Joe Dante’s “The Howling” (1981) is a noteworthy entry in the werewolf genre, a work that helped put Dante on the map (though “Gremlins” would do that far more so in 1984) and stands out for being an unusual horror film.
Whereas ’81 had a high number of slasher films and a few big budget, respected works that were financial successes, horror films still had the stigma of being disreputable and morally repugnant, if not tired and rote overall.
Along comes three very different but high-profile lycanthrope-themed thrillers: John Landis’ career-best (and the best werewolf movie, period) “An American Werewolf in London,” Michael Wadleigh’s vastly underrated “Wolfen” and, the first to appear that year, “The Howling.”
While Landis’ film is the gold standard, for its effectiveness and the way it uncannily balances terror and hilarity, Dante’s film has an appreciative cult following, which is fitting, since the film itself is less about werewolves and more about a literal cult.
Dee Wallace stars as Karen White, a news reporter who practices investigative journalism to a dangerous degree during a live TV feed; she agrees to meet a serial killer (Robert Picardo) as the station manager (Kevin McCarthy), her on-edge husband (Christopher Stone, Wallace’s real husband at the time) and a nervous crew watch on.
The aftermath of White’s encounter with the killer leaves her with amnesia. She and her husband take a break from the trauma and, following the advice of a friendly guru (Patrick Macnee) go for a getaway at a remote farmhouse called The Colony.
The first half of “The Howling” has an edginess that you’d never expect from Dante – the tracking-the-serial-killer opener is suspenseful and immediately puts the audience into a suspenseful, ugly scenario.
When Karen enters a sex shop to meet with the killer and watches a film of a woman being tied down and raped, Dante doesn’t flinch from the imagery and frequently revisits it. This kind of nastiness is unearned and seemingly only in view for exploitative purposes, never amounting to much more than cheap shock through misogynistic imagery.
Nevertheless, the first act of the movie is the strongest, as the Pino Donaggio score and John Hora’s soft-focus cinematography really give us the impression that we’re watching a Brian De Palma film.
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Unfortunately, after the unpleasant but riveting start, the story alters the location and switches gears. Yes, it’s fun to see movie legends like John Carradine and Slim Pickens, as well as Dante regulars McCarthy and Picardo, in supporting turns, but there’s no real depth to the goings-on or the denizens of The Colony.
Very-loosely based on Gary Brandner’s 1977 novel, screenwriter John Sayles seems to make a statement on the religious movements of the late 1970s-early ‘80s. A brief recap of this period: following the Flower Power movement winding down as the Vietnam war, violence of the Civil Rights movement, assassination of the Kennedys and the Watergate scandal numbed the counterculture, various alternative movements took place nationwide.
Most notably were the rise of “the Jesus movement” and the New Age movement, though most would note that there were various religious groups that surged in awareness and popularity during this time.
In pop culture, the opening scene of “Airplane!” (1980), in which a captain is accosted by a parade of various religious followers, seeking money or support in the airport lobby, is a reference to this.
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All of that to say that “The Howling” seems to have the cult of personality and the mentality of devoted followers in mind, but never goes that far. There have been stronger genre works that explore this idea, like recent works ranging from Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure for Wellness” (2016) to Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” (2019).
Wallace is a wonderful actress and excels in genre works (just check out her dissimilar turns in “E.T.,” “Cujo” and “The Frighteners”) but this isn’t really one of her best performances. She and the late Christopher Stone work well together but they’re both upstaged by the plucky Belinda Balaski (whose werewolf encounter is the film’s best, most well regarded scene) and Picardo, who is scary, too seldom used but excellent.
Dante’s film is highly accomplished and not just because Rob Bottin (who later became a genre legend for his make-up work on John Carpenter’s “The Thing”) and David Allen (whose stop-motion animation is barely glimpsed) are among the f/x wizards at work here.
While Sayles’ screenplay takes far too long to actually get to the werewolves (who don’t appear until the bottom of the second act), the story isn’t predictable and, in a way that isn’t obnoxious, infuses movie references and fanboy cameo appearances.
This should have been a lot more “fun,” but there’s a sourness to the whole thing that never wavers. “The Howling” does have a doozy of a final scene, though you’d never guess that this singular work would actually inspire seven sequels (most of which are straight to video and substandard).
Reportedly, this is the film that got Dante the job of directing his fantastical, disturbing “It’s a Wonderful Life” segment of “Twilight Zone- The Movie” (1983) and “Gremlins” (1984), still his biggest hit, though his best work was still ahead of him.
All of his films are fun, but his strongest are sharply satirical, kinetic, bold and heartfelt. Dante’s “Explorers” (1985) comes unglued after a brilliant first hour but his “Innerspace” (1987), “The ‘Burbs” (1989), “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990) and “Matinee” (1993) are more than deserving of classic status.
“The Howling” deserves attention, due to its offbeat take on the werewolf legend and a couple of standout scenes but, as much as it deserves to be a genre footnote, it’s not among Dante’s best.
The tonal disproportion (the second act not only feels like a different film but doesn’t even seem to connect with the start and finish), useless rape scene (seriously Joe, why the heck is that scene in this?) and a thoroughly uneven tone and execution undermine it.
The hit and miss effects (for all the great stuff here, why the out-of-place hand drawn animation and tossed aside stop motion?) are undermined by overuse of shadow and dimly lit rooms to maintain the illusion. The comparison to Landis’ film doesn’t help, as Rick Baker’s Oscar winning work on the decomposing Griffin Dunne, for example, is so much more impressive than the mashed-potato-like overuse of clay atop Picardo’s noggin during his final scene here.
The closing scene is a keeper but not enough of “The Howling” lives up to the film’s hall-of-fame reputation. Dante has topped this film several times since and, like a half moon on the horizon, there’s not enough here to howl about.