The Howling (1981)

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“After a bizarre and near fatal encounter with a serial killer, a television newswoman is sent to a remote mountain resort whose residents may not be what they seem.” — IMDb

Director Joe Dante wasn’t known for much in the horror world besides his 1978 film Piranha when he dove into The Howling (based on the book of the same name by Gary Brandner, though it apparently bears only a slight resemblance to the original story) a few years later. It was one of many werewolf movies to crop up in the 80s (others include An American Werewolf in London, Teen Wolf, and The Company of Wolves) and certainly one of the most iconic. Its financial success was instrumental in him being chosen by Warner Bros. to direct Gremlins just a few years later.

The story centers around Karen White (Dee Wallace), a news anchor in Los Angeles who is being stalked by serial murderer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo in his very first movie role). She works alongside the police to lure him to a porno theater where he is fatally shot after revealing his true form to her. She suffers amnesia after the encounter and her psychiatrist (Patrick Macnee) encourages her to take a leave of absence to his secluded resort in the woods — called The Colony — with her husband (Christopher Stone) so she can rest and regain her memory. While there, she realizes this group of psychiatric patients all have one thing in common, and it’s not their doctor…

** SPOILERS! **

A huge part of why I loved this movie so much was how self-aware it was — almost satirical at times. It is filled to the absolute brim with references, homages, and cameos. Roger Corman appears as a man waiting outside of a phone booth, while Forrest J. Ackerman is seen at the occult bookstore holding a copy of his own Famous Monsters of Filmland. There are endless subtle hints by fellow patients at The Colony — “I sleep like the dead” or “I figure another five years of real hard work and maybe I’ll be a human being”– or workers at the morgue — “he didn’t get up and walk out on his own” — or even Karen’s own husband — mentioning several times about how he tries to stay away from meat, but voraciously inhaling exactly that when their friend Terry (Belinda Balaski) comes to visit, mentioning “I get hungry enough, I’ll eat anything!”. There are several cans of Wolf brand chili spotted throughout, a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems casually laying on a desk, Bill reading “You Can’t Go Home Again” after he’s bitten, a TV playing the Looney Toons episode with the Big Bad Wolf. The list could go on, but I loved all of the little references here and there.

The special effects are, understandably, one of the main things this movie is known for. Rick Baker (Squirm, Men in Black, Videodrome) was originally in charge of the monster makeup, but he actually passed to work on An American Werewolf in London (and created easily the best werewolf transformation of all time) and left his assistant, Rob Bottin, to work in his absence. Bottin already had The Fog under his belt, and rocked this job as well.

He clearly learned well from Baker but had his own distinct style — Eddie Quist’s transformation scene is one of the most terrifying things I’ve seen in a long time. The skin on his face bubbling like it was about to explode at any second, his hands stretching to impossibly thin fingers, his eyes rolling around in his head… shudder. I couldn’t look away. Probably the only downside to that scene, if I had to come up with one, was how calm and unaffected Karen seemed — she sticks around, looking on quite casually, for the entirety of his gruesome change before she finally retaliates. I also enjoyed Bill’s transformation scene in the woods (though that was very brief), as well as the severed arm of a werewolf attacker transforming back into its human form.

I think, most of all, I loved the humanity that this movie brought to the werewolves. The duality of their persona can be disappointingly understated at times, but this film brought to light how conflicted some of them may be. Clearly some of the werewolves have a desire to get back to the ways of the past — “you can’t tame what’s meant to be wild, Doc — it ain’t natural” — but some, maybe most of all Dr. Waggner himself, want to find a way to keep their urges contained. Him blurting out “thank God” as he’s shot with a silver bullet was subtle but so meaningful.

The greatest example of this was the ending itself. Karen, knowing she was bit and doomed to a life that she was so disgusted by, still wants to do the only thing in her power to try to warn others so they don’t fall prey to the same beasts. Her willingly transforming ON LIVE TELEVISION as a single tear rolls down her cheek (and then being shot dead as families at home and drunks in bars watched, wide-eyed) was just the coolest damn thing… and all of the viewers barely batting an eye, chalking it up to advanced special effects, is as relevant today as ever.

Absolutely one of the greats, both for werewolf movies and horror in general.

Rating: 8/10 | Director: Joe Dante | Writer: Gary Brandner (novel), John Sayles, Terence H. Winkless | Music: Pino Donaggio | Cinematography: John Hora | Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Elisabeth Brooks, Robert Picardo, John Carradine, Slim Pickens

 

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