THE HOWLING. Still one of the best werewolf horror movies
…while also being carriers of intriguing ideas. After all, we have a human and a beast in one body, a creature that reveals its animalistic nature, usually involuntarily (a full moon is usually enough), and without awareness of its actions. Add to that heightened senses, the need to satisfy lupine desires, superhuman strength, but also the contemplation of the inability to control primal instincts and the transformation into a monster. Unlike a vampire, a werewolf can lead a life during the day, which already provides interesting opportunities for observing such a character. They also seem to be decidedly more complex than mindless zombies.
But lycanthropy hasn’t been lucky in cinema. Werewolves appear in films quite irregularly, and there has never been a trend for them (except perhaps in 1981 when three major productions were released). On top of that, there’s the quality of the resulting works – I assure you, trying to compile a list of the top ten werewolf horror films can pose quite a challenge. Nevertheless, the top of the list almost always looks the same, with the first two spots occupied by John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling (both from 1981), usually in that order. The first film is largely a comedic but quite bloody variation of the classic story of the bitten hero who observes his terrifying changes, with a mandatory romantic subplot. Thanks to Landis’s imagination and sense of humor, this work is considered a genre classic. However, today, I’d rather focus on the slightly tarnished film by Dante, based on Gary Brandner’s novel.
We meet the journalist Karen White (very good performance by Dee Wallace, one year before E.T.) when she participates in a setup targeting a suspected female murderer who goes by the name Eddie. The encounter takes place in a sex shop but doesn’t end pleasantly for either party – at the sight of the madman, the woman screams in terror, alerting the undercover police officers, who kill the would-be assailant. However, Karen erases the entire incident from her memory, unable to explain what she actually saw and what caused her such fear. Her friend, psychiatrist Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee, famous from The Avengers TV series), suggests a week-long trip to his retreat, the so-called Colony, where she would rest from stress and recharge her batteries in the lap of nature. Shortly after her arrival with her husband, the journalist discovers that some of the residents are behaving eerily. At night, she begins to hear howling coming from the nearby forest.
The director holds back from revealing the Colony’s secret and showing the monster in all its glory for quite a while. Truth be told, besides the blatantly wolfish title, the plot doesn’t hint at the presence of werewolves at all. After a good, highly thriller-like start, Dante focuses on the nervously unsettled protagonist, her inability to return to normal life, both emotionally and professionally. Together with Dr. Waggner’s commentary on repression and the suppression of internal fears and desires, The Howling might give the impression of a more ambitious film than it actually is. Humor occasionally shines through, especially in scenes set in the TV studio or the antique store specializing in literature about fantastic rituals. However, it’s subdued by the story, which almost never relinquishes its seriousness.
That’s how The Howling appears at first glance. However, Dante, who later directed Gremlins (1984) and The Burbs (1989), wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t try to play with the horror genre.
Hence, many characters in his work bear the names of directors from earlier werewolf films. The famous The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr. is playing on TV, and you practically come across hints suggesting the presence of the said beast at every turn. Not everyone will catch the “wolf” in the brand of chili that the sheriff eats, or the drawings hanging on the walls depicting the predator in action, but the moment when Karen’s endangered friend calls her boyfriend, and he happens to be watching a cartoon about a wolf planning to eat a lamb, is already a very clear joke. The appearances of Roger Corman (indie film guru, producer, and director of countless cheap horrors) and John Sayles (the screenwriter of The Howling and a respected creator of social dramas) can evoke a smile for those who recognize their faces. However, today, the fact that Dennis Dugan, the future director of Adam Sandler comedies, stands up to fight the monsters in the climax will be more amusing.
Injecting the film with the character of a very self-aware and playful sense of fun doesn’t hinder the story from following its own course, especially since it finds its finale in a full-circle, ironic punchline. Waggner may have had good intentions when sending Karen to his facility, but ultimately his method of treatment goes awry. Stripping bare doesn’t bring any good to either side because the wolf remains a wolf, and the human refuses to believe in the furry beast. The film’s best joke remains making the biggest expert on werewolves and other monsters someone who doesn’t believe in any supernatural phenomena at all (played by Dick Miller, a regular collaborator of Dante).
The Howling, much like An American Werewolf in London, pays homage to the wolfish cinema, staying true to the mythology, giving classic tales a new dimension but not attempting to mock the beast itself.
While Landis is more overt in his playfulness, and his film truly deserves to be called a comedy, Dante’s laughter seems to be primarily reserved for the astute viewers. In the foreground, we have a suspenseful, full-fledged horror, with a transformation scene of a person into a werewolf that still evokes admiration today, executed by Rob Bottin, who was also responsible for special effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing. However, Landis’s film is remembered more, perhaps because the transformation is a shock not only for the viewer but also for the main character, who is terrified and completely defenseless.
Dante’s work, therefore, remains in the shadow of its more popular contemporary, while still being one of the best werewolf horror films. The same cannot be said for any of the eight sequels, which typically share only the title with the original film. It’s an exceptionally incoherent series, though, in reality, no one associates the original The Howling with the pseudo-sequels it spawned.
The howling hero, trying to find his place in contemporary cinema, is reduced to being portrayed as a mindless beast in unremarkable films, where the most impressive elements are the makeup and special effects. Ironically, the relatively recent Late Phases (2014) – which successfully incorporated a werewolf into a plot that seemed not to require such a character – disappoints when it comes to the execution of the monster. It appears that when it comes to resurrecting the wolfish myth, one can’t have it all. Perhaps, however, today’s creators, like Dante once did, should look to the past and tradition to better understand the nature of the beast.