Joe Dante’s (Gremlins, The Burbs’) The Howling is considered a zenith of werewolf movies. Released in the Spring of 81’, it fast became a celebrated wolf themed horror movie alongside its popular counterpart, An American Werewolf in London (also released in 1981).
When discussing The Howling its inescapable to ignore the comparisons between it and the forenamed title, mainly for the acclaim they both received for their intricate special effects. FX artist Rick Baker was set to work on the movie before jumping ship to work on An American Werewolf in London. He therefore left The Howling in the capable hands of his assistant Rob Bottin. In reflection; both movies even to this day contain extraordinary transformation scenes that depicted the pain and gruesomeness of metamorphosis between human and creature. In all fairness, they are very much their own beasts and glaringly different when their contrasting tones are taken into consideration. At this point, werewolf movies as we knew them became far more progressive, allowing for the exploration of edgier themes such as sexuality and animalistic instincts.
The Howling stars Dee Wallace (E.T, Cujo) as reserved TV reporter, Karen White. The film is an account of her personal journey following a traumatic incident involving the planned exposure of a psychotic killer live on television to the discovery of a werewolf colony located in the peaceful retreat she is summoned to by her psychiatrist. The unfortunate heroine encounters terror rather than tranquillity when she abandons city life for quieter surroundings as she attempts to recharge and rejog her memory to bring conniving killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) to justice.
At first glance, Karen isn’t a typical horror movie heroine as one expects. She plays by the rules even though those around her have placed her in perilous situations. She reluctantly goes along with her psychiatrist’s Dr Waggner’s (Patrick Macnee) wishes, oblivious to his sinister intentions due to her lapse in memory. Her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) is dismissive on more than one occasion and proves that his loyalty to her is fractured when he makes himself easily susceptible to the charms of the sultry Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks). Karen’s strongest ally comes in the shape of her best friend Terri (Belinda Balaski), the only person ready to show her unconditional support. Their friendship provides a strong feminist angle to the proceedings as the male characters who are in a position of trust inexplicably let her down. Events do not begin or end well for our protagonist, proving that Dante wasn’t afraid to reject a happy conclusion to the film.
The Howling is the epitome of American 80’s creature features from its initial seedy city setting to the twist and turns the werewolf aspect brings. Throughout, the film is humourless however sprinkles in some much-needed
satire towards the climax which progresses the suspension of disbelief feigned by the characters as they debate the existence of werewolves. It makes a sharp commentary on the notion of not always believing what the mass media thrusts at us, in this case through the growth and impact of television. Allegedly prior to rewrites and tumultuous relations behind the scenes, The Howling was intended to be a much more ironic piece. When Dante brought John Sayles on board to rewrite the script it developed into a more straight-laced film with an undercurrent of black humour.
As previously stated, The Howling is ultimately remembered for its impressive special effects created with prosthetics, stop-motion animation and puppetry. At the time of shooting, these effects were state of the art and were a sure-fire way to transfix the audience. The transformation sequences are exceptionally crafted and gradual. In an intense set piece, a wolfs arm is hacked off and is still very much alive, pulsating on the ground as it regresses to its human form. The FX in this film delivered some unforgettably, gruesome imagery and is still efficacious to this day.
The Howling was a game-changer when it came to the traditional monster movie. Due to effects and changing attitudes of the time it could explore and utilize sexuality figuratively through the notion of the wolf. The film is heavy on atmosphere, especially during the mystifying night time shots and the score composed by Pino Donaggio supplies a mythical quality. Despite its slow burn at the beginning the payoff is wholly worth it especially the effective, jaw-dropping ending.
Thanks to The Howling, Joe Dante’s career was propelled as he went on to direct the timeless, cult classic, Gremlins and its sequel. The Howling spawned seven sequels, with the most recent one having been released straight to DVD in 2011. For someone who’s all-time favourite movie is An American Werewolf in London, the bar is set high and it isn’t an easy one to overshadow. However, after revisiting this absolute cult treasure there is plenty to howl at the moon about.
Just in time for Halloween, Studio Canal have released a brand spanking new restoration with a razor-sharp bite, featuring a tonne of extras for fans to sink their teeth into.
The Howling is yours to own on October the 9th 2017.