It’s one of those films I’ve read a lot about – heard even more about than I’ve read – but it just never quite fell onto my radar. My suspicion is that because it came out at a time when An American Werewolf In London (also 1981) had set the bar really, really, really high that the Joe Dante film just kinda/sorta slipped past without a second glance. Though I’d enjoyed snippets of it in documentaries and whatnot over the years, what I saw just never quite intrigued me enough to set everything aside and digest it properly.
That’s remedied now, my friends, and I’ve devoured the movie in a single sitting just recently. It was on pay cable, I DVR’d it (no special features, so I’m really coming at it entirely from my own perspective), and I do have a little something something to say about it. Are you surprised? Don’t be.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“After a bizarre and near deadly encounter with a serial killer, a television newswoman in sent to a remote mountain resort whose residents may not be what they seem.”
In all fairness, The Howling is and isn’t a werewolf movie.
This Joe Dante-directed flick has been a cult favorite of many over the years, and I don’t think it ever really had the kind of break-out success afforded other Dante inspirations. There could be a lot of reasons for that, but I’d suggest it comes up just a bit short mostly because it both embraces and ignores the traditions of the monster movie in enough curious ways that purists struggle with its ‘fluency over principle’ while, instead, praising its practical effects work and performances, both which are worth the price of admission alone.
As I’ve recently written, the best monster movies abide by a set of unspoken rules. I won’t trouble you with the particulars, but I will say that the most adored monster movies never stray from the central premise that the monster itself is a tortured and misunderstood figure who deserves our pity because, alas, he or she or it (or they or fae or whatever the going pronouns are today) never asked to be reduced to such a lowly creature. The Howling completely negates that fundamental core, instead choosing to ‘world build’ a society wherein lycanthropes exist as a growing subset of civilization, to the point wherein they now have their very own resorts, it would seem!
The always fabulous Dee Wallace stars as Karen White, a local market television newswoman who’ll stop at nothing to break the big stories of her California home. Though the script only loosely suggests she’s been hot-on-the-trail of a local serial killer in its set-up, it becomes clear very early that something ain’t quite right when the deceased murderer’s body completely vanishes from the city morgue. In the meantime, Karen’s emotional struggles in breaking the story hit a boiling point, and kindly ol’ social scientist Dr. George Waggner recommends some “time away” at his private retreat (where they’re supposedly doing good things in treating stress).
As I suggested above, what truly works in The Howling are its players and practical effects. Wallace is always fetching, and she handles the lead here capably through some typical Horror melodrama up until the big climax. Though actor Christopher Stone is, largely, sidelined through the second half as our lead’s love interest, he makes decent use of the time given to him; and his transformation into one of the members of this macabre cult makes the most narrative sense. Belinda Balaski – a name that deserves more celebration for her time in this picture than she’s received – turns in solid work as Karen’s workplace confidant whose investigative work initially cast suspicious light on Dr. Waggner’s compound only to then find herself trapped in all of the terrifying theatrics. And the perennially fresh-faced Dennis Dugan makes a nice turn as another news station employee eventually hell bent on uncovering the truth behind just how widespread this monstrous affair has grown.
And about those practical effects?
Though I’d argue that the werewolf transformation sequences do pale in comparison to those that made so much of An American Werewolf In London as groundbreaking as it was at the time, they’re a very, very, very close second place. From what I’ve read, effects work was evolving in the early 1980’s, but these craftsmen were definitely raising the bar on what had come before – especially in the field of lycanthropy flicks – and The Howling deserves to be mentioned alongside that John Landis effort. Much like Superman: The Movie made audiences believe a man could fly, these features made them believe the switch from one lifeform to another was not only possible but – more importantly – would be horrifically painful, sweaty, and plausible. Even the Academy Of Science Fiction, Fantasy, And Horror Films agreed as much as they nominated The Howling for the Saturn Awards in those related technical categories. Yes, the effects are that good.
Though the script is plagued by some rather mundane drama and predictability at times, the narrative does tap into one of the era’s growing trends: various ‘healers’ and soothsayers were actively mining the marketplace to sell their various psychological ‘cure-alls’ to anyone with a disposable income. Culturally, we were starting to look inward at what ailed us, and The Howling’s Dr. Waggner was clearly inspired by these stewards who thought psychology needed to be introduced at each and every personal crossroads. Dare I say that Waggner’s hidden desire to – ahem – drain us dry (of blood!) was as brilliant and prescient back then as it remains today?
The Howling (1981) was produced by AVCO Embassy Pictures. The film is currently available on home video via several releases.
The Howling (1981) is far from perfect – it needed more bite and less bark – but it does offer up those rare perfect moments, many of which are linked to the actors, actresses, and artisans who made it a sight to behold both for its day as well as its place in film history. Dee Wallace has never looked lovelier, werewolves have rarely looked deadlier, and mankind’s curious investment in flash-in-the-pan social reform (via groupthink and psychology-related seminars) has never been quite as insidious as is depicted here. Still, it’s following is far more cult than mainstream (from what I can see), and that’s a surprise: it’s a property ripe for a remake … or maybe a continuation? Stranger things have happened.