Retview #16 – The Howling (1981)

Title: The Howling

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Joe Dante

Length: 89 minutes

Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Elisabeth Brooks

1981-the-howling-poster1

I’ve already covered several werewolf movies in this series (An American Werewolf in London, Dog Soldiers). However, previous entries tend to verge on horror/comedy. I don’t know why, but someone way back in movie history must have decided there was something knee-slappingly funny about people transforming into humungous wolf-like creatures and ripping innocent bystanders into bloody pieces. Not so the Howling. Despite a script dripping with satire (“You were raised in LA, the wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack.”) adapted from Gary Brandner’s novel by screenwriter John Sayles, who had previously worked with director Joe Dante on tongue-in-cheek classic Piranha, there are precious few chuckles here. Except right at the very end, which we’ll get to in good time. Even now, almost four decades after it was first released, The Howling is still a brutal, terrifying, and deeply disturbing journey into the dark heart of the lycanthrope legend which has long been considered a metaphor for the beast lurking inside all of us, something which is hinted at several times throughout the movie. If you’ve never seen it, that’s something you need to rectify post haste.

Karen White (Scream Queen Dee Wallace, star of horror staples Cujo, the original Hills Have Eyes and Critters, but probably best known for her role in E.T.) is a television news anchor in LA who is being stalked by a serial killer. In conjunction with the police and TV crews, she takes part in a sting operation, agreeing to meet the murderer in a sleazy porno cinema. In the ensuing kerfuffle, the serial killer is shot dead by cops, but Karen is left severely traumatized by it all and suffering from amnesia. Her therapist (Macnee, that bloke off the Avengers) suggests she and her husband (Stone) should spend some time at an exclusive retreat in the countryside to aid her recovery, something they are only too happy to do. Big mistake. The Colony, as they call it, is full of colourful characters, one of them being a nymphomaniac called Marsha (Brooks) who tried to bed Karen’s husband. When he rejects her advances, she follows him into the woods one night and scratches his arm, thereby ‘turning’ him. They later do it next to a bonfire (snigger) in one of those scenes that you probably rewound way too much as a horny teenager, before getting creeped out by the fact that by the end you are essentially watching a couple of Furries getting some. Anyway, Karen soon begins to suspect that something sketchy is going on not just with her husband, but at the retreat as a whole, and calls in a little help from her friends. That’s when things get interesting, if they weren’t interesting enough before.

There’s no getting around it, by today’s standards The Howling does seem awfully dated in parts. But the script is extremely well-written, the cast is a who’s who of the era’s acting talent and, though Rick Baker deservedly won an Oscar for his creature effects on An American Werewolf in London a year later, Rob Bottin’s work here is just as impressive. You can achieve quite a lot with tiny inflatable air bags under latex skin. He lets the side down somewhat in the final scene where Karen morphs into something resembling a cross between a Spaniel and a Golden Retriever live on air, but we’ll let that one slide. I prefer to think that particular scene (a late addition tagged on to the end while Wallace was filming Cujo) is meant as one of those tongue-in-cheek moments. An earlier section where the werewolf attacks Karen’s friend at a secluded cabin in the woods is utterly terrifying, as is the part where our heroine comes face to face with the monster for the first time and watches transfixed as he changes in front of her. The suspense is maintained throughout, and the action rarely lets up. There’s also a fair bit of sex and nudity which led to some reviewers, somewhat unfairly, dubbing it erotic horror. Dante (who also directed Gremlins, Innerspace and Burying the Ex, amongst others) fits all the pieces together nicely, and shows neat little touches like having Little Red Riding Hood playing in the background.

Unsurprisingly, due to its success, the Howling spawned a sequel (Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf) in 1985. What is surprising, however, is that despite the sequel being a total flop it then led to a bunch more, none of which were very good. The most recent was the eighth installment released in 2011. Word is that a ninth is in pre-production, a remake of the first, which you would think would round things off nicely. Just as long as they don’t decide to remake the other seven.

Trivia Corner:

Dee Wallace and Christopher Stone were married in RL, having met on an episode of CHiPs before filming started on The Howling. They were together until his death from a werewolf bite (not really. It was a heart attack) in 1995.

 

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About cmsaunders

I write stuff. Pretty much any stuff. My dark fiction has appeared in Asphalt Jungle, Raw Nerve, Roadworks, Dark Valentine, Screams of Terror, Shallow Graves, Fantastic Horror, The Literary Hatchet, Gore and numerous anthologies. My first book, Into the Dragon's Lair – A Supernatural History of Wales was published back in 2003, and I've worked extensively in the freelance journalism industry, contributing features to numerous international publications including Fortean Times, Bizarre, Urban Ink, Loaded, Record Collector, Maxim, and a regular column to the Western Mail newspaper. I lived in China for over five years where I taught English during my search for enlightenment, before moving back to the UK in January 2013 to work as staff writer on Nuts magazine. Later, I was senior writer on Forever Sports magazine and associate editor at Coach magazine, before leaving to chance my arm in the world of pro freelance. In recent times I've devoted more time to dark fiction, my latest offerings being Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut), Human Waste and X3, my third collection. I also edit, copy write, proofread and ghost write and drink far too much craft beer. View all posts by cmsaunders

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