Halloween Every Day (for a Month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 29: The Howling (1981).
The vast majority of werewolf movies tell basically the same story: The main character is attacked by a werewolf but survives; the main character then slowly comes to realize that he or she is now a werewolf as well, a discovery that normally leads to the realization that they, too, have taken lives, which, in turn, leads to the pursuit of resolution—i.e. finding a way to break the werewolf curse and return to normal life, or, more likely, the death of the main character. Music swells. Credits roll. Blah, blah, blah …
This is not the case with Joe Dante’s The Howling. Released in 1981, this surprisingly tight, well-crafted werewolf thriller mercilessly skewers the irresponsible nature of the media, the impact of television on the culture, and the self-help/pop psychology movement of the early ’80s that elevated countless academic/celebrity blowhards to the status of “guru,” all while doling out generous portions of fur-and-fang-induced mayhem. Dee Wallace stars (and rocks!) as Karen White, a TV news anchor who is traumatized by a terrifying confrontation with a serial killer. Her therapist/self-help author of some renown ships her off to The Colony, a remote treatment facility comprised of a collection of rustic cabins beneath a dense canopy of forest foliage. But the woodsy charm of The Colony quickly turns menacing. This is where The Howling really starts to howl.
The Howling is funny and intense in equal measure. The film’s satirical edge is by no means subtle, but it is also never preachy or pedantic; there is no political axe to grind, no moral judgments to render. Above all else, The Howling always remembers that its primary function is to be fun. Every role is perfectly cast; there are even some undeniably smile-inducing casting choices, such as the one and only Slim Pickens as the local law man, and genre favorite (and Dante regular) Dick Miller as the obligatory bookstore owner with a fully stocked occult section and, as luck would have it, a tray of silver bullets on display near the cash register.
Of course, you can’t have a successful werewolf movie without memorable werewolves. Thank the movie gods for the work of F/X makeup genius Rob Bottin. Bottin’s werewolves perfectly combine the physical attributes of both man and wolf to create tall, lean, hairy, bipedal beasts that stand nearly nine feet tall. These werewolves are so much more detailed and intimidating than the traditional lap-dissolve wolf-man hybrid creations introduced in the ’40s, and they are leagues ahead of the snarling balls of computer-generated fur with glowing eyes that Hollywood seems so found of today. These werewolves feel like actual characters, like the primal, animal versions of their human selves. And the film’s iconic transformation sequence—elevated by a soundtrack of snapping bones and popping cartilage—deserves a position of honor in the Werewolf Hall of Fame. However, the F/X do occasionally remind you that this film was released in 1981. One shot depicts an extremely cartoony animated werewolf baying at the moon while having sex. Another shot focuses on a collection of old-school stop-motion werewolves that look so out of place Dante tries to hide them in the final seconds of a scene-ending dissolve. To my way of thinking, these instances of dated F/X work only add to the film’s overall charm. After all, the film was released in 1981, so there’s no shame in actually looking like a film released in 1981, since capturing and preserving moments in time is what cinema does best.
The only real problem that I have with The Howling is its rampant fanboyism. We get a cameo from horror legend (and Dante’s former employer) Roger Corman, who pokes fun at his reputation as a cheapskate in a scene where he enters a phone booth and makes sure to check the coin return for any forgotten change before placing his call. There’s also a cameo from Forrest J. Ackerman, the science fiction world’s original fanboy and the man responsible for the legendary magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Dante’s camera lingers on good ole’ Forry as he casually strolls the aisles of Dick Miller’s bookstore toting a few copies of Famous Monsters, their covers clearly visible within the frame. And then there are the incessant wolf and werewolf references. Werewolf cartoons and movies play on TVs in the background. A copy of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry collection Howl and Other Poems is prominently displayed on a characters desk. And, of course, many of the characters are named after directors of prominent werewolf films. For a movie that boasts one of the most original werewolf stories ever, The Howling spends an absurd amount of time doffing its cap to the Ghosts of Werewolves Past. There’s just something about the combination of the clever, often socially critical storyline and Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking werewolf creations that just doesn’t quite jibe with all of the insider genre references and cutesy personal tributes.
That said, The Howling is still a terrific piece of filmmaking and easily one of the best werewolf movies ever made.
(A portion of this article is excerpted in an essay by the same author.)