THE HOWLING (1981)
(Directed by Joe Dante)
(Written by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless)
(Starring Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee and Christopher Stone)
Plot: After barely surviving an encounter with a serial killer (Robert Picardo), a television newswoman (Dee Wallace) and her husband (Christopher Stone) decide to recuperate at a remote colony…which turns out to be infested with werewolves…
“The Howling” is a good movie, one of the few examples of horror that I would recommend to even those who don’t lurk within the fandom of the genre. Yet I have always felt that it is a bit overrated, believing that its more passionate followers have convinced themselves that the handful of exceptional moments embody the entire film. Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly greatness to be found here, but there are too many dead spots within the narrative, structural problems within the script and goofy lapses of logic within the scares for me to place it on the same pedestal as those who would regard this as a ‘horror masterpiece’. Nevertheless, its blunders tend to be inoffensive and I will agree that on a technical level, “The Howling” stands taller than the majority of its horror brethren. But every time I watch the movie, the memories of its imperfections flood back with vengeance. They don’t linger for very long though and eventually my mind only retains the awesomeness of the transfor- oh my God, I now completely understand the hype and why the potential for backlash remains strong! The few amazing parts are memorable, while everything else- good and bad- is relatively forgettable.
The first 10 minutes boast some incredible suspense, as the seedy locations, hallucinogenic lighting, dark subject matter and the actors’ convincing performances build up to a genuinely terrifying encounter. This opening scene is so damn effective that it practically goes full circle and becomes a flaw, because the tone and visual style are inconsistent with the remainder of the film. “The Howling” develops a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, with darkly humorous sight gags, self referential satire and some campy acting…after showing us footage of a graphic rape…Maybe your introductory scene for a somewhat comedic horror should not showcase a snuff film centered around a sexual assault? That’s too bleak! Furthermore, the opening act contains a lot grittier and flashier cinematography. I think the DOP is more comfortable filming in the underbelly of civilization, because while his work in the isolated woods is good enough, it’s nowhere near as eye popping. Of course, for all of these problems, I can’t deny that “The Howling” made me laugh, even when it sometimes contrasted with the tragedy that would occur in the previous scene (and sometimes they’d even be spliced in together!). The constant use of ‘wolf’ themed products in particular made me smile and the references to other works of fiction within the same genre was groundbreaking back in the 1980’s. “The Howling” broke a lot of rules back then, by having werewolves who actually enjoyed what they were, did not require the full moon to transform and seemed to be able to control their actions. There is even a surprising amount of substance to the script, as the film deals with the animalistic urges of humanity. Granted, while boating some depth, I can’t call this a smartly written film…There are a lot of contrivances and sometimes the plot requires characters to do dumb things in order to advance the narrative. Also, werewolves are shown to have superhuman strength, but for some reason are incapable to breaking the windows of a car…Hmmmm…Maybe there was a deleted scene explaining that they have a weakness against glass? The characters were decently written and the acting was solid, with Robert Picardo (Eddie) stealing the show as the creepy yet charismatic serial killer. I did like the mystery surrounding him and his relationship to the rest of the story, even if none of the plot developments are intended to be that surprising.
The other most notable scene is the infamous transformation, which is simply too awesome to describe. At the time, this was certainly the most detailed werewolf effect, but it still holds up to this day. Amusingly, Rick Baker was originally supposed to do the effects, but left the project for “An American Werewolf in London“- which would become the rival of “The Howling“. His protege, Rob Bottin, was put in charge though and…the dude would eventually do the makeup for John Carpenters’ “The Thing” …so he was obviously pretty damn talented too! The emphasis is on body horror, as the torso, head and limbs gradually and gruesomely expand beyond human limits. This is quite the grotesque spectacle that only lost some of its thunder because of a similar (and arguably superior) scene in “An American Werewolf in London“, which was only released months later. Yet the horrifying sound design and intense situation made this one a little scarier for me. I also believe that the werewolves in “The Howling” look cooler, because the humanoid designs allow them to tower over their prey in a very menacing way. But you don’t get to see them very often until the third act and even then, the prosthetics are so elaborate that what can be done with them was limited, although I still found the finale to be exciting. But what happens during the entire second act, if the two most memorable scenes in the movie are at the beginning and the end? Not much…Yeah, there is the occasional stalk sequence and brief attack. Joe Dante handles the suspense well and it was wise to build up to the shocking appearances of the wolves, but nothing comes close to leaving the same impression as the two highlights of the movie. This forces “The Howling” to fall back on the story and while the films sense of humor was enough to keep me engaged, there is a problem with the narrative that needs to be addressed.
“The Howling” has a fairly interesting cast of characters, although I never really appreciated them until this most recent viewing. I’m not sure why I found them to be so boring during my first few rounds, but this time I thought their personalities were charming, even when it came to the bit parts (Dick Miller rocks in his cameo). Yet I feel like “The Howling” utilized them very awkwardly…To clarify, characters and/or their relationships will be established as important, but then they will vanish for large periods of time. Initially, the core dynamic was between Karen (Dee Wallace) and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone), with them reacting to the strange shenanigans of the colonists. Yet within 45 minutes, Bill seems to fade away into the background and Karen herself is supplanted by Chris (Dennis Dugan; the f@cker who later directed “Grown Ups 2“- a true experience in terror) and Terry (Belinda Balaski) as the real protagonists…only for Karen to take back that role for the finale! This new couple aren’t prominent enough during the first half and I’m never a fan of stories where supporting characters do the majority of ‘main character’ stuff like investigating the plot (something which causes my ‘Post-“Puppet Master” Stress Disorder’ to resurface). Other relationships are built up, only to never really lead anywhere, like Karen befriending one of the locals. They spend a lot of time in the middle block together, before that story thread is dropped. I wanted to know more about the relationship between Eddie and the Colonists too, although admittedly that would’ve been a tricky angle to explore. So the narrative is juggling too many characters, who are all intriguing enough, but you never feel like you get enough of them. This actually angered me during the finale, where Bill doesn’t seem to have any reaction towards the others wanting to kill his wife, who doesn’t even seem to get time to register his betrayal (she seems angrier that he might be having an affair!). In fact, no one seems particularly sad or angered at the loss of any of their loved ones, which diminishes the emotional impact. While this might be considered nitpicking, or perhaps is merely a missed opportunity, I wish Eddie had more screen-time. I would’ve loved seeing him interact with the other colonists.
Nevertheless, while I believe these are valid complaints, I doubt I’ll remember the majority of them within a few months. By the time I’m finished marathoning this franchise, I’ll likely only recall the transformation, the werewolf designs and opening scare, so even I’ll possibly start convincing myself that those three things embody the entire movie. But even if nothing else stands out, “The Howling” is still a stellar genre piece that did entertain me. People adore “The Howling” because of its great moments, but I think they accidentally make the entire movie out to be just as memorable, when it is not. Those who dislike “The Howling” are annoyed because of its glowing reputation, conceding that it has some great moments, but thinking that they weren’t enough to keep their attention for the entire 90 minute runningtime. I know I’m probably regurgitating the same point over and over again, but for those who are considering watching it for the first time or maybe haven’t seen it in years and wish to take that trip down the nostalgic road, I believe you should know what to expect. Expect ‘good’ instead of ‘great’, because you’re less likely to get blind-sided by any hype backlash. “The Howling” was a success at the box office and was even well liked by the critics, but “An American Werewolf in London” stole the show back in 1981, gaining a more enthusiastic reception and grossing over three times the amount of money. Yet “The Howling” had a more enduring legacy, because “An American Werewolf in London” only gave birth to one crappy sequel, while “The Howling” spawned seven crappy sequels…which I now get to review…Yay?
Violence: Rated R- The transformations are pretty gross and the use of ‘acid’ on a werewolf was nasty, although the werewolf kills are somewhat tame.
Nudity: There is quite a bit, during a bizarre sex scene and an uncomfortable rape scene.
Overall: “The Howling” has enough bite to satisfy horror fanatics, but not to the point where it would alienate everybody else. I think this is a good enough movie for anyone to enjoy, although I think it’s a mistake to label this a masterpiece of any kind (outside of innovating special effects).
DISCARDED MATERIAL (the original review)
(Note from Author: This was simply an early review of mine and it wasn’t very good. Notice how in a lot of my older works, I name drop a lot of movies in place of explaining my points?)
“Howling” had the unfortunate luck of being released around the same time as the superior “American Werewolf in London”, so was mostly overlooked. However, it’s cult status has grown enough to the point I think people remember this a bit more than that one. Also, “American Werewolf in London” only has one (crappy) sequel. “Howling” has plenty of (crappy) sequels, so clearly more people are interested in seeing these wolves.
I remember watching this when I was a little zombie sprite and it boring me to tears. Keep in mind, I liked “Howling 5” at that point, and “Jaws: The Revenge”, so I had no tastes. Anyway, the movie is slow. It’s never boring, but it’s slow. You only get some action in the opening as well as the finale. The rest only has bits and pieces of things going on. While I’m on the negatives, I did think the movie was a bit silly at times. This is mainly when the villains are explaining themselves near the end. The “Oh, it’s so wonderful” lines were already campy, delivered in an even campier fashion. The movie itself seems to be bathed in a light layer of cheese, not helped by how stupid the characters tend to be at times. People just stand there, watching the transformation at hand, instead of running. I’m pretty sure this goes on longer than the infamous rising zombie from “Zombie”. These qualms are a shame, because this could have been better.
However, this is a positive review. The movie starts off on a strong note. I wonder if this movie inspired Lucio Fulci’s “New York Ripper”, because the sleazy cinematography almost felt identical. Nevertheless, the unease was very high and the lighting was superb. Hell, the opening was probably the scariest scene in the entire movie. The movie is very moody and Dante handles the atmosphere like a champ. It’s always dark, gritty yet has a hint of glamour about it. He handles the dream sequences expertly, and at one point used the colored lighting of “Suspiria”. When the finale finally comes around, he jacks the intensity meter up high.
What about the werewolves? Unfortunately, we don’t get too see much of them until the end. We see glimpses, but not a full shot until the 3rd act. In comparison to “American Werewolf in London”, this one has cooler wolves. They’re scary, messy, believable and imaginative. However, I think the transformation scene was better in “American Werewolf“, although this one rocks too.
On paper, the film has it’s moments of wit. The characters are also decent, which is a word I stress. I didn’t really root for them, but I didn’t want them to die either. I did like the themes present, however. The film seems to be part metaphor on our repressed sexual urges. Yes, repression is a major theme going on here. I respect this, because it shows a hidden intelligence behind this movie. Dee Wallace (Karen) felt a bit theatrical at times, but mostly does fine. Christopher Stone (Bill) does fine, but the part was pretty boring. Patrick Macnee (Dr. Waggner) is very credible. John Carradine(Erle) has a small role and props to Robert Picardo(Eddie), who is scary as the serial killer.
Violence: You’ll have to wait for it, but it becomes pretty graphic near the end. The transformations themselves are pretty gross.
Nudity: Lots of it. The first part is from a videotaped rape scene, so that’s no fun. Later on, you get to see all of a gal during a graphic sex scene, and a guys backside.
Overall: “Howling” fell short of being a great film, but it still works as a good film. The make-up and atmospheric direction made this kind of scary, while the occasional script flub also made it kind of silly. At the absolute least, it’s the best of the “Howling” series (faint praise?), and one of the better werewolf movies in general.