REVIEW: The Howling [1981]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 91 minutes | Release Date: April 10th, 1981 (USA)
Studio: Embassy Pictures
Director(s): Joe Dante
Writer(s): John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless /
Gary Brandner (novel)

“Well he didn’t get up and walk out on his own”

With the amount of 1980s horror films that go all-in on the blood and gore from frame one, the few that don’t can’t help but standout. What’s funny is that the latter were the types I disliked as a kid. I remember watching Joe Dante‘s The Howling decades ago on television and thinking it was too boring to ever want to watch again. We don’t even get to see a werewolf—the supernatural entity we’re promised—until two-thirds of the runtime has expired. But that’s exactly what makes this film so interesting. It still falls prey to cheesiness, a pervasive score, and over-acting, but you can tell screenwriters John Sayles (who cameos in the morgue) and Terence H. Winkless cared enough to create a narrative with propulsive suspense.

While Eli Roth‘s Hostel is more graphic, it too suffered for some by taking too long to get there. I’d argue that care to develop characters and cultivate a kinship with them before the carnage is necessary for success. The same goes here with this adaptation of Gary Brandner‘s novel teaching us about the world it’s created. We need to follow Karen White (Dee Wallace) not only as our entry point and victimized protagonist, but also as a journalist with the courage to confront a serial killer and the skepticism to ignore the usual tropes characters in these films generally already possess. The fact that she and coworkers Chris (Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski) don’t automatically assume the impossible is what makes that inevitability potent.

The title and trailer are enough to portend this result so we can enjoy the ride by picking up details as to the how (or even if) of its plausibility. Maybe the suspected monster Karen meets at the start (Robert Picardo‘s Eddie) is simply a violent psychopath. Maybe his drawings of wolf-people and mutilations are red herrings. The PTSD she suffers as a result of the harrowing encounter leaves her in the hands of Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) after all, so any glimpse of werewolves might just come from the trauma of her experience. Separating Karen and her husband (Christopher Stone‘s Bill) from Chris and Terry by sending them to the doctor’s experimental forested retreat The Colony therefore allows first- and second-hand information to be collected independently.

So we watch each duo’s parallel journey forward with Karen and Bill witnessing the weird goings on of “crazy” people amongst the coyote howl-filled night sky of nature while Chris and Terry research werewolves with the help of eclectic bookshop owner Walter (Dick Miller) as more of a lark than anything else. Only when Bill finds himself the victim of a wolf bite do their trajectories finally find a nexus point with which to meet. But even then we can’t truly believe we’re dealing with the supernatural. Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) and her brother T.C.’s (Don McLeod) creepily aggressive sexuality doesn’t confirm anything beyond speculation considering they’re both under psychiatric evaluation. It’s fun to assume, however, that their increased boldness brings us closer to discovering the truth either way.

What’s more: the so-called “expert” isn’t even an expert. Rather than draw Walter as some know-it-all crackpot who will be proven correct in the end, he’s revealed as nothing more than a well-read connoisseur of the books he sells because it assists in selling them. He’s a capitalist like any shop owner who fulfills insane requests (like a box of silver bullets that never got picked up) because it adds to the mystique and increases his clientele. He’s willing to share nuggets of wisdom as to what harms “real” werewolves, but he’s not deluded enough to take those quotation marks off while doing so. The only way anyone in this film will believe werewolves actually exist is if they see one transform with their own eyes.

That’s where Rob Bottin comes in because the special effects are a huge part to appreciating what’s been done. 1981 was the same year Rick Baker worked on An American Werewolf in London and he’s credited as a consultant here. The final shots can be rubbery at times and the transitions themselves sometimes take long enough for suspension of disbelief to get thrown out the window, but pulsating faces and expanded snouts are rendered well. Bottin really went out of his way to cater masks to different characters instead of forcing them all to look the same too, but the real standout is a severed wolf hand becoming human again right before our eyes. Although some would probably list Brooks and Stone’s wolf sex as the highlight instead.

I must back to the story, though, and Dante’s patience with it. Because even when it becomes obvious that we’re dealing with werewolves, how many and who’s involved remains unknown. The end scene where all is revealed surely inspired the likes of Hot Fuzz and Kill List as conspiracy abounds with the filmmakers setting things up for an awakening centuries-in-the-making. A newsroom finale is perfectly suited towards those means too by cementing the potential ramifications in a mix of fear and indifference (seven sequels have never come close to the original’s success). This is the inevitable collision of fact and fiction expressed under the façade of a gritty mystery rather than a hokey bloodbath. The unavoidable cheese is thus a product of the time, not the craft itself.


Watched in conjunction with Season Six of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.

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