Something was in the air in 1981. I don’t know firsthand, of course, because I was negative 3 years old, but there sure seemed to be a lot of love for werewolves in the movies that year. Traditionally—in the humble opinion of me—there haven’t been very many good werewolf movies, but in 1981, there were three, and not just little low-budget affairs; three big ol’ studio releases. One is John Landis‘ unadulterated masterpiece An American Werewolf in London; another is the weird metaphysical wolves-in-New-York movie Wolfen; and the final, which has grown on me intensely, is Joe Dante‘s The Howling.
I was a horror snob of sorts back in college a decade ago, and pretty much if the horror was mixed with any kind of overt satire, I was not a fan. I’ve recently written about how I came around to Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead from what I originally thought which was an affront to Romero zombie movies everywhere. Another victim at the time of my guileless horror purity was Joe Dante who has since become one of my favorite directors, dating all the way back to Piranha. When I first saw The Howling, I thought it paled in comparison to American Werewolf, but now it hits me how funny it is, how well the story unfolds, and how much it skewers the idea of self-help gurus and healing spas that were so the rage in the early ’80s. This kind of storytelling is a hallmark of both Dante’s cinema and of screenwriter John Sayles.
The film, from a novel by Gary Brandner, follows Dee Wallace as reporter Karen White. Karen is being stalked by serial killer Eddie Quist (Dante movie regular Robert Picardo) and she agrees to take part in a sting operation with the police to meet Quist in a seedy porno theater (as opposed to the high-class and totally welcoming porno theaters). While in the theater, Quist makes Karen watch a snuff film and when she turns around to face him, she screams and passes out. The police storm in and shoot him dead, but her horror doesn’t stop. She has trauma-induced amnesia and is plagued by terrible dreams, which puts her romantic life with her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) at a bit of a impasse. Her psychiatrist (Patrick Macnee) tells the pair of them to take a weekend retreat to “the Colony,” a new-age wellness spa in the woods.
Things immediately start going south when the couple arrives. Bill is seduced by Marsha Quist (Elisabeth Brooks), whom we find out is Eddie’s sister, and he’s then attacked by a large dog (yeah, sure) after he resists her not-subtle-in-the-least come-ons. Plus, most of the other people at the retreat are weird, too. Karen calls her friend Terri (Belinda Balaski) to come and join her, and Terri, being a clever sort, does some digging and finds that the Colony is where Eddie Quist used to live, and the people in the community are covering up for him. Oh, and he’s still alive. And a werewolf. And they’re all werewolves. And now Bill’s a werewolf too.
When initially I saw the movie, I didn’t really appreciate the slow-building nature of the film, nor the subtlety in the screenplay. We spend a lot of time at the Colony before we really get a sense of anything werewolfy going on, but we do get a very good sense that the people there are up to no good. A lot of this comes from the casting of several of the supporting roles with known horror and genre movie staples like John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Kevin McCarthy, and Dante’s good luck charm Dick Miller, who plays the helpful yet grumpy (a Miller hallmark) bookstore owner who gives information and silver bullets to Terri’s boyfriend (played by Dennis Dugan, who has the dubious honor of having directed eight Adam Sandler movies…). Also, fun fact, many of the characters have the names of people who directed werewolf movies in the past, like George Waggner (The Wolf-Man), Terence Fisher (The Curse of the Werewolf), and Freddie Francis (Legend of the Werewolf).
Most of the werewolf effects glory goes to Rick Baker for his American Werewolf, which certainly was exemplary, but we absolutely have to doff our caps to Rob Bottin for his work in The Howling. The famous story goes that Landis had made a deal with Baker years earlier to do the effects on his werewolf movie, but in the interim, Baker had signed on to work for Dante on this movie. Landis wasn’t pleased and eventually Baker came back for the original project and Bottin was brought in. Having already done the atmospheric ghost effects for The Fog, Bottin created some in-depth stretching and bubbling effects for the centerpiece sequence when Quist transforms into a giant werewolf right in front of Karen. It makes sense that Bottin went on to do the gloriously gross effects in Carpenter’s The Thing.
The work on the scene by all parts of the effects—including the half-shadows in which they happen—is tremendous, though I have to admit that it’s still a scene I don’t think works very well in the overall story. Quist, who isn’t dead, sits up on a gurney in a laboratory with Karen right there and begins to transform. She grabs a beaker full of acid to defend herself. Then he takes like three or four full minutes of screen time to change, with different shots showing off different parts of his face and hands turning into a lupine monster, and then the second he’s done and fully in wolf form, she chucks the acid in his face and runs. Did she have to wait that whole time?!?! Was she just being polite? “Oh, I’m scared and want to throw acid at him, but it’s so rude to acid-face someone mid-transformation. I’ll wait.” Anyway, it’s still great effects, but the scene itself never fails to make me laugh.
This scene aside, The Howling is a movie that’s gotten better and better every time I’ve watched it. There’s so much to enjoy about it, from the wry screenplay from Sayles to the legitimately tense and scary sequences of werewolfery, to the nutso-weird ending where the whole of the Colony show their true colors, and then Karen sets out to prove to the world that werewolves exist even if it kills her. It’s a movie that I’ll put on some evenings just to have a good time. Several sequels have been made, to varying degrees of awfulness, starting with The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf and followed by the zany Australian riff, The Howling III: The Marsupials. You can probably avoid those, but this one is well worth a howl at the moon.
Images: AVCO Embassy