The Howling (1981)

Review

The Howling

Werewolves are the least-regarded of all the classic monsters. While vampires have all the sex appeal and mummies have already had their blockbuster remake, werewolves have a tendency to seem low-rent and shaggy; basically like really angry dogs. 1981 changed all that with a brief two-film comeback for the hairy beasts: John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling. Superior both in terms of its story and sense of humor, The Howling shares American Werewolf‘s post-modern cheekiness but knows when to rein it in and let the wolves howl.

Starting in a welter of televised static, the movie’s setup is straight from a standard thriller: TV anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace, one year before E.T.) is taking part in a police sting. She’s been receiving letters from a man claiming to be the brutal serial killer currently terrorizing L.A., and as part of the sting, has agreed to meet him. After a cop mix-up and a horrific encounter between Karen and the killer in a peepshow booth, the killer is shot dead. Karen keeps having bad dreams, however, prompting her psychologist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), to send her up the coast to convalesce at The Colony, a retreat where his teachings – vague mumbo-jumbo about harmonizing the relationship between one’s animal and civilized selves and something called ‘The Gift’ – are put into practice. Then she starts hearing all that howling in the woods around her cabin…

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the good doctor and his Colony are hiding something and that that something has to do with werewolves. This becomes even clearer when a couple of Karen’s reporter friends back in L.A. start trying to put together the pieces around the demised serial killer (whose body later disappears from the morgue), which necessitates a visit to an occult bookshop which fortunately has silver bullets for sale. But the who and the why are not terribly important here, as the focus is mostly on the humor, much of it satirizing the California self-help craze of the 1970s, along with the special effects. The werewolf transformations are quite effective (they’re done by Rob Bottin, who went on to do great work in The Thing and other horror classics), though obvious budgetary constraints often keep The Howling from delivering that many serious scares.

Helping the horror/humor marriage is director Joe Dante, whose later mini-classic Gremlins this movie most resembles, and co-scripter John Sayles, who knew how to knock out a good pulp story back before becoming America’s most socially-conscious moviemaker (not that there’s anything wrong with that). You could fashion a good drinking game out of catching all the sight gags, like a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl left on a desk, a running joke involving smiley-face stickers, etc.

As befits a true B-grade horror flick, the leads are all pretty replaceable, with most of the golden moments left to the character actors, played by B-movie vets like Slim Pickens, John Carradine, and Dante regular Dick Miller (who gets a plum role as the owner of the occult bookshop: ‘Silver bullets or fire, that’s the only way to get rid of the damn things. They’re worse than cockroaches’).

The MGM Special Edition DVD of The Howling presents a decent package. The picture transfer itself doesn’t look that great, but that’s more likely because the original was shot so cheaply. There’s plenty of extras, like a lengthy selection of deleted scenes (all of which look to have been judiciously cut), outtakes, and commentary from Dante and several of the cast members.

Why is he howling? Because of the ugly mini-blinds.