I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for werewolf movies; I love vampires, zombies, masked killers, aliens, disembodied spirits and long-leggety beasties, but there’s always been something special about the full moon-shapeshifters that’s appealed to me. I was the Wolf-Man several Halloweens growing up, and Werewolf By Night was a favorite comic. A lover of horror movies in general, I made a particular point to check out every werewolf flick I came across: The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London, Curse of the Werewolf, An American Werewolf In London, Bad Moon, Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers…those are just a few examples. I can’t put my finger on it, I’ve just always been kinda partial to the fuzzy bastids…
One of my very favorites in this subgenre is one from the early ’80s that started out as a simple little B-flick by Roger Corman protégé Joe Dante: the often-underrated semi-cult film, The Howling.
Karen White is a TV anchor and investigative reporter for one of the networks, and on a special assignment she’s attacked by a vicious serial killer whom she’s been communicating with, Eddie Quist. The police, monitoring her via hidden microphone, arrive in the nick of time to save her, gunning Eddie down before he can harm her; still, her experience is devastating, causing memory loss, nightmares, and an inability to function normally at work.
At the advice of a celebrity psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (who has been helping her on the Quist case), she and her husband Will decide to take some time off at “The Colony”, a kind of therapeutic retreat where she can relax, engage in some group therapy, and recharge her batteries whilst under Waggner’s watchful eye. It’s not all as relaxing as Karen had hoped, however; there are some very strange folks also sharing time at the retreat, and the worst of all is Marsha, a leather-clad vamp that seems to have her eyes on Will. To top it all off, Karen begins hearing strange howls in the night, but Will assures her that it’s merely the sounds of nature, made more sinister by her urban ears. While Karen is away, her friends and fellow reporters Chris and Terry continue digging into the history of Eddie Quist, and begin to discover some very odd habits and hobbies the young man had entertained; more disturbingly, they find that his body has disappeared from the morgue. When Terry comes to visit The Colony, she finds that the marital stresses between Karen and Will are the least of their worries as she makes a connection between Eddie and The Colony, and Eddie himself reappears to explain the howls in the darkness…
For what was for all intents and purposes a low-budget quickie, Dante and crew hit all the marks with this little film. Deft camera work and wise shot decisions were utilized on both studio and wonderful location settings that were accented by well-used fog and inspired lighting; this combination raised the look of the film to one of a much larger bankroll. Add to that a generous peppering of nods to past werewolf films, genre lore, and in-jokes, and the flick becomes a kind of love letter to fans of the lycanthropic. Performance wise, the production had good fortune as well; veterans Patrick Macnee and John Carradine lent their sizable talents to the roles of Dr. Waggner and Erle, one of the crazier of the Colony’s denizens, and favorites like Kevin McCarthy and Slim Pickens spiced up their respective roles as network executive and local sheriff with gusto. Hell, we even have “That Guy”, Dick Miller, in a small but informative role (where several tropes of werewolfism were introduced into the cinematic realm for the first time), and look for Kenneth Tobey from the original The Thing From Another World in a bit part. As for the principals, the lovely Dee Wallace once again showed why she’s such a favorite with the horror crowd with her emotional and impassioned portrayal of Karen, while her real-life husband Christopher Stone impressed with his role as her on-screen husband, unwillingly led astray by the…um…animal magnetism of another. Belinda Balaski and Dennis Dugan provided convincing support as Karen’s reporter friends, and the rest of the ensemble formed a believable and comfortable foundation for the film.
Finally, the special effects of Rob Bottin were original and impressive; the gore was plentiful and visceral, and his on-screen transformation was so good, his mentor Rick Baker said that he did his own transformation scene in An American Werewolf In London in full light, as that was the only way to top Bottin’s work. The design of the werewolves was also marvelous; the hybrid creatures that hit somewhere between a wolf and a man are the way I still think of werewolves, and although it defies folklore, it’s largely this design that is most often imitated in such films even unto today.
All of these factors elevated the film to a level that belied it’s beginnings, and added an impressive entry into the annals of lycanthropic cinema. There’s really only one thing in the the film that I was a little put off by, and that’s one particular scene (you’ll know it when you see it) that due to time rather than budgetary constraints was done with painfully obvious animation. It’s very quick, and not enough to really put a black eye on the film, but if I’m gonna be honest, I gotta say it kind of pushed me out for a minute or two…but the film grabbed me back quickly; it’s certainly not an experience-ruining blemish.
Personally, I find The Howling to be one of my go-to choices as tops in the subgenre; with an original spin on the script, solid directing and performances, and contributions to the cinematic werewolf mythology that are still touched upon today, in my opinion it has decidedly earned it’s place amongst classic (and in many cases, larger budgeted) films of its kind.
You should check it out, folks.