In the third part of CM Saunders’ five-part series, he talks about The Howling.
Top 5 Eighties Horror Flicks #3
Title: The Howling
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Joe Dante
Length: 89 minutes
Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Elisabeth Brooks
Humour, often coupled with OTT excess, was a common staple in eighties horror movies. It was symptomatic of the times, when a large percentage of people had more money than they knew what to do with and many were off their tits on coke. It was a good time. This humour seems especially suited to werewolf movies as if someone way back in the day decided there was something knee-slappingly funny about people transforming into humungous wolf-like creatures and ripping innocent bystanders into bloody pieces.
While far more subtle than some examples, the humour is still evident in Joe Dante’s classic The Howling. The script, adapted from Gary Brandner’s novel by screenwriter John Sayles who had previously worked with Dante on tongue-in-cheek classic Piranha, positively drips with satire (“You were raised in LA, the wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack.”) and the humour moves centre-stage right at the very end, as if the makers simply couldn’t contain themselves any longer. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The fact is that even now, over four decades after it was first released, The Howling is still a brutal, terrifying, and deeply disturbing journey into the dark heart of the lycanthrope legend which has long been considered a metaphor for the beast lurking inside all of us, something which is hinted at several times throughout the movie. If you’ve never seen it, that’s something you need to rectify.
Karen White (Scream Queen Dee Wallace, star of horror staples Cujo, the original Hills Have Eyes, and Critters, but probably best known for her role in E.T.) is a television news anchor in LA who thinks she is being stalked by a serial killer. In conjunction with the police and TV crews, she takes part in a sting operation, agreeing to meet the murderer in a sleazy porno cinema. In the ensuing kerfuffle, the serial killer is shot dead by cops, but Karen is left severely traumatised by it all and suffering from PTSD and amnesia. Her therapist (Macnee, that bloke off the Avengers) suggests she and her husband (Stone) spend some time at an exclusive retreat in the countryside to help her recovery, something they are only too happy to do. Big mistake. The Colony, as they call it, is full of colourful characters, one of them being a nymphomaniac called Marsha (Brooks) who tries to seduce Karen’s husband. When he rejects her advances, she follows him into the woods and scratches his arm, thereby ‘turning’ him. They later do it next to a bonfire (snigger) in one of those scenes that you probably rewound way too much as a horny teenager, before getting creeped out by the fact that by the time they finish shagging you are essentially watching a couple of Furries getting some in make up and monster suits.
Anyway, Karen soon begins to suspect that something sketchy is going on not just with her husband, but at the retreat as a whole, and calls in a little help from her friends. That’s when things get interesting, if they weren’t interesting enough before.
There’s no getting around it, by today’s standards The Howling comes across terribly dated in parts. But the script is extremely well-written, the cast is a who’s who acting talent and, though Rick Baker deservedly won an Oscar for his creature effects on An American Werewolf in London a year later, Rob Bottin’s work here is just as impressive. You can achieve quite a lot with tiny inflatable air bags under latex skin. He lets the side down somewhat in the climactic scene where Karen, now also changed, morphs into something resembling a cocker spaniel live on air which is more hilarious than frightening, but we’ll let that one slide. I prefer to think that particular scene (a late addition tagged on to the end while Wallace was filming Cujo) is meant as one of those era-defining tongue-in-cheek moments.
An earlier section where the werewolf attacks Karen’s friend at a secluded cabin in the woods is straight-up terrifying, as is the part where our heroine comes face to face with the monster for the first time and watches transfixed as it transforms in front of her. The suspense is maintained throughout, and the action rarely lets up. There’s also a fair bit of sex and nudity which led to some reviewers, somewhat unfairly, dubbing it ‘erotic horror’. Dante (who also directed Gremlins, Innerspace and Burying the Ex, amongst others) fits all the pieces together nicely, and shows neat little touches here and there, like having Little Red Riding Hood playing in the background at one point and naming many characters after directors who made other werewolf films, like George Waggner, who directed The Wolf Man (1941). In keeping with this theme, the consensus on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes (where it holds a respectable 74% approval rating) reads: “The Howling packs enough laughs into its lycanthropic carnage to distinguish it from other werewolf entries, with impressive visual effects adding some bite.”
Unsurprisingly, due to its success, The Howling spawned a sequel (Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf) in 1985. What is surprising, however, is that despite the sequel being a total flop it then led to a bunch more, none of which were very good. The most recent was the eighth installment released in 2011. In January 2020 it was announced that Andy Muschietti, director of Mama (2013) and It (2017) had been hired to direct a remake for Netflix. That should be fine, as long as they don’t decide to remake the other seven.
Dee Wallace and Christopher Stone were married in RL, having met on an episode of CHiPs before filming started on The Howling. They were together until his death from a werewolf bite (not really. It was a heart attack) in 1995.
On the 13th of every month I put a fresh spin on a classic movie in my RetView series over at my blog. Go here to check out the archive.
Boo-graphy: Christian Saunders, a constant reader who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from south Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines and anthologies worldwide including Fortean Times, the Literary Hatchet, ParABnormal, Fantastic Horror, Haunted MTL, Feverish Fiction and Crimson Streets, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published.
The fifth volume in my X series featuring ten (X, geddit?) slices of twisted horror and dark fiction plucked from the blood-soaked pages of ParABnormal magazine, Demonic Tome, Haunted MTL, Fantasia Diversity, and industry-defining anthologies including 100 Word Horrors, The Corona Book of Ghost Stories, DOA 3, and Trigger Warning: Body Horror.
Meet the local reporter on an assignment which takes him far beyond the realms of reality, join the fishing trip that goes sideways when a fish unlike any other is hooked, and find out the hidden cost of human trafficking in China. Along the way, meet the hiker who stumbles across something unexpected in the woods, the office worker who’s life is inexorably changed after a medical drug trial goes wrong, and many more.
Also features extensive notes, and original artwork by Stoker award-winning Greg Chapman.
Table of Contents:
Revenge of the Toothfish
The Sharpest Tool
Down the Road
Where a Town Once Stood
The Last Night Shift