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RetView #24 – War of the Worlds (1953)

Title: War of the Worlds

Year of Release: 1953

Director: Byron Haskin

Length: 85 minutes

Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne

war of the worlds

I know, I’m genre-hopping again. Much like The Fly the classic 1953 version of War of the Worlds isn’t as much of a horror film as it is a pure sci-fi flick. But it is considered one of the greatest of all time, and contains all the elements considered typical of horror movies – tension, suspense, conflict, and the threat of imminent death, right down to the spooky music. Not least, it was such a significant event in the history of cinema that I feel it would be a huge mistake not to include it in this series. So here we are.

This Paramount Pictures production was the first in a slew of film adaptations based on HG Wells’ groundbreaking 1897 novel of the same name, which was also the source material of the controversial Orson Welles radio drama that sparked widespread panic throughout America in October 1938 because everyone assumed it was an actual broadcast rather than a play and legitimately thought it was the end of the world. At its core, War of the Worlds is a straight-up alien invasion story, which in a Cold War setting becomes a direct metaphor for the perceived threat of communism and the detrimental effect it could have on the Western way of life. This is perhaps what sets this version apart from subsequent adaptations and makes it such an interesting case study. That and the fact that the release exploited the deep impression left on the public’s psyche by the infamous radio play 15 years previously meaning that the market was already primed long before the film even came out.

If you aren’t familiar with the premise, it’s simple, yet terrifying. The aliens come. Martians, to be exact. You know, from Mars. At first, everyone thinks earth is simply being pounded by meteors, so groups of people head to the impact sites for a closer look. As you do. At a crash site near Linda Rosa, California, well-known scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Barry), who’d been on a fishing trip, meets star-struck young waif Sylvia Van Buren (Robinson). The shameless flirting commences instantaneously.

Sylvia: You didn’t wear glasses on the Time cover.

Dr. Forrester: They’re really for long distance. When I want to look at something close, I take them off.

*Takes off glasses and leans in, which isn’t creepy at all.

After the initial excitement of the crashed ‘meteorite’ subsides, everyone files off leaving three men to guard the crash site. No sooner has everyone gone, a hatch opens in what is now clearly NOT a meteorite, a futuristic weapon emerges, incinerates the guards, and simultaneously shuts down all the technology in the town via an electromagnetic pulse. Wowzer. And that’s just the start of it. Someone calls the army and they roll up all guns blazing only to be met with death rays a-plenty. Carnage ensues just as reports begin to filter through (it’s unclear how, given the tech-fucking effects of that pesky electromagnetic pulse) that similar objects have crash landed all over the world. The condition is now critical. Before we know it, a full-on war breaks out (yep, a war of the worlds). Mankind, even when using the atomic bomb, prove no match for the alien invaders and are soon reduced to running around in a blind panic trying to stay alive. Many of the world’s capital cities are now aflame, and in the chaos Dr Forrester and the God-fearing Sylvia become separated. They find each other again in a church, but just when they face certain death the Martians abruptly start keeling over and dying. Apparently, they are unable to deal with the germs and bacteria in the earth’s atmosphere to which people have ‘long since grown immune.’ A little bit anti-climactic but it was as easy as that, the quasi-religious take-away message apparently being that where man (and nuclear weapons) fail, the smallest and most innocuous things sometimes succeed, so we should never lose hope. The stupidly unlikely romantic sub-plot is maintained right to the bitter end, so I guess there’s also some observation to be made about the all-conquering power of love, something which went right over my head.

At the time, War of the Worlds was celebrated for its use of movie-making technology, winning an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Okay, there were no other nominees that year, but it still won. Producer George Pal originally wanted to shoot the entire final third in 3D, but that plan was blackballed for being too expensive. Instead, the alien ships were superimposed over stock footage. It might sound tacky, but there’s a lot to admire. Whatever trickery was used results in a beautifully dark, apocalyptic landscape against which people are portrayed as being awfully weak and vulnerable. Not least the US Marine who catches fire. You don’t often see people catching fire in movies from 1953. Many of the visual techniques used became industry standards for years to come, the echoes of which are still being felt today. A bona fide classic people will still be watching in another 65 years.

Trivia Corner:

As a homage to the 1938 radio broadcast, at one point voice specialist Paul Frees appears on-screen as a radio reporter and does a pretty convincing vocal impersonation of Orson Welles.

 

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RetView #23 – Shocker (1989)

Title: Shocker

Year of Release: 1989

Director: Wes Craven

Length: 110 minutes

Starring: Peter Berg, Mitch Pileggi, Michael Murphy, Heather Langenkamp, John Tesh

shocker

I was 15 when Shocker came out, and so at PAA (Peak Appreciation Age) for horror movies. And a lot of other things, including heavy metal. One of the most attractive things for me about this movie was the soundtrack, which featured Megadeth covering Alice Cooper’s No More Mr. Nice Guy alongside songs by Bonfire and Iggy Pop. Most impressively, the title track was recorded by The Dudes of Wrath, a supergroup consisting of Paul Stanley (Kiss), Vivian Campbell and Rudy Sarzo (Whitesnake) and Tommy Lee (Motley Crue). It even featured powerhouse songwriter Desmond Child and members of Van Halen on backing vocals. All this considered, Shocker was a perfect storm of my two main obsessions coming together. Metal and horror. Although dubbed a critical and commercial failure at the time (though not really, as it raked in $16.6 million at the Box Office against a $5 million budget) it has since gained cult status, and deservedly so.

Parallels are often drawn between Shocker and Wes Craven’s seminal A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. While the former is much more light-hearted, often venturing into campy horror comedy territory, there are similarities. In his 2004 book Wes Craven: The Art of Horror, writer John Kenneth Muir says, “Shocker was basically Craven’s response to the Freddy Krueger film series and to Universal Studios, which informed him they wanted their very own horror franchise à la A Nightmare on Elm Street. Accordingly, moments in Shocker echo Craven’s earlier milestone film. Both films open with grisly serial killers working in their den of evil, both feature non-believing parents who also happen to serve on the local police, and both films also dramatize the now-expected ‘rubber reality’ dream sequences.”

In Shocker, the Freddy Krueger role is taken by a new anti-hero, Horace Pinker (Pileggi, later to make it big as Walter Skinner in the X Files) who appears to highschool footballer Jonathan Parker (Berg) in his dreams. This proves to be nothing but a precursor, when Horace (isn’t it more endearing when savage comic villains are referred to by their first name? Freddy, Jason, etc) then butchers most of Jonathan’s foster family, much to the chagrin of his police detective foster dad (Murphy). Using his dreams, Jonathan leads a police squad right to Horace’s door, but the killer escapes, brutally murdering all the cops in the process (except his foster dad, who yells at him). He then kills Peter’s girlfriend in revenge (Langenkamp, from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Obviously a favourite of Craven’s, she was also cast in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). Shortly afterwards, he is finally apprehended and it transpires that he is actually Peter’s biological father (bummer!). He is then sent to the electric chair. What his executioners don’t know, however, is that Horace has struck a deal with the devil. The chair doesn’t actually kill him, but ‘frees’ him and turns him into pure electricity, enabling him to continue his killing spree by hopping from body to body. Jonathan eventually wins through, with the help of his dead girlfriend, by trapping his nemesis dad inside a television set leaving the path open for a sequel. The much-touted sequel, which was supposed to be the second instalment in a horror franchise to rival A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday 13th never materialized, probably due to a combination of mixed reviews and shifting audience attitudes.

Some critics disagree, with Horrornews.net going so far as to call him ‘lame’ but IMHO Pileggi plays a remarkably convincing baddie, and with his bald head and trim physique is eerily reminiscent of a young Dana White. He does suffer a little from ‘Freddy Krueger Syndrome’ with all the banter and wisecracks (“C’mon boy, let’s take a ride in my volts wagon!”). However, despite its cult classic status, this film is not without its problems. One of the main sticking points is its length. At 110 minutes, it far exceeds the average 90 minute running time for this kind of genre staple and takes quite a while before it gets going. I blame the editors for that. Maybe a slightly shorter, more streamlined version would have fared better.

Trivia Corner:

According to Craven, the film was severely cut for an R (15) rating. It took around thirteen submissions to the MPAA before it was awarded an R instead of an X (18) which would have limited its appeal. Some of the scenes that were cut included Pinker spitting out fingers that he bit off of a prison guard and a longer and more graphic electrocution. An uncut version has never been released.


RetView #22 – The Descent (2005)

Title: The Descent

Year of Release: 2005

Director: Neil Marshall

Length: 100 mins

Starring: Shauna MacDonald, Alex Reid, Natalie Mendoza, Saskia Mulder

SAW_1Sheet_Comps

Following the runaway success of Dog Soldiers, British director Neil Marshall was inundated with offers to make films in a similar vein. Anxious not to be typecast, he was initially reluctant but finally agreed to make The Descent because the two projects were, “Very different.” He did, however, insist on making drastic changes to the script to make them even more different. The film was originally to feature a mixed cast, but realizing how common that is, Marshall opted on an all-female cast instead. The decision proved to be a masterstroke, winning the film plaudits and instantly setting it apart from many of its contemporaries. Discussing the film after its release, Marshall says, “We wanted to show all these terrible things in the cave: dark, drowning, claustrophobia. Then, when it couldn’t get any worse, make it worse.”

In a bid to overcome a recent tragedy in which her husband and young daughter are killed, Sarah (MacDonald) meets a group of friends. They decide to go caving together in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Not my idea of a fun time, but ya know. No sooner are they underground, then a cave-in traps them there. Then it transpires that the cave system is unmapped, and that one of their number, Juno (Mendoza) had led them there deliberately so they could become the first people to explore it. This means rescue is impossible, and they are going to have to find their own way out. Whilst seeking a way out they make several discoveries that would indicate that all might not be as it seems, among them cave paintings, a mass of animal bones, and some old climbing equipment. So far, so weird. Things then take a turn for the gross when one of the girls takes a tumble and breaks her leg. I don’t know why open compound fractures (where the bone sticks out of the shattered limb) are so common in movies, but they are and the rest of us have to stomach them. While the rest of the girls are debating how to get themselves out of this mess, Sarah spies a pale, humanoid creature drinking from a subterranean pond. This, my friends, is our first glimpse of a ‘Crawler.’ Hideously deformed, carnivorous, cave-dwelling creatures who were once people, we are led to believe, but have been underground for so long they have mutated and evolved differently to the rest of us. Blind, they have enhanced senses of hearing and smell to compensate. They’re sprightly little fuckers, too. A bit like a cross between the inbreds in the Wrong Turn series and mini-golems. They aren’t very friendly, either, and soon attack our little group of transgressors. Suffice to say, it doesn’t go well for the girls. Juno accidentally stabs Beth (Reid) in the neck and leaves her to die, before later running into Sarah and lying about the whole thing. It is also revealed that Juno had an affair with Sarah’s husband before his death. After a confrontation, Sarah leaves her nemesis at the mercy of the Crawlers and makes good her escape, finding a way out of the cave and back to civilization. Except, in a brilliant twist ending, her ‘escape’ as actually a hallucination, and when she wakes up she’s in just as much trouble as her friends. More, in fact.

Whilst it is set in North America, The Descent was actually made in the UK. The exterior shots were filmed in Scotland, and the interior at Pinewood Studios, as it was deemed too expensive, problematic and risky to film in a real cave system. I don’t know what this says about different audiences, but it is interesting to note here that the US version ends with Sarah’s escape, leaving out the part where she wakes up still strapped in the caves. It was suggested in Entertainment Weekly magazine that this was done because after such an emotionally draining cinematic experience, American audiences wouldn’t appreciate the ‘uber hopeless’ finale. Evidently, however, British audiences prefer their endings to be uber hopeless. The more hopeless and depressing the better. Something else about this film that fucks with your head a little is the depiction of the Crawlers, who count females and vulnerable-yet-still-nasty children amongst their number which obviously means they’ve been multiplying down there. The Descent was followed in 2009 by a sequel, again staring Shauna MacDonald. However, despite having a much bigger budget, this was a comparative failure and struggled to break even.

Trivia Corner

The film’s marketing campaign in the UK was disrupted by the London bombings of July 2005. Advertisements on the city’s public transport system had included posters carrying the quote, “Outright terror… bold and brilliant,” and depicting a terrified woman screaming in a tunnel. The posters were recalled, and the campaign reworked to exclude the word “terror” from advertised reviews of the movie. The distributor’s marketing chief, Anna Butler, said of the new approach, “We changed tack to concentrate on the women involved all standing together and fighting back. That seemed to chime with the prevailing mood of defiance that set in the weekend after the bombs.”

 


#RetView 21 – The Fog (1980)

Title: The Fog

Year of Release: 1980

Director: John Carpenter

Length: 89 minutes

Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh

The Fog

Along with The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, this is one of the films that shaped (or warped) my formative years. Following the success of Halloween two years earlier, John Carpenter was considered hot shit in Hollywood and virtually given free license to do what he wanted on the Fog, albeit on a pretty modest budget. He didn’t disappoint. Being sandwiched between Halloween and Escape from New York, the Fog is often overlooked, but remains one of the jewels in Carpenter’s crown.

As the Californian coastal town of Antonio Bay nears its hundredth anniversary, paranormal activity mysteriously begins to rocket. When a huge chunk of masonry falls out of a wall in his church, town priest Father Malone (Holbrook) finds his grandfather’s journal hidden in the alcove. When he reads it, he uncovers a terrible secret. The original townsfolk, led by Malone’s grandfather, deliberately sank a clipper ship, the Elizabeth Dane, and plundered it for gold, which was then used to establish the town and build the church. Cut to the present day, and a fishing boat is out at sea when it is engulfed by a mysterious glowing fog. You guessed it, there’s something in there. Specifically, it’s the Elizabeth Dane, and her very angry (and very dead) crew.

The heart and soul of San Antonio is the local radio station, seemingly managed by Stevie Wayne (Barbeau) all on her lonesome. The radio station is set up in an old lighthouse, meaning Stevie is in pole position to see the glowing fog, which suspiciously moves against the wind, approach the town. Weatherman Dan helpfully calls to tell her about it, but unfortunately, Weatherman Dan could make a strong case for being the stupidest man in the world and is dead moments later. Instead of just calling it a night and going home, Stevie then takes to the airwaves to implore any passing strangers to go to her house, address provided, to save her son who is stuck there with the soon-to-be-dead babysitter. A short time later, she apparently gives up on him altogether and shifts her attention to saving the villagers instead who have gathered for a Centenary celebration. In an apparent attempt to help the crew of the Elizabeth Dane find them quicker, she tells them all to gather in the church where an epic showdown takes place.

As well as writing, directing, and even pulling off a brief cameo role, John Carpenter also composed the musical score. I didn’t notice the significance until I sat down and actually listened to it. It consists of the usual deep, ominous, brooding tones, which are then mimicked by lighter tones. Same chords, different tones. When I thought about it, that effect conjured up the notion of being stalked or followed, which I imagine to be an effective tool to use on the subconscious whether intentional or otherwise. The music is instrumental (boom!) in making the Fog such an atmospheric, satisfying, well-made chiller. The plot is ultimately a tad predictable, but there’s just enough gore and jump scares to keep things interesting.

The fate of the Elizabeth Dane is said to be based on that of an actual wrecking which took place off the coast of California near the town of Goleta in the 19th century. This particular kind of skulduggery appears to have been mercifully rare in America. However, it was a lot more prevalent in Britain.

John Carpenter also claimed to be partly inspired by a visit to Stonehenge with his co-writer/producer (and then-girlfriend), Debra Hill while in England promoting Assault on Precinct 13 in 1977. They visited the site in the late afternoon, and saw an eerie fog in the distance. Though carpenter and Hill worked together on The Fog, Halloween and several other projects, by the time the Fog came to be filmed Carpenter was married to Adrienne Barbeau. Unusually, both Carpenter and Hill were involved in the 2005 remake starring Selma Blair and Tom Welling, which managed to stay more-or-less faithful to the original.

Trivia Corner

Worried the film might flop, the distribution company, AVCO Embassy Pictures, spent around $3 million on advertising and promotion, mostly on TV, radio and print ads. They also spent a considerable amount installing fog machines in the lobbies of cinemas where the film was showing. That was almost three times the amount the film cost to make. However, the gamble paid off as it generated over $21 million at the Box Office.


RetView #18 – The Slayer (1982)

Title: The Slayer

Year of Release: 1982

Director: J.S. Cardone

Length: 86 minutes (uncut)

Starring: Sarah Kendall, Frederick Flynn, Carol Kottenbrook, Alan McRae

The-Slayer-1982-bluray-cover

Along with The Evil Dead, this understated and often-overlooked cult classic is one of the original video nasties, meaning it was one of the 72 included on the infamous ‘banned’ list comprised by the British Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in 1983 in the belief that they contravened the Obscene Publications Act. Written and directed by J.S. Cardone (best known for The Forsaken, Shadowzone and the 2008 version of Prom Night), The Slayer can be seen as more than a simple slasher film following in the footsteps of Halloween and Friday the 13th, as it contains legitimate supernatural elements and a depth sadly lacking in most films of this genre. It is practically impossible to examine the intricacies and sub-plots without dropping the odd spoiler, so be prepared for that over the next couple of paragraphs.

Artist Kay (Kendall) is one half of a professional, upwardly-mobile couple. But all is not well. She suffers from terrible nightmares, usually involving the gruesome deaths of friends or loved ones. Concerned that the dreams are affecting her work, her family arranges a holiday for her, her husband, and another couple, on a remote island off the coast of Georgia. They are taken there by plane. Before leaving, the pilot, a thoroughly unnerving character called Marsh, serves up a cryptic warning which sets them all on edge. It then transpires that the island is the very place Kay has been dreaming about and further alarm bells ring about half an hour in when one of their number is killed when he gets his head stuck in a trap door. That scene is probably what led to the ‘video nasty’ classification. It’s pretty fucking gruesome. Over the next few days, everyone is slaughtered except Kay. But this is where it gets interesting. With every killing, alternate possibilities are put forward for the discerning viewer to decipher. Is Marsh the creepy pilot the murderer? Has the island somehow allowed Kay’s nightmares to merge with reality? Is a supernatural entity from her dreams, a la Freddy Kreuger, the culprit? Or is Kay herself the one doing the killing? If so, does she even know she’d doing it? Or is she plain crazy?

I wish I knew the answer. But the truth is, I have no fucking clue. I loved the way all these possible scenarios, and probably a few more that I missed, overlap and are presented to the viewer leaving he or she to make up their own mind about what’s happening. It’s much better than being spoon-fed information and then left to digest it. The last few minutes, where you think everything will be revealed, are as close to genius as you would expect from a so-called video nasty. Kay barricades herself in the holiday home, Marsh appears and she kills him. But it isn’t revealed whether Marsh is there to save her or do her harm. The house catches fire, she opens the door to make her escape, and is then confronted by the monster from her dreams. Mind. Blown. Oh, but there’s more. Because then she wakes up. Yes. One of the crappiest plot devices in the history of plot devices, the old ‘it was all a dream’ chestnut, is wheeled out. Or is it? You see Kay is a little girl again, it’s Christmas morning and she’s in her parent’s house. What the absolute fuck. We are never told whether she’s having a flashback or if she really did dream the whole thing. This final refusal to offer any kind of resolution is the most frustrating aspect of all. Until that point, you were willing to withhold judgement and wait and see what transpires. We are the audience. Sure, fuck with us all you want, that’s what we are here for and some of us like it, but don’t insult our intelligence. Also, am I the only one who wanted to see more of the monster?

The Slayer (also known by the frankly much better title, Nightmare Island) wasn’t a big hit with reviewers, with most criticizing not only the non-committal approach to storytelling but also the film’s pacing. However, most praised it for the well-made kill scenes and generally good production. The director does a great job of instilling a sense of trepidation and isolation, which later turns into desperation and despair.

Trivia Corner.

The scene which caused most concern with the censors is one where a female victim is stabbed through the back with a pitch fork, the prongs emerging from her chest. In most versions it was cut completely, but restored to the 2001 UK DVD release (weirdly, it has never been released on DVD in the US). It’s comparatively innocuous by today’s standards, and surely every 1980’s slasher flick needs a pitch fork, right?

 


Retview #17 – Tucker & Dale Vs Evil (2010)

Title: Tucker & Dale Vs Evil

Year of Release: 2010

Director: Eli Craig

Length: 89 minutes

Starring: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden

Tucker and dale

There haven’t been many films made in the past decade which I’ve been able to watch repeatedly. In fact, Tucker & Dale Vs Evil is probably the only one. But even our happy co-existence didn’t get off to a great start. Some time in 2015 (I think), it came on the Horror Channel. As per usual, I had the Horror Channel on in the background while I did something else. Not being familiar with the film, I had it down as just A.N. Other low-budget gore fest. It is, of course. But it is much more than that. It wasn’t until about half way through that I actually stopped what I was doing and started paying attention. Even then, I was hit with a few “WTF?” moments before I was able to settle down enough to enjoy it. It was a lot funnier than I expected. Obviously, having missed the first half I made a point of catching it the next time it was on (which was probably about three days later) and then watched it another couple of times over the next two years or so just because it’s a fucking riot.

Tucker (Tudyk) and Dale (Labine) are two well-meaning redneck hillbilly types with a knack for getting it wrong. Awfully wrong. They also happen to be the unluckiest duo in movie history. Whilst on their way to their newly-acquired vacation cabin deep in the woods, Dale tries talking to a couple of girls at a truck stop but is hamstrung by crippling anxiety (“I hate my face!”). The group of college kids from the truck stop are camping nearby, and amuse each other by telling campfire stories about a psychotic hillbilly serial killer who slaughtered a bunch of college kids years previously and buried their bodies in the wilderness. This puts everyone on edge, and when one of the girls (Allison, played by Katrina Bowden from 30 Rock and the movies Sex Drive, Scary Movie 5 and Piranha 3DD) falls and knocks herself unconscious whilst skinny-dipping, she is rescued by Tucker and Dale who are out on a fishing trip, only for her friends to completely misread the situation and assume she was being held captive. They run away, leaving our calamitous duo to take her back to their vacation cabin. She awakes the next morning to Dale’s pancake breakfast and a slobbering dog. He persuades her to sit tight and play his favourite board game with him while they wait for her friends to come and pick her up. The friends, who prove to be even more of a liability than Rucker and Dale, then start accidentally dying. As Tucker notes, “There we were minding our own business, just doing chores around the house, when kids started killing themselves all over my property.”

Meanwhile, though her friends are convinced she is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, could romance be blossoming between Dale and Allison? “I should have known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead.”

Written and directed by Canadian Eli Craig, who had a role in Carrie 2: The Rage (1999), Tucker & Dale Vs Evil was shelved before finally being unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010 and enjoying a limited theater run the following year. Labelled as a horror-comedy, it is much more of a comedy than a horror, bucking the trend set down by offerings like Dog Soldiers, Severance or An American Werewolf in London, and is full of killer (boom!) one-liners (“He’s heavy for half a guy!”). Upon release, and since, Tucker and Dale Vs Evil has garnered generally favourable reviews. Writing for Empire, Adam Smith said it was, “Genuinely funny. A life lesson in prejudicing a man just because he is skinning a squirrel,” while the Guardian called the film, “Ingenious.” It also won a slew of industry awards including the prestigious ‘Audience Award’ at the SXSW Film Festival and the Fangoria Chainsaw award for best screenplay.

Trivia Corner:

Following the cult success of the first movie, a sequel was highly touted, However, this failed to materialize. Nobody was quite sure why, until someone asked Alan Tudyk in an interview. Apparently, the material just wasn’t strong enough. “I heard the synopsis,” Tudyk said, “And the general reaction from Eli was ‘No fucking way.’”

 


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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