The Howling (1981)
“Imagine your worst fear a reality”
Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan
Synopsis: After a bizarre and near fatal encounter with a serial killer, a television newswoman is sent to a remote mountain resort whose residents may not be what they seem.
When comparing the werewolf transformation scenes between The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, there’s no mistaking which movie employed the master and which was lumbered with the apprentice. Both transformations were cutting edge in their day, but Rick Baker’s work on American Werewolf continues to impress more than thirty years later, while the efforts of Rob Bottin, to whom Baker passed on responsibility while he went to work on John Landis’s movie, looks more comical than dated thanks to his overuse of pumps under the transforming werewolf’s skin. Having said that, I’d still rather watch an earnest if flawed effect like Bottin’s than a sterile CGI constructed effect that was created with a fraction of the finesse or attention to detail he and Baker devoted to their work.
The Howling and An American Werewolf in London went almost head-to-head back in 1981, with this movie being released just a few months before Landis’s. An American Werewolf in London is the better movie, not just because of Baker’s effects work, but thanks to its wry humour and a more conventional approach to the genre. American Werewolf focuses on the victim of the curse, while The Howling’s attempt to provide a little mystery into just what is going on at Doc Waggner’s camp doesn’t work simply because the audience already knows what is going on, and is therefore always waiting for Dee Wallace’s highly-strung heroine to catch up.
Wallace plays Karen White, a TV news reporter whose undercover mission to snare notorious serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo — Total Recall) goes awry, resulting in his being gunned down by police in the film booth of a seedy porn shop. As you can imagine, this encounter with Quist proves to be a tad traumatic for Karen, especially as Quist seemed to be undergoing some kind of transformation in the darkness of the booth. When Karen freezes on camera the first time she returns to works, her boss (the wonderfully smarmy Kevin McCarthy — Invasion of the Body Snatchers) refers her to TV psychologist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) who recommends she and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone — Wallace’s real-life husband) take a break at his camp on the coast.
While Karen and her husband are recharging their batteries at The Colony, their friends and fellow reporters Terry (Belinda Belaski) and Chris (Dennis Dugan) continue their investigation into the serial killer who so nearly added Karen to his list of victims. Snooping around his apartment, they begin to suspect a link to lycanthropy because of the dozens of sketches of people undergoing transformations. Their suspicions are aroused even further when they visit the morgue only to discover that Quist’s body has mysteriously gone missing. It’s around this time that Terry receives a worrying phone call from a near-hysterical Karen, who tells her friend that Bill has been attacked and bitten by a wolf in the forest in which The Colony is situated.
It’s gotta be said that, as movie heroines go, our Karen doesn’t even get off the starting blocks. In fact, the role applies more to her friend Terry, who at least has the sense to try and defend herself when set upon by werewolves, instead of just screaming uselessly. Karen’s even terrified of the normal creatures of the forest, so you can just imagine how she reacts when faced with a werewolf — and this insipid characterisation doesn’t go unnoticed by her husband, either, who, after token resistance, is soon enjoying a fireside tryst with the luscious and accommodating Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), an encounter which really brings out the beast in him, if you know what I mean. Perhaps that explains why he doesn’t seem too bothered about turning into a werewolf following that attack. In fact, the thing that most sets The Howling apart from most other werewolf movies is the way in which those who have become lycanthropes nearly all embrace their new condition rather than struggle to come to terms with it, and make no attempt to seek a cure.
As I wrote earlier, the transformation effects which were so highly praised thirty-plus years ago now look a little comical at times — and that’s not just because we’re used to seeing CGI-created monsters these days. The timing of the transformation on-screen is a little strange as well, coming as it does after we’ve already clearly seen a fully-transformed werewolf. We witness this transformation in the company of the witless Karen, who stands predictably rooted to the spot while her assailant undergoes his transformation. Any normal person would be halfway back to New York (or wherever it was Karen lived) by the time the chap undergoing the transformation had finally sprouted his ears and grown his fingernails, but Karen just stands there screaming until she stumbles across a handy bottle of acid.
The Howling does have its good points, however. It’s written in a light, knowing tone by Joe Dante and John Sayles, and boasts an outstanding cast of veteran movie actors. In addition to Kevin McCarthy, there’s a grizzled John Carradine (The White Buffalo, The Sentinel) as a veteran werewolf who’s getting just a little tired of the life, Slim Pickens (Dr Strangelove, The White Buffalo) as the aw-shucks local sheriff, Kenneth Tobey (The Thing from Another World, The Great Locomotive Chase) as a seasoned city cop, and the redoubtable Dick Miller as a harried occult book store owner. The Howling is also packed with in-jokes; as well as references to numerous werewolf movies, we’re treated to cameos from such luminaries as Roger Corman, the director John Sayles, and Forrest J. Ackerman. The names of many of the characters will also be familiar to most fans of vintage horror movies.
(Reviewed 2nd February 2014)