The Howling (1981)
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Elisabeth Brooks, Robert Picardo, Margie Impert, Noble Willingham, James Murtaugh, Jim McKrell, Kenneth Tobey, Don McLeod, Dick Miller
1/2 (out of 4)
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Joe Dante always likes to show where he comes from in his films. In a way he’s like a low budget Tarantino in that his movies tend to reach cult status on the way to being fun homages to the stuff he grew up on. Piranha is Dante’s homage to 50s nature-run-amuck films as well as the more recent Jaws; Gremlins was a skewering of 40s Capra-Corn and Warner Brothers cartoons (and Gremlins 2 takes the WB animation to absurd extremes). The Howling (1981) is Dante’s tribute to classic werewolf films of old, even throwing in a few scenes from 1941’s The Wolf Man for kicks. The movie is peppered with little references and in-jokes – from Disney’s Three Little Pigs cartoon to Wolfman Jack to Dante’s naming of characters after horror directors (something replicated in Dekker’s Night of the Creeps). It’s a self-knowing, modern take on the werewolf legend, again proving that self-aware pics didn’t start with Craven’s Scream series. The only problem with The Howling is that it suffers from a slow midsection and a somewhat annoying performance from Dee Wallace [Stone] as its lead character.
It starts off well, as TV reporter Karen White (Wallace) braves a sleazy Los Angeles neighborhood to meet a serial killer named Eddie (Robert Picardo) who has taken a liking to her and wants to meet her in the booth of a porno theater. A rookie cop that is quick on the draw takes Eddie out but not before Eddie reveals himself to Karen in a manner that causes her lots of emotional distress. Psychologically affected by the incident, she can’t remember what happened in the booth afterwards, starts having nightmares, and finds herself unable to resume her duties as local TV personality (the TV station is run by a jerk played by Kevin McCarthy, who would later spoof the part in UHF). Her shrink, Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee) suggests a special form of therapy which involves spending the weekend at “The Colony”, the doc’s special retreat somewhere in the woods. Dr. Waggner has a self-help book that talks about man’s repression of the beast inside himself, which causes a lot of his stress. Arriving at the colony with her hubby Bill (Christopher Stone – Wallace’s later real life husband), Karen discovers a place filled with bizarre characters, including the sultry Marsha Quist (the late Elisabeth Brooks) and the elder Erle (John Carradine) who is so tired of livin’ that he tries to throw himself into a bonfire. The howling in the woods does nothing for Karen’s peace of mind, and things get weird when Bill is bitten by an unseen creature. Soon after, he develops a taste for meat as well as a taste for nympho Marsha, who meets him by campfire for a little sex/werewolf-transformation. In the meantime, fellow reporters Terri (Belinda Balaski) and Chris (Dennis Dugan) have been working the mysterious case of Eddie Quist, whose body has gone missing from the morgue. Terri makes a visit to the Colony (big mistake) and Karen discovers that Eddie is still alive (by witnessing his slow transformation into wolf courtesy of Rob Bottin’s impressive air-bladder effects). Soon, it’s Karen and Chris in a fight for their lives as they discover the truth behind Doc’s special “colony.”
The Howling works best through individual sequences, not as a whole. A scene with the immortal Dick Miller, who plays a cynical bookstore owner with books covering every kind of legend (and he even has silver bullets – guy ordered them but never picked ’em up!) is great, as is the transformation of Eddie, played perfectly by Robert Picardo (Star Trek Voyager‘s holographic doctor being a Dante favorite, along with Miller). The campfire scene between Stone and Brooks hits the right notes, giving lycanthropy a well-deserved sexual bent (where vampirism represents sex as both sensual and dangerous, werewolves make it natural, animal-like, and uncivilized). The ending is also a nice satiric jab at mass media and popular culture. It’s just that the film tends to meander a bit, especially in the middle, and it punctuates scenes with a laughable soundtrack and a strange fascination with shooting everything in soft-focus. Wallace’s character comes off as too wimpy, as she spends most of the time either crying or running away from something (and the one time when she should run away, she just stands there, watching a guy turn into a werewolf for about 5 minutes and not doing anything about it). There’s also something off about killer werewolves allowing themselves to be gated up inside a barn for a roasting without putting up a little more fight.
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Fortunately, the weaknesses of the film don’t put a damper on things too much, but I would warn that you might enjoy The Howling more if you are a monster film addict and someone who would get a kick out of seeing cameos from Kenneth Tobey, Dick Miller, Forrest J Ackerman (who carries around some copies of Famous Monsters), and Roger Corman. But I can sense something going on underneath (as with most Dante films) – a story about the struggle between man’s civilized nature and the monsters of his Id, somewhat represented by the obvious differences between the film’s city scenes and its forest scenes. As best represented by Macnee’s character, man is two natures fighting one another; the werewolf is when one side wins out. Looking back, I love the ending nod to Network, and the final shot of a meat patty on the grill while the credits roll. I’m hungry.
– Bill Gordon
Purchase: The Howling (Special Edition)