Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Howling

Werewolf movies have certain conventions, depending on the era they were made in, that seem kind of silly in retrospect. In the original Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr., the lycanthrope, despite having grown sharp fangs and claws, prefers to strangle his victims rather than tear them apart. In movies like The Howling (1981), the hapless humans always seem to stand and stare when somebody begins turning into a furry monster rather than, I don't know, RUN LIKE HELL!

Directed by Joe Dante and written by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless (based on a book by Gary Brandner), The Howling is one of the first modern werewolf pictures. Gone are the black-and-white days where Lon Chaney Jr. returned to his ancestral homeland to be bitten by a beast of the moors while Gypsies intone ominously outside gothic castles, and the superstitious villagers resort to torches and pitchforks. Instead, The Howling places its lycanthropes in contemporary society, the public at-large is disbelieving of their existence, and the werewolves find themselves in, or at least considering, new roles in the world. Most significantly perhaps is the advancement of special effects that allows the explicit depiction of what had previous suggested with lap dissolves and cutaways; here, we see the creatures change in all their glory.

Following a traumatizing encounter with disturbed serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) that ends with the creep being shot by police, TV news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace) is advised by psychiatrist Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee) to seek solace and recovery at his clinical camp in the countryside, the Colony. Karen goes along with her husband Bill (Christopher Stone), but soon, creepy things begin happening. The howling of wolves can be heard in the distance at night, and Karen's friends Terry (Belina Balaski) and Chris (Dennis Dugan), while investigating the story further, discover Eddie's body is missing from the morgue.

In other werewolf movies, most notably in The Wolf Man and An American Werewolf in London, our main character is the monster, but rather than presenting him as a villain, these movies turn their werewolves into tragic figures. Like Jekyll when he turns into Hyde or Frankenstein's monster, they aren't inherently evil; they've just been infected by some supernatural power that transforms them into bloodthirsty beasts that can't be controlled and often hurt the ones they love. The horror is the savage within that cannot be tamed. The werewolves of The Howling, in contrast, are not tragic nor are they relative innocents with a curse they can't control; they relish the power and freedom that comes with the change, indulging in their savage wants, whether that be murder or sex. Note when Eddie first meets Karen: in a porno shop booth with a rape  projected on screen. At the colony, Bill is seduced by the "elemental" Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), a werewolf and a nymphomaniac, we're told. It's also important to note these werewolves don't need to wait around for a full moon to transform; they can do that anytime they want.

Werewolf stories typically deal with the clash between the civilized and the primitive, the tame and the wild, human versus beast, and how that dichotomy still exists in man. Popular interpretations of werewolf literature and film casts the monsters as a metaphor for man's id, the unrestrained savage that indulges in basic hungers. The Howling updates this interpretation to the age of pop psychology and mass media, and that conflict is recast from a battle within to a battle among. The werewolves here are divided between those werewolves who would assimilate with mankind and those who would dominate on humans.

Joe Dante is well known for his black sense of humor and fondness for older movies, and that's very much of display in The Howling. Several well known genre figures turn up for cameos including Kevin McCarthy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame, Kenneth Tobey of The Thing From Another World, Roger Corman, and of course Dick Miller. Almost every character is named after a famous director (Freddie Francis, Terence Fisher, etc.), and there are also cutaways to televisions showing cartoon wolves and The Wolf Man. Dante also milks suspense by the tell-tale use of the "Have a Nice Day" smiley face, having it appear just before something bad happens. He also takes shot at the phoniness and cynicism of the media, with a broadcast news team (led by McCarthy) more concerned with ratings and image and thus unable to warn the world of the grave threating facing humanity.

The Howling is justifiably famous for its show-stopping transformation. Special Effects Makeup artist Rob Bottin pulls out all the stops with a really great sequence that is gruesome and awe-inspiring: claws elongate, snouts push out, and muscles and bones bend and become misshapen before fitting into new positions. Importantly, the transformation might be front and center, but it remains convincing and tangible.

Thankfully, Dante builds an effective horror film around the special effects. My favorite scene occurs when Terry is stalked in daylight at an isolated cabin by one of the werewolves. It's tense, suspenseful, and built mostly through suggestion, the werewolf only seen in quick glimpses or through a shot of a claw pounding through a door about to break open.

My issues with the film stem from it having too many characters, and thus, some storylines, particularly Bill's conversion to the dark side and Waggner's psychiatry, feel shortchanged. Plus, Karen is bit too meek to be the central character, and her having amnesia regarding her encounter with Eddie feels too convenient to keeping a mystery;  I think Terry was the more dynamic character, being the investigative, proactive one. There are also times were transitions from scene to scene feel abrupt and jarring, although that does work for comedic effect on occasion.

Flaws aside, thirty-plus years later, The Howling  remains an effective, scary, and funny werewolf picture with special effects that still hold up. If nothing else, The Howling gave us Slim Pickens as a rifle-toting werewolf. Who can dislike a movie that does that?

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