direct address, screaming into the lens as in the foreground a trembling claw dangles in and out of focus.

Shot 22 (left): Wide shot. David’s body stretches. His hands and feet have already expanded. Shot 23 (right): David breaks the fourth wall, the only instance of this happening in the film.

Eddie’s most significant transformative moment serves as a manifestation of the scene’s overt sexual overtones: it is the sequence of frames that is engaged by shot 26 and concluded in shot 28b, and functions as something of a sexual call-and-response. The overtones of physical arousal could not be more pronounced than they are here: from the gleaming, soft-focus sweat and saliva captured in milky shadows in shot 25, a close-up of Eddie’s newly lycanthropic teeth; to the rapturous, deep-set yellow eyeballs in the medium close-up of shot 26; to Dee Wallace’s body, riveted and trembling as she watches Eddie’s transformation, her white, virginal jacket standing in stark contrast to her world-weary eyes, in the medium-shot framed shot 27; to finally, the revelatory pan in shot 28, a tight shot that moves from his thick, fleshy wolf ears down to his freshly jutting jaw, all slick skin and coarse hair.

All these moments pieced together mimic a soft-core phallic-reveal sequence from the same period, down to the deep, sensual shadows and the way the light plays off the flesh and the thickness of the fur (read: pubic hair) and the deeply attentive lock-step focus of Dee Wallace. Make no mistake: this is all deliberate, Joe Dante’s way to link what should be a deeply disturbing moment to something approaching subversive pleasure. Viewers viscerally enjoy this experience more than they have any right to. There are a handful of cutaway shots to Dee Wallace’s reactions throughout the sequence, but because they are essentially the same, unchanging two framings, only their first appearances have been counted in the cumulative sequence shot quantification.

Shot 25 (left): Close-up as Eddie sprouts teeth. Shot 26 (right): Medium close-up of Eddie’s yellow eyes.

Shot 27 (left): Her reaction in virginal white and pink tones. Shot 28a (right) Pan from his protruding, flesh ears under coarse matted hair to . . . Shot 28b (below right): . . . His extending jaws.

The final, integral transformative moment in American Werewolf is actually informed by a shot that is not rooted in David’s transformation. Rather, it is the mutation’s sole cutaway shot, and it is a critical John Landis contribution. Shot 27 is a close-up of the top of a nightstand in the living room, adorned with a dime-store Mickey Mouse toy. The toy signifies twin connotations: the first is as an allusion to David’s youthful pop-cultural spectrum of experience, and the second is as a manifestation of the innocence that he is about to lose in his first night as a beast under the full moon.

The crucial transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London is all about isolation and the death of possibility, conveyed through careful camera movement and lighting choices and enriched by the childhood-insinuating elements of the metaphoric pop cultural texts (Mickey Mouse and A Connecticut Yankee) presented therein. The final two shots of the sequence reveal David in the final throes of his metamorphosis: the first is a close-up low-angle frame, covering his snout and the tops of his shoulders as his screaming mutates into roaring; the second is a medium tracking shot, starting at his hind legs and ending at his fully transformed head (albeit enshrouded in darkness so that it is impossible to decipher).

Shot 34 (left): Close-up portrait as David roars. Shot 35 (right): The final shot of the sequence.

The transformation in The Howling is essentially enacted like a sex scene, with shot 37 serving as the point of orgasm. Dee Wallace throws acid into the face of Eddie over the course of shots 35-37, as he approaches her slowly, seductively, enshrouded in shadow like David in the final shot of his first transformation. But David’s darkened visage in the final moment of his mutation was significant because it indicated a quiet shame, associable with director Landis’s inferred embarrassment at this epic loss of youthful innocence. The final moments of Eddie’s transformation suggested a disturbing soft-core climax. This is unsubtly referenced by the acid standing in for semen. The semen is here yielded by the woman, Dee Wallace, because the sexualized figure is the lupine man, Eddie, and thus Wallace assumes the masculine gaze of the sequence, perceived through the lens of a typical sex scene.

Shot 36 (left): Eddie approaches Dee Wallace. Shot 37 (right): Medium wide as Dee Wallace . . . Shot 38 (below right): . . . And a wider framing of the same action, as the acidic burns his face.

Essentially, then, here are two scenes depicting the same thing with two make-up designers and two directors coming from the exact same place, in terms of transformations and B-movie influences, and they establish the groundwork for all ensuing metamorphosis cinema by demonstrating the sheer connotative range available to the filmmaker. The Howling transformation scene operates as an unsubtle metaphor for a sexual encounter, while the metamorphosis of An American Werewolf in London acts as an extrapolative exploration of the death of innocence. That both of these wholly divergent concepts are attached to what were otherwise quite technically proficient, fundamentally silly werewolf transformation moments is a testament to the power and possibility of the metamorphosis film, and The Howling and An American Werewolf in London represent 1980s transformative cinema at the height of its symbolic powers.

Works Cited

An American Werewolf in London. Dir. John Landis. Perfs. David Naughton, Jenny Agutter. 1981. DVD. Universal Pictures, 2009.

The Howling. Dir. Joe Dante. Perfs. Dee Wallace, Robert Picardo. 1981. DVD. MGM, 2003.

Vallan, Giulia D’Agnolo. John Landis. New York: M Press, 2008.