Ginger or Mary Ann? Batman or Superman? Freddy or Jason? An American Werewolf in London or The Howling? These are but a few of the eternal questions in this world. If your reading this article you’ve probably guessed which side I take on the last question. Since I first stumbled upon The Howling as a child at the local video store I’ve always been drawn in by the grime and realness that the film plays on while mixing in FX work that blew my young mind. I had seen the name Joe Dante in film credits before watching the film but this cemented that name in my mind throughout my horror fan adolescence.
Another name in the credits that I would go on to see many a times throughout the years was Rob Bottin. The Howling was Rob’s first time having the keys to the kingdom in regards to makeup FX for a film and boy did he go all out. Having recently split off from being Rick Baker’s right hand man this was Rob’s time to shine. At the time of the film’s release Rob wasn’t a name that all horror fans knew but his past work with Baker on films since Star Wars had prepared him for this opportunity. For The Howling Rob had a crew full of up and comers that would soon define makeup FX for a generation including Greg Cannom and a fresh faced Texan by the name of Steve Johnson. The work that this team pulled off on a small budget is still astonishing to this day even more so considering it was done out of a garage in El Monte California.
As a die hard makeup FX fan what has always interested me is how the werewolf war of 1981 between The Howling and An American Werewolf in London not only skyrocketed the industry into an entirely new stratosphere but how it ended the working relationship between two men who would go on to become legends. Rob of course went on to work on films such as The Thing, Legend, Robocop, Total Recall and continued to work with Joe Dante on his projects while Steve worked with Rick Baker and then Boss Studios on iconic films such as Ghostbusters, and Fright Night before opening his own shop and creating legendary work on Species, The Stand, Innocent Blood, and Blade II as well as others.
A few years back I had the pleasure of speaking to Steve regarding his time on The Howling and why he left for American Werewolf in London. Here’s what he had to say about his time on the film:
“I would say I was as involved in The Howling as I was with American Werewolf. What happened was Rob got The Howling and we started working on it. I worked for about five months on and Rob kept changing the werewolf and then he wanted to shoot it in post production. I didn’t come to California to work for Rob Bottin. Looking back I’ve not been the best at not incinerating bridges and perhaps I shouldn’t have done this. Here’s what happened.Towards the end of production Rick Baker got the green light on American Werewolf from John Landis so I walked up to Rob and said see ya I’m off to work with Rick Baker. Which I know had to just devastate him because when I ran my own company and people would leave to work on a presumably bigger and better project it would be a sword to the eternal soul. It would kill me. So he took my name off the credits as a nice thank you. I did do a hell of a lot of work on the film. I was Rob’s team sculptor in a lot of cases. He would sit down and block it out and start doing the detail. He would sit on the left side and I would sit on the right and match what he was doing. In a garage in El Monte for God’s sake. There’s some really funny stuff in my memoirs about THE HOWLING.”
Rubberhead, the memoir that Steve references has now finally been released and having read it I wholeheartedly recommend everyone purchase a copy and read it. It’s an utterly engrossing journey into the mind of a genius who lived to tell his tale. You can even get a signed copy right here at TERROR TIME by clicking HERE. The werewolf battle of 1981 will always be remembered for the two classic films that it produced but to FX fans the world over it’s the battle that kicked off decades of innovation and imagination.