The Howling (1980)

Joe Dante

Dee Wallace - Karen White
Christopher Stone - Roy William Neill
Belinda Balaksi - Terry Fisher
Dennis Dugan - Chris Halloran
Patrick MacNee - Dr. George Waggner
Elisabeth Brooks - Marsha Quist
Robert Picardo - Eddie Quist

Genre - Horror/Werewolf

Running Time - 91 Minutes

Score - 3 Howls Outta 4

Probably the bastard stepchild of the horror genre, the werewolf sub-genre hasn't been treated with the greatest of respect over the years. Lycanthrope films started out well with the classic 1941 Universal Studios feature, THE WOLF MAN, starring Lou Chaney, Jr. It continued on strong, but as we see now, werewolf features aren't exactly must-sees or even all that good to watch to begin with. Movies like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS and SKINWALKERS pretty much soured lycanthrope tales with their inept attempts to "scare" audiences.

I really don't understand why it's so hard to make a werewolf feature. As long as you use the common cliches [such as the full moon, lust triggers that lead to crazy animal sex, and wicked transformation scenes to wow the audience], with a decent script and compelling characters that we can somewhat care about, there shouldn't be a problem. But with the invent of CGI and the new trend of "style-over-substance", the werewolf has been pretty much been giving a shaft similar to a silver bullet to the heart.

The 1980s sure didn't have this problem though. Werewolf films were pretty common during this decade, using social commentary about our struggles to separate man vs. beast as the basis of these films. Movies like SILVER BULLET, WOLFEN, and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON captivated audiences with their decent stories and cool special effects. One of the more popular werewolf films of the decade [and of all time] is THE HOWLING.

Loosely based on a 1977 novel by Gary Brandner due to a bunch of rewrites by multiple screenwriters, THE HOWLING was one of the first lycanthrope movies to actually show the werewolf transformation from man/woman to beast in a very believable, and frightening, way. While the film did decent business, it was completely overshadowed by the more mainstream and humorous AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, directed by ANIMAL HOUSE's John Landis, which many consider to be the creme de la creme of werewolf flicks. And while I do believe AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is the much better film, THE HOWLING is no slouch either and deserves the cult status that it has earned over the years.

A famous anchorwoman named Karen White (Dee Wallace) is in the middle of the biggest story of her career: getting close to a serial killer named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who seems to have made Karen one of his objects of obsession. After meeting in a booth inside an XXX video shop and seeing Eddie do something strange, cops bust up the investigation by fatally shooting Eddie and leaving Karen traumatized. After Karen returns to work a bit too soon, Karen's husband Bill (Christopher Stone) and her co-workers Chris (Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski) urge Karen to see a psychiatrist named Dr. Waggner (Patrick MacNee). Wagner suggests that Karen spend some quiet time at some group therapy setting called "The Colony" in the middle of the woods. Karen agrees and takes her husband with her.

Karen and Bill begin to familiarize with their new setting and befriend some others who are part of "The Colony". Some are professional and friendly, while others like the seductive and sexual Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) are downright rude and uncaring [except to Bill, who Marsha definitely has a thing for and vice versa]. As Karen tries to remember her traumatic night in that booth, she starts to realize that "The Colony" is not what it claims to be. Especially when she starts hearing loud animal noises, like wolf howls. Bill investigates Karen's worries, suddenly getting attacked and bitten by a huge furry creature. Suddenly, Karen and her friends start to realize that "The Colony" is a safe haven for werewolves - and Karen is being groomed to become part of the pack.

While time hasn't really been perfectly kind to THE HOWLING, this werewolf flick is still a good piece of horror cinema from beginning to end. It's extremely subtle in its storytelling, paced more like a drama than an actual horror flick - which probably turns away a lot of people. But the film is one of the best of its kind and it's kind of sad that not many people appreciate this film as much as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

Like I mentioned earlier, THE HOWLING is subtle. Many people would expect a werewolf film to be very fast paced, with tons of transformation scenes, and more violent attacks on film. THE HOWLING is far from that. It plays more like a mystery at first, setting up characters and location very slowly until 50 minutes in, where we finally see someone transform into a werewolf. Yeah, this could bore a lot of people and more action could have been nicely added to make the film a bit more exciting. But I kind of like the fact that it doesn't go full blown into the whole werewolf subplot because we get to see who the characters are and understand the film's themes before the good stuff gets introduced. It probably did the build up for a bit too long but at least there's an actual story and plot going on in THE HOWLING. You got to give it props for that.

I also dig the fact that a serial killer subplot is included in THE HOWLING. Werewolves are savage killers to begin with, so why not introduce the human side of that savagery as well? I wish we could have seen the history of Eddie's murder spree and why he would target Karen for a bigger mystery feel. But I guess it's enough to know that a serial killer is bad and an intelligent, beautiful, and vulnerable anchorwoman is good. There could have been a better storytelling method to link the two situations together, but it is logical once we see Eddie again at the end. Sometimes it's enough.

I think the biggest gripe with THE HOWLING is the lack of werewolf action. And yeah, I can definitely understand that. It's pretty much all at the end and they don't really do all that much but transform and scare people. But when we do get it, it's an incredible spectacle, even to this day. The transformation scenes, done by Rob Bottin [who also did THE THING], are awesome and frighteningly realistic looking. Watching the hair form, faces bubble, and snouts extend outward still amaze me today as they did when I was younger and scared by what I was watching here. Even the werewolves in full transformation are amazingly done, as you can definitely buy that these creatures are real and ready to kill. I do think some of the SFX that are clearly done through puppetry are kind of fake looking in an era of CGI reliance, dating the film a great deal. But I rather see werewolves like this than the ones in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, who looked like a CGI Scooby-Doo on steroids. But that's just my opinion. I could have done without the obviously animated wolves right at the end though. Made me laugh more than anything.

I do think that most of the characters in this film aren't all that interesting or as developed as Karen. Terry and Chris are okay and Marsha is interesting for the fact that she's bitchy, hot, and gets naked without abandon. Plus Eddie is a sick mofo and is pretty cool too. But the other characters either pop up and do nothing significant, or are as bland as they come. Karen's husband, Bill, who is supposedly one of the major characters, is just boring and uninteresting. Even as a werewolf, he was a non-presence. Just a horribly written character and Christopher Stone probably deserved better. At least he got to bang and marry Dee Wallace soon after the shooting of this movie. Some guys have all the luck.

I also hate it when horror movie characters do the dumbest things in situations most of us have enough common sense in figuring out what to do. The Karen scene where she confronts Eddie, in particular, really gets on my nerves. Now I understand the point of the scene is to display the transformation scene from human Eddie to werewolf Eddie so we can marvel at the special effects. What I dislike is that Karen stands right in front of him the entire time and does absolutely NOTHING to protect herself. I kept yelling, "Run, bitch, run!" during the entire scene. Shit, I would have either bolted out of there or gotten a weapon and beat the living crap out of him while he's transforming. What good is it gonna do just to stand there and admire the view? DO SOMETHING!!

Joe Dante directs a fine atmospheric film here. I like the little homages to other wolf films he adds into the narrative [like THE WOLF MAN] and bringing in cameos by Roger Corman and John Carradine. I also appreciate the fact that it's a very dark and gloomy film that raises the creep factor for THE HOWLING. It's also mildly humorous as well, though more in a witty sort of way than an actual "ha ha" way. The hamburger during the end credits always puts a smile on my face. The dream sequences and letting the viewer figure out what they could mean were very well done. And those transformation scenes were shot perfectly for its time. They totally suck you in as a viewer, wondering how in the world did the SFX team do that. There were a couple of syncing problems with the editing that I noticed, but they don't hurt the film at all. Dante knows how to direct a sinister and wacky film, and THE HOWLING is no exception.

The acting is very good as well. Dee Wallace was made a horror genre star because of this film and its with good reason. Her protrayal as Karen is captivating and appealing, as she presents us a real woman who is smart, vulnerable, and brave at the same time. She also shows a lot of range and she's truly the star of this film. Robert Picardo, who is pretty much great in any role, is charmingly creepy as serial killer Eddie. He plays the part convincingly well and his transformation scene is the highlight of the role. Belinda Balaski, Dennis Dugan, and especially Patrick MacNee are great in their respective roles. And Elisabeth Brooks is just bangable as hell as Marsha. I let her turn me into a werewolf any time she wants. Growl.

The only bad actor was Christopher Stone as Bill. Well he wasn't "bad" in the very sense of the word, but he didn't bring anything to the table. He was just "there" for me and I wouldn't have noticed if he and his pale ass were not in the film. Just a pretty bland performance in a cast of some very good ones.


- Repression shows the extent of how much we hate ourselves. I agree. I wish I can go back in time and kick my own ass for watching BLOODY MURDER in the first place. Not even repressing what I saw has managed to save my decreasing sanity.

- Mentally unstable men like to take beautiful women they have a thing for out on a date to watch hardcore pornography. Men think it'll get women hot, but it really just gets them cold and unwilling to go on a second date. See also: TAXI DRIVER.

- At The Colony, people barbecue meat, dress weird, and play folk music that no one wants to dance to. Yep, this is a cult. Or an incestuous party in the South that they like to call a "family reunion". Where the fuck is my banjo?

- Eddie's corpse was missing from the morgue, surprising the coroner. I'm sure that's happened to every coroner who has tried to bag Keith Richards. They just can't get no satisfaction.

- Werewolves don't need full moons to transform, as they can change shape anytime they want. That's very much true as any kind of moon will do. So if someone dares to show me their bare ass again as a prank, it's the last thing they'll ever do.

- Don't ever enter a room with a "Have A Nice Day" sticker on its door, especially at a werewolf cabin. The last person that will be smiling is you.

- Werewolves can get real abusive when humans try to interfere with their goals and/or if they don't get their way. Ike Turner was apparently a lycanthrope. He just didn't realize that Tina Turner was his silver bullet.

- Don't ever let your werewolf husband give you a hickey. Not only will it turn you into the cutest werewolf ever, but PETA will probably throw paint on you for wearing fur. And then you have to take a shower, which will make you smell like a wet rat. The smell will turn off potential dates, making you celebate by default. It's just a downward spiral of pain.

I like THE HOWLING. It's not perfect and it's a bit dated, but it's still a damn fine werewolf flick that's more drama than action horror. With some good acting, a well written story, and some cool transformation werewolf scenes, you can't go wrong with THE HOWLING. Unfortunately I wish I could say the same for the sequels. But that's another howl for another time.

1 comment:

  1. Joe Dante's (1980) Werewolf Film 'The Howling' is one of the 100% best werewolf movie. I think the other new directors and special makeup effects co-producers should make millions to billions of new weird werewolf movies. And I seriously hope they'll use many makeup fx and hundreds of air-bladders fx for the werewolf transformations.


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