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Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Howling (1981) review


Dee Wallace (Karen White), Patrick Macnee (Dr. George Waggner), Christopher Stone (Bill Neill), Belinda Balaski (Terry Fisher), Dennis Dugan (Chris), Kevin McCarthy (Fred Francis), John Carradine (Erle), Slim Pickens (Sam), Elisabeth Brooks (Marsha Quist), Robert Picardo (Eddie Quist), Dick Miller (Walter Paisley), Kenneth Tobey, Roger Corman, Forry Ackerman

Directed by Joe Dante

The Short Version: Absolutely brilliant tale of werewolfery that was groundbreaking in its special effects artistry at the time. The major money shot is a showstopping transformation that still flies in the face of any CGI crapfest of today that passes for "good FX", but Dante's movie has far more going for it than judiciously accomplished effects sequences. Fans howled in approval then, and they still bark at the moon for it today. It remains a shining example of both good filmmaking and the superlative art of prosthetic design and execution.

After being assaulted by a bizarre serial killer, Karen White, a TV news reporter traumatized by the incident, heads off for the country to recover. Once there, Karen and her husband discover that something is seriously wrong with the people living in and around this isolated retreat.

Superb hair-raising horror from the fabulous filmmaking hand of New World ex-patriot, Joe Dante, who, along with his crew, manage to imbue this modest production with a frightfully wicked sense of dread laced with an endearing self aware sense of humor. As opposed to eliciting laughter, the humor here is more akin to bringing a smile to a horror fans face from all the references and cameos from notable genre personalities. Although occasionally eclipsed in conversation when AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is brought up, it's nigh impossible to discuss one without the other not to mention both films coming out just a few months apart. Aside from one film being an independent and the other from a major, THE HOWLING was the first film of its type in a good number of years.

Dante's movie is essentially an EC comics story extended to 90 minutes and bursting at the seams with all manner of lycanthropic references ranging from actors, directors, cartoons and book authors. This self referential style isn't condescending to genre conventions, but a lovingly packaged gift to fans by fans. Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine founder, Forrest J. Ackerman has a cameo in a bookstore run by the great Dick Miller as Walter Paisley (the name of the character Miller first played in A BUCKET OF BLOOD and later in HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD). Ackerman is easily spotted making his way around the bookstore holding two issues of FM behind his back. Roger Corman has a brief walk-on as a man entering a phone booth near the beginning.

Pino Donaggio's masterfully eerie score hits all the right spots featuring mood enhancing cues that are at times forebodingly sinister and romantically erotic. There's also some organ based sounds that lend some suitably creepy support to the orchestral compositions. Donaggio is one of the most successful Italian composers to amass a healthy discography outside of his native Italy. His familiar sound can be heard in such horror/suspense pictures as CARRIE (1976), PIRAHNA (1978), TOURIST TRAP (1979), DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and BODY DOUBLE (1984) to name a few.

The deliciously witty script by John Sayles (and contributions by Terence H. Winkless) based on the Gary Brandner novel provides something else to chew on aside from a plot about rampaging werewolves making meals out of random humans. Patrick Macnee plays Dr. Waggner, a psychologist (a lycanthropic intellectual!) who runs "The Colony", a secluded retreat surrounded by a dense, overpowering forest--the perfect hunting ground for animals of all shapes(shifters) and sizes. This "colony" is basically a sanctuary for those with the tendency to change their form whenever the need arises (a full moon isn't required here). It's a place where they can fit in without bringing attention to themselves in normal society. Up until the end, though, the audience isn't aware that ALL OF THEM are monsters. Interestingly enough, a small contingent of the colony refuse to be 'tamed', desiring to hunt humans as they've always done as opposed to Dr. Waggner's proposal of alternative food sources. Just like in human society, the werewolves have their unhinged, demented members who use their "gifts" to their advantage.

Such is the case with the character of Eddie Quist, the serial killer in the film. The script skirts with the notion that he is either the main monster of the story, or the leader of the proverbial pack. While he's one of the chief proponents of this psycho werewolf circus, Dr. Waggner runs the show, or so he thinks. It's proven by films end that wild things aren't meant to be tamed. The character of Quist also provides one of the most memorable moments in the film and one of the most astonishing special effects "money shots" of all time--a jaw dropping, bone-breakingly intense transformation sequence.

Then 21 year old FX genius, Rob Bottin (who, at the time, looked like a werewolf!) was responsible for the amazingly detailed and ambitiously mounted creature effects made all the more startling in that the budget allotted for effects sequences was very low, much like the budget for the film itself. It's the first picture to showcase its monsters in a far less human guise than normally associated with this sub genre. They look like out-sized wolves, towering over their prey--a far different vision than the nostalgic look of the Chaney days and onward. Bottin of course went on to create the still mesmerizing and unsettling creations in John Carpenter's THE THING (1982).

Elisabeth Brooks as Marsha steams up the screen as the true ringleader of the hairy meat mongers. It's safe to assume her character served as the inspiration for Sybil Danning's 'Stirba, Werewolf Bitch' persona from the barrel scraping sequel, THE HOWLING 2 (1985). While it's not explored a great deal (outside of some dialog exchanges during the finale), there's some obvious societal class warfare going on amongst the wolves--one side prefers to hang on to the old ways while another attempts to introduce change to match the constant modernization of the world around them so that they may survive virtually unnoticed. Dr. Waggner represents this modernist approach whilst the feral Marsha remains dedicated to tradition, a notion shared by several others. This primal calling is evident in the way some of them dress--animal skins and bones hanging from walls, adorning furniture, or the frontispiece of a domicile, even as jewelry.

It's no surprise that Bob Burns, the Production Designer on THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), replicates that look here in Dante's movie, but in a less extravagant fashion. In an additional nod to TCM, 'grandma', one of the moldy corpses in the attic of the Sawyer house, makes a cameo appearance in Walter Paisley's book store. John (GREMLINS, EXPLORERS) Hora's photography adds so many levels to the look and feel of the movie frequently lending the proceedings a dark fairy tale quality what with all the impenetrable back lighting and fog permeating many sequences. The deep blues and vibrant reds that sometimes share the screen together would surely have made Bava proud.

More of a pure horror movie than its bigger budgeted competition from John Landis, Joe Dante's trendsetting, and genre defining endeavor has so much going on above and below the surface, excelling in multiple facets of the production. Eschewing grim shock value and outright comedy of the more recognized AMERICAN WEREWOLF, the jolts of THE HOWLING are more phantasmagorical in nature, taking their cues from the more fanciful tales of Lycanthropy of films past. A wonderfully creepy and sensually baroque little movie, it's not just one of the best horror films of the 1980s, but one of the best horror movies ever made.

This review is representative of the MGM special edition DVD


Dude I Got Your 80's said...

I loved the special effects for this one back in the day.

Franco Macabro said...

Ahh, the good old days of latex make up effects, I love this one, but like you say, it always comes number two after An American Werewolf in London.

Still, their is no denying that the transformation sequences are awesome and show stopping. Plus, the whole story about a colony of werewolves who are divided between those that want to give into their wild animalistic side and those who want to live their lives controlling it, is an interesting one.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent review Brian, of a highly enjoyable and self-reflexive horror film. Although it doesn't quite reach the highs of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF (I put this down to the gothic atmosphere of Landis' film) it is probably the slightly more important film. I think its importance lies in the conviction the filmmakers have in their conception of the Werewolf. It opened the path for Landis because Dante takes it seriously (even though it has a wicked sense of humour). It is also sexier and darker than AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF. It's just not quite as much fun.

venoms5 said...

@ Dude: I still think they're impressive today, at least to my eyes.

@ Fran: A shame the sequels never came close to this one. Looks like there's a new one already made, too. By way, I haven't been over your way in a while. I will catch up with you hopefully tomorrow, my friend!

@ Shaun: Thanks for the kind words, Shaun. I do prefer this one to AMERICAN WEREWOLF. Hopefully, I'll have that one posted in the next couple of days. I also forgot to mention that the Donaggio cue that plays during Quist's transformation sequence turned up in several kung fu movies.

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