CULT CORNER: The Howling (1981)

John grabs some silver and checks out Joe Dante’s cult werewolf classic. 

Who made it?: Joe Dante (Director), John Sayles, Terence H. Winkless (Writers), Jack Conrad, Michael Finnell (Producers), AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Robert Picardo.

Tagline: “Imagine your worst fear a reality.”

IMDb rating: 6.6/10.

The Howling has to be one of the greatest werewolf movies ever made. It blends horror and comedy to deliberate effect, ignoring many of the conventional rules that were commonplace in such original classics as The Wolf Man (1941) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), whilst creating many new rules which have since been adopted by other movies of the genre. In the words of lead actress Dee Wallace (The Hills Have Eyes, Cujo), “It’s a bloody good horror movie.” And I couldn’t agree more.

A Los Angeles news anchor named Karen White (Wallace) escapes the evil clutches of Eddie “The Mangler” Quist (Robert Picardo) after arranging to meet him in a porno theatre to help police catch him. Therapist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) invites the distraught Karen and her husband, Bill (Christopher Stone), to a secluded coastal resort known as The Colony, where Karen will receive the treatment she so desperately needs. During her stay there, Karen soon discovers that the friendly locals aren’t entirely what they appear to be.

Produced on a budget of just one million, The Howling is notable for its incredible production credits. It was directed by Joe Dante, best known for Gremlins (1984), Innerspace (1987) and The Burbs (1989). The screenplay, which was based on the novel by Gary Brandner and published in 1977, was written by Terence H. Winkless and John Sayles, who had previously written the low-budget creature features Piranha (1978) and Alligator (1980). The music was performed by Italian composer Pino Donaggio, known for his work on Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976) and Dressed To Kill (1980). And the all-important special make-up effects were provided by Rob Bottin, who would later go on to achieve great success with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990).

Dante got his break in filmmaking as the protégé of B-Movie king Roger Corman, who was also responsible for discovering future Hollywood talents such as James Cameron and Jonathan Demme. It is obvious from the get-go that the director had an affection for horror. When he was younger, Dante had even written several articles for cult magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland (essentially the bible for genre buffs). I’ve always felt that Dante’s main fortè was comedy, with his talent for visualising and bringing to life kooky comic book-esque characters. But that’s not to say Dante doesn’t have a flair for the horrific, because he clearly does. As a self-confessed movie brat, his love and passion for the genre is evident in his earliest movies, as well as his more recent work with Masters of Horror (2005-2007) and The Hole (2009).

What makes The Howling unique to other werewolf movies is its parody style. Even though it displays classic horror clichés like investigating a strange noise or going into the woods alone, the movie is smart, self-referential and doesn’t treat the audience for fools. The characters know just as much about werewolf lore as the people watching the movie. Dante deliberately pays homage to classic werewolf flicks, and his poking fun at certain tropes (Belinda Balaski’s character is snooping around a cabin in the woods, where we suddenly notice a yellow smiley face sticker on the door) is so refreshing. This meta ribbing would be played to full effect – and popularised – many years later in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).

The Howling also deals with a number of complex themes, such as man vs. nature, repression, paranoia, as well as internal and external fears. The werewolf characters themselves are depressed and struggling to cope with “The Gift.” You can’t help but laugh at the concept of ancient Lycanthropes taking part in modern group therapy.

The cast is a mixed bunch, but each actor is perfectly cast to a fault, bringing what is needed to their roles. Wallace, who will always be remembered best as the mother in E.T. (1982), portrays White as kind-hearted, fragile and vulnerable, which are ideal traits for a heroine in a horror movie. Macnee, beloved by many in Britain as John Steed in TV’s The Avengers and The New Avengers, adds real thespian clout as Waggner. Picardo, who you might recognise as The Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, is also unforgettably sinister as serial killer Quist. Elsewhere, Dante regular Dick Miller gives one of his most memorable performances as an owner of an occult book store, who is very knowledgeable on all things Lycan.

The aforementioned Bottin was brought in to replace original make-up artist Rick Baker, who left the production to work on An American Werewolf in London (1981). Bottin was Baker’s assistant at the time, and what the young artist was able to create in his predecessor’s absence on a budget of around $50,000 was pure brilliance. Bottin’s special effects were highly creative and, importantly, ahead of their time. His use of air bags (condoms and hot water bottles) in the werewolf transformation scenes are so impressive and heart-pounding compared to the old fashioned time-lapse dissolve techniques used in older movies. The overall representation of the monster was also a major revelation. Previously, werewolves were depicted as either half-man/half-beast hybrids or four-legged animals. But in The Howling, Bottin created terrifying and ominous wolf creatures on hind legs.

The film was released on 10th April, 1981, and was a hit with audiences, grossing over seventeen million at the US box office alone. Perhaps it would have been more of a financial success if it hadn’t have been for the release of American Werewolf that same year. The Howling has an engaging story, zany characters, comical humour, and amazing special make-up effects. And it was mainly due to the success of The Howling that Dante, along with producer Michael Finnell, received the opportunity from Steven Spielberg to make Gremlins.

I instantly fell in love with this movie the first time I saw it, and actually prefer it to the more-beloved American Werewolf. The Howling is without a shadow of a doubt my favourite werewolf movie of all time. Having weathered the years well, it is a dramatic and unexpectedly comical journey into the dark side of nature.

Best Scene

Karen White finds herself trapped in an office with Eddie Quist as he reveals his frightening true self.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Roger Corman cameos as the man waiting to use the phone box after Dee Wallace.
  • Art director Robert A. Burns had previously worked on the sets for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). In fact many of the grisly set dressings for this film were hold-overs, most notably the corpse in the armchair seen in Walter Paisley’s bookstore.
  • In the scene where Terri calls Chris from Dr. Waggner’s office, we see a picture of Lon Chaney Jr. on the wall. Chaney played the Wolf Man in five movies (The Wolf Man (1941), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Bud Abbott & Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). He is the only actor that played a Universal monster in the original film and all of its sequels.

John Cowdell

I have been writing and producing short films for over ten years and are now branching out into film reviews.

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