Written by: John Sayles & Terence Winkless (screenplay), Gary Brandner (novel)
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, and Dennis Dugan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You can't tame what's meant to be wild, doc. It just ain't natural."
Werewolves have pretty much been assigned to the cinematic bench throughout the years, having seemingly played second string to vampires since the beginning; hell, vampires called dibs on the very first horror movie and never quite let the ball go. The bloodsuckers did briefly step aside in 1981 and gave their lupine counterparts their night in the moon, and conventional wisdom has held that John Landis’s American Werewolf in London emerged battered, bloodied, and victorious after a heated scrap with Joe Dante’s The Howling, which was sent running with its tail between its legs.
It’s perhaps Werewolf Cinema 101, but it also isn’t completely true: Full Moon High? Wolfen? Those were the also-rans sent squealing from the pack. The Howling, on the other hand, can at least stand toe-to-toe with Landis’s masterpiece, and, even though it doesn’t quite measure up, it does go the distance and emerges as arguably the better pure werewolf movie of the two.
On at least one level, The Howling is a werewolf movie about werewolves, even if it’s not completely obvious at first. Instead, the film drops audiences into another one of those early 80s urban grim and sleaze movies a la Maniac or The New York Ripper. Intrepid television reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace, soon to be Dee Wallace Stone) has been following the brutal trail of a sadistic serial killer (Robert Picardo). After becoming his latest target, Karen agrees to meet the killer in a seedy porno theater, where he entertains her with disturbing videos before the police enter and blow him away. Shaken by the incident, Karen is too frazzled to continue her job, so her psychologist (Patrick Macnee) suggests that she and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone—now you see where Dee Wallace got the additional surname) go on a retreat to his colony, a tranquil, rural resort teeming with a bunch of New Age weirdoes—and worse.
In his first effort after leaving the Corman nest, Dante initially seems to be making a pretty straight-laced horror effort. The Howling proceeds with a sense of genuine dread: wolves bay off in the distance, corpses disappear from the morgue, and a sultry vixen (Elisabeth Brooks) begins to seduce Bill. There’s a slow burn mentality at work here that harkens back to the old school monster movies towards which Dante has always shown reverence, only they’ve been updated with a modern flair, so the setups are a little bit sexier and the payoffs more elaborate and grisly than most previous offerings. The film is apparently a loose adaptation of Guy Brandner’s original novel, and it plays loose with its own structure and focus at times; while Karen and her husband are the protagonists, they split screen time with a couple of Karen’s friends (Belinda Balaski and Dennis Dugan), who spend much of the time uncovering werewolf lore and connecting the dots with the various strange occurrences, so the film feels frontloaded before finally giving way to its monsters.
When it does so about halfway through the runtime, it becomes obvious that The Howling has been a slow burn in more ways than one, as Dante’s voice begins to creep through more forcefully. Many of his (subtle and not-so-subtle) tics are immediately on display in the form of obvious character names (there’s a Fred Francis and a Jerry Warren among them) and winking cameos (Corman, Dick Smith, Forrest Ackerman, Kevin McCarthy, etc.). However, there’s a playfulness skirting around the edges that becomes more prominent and culminates when Bill and his seductress make love as animated creatures. The effect is likely a cost-cutting measure, but it also captures the cartoonish spirit of The Howling, a film that’s really just a silly werewolf movie done with exceptional skill.
And while Dante is the steady hand guiding the ship by coaxing solid performances from the cast (Wallace is particularly great in a brief stopgap before ascending to the 80s’ definitive matriarch), The Howling excels on the strength of its incredible effects work. Rob Bottin has been consigned to Rick Baker’s shadows ever since the two loosed their dueling transformations on the world, but the signatures scene here makes for a completely worthy rival. It’s definitely among the coolest transformations ever captured on screen; whereas American Werewolf highlighted the agony and infused with a sense of dark irony, The Howling delivers with the delight of a kid showing off. The scene defies logic since the wolf’s would-be prey could theoretically run as the mutation slowly occurs, but she instead remains transfixed, not unlike the film’s viewers. Between this centerpiece and the other gore gags, The Howling makes for an exquisite splatter movie that acts as the junkier of the two films—it’s a pure B-movie that embraces the tradition in both spirit and observable touchstones (the film is littered with overt nods to werewolf lore).
Something more rumbles beneath the surface, though, as screenwriter John Sayles and Dante subtly attempt to elevate The Howling above the half-spoof, half-homage level of Piranha. There’s an obvious reverence here that actually informs the narrative, which muses on the condition of the werewolf in a modern era that’s dominated by suffocating societal confines (unrelenting media cycles, self-help gurus, pop psychology, all of which are gnashed by satirical teeth). The duo play with some of the conventions (for example, the full moon cycle is out—these wolves can transform at any time), but the typical dynamic of the self-loathing lycanthrope burdened by a curse is shifted. Here, werewolves function almost like vampires: as a hypersexual Other that represents untamed impulses. This becomes obvious during the infamous transformation scene, as the guy in question relishes in unleashing his inner beast; indeed, his agony has been concealing it and exploring his deviance in other ways.
All of this becomes somewhat clear once the film begins to climax with the revelation that Karen’s doctor has been housing a bunch of werewolves in a misguided attempt to contain them, a notion that implicates pop culture in appropriating the 60s commune spirit through New Age philosophy. Dante and Sayles don’t stop there but plunge headlong into absurdist satire with a closing sequence that recalls Network and fully announces The Howling as Joe Dante's demented little baby. Until this point, the film has been more wry than absurd, but this capper takes it to another level as television viewers must confront a werewolf transformation during a live news broadcast. The denouement captures a different, underlying tragedy for modern lycanthropes, though: what if no one is even convinced that they actually exist and are only the product of imaginative special effects? Has pop culture tamed the beast by diluting it?
It seems appropriate that The Howling feels like a standard-issue horror flick that slowly transforms into a Joe Dante movie. Having seen it more than a few times over the past few decades, I can say it’s a film that’s grown in esteem. To call it one of the best werewolf films ever seems obvious enough, so it might be more significant to say that it’s inched its way into the top tier of Dante’s canon. It’s most definitely etched itself into the cult canon, so it’s unsurprisingly been subjected to pretty decent home video treatment. Scream Factory is the latest to do the honors with a definitive Blu-ray Collector’s Edition that brings the film to high definition in mostly impressive fashion. Save for a few instances of artifacts, the image does John Hora’s photography justice with a slick sharp transfer. The disc also features both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-MA tracks, though the former feels a little extraneous since the film is expectedly front-loaded due to the original mono source.
Scream Factory once again goes all out with supplements by retaining the extras from MGM’s previous DVD special edition, including “Unleashing the Beast,” a 50 minute, five part documentary that tackles the film’s production through interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. It’s joined by “Making a Monster Movie,” a comparatively shorter vintage EPK look at the film, deleted scenes, outtakes, a still gallery, theatrical trailers, and an audio commentary with Dante, Wallace, Stone, and Picardo—and that’s just the old stuff. Newly minted features include another commentary with Brandner, interviews with producer Steven Lane, co-writer Terence Winkless, editor Mark Goldblatt, a vintage chat with animator David Allen, and another episode of Sean Clark’s “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” which takes viewers to the film’s various locales. Never has The Howling been explored so exhaustingly, so this is a must-have for devout fans that are looking for more than an audio/visual upgrade. The only thing that’s missing is some kind of warning against seeking out any Howling sequels. Take it from me—just because there are seven of them doesn’t indicate any sort of quality, and the original is worth more than the whole damn bunch put together. Buy it!
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