Dee Wallace, Dennis Dugan,
Patrick Macnee, Christopher Stone,
Belinda Belaski, Robert Picardo,
Eliabeth Brooks, Slim Pickens,
"Imagine your worst fear a reality."
For those keeping track of such things, 1981 was the year of the werewolf. We got Wolfen, American Werewolf In London, and The Howling that year. We also got Teen Wolf, 4 years early. Reuniting director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles, the pair who'd brought us Piranha back in 78, The Howling put a contemporary spin on an old myth, ramping up the sexual elements while incorporating large doses of self aware humor. It also pushed the envelope in terms of what could be done with makeup and effects.
The film is a loose adaptation of Gary Brandner's novel, loose as in they kept the title and name of the lead character, but turfed most everything else. Sayles disliked the novel, reworking the story from ground up. He tightened the story while introducing elements of humor poking fun at the sensationalist nature of television news and Californian self help cults.
We open with a barrage of sound bites edited together with quick clips of a news program and shots of the hustle and bustle of a busy television studio. The sound bites are snippets of dialogue that will be heard throughout the film but Patrick Macnee’s voice stands out. He plays pop psychologist Dr. Waggner and he’s plugging his book which seems to promote a form of anarcho-primitivism. We learn that a serial killer, known only as Eddie, has been preying on women in the seedy part of Los Angeles. Sorry, a seedy part of Los Angeles.
Dee Wallace plays TV anchorwoman Karen White who's working on an exclusive. Eddie has been in contact with Karen and she's agreed to meet with him. Her husband Bill, played by Wallace’s actual husband Christopher Stone, is understandably nervous. He’s also a dead ringer for Tom Atkins.Tailed by reporters and cops, Karen ends up in a porn shop where the killer corners her in a dark booth, talks creepy to her while making her watch some violent porn, and starts to turn into a werewolf before being shot dead by the police. Technically we aren’t supposed to be completely sure it’s a werewolf yet because we just see a dark hairy shape in silhouette against a strobing projector light. But the movie is called The Howling. The two cops never got a good look at what they gunned down before it turned back into Robert Picardo. Karen definitely saw something but whatever it was she couldn’t handle it and suppressed the memory.
|"Do you like Star Trek?|
I have all three seasons of the original series digitally enhanced on blu-ray."
Karen tries to move on with her life but the experience has traumatized her. She is unable to do her job and recoils at her husband’s advances. She seeks advice from Dr, Waggner, who'd coached her while she'd been in contact with Eddie. He suggests that she take a nice long rest at a mental health resort located out in the boonies, called The Colony. As in COLONY OF WEREWOLVES. But we don't know that yet.
The film shifts tone as it changes settings. The hyper modern opening suggests the mood of an urban slasher film, which it kind of is until revealing that the slasher is a werewolf. This sort of twist is a piece of cake when it comes to vampires, I vaguely remember an episode of Starsky and Hutch in which they did just that. For some reason blood sucking corpses seem more plausible in an urban setting than rampaging wolf men to some audiences though I can't imagine why.
The Colony contrasts the neon and porn shop strewn streets of LA shown in the opening with peaceful rural surroundings. How rural? Slim Pickins is the local sheriff type rural. Karen and Bill get to know the neighbors and before long Karen is being disturbed by strange animal sounds in the night and some gruesome cattle mutilations.Worse, the town skank Marsha (Elizabeth Brooks) has her eyes on Bill. Now Bill must realize that he's playing with fire when he goes over to her cabin so she can "cook up a rabbit" for him.What the hell did he expect to happen? That she was going to actually cook the rabbit for him? In fairness to Bill, he does reject her initial advances but is waylaid and bitten by some kind of animal out in the night. Soon after, he and Marsha are having some very animated sex as they change into wolf people.
|"Yeah, yeah...the cat is soooo freaking great!|
Well at least I have enough sense NOT TO POOP IN THE HOUSE!"
Meanwhile, back in the city, Karen's work friends have discovered the serial killer's full name, Eddie Quist, they get a look at his apartment and notice an interesting beast person motif in his crazy person artwork. They also discover that his body has gone missing from the morgue. It isn't long before they are investigating the werewolf angle. Dante throws inside jokes at the audience with gay abandon. Many of the characters are named after horror film directors and he includes several clips from 1941's The Wolf Man. It's a who's who of B movie names and actors including cameos by Roger Corman and Forest J. Akerman. We also get performances from Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller and John Carridine as an geriatric, suicidal werewolf.
This self awareness extends to the characters who occupy a fictional setting in which werewolf movies exist and they are aware of these films. This plays out in the bookshop scene where they try to sort out werewolf fact from fiction. Dick Miller's bookshop owner (named Walter Paisley in the credits, a running joke throughout Miller's career) sets them straight. No, a werewolf doesn't have to wait until a full moon in order to transform. That's Hollywood baloney. Yes, they do regenerate. Yes, silver bullets will kill them permanently. In fact he just so happens to have some silver bullets special ordered by a client who never bothered to pick them up. Those silver bullets will play a large roll in the climax of the film.
Karen's story converges with her friends investigations and we are introduced to the star of this film, Rob Bottin. His special effects during Eddie Quist's transformation sequence broke new ground. Rick Baker had initially been fingered for the project but had gone on to do American Werewolf In London instead, leaving The Howling to his protegee. While Baker's work was nothing to sneeze at, I love Bottin's work. It's got a messy, bubbling organic quality in comparison to Baker's slicker, smoother effects. And I find Bottin's mid transformation designs genuinely disturbing. A taste of what we'd get in The Thing. The 9 foot tall bipedal wolves which result in the transformation are really cool.
|The dangers of Botox.|
Oh yeah...what happens to Karen. We discover that Dr. Waggner is a werewolf and The Colony is an attempt to temper his people's bestial nature so they can peacefully coexist amongst humans. Eddie Quist got tired of this, running off to LA to let his hair down, and it's seems like his rebellion has set off a domino effect amongst the group. Waggner makes a sincere appeal to reason. He opines, "Times have changed and we haven't, not enough". Given the self awareness of The Howling, I think this can be read as a comment on the werewolf sub-genre as well as addressing the character's immediate situation. Nuts to that says the group. We wanna be animals. So it all ends in a hail of silver bullets.
Not before Karen has been bitten, unfortunately. She and her surviving friend devise a plan to alert the public to the danger in their midst. Live on air Karen delivers a special report. She transforms into...just about the most adorable werewolf you've ever seen. I'm a cat person myself but even I'd take her home. That done she can now seek treatment. Or her so called friend could just fill her full of shotgun holes.
Despite the frankly laughable cuddly Dee Wallace werewolf and somewhat reactionary ending, The Howling represents the creme of the crop of films of this sort. We get good performances from a host of solid character actors, some extremely entertaining effects and the humor is blended well with the horror. A gift to horror fans who like some steak with their sizzle.