The Howling (1981)
Written by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless
Directed by Joe Dante
1981 might have been the year of the werewolf between this film and An American Werewolf in London and lesser-known Wolfen. Special effects, both makeup and puppets, had improved to the point that movies could showcase spectacular transformation scenes, something older werewolf movies had always made a highlight of their runtime. Seeing the werewolf transform falls into that same category as Bruce Banner switching to the Hulk. There’s something oddly cathartic about watching a person’s body transform into an agent of chaos. Those werewolf transformations are on full display here, with the film reveling in their visceral detail. It’s also a fun, campy horror flick, just the type of thing Joe Dante has always been a master at making.
Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a big city television news anchor stalked by a murderer named Eric Quist (Robert Picardo). She works with the police to set up a sting operation where she meets with Quist in public. Unfortunately, things go sour, and she seems something that her mind blanks out before the police end Quist’s life in a violent shootout. Karen continues to experience PTSD, particularly dreams that give her pieces of that night. Dr. George Waggoner (Patrick Macnee) advises that she come up to his countryside therapeutic retreat, so Karen and her husband head up for the week. They find an eccentric group of people there, and something strange happens at night. Before you know it, Karen is face to face with a pack of werewolves who have a connection to the retreat.
On reflection, the plot of The Howling is very fragmented and lacking cohesion. There are hints at the origins of these werewolves, but the story never clarifies precisely how these creatures came to be in this place and in such large numbers. Some basic research finds that many of the film’s plot points were added to the novel the picture was based on. For example, making the last name of three of the characters Quist to tie them together was a film addition that doesn’t get explored enough so that I was able to say I fully understood what was going on. It’s clear werewolves have been living in this place for a long time and essentially run the small community. Dr. Waggoner is not a werewolf but somehow involved in protecting them from the outside world, I think. Like I said, it’s a very confusing story when you start to pay attention to the details.
I did enjoy the tone of the film; it’s that slightly campy, slightly scary atmosphere Dante would bring to pictures like Gremlins and The ‘Burbs, though not as overtly comedic. There are still very tongue-in-cheek moments, but the movie tries to make its werewolves feel like a threat to the characters’ lives. This is aided by some fantastic special effects. I won’t pretend I’m well versed in the vocabulary of makeup effects, but they employed some interesting prosthetic skin that was made to swell & pulse. It gave a good sense of the body expanding and transforming into a larger form. In some ways, it looks better than Rick Baker’s final werewolf in An American Werewolf in London. I think that film does transformation better, but the final werewolf looks better in The Howling. In American Werewolf, it was clear we were looking at a puppet that didn’t have anything from the middle section down. In The Howling, it’s an actual person walking around in an impressive werewolf get-up.
The Howling garnered enough attention for Joe Dante that it led to him being hired to direct Gremlins for Warner Brothers. There are seven Howling film sequels, all of which I have zero interest in watching because I can only imagine the diminishing returns (see Hellraiser). It’s also been announced that Netflix is developing a project based on The Howling, directed by Andy Muschetti (It). I can’t say I was a fan of the It films, so I’m not super excited to see this version. I assume it will flesh out many things I mentioned, but it will be at the cost of the campy nature of the production that Dante brought to the table. There’s a problem production companies have these days with thinking people want their escapist entertainment to take itself incredibly seriously. For something like The Howling, the sense of cheesiness is a vital part of the experience.