Tag Archives: werewolf

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

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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.

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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.


RetView #6 – Dog Soldiers

Title: Dog Soldiers

Year of Release: 2002

Director: Neil Marshall

Length: 105 mins

Starring: Sean Pertwee, Emma Cleasby, Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham

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“It puts things into perspective when you have to scoop your mate up with a shovel and put him in a bag.”

So says Sgt Wells (Pertwee). There haven’t been many British horror films over the past decade or three more worthy of praise than Dog Soldiers. From the opening scenes, when a couple camping in the Scottish Highlands are ripped apart by a ferocious beast, you’re left in little doubt that this is a werewolf flick. The signs are definitely there, not least the inclusion of a solid silver knife, which the couple don’t use to defend themselves. Doh. Cut to a few weeks later, and a group black-clad SAS fellas on a training exercise. Whilst sitting around a fire telling war stories and complaining about missing the football, a mashed-up animal carcass somehow gets chucked at them. I think it’s a deer, but it’s pretty hard to tell. While investigating this strange occurrence, they stumble across their SAS adversaries. Except they’re all dead, the only survivor being a severely traumatised Captain Ryan (Cunningham) who is full of gory tales of his company being attacked and torn apart. Luckily, they left their guns and ammo, which our boys gleefully commandeer as they were only given blanks. I sense a plot hole here. I mean, if it really was a training exercise, how come one side was given live rounds? Anyway, moving on, it soon becomes apparent that what they are up against isn’t human. At least, not all the time.

Soon after they come under attack and Sgt Wells almost gets ripped in half. (“My guts are coming out!”). He doesn’t die, though. In fact, being mortally wounded just seems to piss him off. He keeps soldiering on and swearing at everyone. A passing zoologist called Megan (Emma Cleasby) saves the day when she drives up in a Land Rover and offers them a lift. Yes, please! She takes them to an isolated farmhouse, where they hope to regroup and radio for help. Obviously, things don’t quite work out that way, and a bloody battle to the death between soldiers and werewolves ensues. Can they survive until dawn? Will it make any difference if they do? Why is the SAS bloke acting so sketchy? And perhaps most importantly, who won the footy match they were all so concerned about?

The answer to that last question is England, as the match they are referring to is believed to be the World Cup qualifier on September 1st 2001 in Munich when they thrashed Germany 5-1. The best scene is when Sam the sheepdog keeps trying to eat Sgt Wells’ guts as they spill out of his body, one of the other guys sees it, and throws up on Captain Ryan’s head. Soon after, they perform some much-needed first aid on him with the help of a bottle of whisky and some superglue.

“How’re you feeling, Sarge?”

“Absolutely fucking top bollocks!”

Despite his woes, Sgt Wells makes a splendid recovery and outlives most of the others. Must have been the whisky. Or the fact that he’s slowly turning. The cast is like a who’s who of English acting talent as we see a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Kevin McKidd teamed up with a pre-Game of Thrones Liam Cunningham and a post-ID Sean Pertwee whose character is named Sgt Harry G Wells, a clear nod to the sci-fi writer HG Wells. Throughout the film there are also references to Zulu, the Matrix, An American Werewolf in London, and Evil Dead among others, making it an anorak’s dream. Even 90’s lad show They Think It’s All Over gets a tongue-in-cheek mention. The director, Neil Marshall, went on to be involved with The Descent franchise, Doomsday, Centurion, as well as episodes of Westworld, Hannibal and Game of Thrones. If you like your horror bloody, funny, and gore-tastic, you can do a lot worse than Dog Soldiers. You’re probably never going to see another northern bloke holding a flare aloft and singing, “Come and ‘ave a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough!” to a group of rampaging lycanthropes ever again. That man, incidentally, was played by Chris Robson, and he’s a French teacher in the north of England now. Famed for it’s (very) black comedy elements, upon its release, Dog Soldiers achieved cult status in the UK, but I have no idea how it was received in the rest of the world. A much-anticipated sequel Dog Soldiers 2: Fresh Meat was supposed to have been released in 2014 but wasn’t forthcoming. More’s the pity. The world needs more movies like this.

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Trivia Corner:

Although set in the Scottish Highlands, apart from a few aerial shots the movie was filmed almost entirely in Luxembourg.


RetView #3 – An American Werewolf in London

Title: An American Werewolf in London

Year of Release: 1981

Director: John Landis

Length: 97 mins

Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne

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Some films you see during those impressionable childhood years make an indelible mark on you. Others scar you for life. For me, An American Werewolf in London undoubtedly belongs in the latter category, and not just because I was obsessed with Jenny Agutter.

It should need no introduction, but for the uninitiated, the film starts with a pair of American tourists David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) hiking across the Yorkshire Moors (actually the Black Mountains in Wales). When night falls they take refuge in a charming little pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, where they find Rik Mayall having a game of darts and Brian Glover in a particularly prickly mood, but leave when things turn frosty and find themselves lost on the moors. As if that wasn’t bad enough, things take a huge downward turn when Jack is ripped to pieces by a large wild animal, later revealed to be a werewolf. There’s no helping Jack, but a crowd from the pub arrive and kill the werewolf just in time to save David.

David wakes up in a hospital in London. We don’t know how he got there, or why he was taken there rather than somewhere closer as it’s about 200 miles from Yorkshire to London. But let’s not focus too much on pesky common sense and practicalities. It’s a werewolf film for fuck’s sake. Jack returns from the dead to warn his friend that next time there is a full moon, he too will turn into a werewolf. The banter between David and Dead Jack, is fast, witty, and shot-through with humour, form some of my favourite parts of the film (example: “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!”).

The anticipated change does indeed occur in a gut-wrenching yet iconic sequence which won an Academy Award for special effects (creator Rick Baker went on to win six more from eleven nominations. A record) and David goes on a bloody rampage across London. One of the defining scenes was set and filmed at Tottenham Court Road tube station, and anyone who has ever used that particular transport hub will surely agree that the only time you are likely to see it quite so empty is when there is a blood-crazed werewolf riding the escalator. David wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure of the zoo, and then sets about piecing together the events of the night before with the help of Alice (Jenny Agutter), a nurse who he somehow managed to pull at the hospital. It has to be said that she takes all the werewolf stuff remarkably well, which was just one more reason to love the woman.

One of the most terrifying scenes ever committed to celluloid is the dream sequence where David witnesses his family being brutally slayed by a bunch of mutant Nazi demons with machine guns in a home invasion. It’s as weird as it is shocking, and has been the cause of endless debate over the years. Was it included just for the shock factor? An extra element of controversy (as if it were needed)? Or is it a remnant of a sub-plot which was otherwise edited out?

It’s interesting to note that earlier on in proceedings, nurse Alice and her friend make what appears to be an off-hand Jewish remark dressed up as a dick joke, and the movie has been lauded in certain circles as a significant piece of Jewish cinema. A little digging reveals John Landis was born into a Jewish family, and with that kernel of knowledge, the sub-text swims into focus. David (the name of the first monarch of the Israelite tribes) is a walking allegory for Judaism itself. A displaced, wounded hero, a stranger in a strange land, struggling to come to terms with a tragic past. This article does a pretty good job of further exploring the Jewish connection. Personally, I’d never even considered the possibility until I re-watched it recently and started wondering what the fuck those mutant Nazi demons with machine guns had to do with anything.

When it was released in 1981, An American Werewolf in London formed one third of a holy trinity of werewolf films, which all came out the same year, the others being Wolfen and The Howling. Director John Landis (who is more commonly associated with comedy having been involved with such seminal films as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places) claimed he was inspired to write the script after working on the film Kelly’s Hero’s in Yugoslavia. Whilst out driving, he stumbled across a group of gypsies performing a ritual on a corpse so it wouldn’t ‘rise again.’ At first he had trouble securing finances, with most would-be investors claiming the script was too frightening to be a comedy and too funny to be frightening, before PolyGram Pictures eventually put up the $10 million budget. Happily, their faith was repaid as the movie became a box office smash grossing over $62 million worldwide.

In contrast, a 1997 sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, which featured a completely different cast and crew, was a critical and commercial failure. As a curious postscript, in late 2016 it was widely reported that John Landis’s son Max would write and direct a remake. There’s been nothing but the sound of crickets ever since.

GO HERE for more RetView entries.

Trivia Corner:

In the Piccadilly Circus sequence, the man hit by a car and thrown through a window is none other than John Landis himself.

This is part three of my monthly #RetView series, following Lost Boys and Shock Waves.


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