Werewolves have been cool for a long time. Back in 1941, Universal Pictures unleashed THE WOLF MAN a decade into its Classic Monsters run, giving horror fans one of the genre’s most fun monsters. Also one of its most popular, as hairy man-beasts have been running through the night mist for more than 70 years. It seems every fan has his favorite werewolf film, and for me, there’s none better than THE HOWLING. John Sayles’ topical script, Rob Bottin’s stellar effects and Joe Dante’s playful direction all convene for a film that’s an enjoyable ride with some good scares.
THE HOWLING revolves around TV anchor Karen White. Out on assignment in cooperation with the police, she meets serial killer Eddie Quist in a porno booth where things suddenly go strange. A cop blows away Eddie, but Karen’s left with the psychological trauma of trying to figure out what happened with Eddie in that booth. When pop psychiatrist and TV figure Dr. George Waggner invites her to relax and take part in some therapy at The Colony, she and her husband Bill Neill head up the coast to his mass therapy community, and inadvertently headlong into conflict with werewolves.
THE HOWLING has a number of things going for it, starting with Dee Wallace as its lead. Wallace is the actress that horror can depend upon to deliver a solid performance in every film she’s in, and it’s no different here. In the wake of trauma, Karen White is vulnerable; Dee knows how to play those emotions, and create a sympathetic character that rises above her own neuroses to become the heroine in the end. A lesser actress could never have pulled off what she does with the role, and according to Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg was so impressed with her portrayal that it led to her role in E.T.
Surrounding Wallace is a nice ensemble of old timers and more contemporary actors. Key among them is Robert Picardo as Eddie Quist. He’s quirky and funny in most movies, but in his first film role he’s lascivious and downright creepy. Christopher Stone, soon to be Wallace’s husband, does a nice job of turning from caring husband into rough bastard. Dante favorite Belinda Balaski has her meatiest role for the director, and she keeps interesting the subplot of discovering the real Eddie Quist. Elisabeth Brooks sells primal sexy as the temptress who lusts after Karen’s husband. Patrick Macnee, Slim Pickens and one of my favorites, John Carradine, round out a peculiar cast that creates the tone of the film. If only Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller had bigger roles. Oh, and look for Dante’s rather parsimonious old boss fishing a quarter out of a payphone.
Sayles’s script provides much of the fun. Wisely, he and Dante decided to toss out the novel by Gary Brandner and create their own story (thankfully; I’ve read it, and it’s awful). Sayles’ comments on self-help groups, gurus and the smiley face, and takes on repression and its effects on people. There’s jabs at the news as well, especially during Wallace’s final scene. As he did with PIRANHA, Sayles injects levity into the script, but unlike his first collaboration with Dante, the film’s never played as a send up. Sayles infuses the film with plenty of scares, especially in the third act when things go wild. He’s also responsible for the one quibble I have with the film. Almost all the characters are named after directors of werewolf films, which is just silly. In fact, Dante insists throughout on making visual references to werewolves, such as a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl on a desk, and a picture of Lon Chaney, Jr. in a lycanthrope attack scene. It’s a minor quibble that makes the film a bit too cheeky at times.
Hands down the special effects make THE HOWLING the great film it is. Rob Bottin was still two years out from THE THING, but here he proves that he’s already an amazing talent. A scene of the humongous, bipedal werewolf stalking and eventually choking out a character is exactly how werewolves should be done.
The film rides on its transformation scene, an awesome display of a man turning into a wolf. With a combination of actor, prosthetics and puppetry, Bottin crafts the greatest man-to-beast change I’ve ever seen. Dante films it flawlessly, with camera movement and overcranking, and the addition of bone cracking sounds enhance the thing. This grotesque money shot still engages me every time I watch THE HOWLING, and I actually watch the full movie sometimes just for this scene.
I also appreciate Pino Donaggio’s score, which is heavy on an organ he found in a cathedral. The funny thing is, it’s interchangeable with his score for DRESSED TO KILL or CARRIE or any other Pino Donaggio score. He’s a great composer for horror flicks, but not what I would call versatile.
I waited years for THE HOWLING to hit DVD, and MGM’s first release was a bare-bones coaster that didn’t even have decent cover art. But the studio acquitted itself with the re-release, which sports two great extras: a multi-part documentary, and a commentary lifted off the old Laserdisc. “Unleashing the Beast” features Dante, Dee Wallace, Picardo, DP John Hora, Dick Miller and producer Mike Finnell. It covers a lot of territory in 45 minutes, including a history of werewolves, how Dante got involved, just how deep into character Wallace went, and Picardo’s depressing times dealing with prosthetics makeup. Dante likes THE HOWLING, and thinks it a respectable little film. The director also proved himself a class act by porting over the commentary so he could preserve Christopher Stone’s participation. Taken together, the two provide a great behind-the-scenes look for fans of the film.
Pound for pound, THE HOWLING is the perfect werewolf flick for me. Just don’t mention the word “sequel” and I can’t find anything really wrong with it. It’s my favorite Joe Dante movie, even over GREMLINS, and it’s earned its place among my Fasso’s Great Horror flicks. And it proved in 1980 that werewolves were still cool.