Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fun With Lycanthropy: I Heart "The Howling"

I can’t recall the last time we had two Full Moons in one month, but I remember the ending of the John Landis classic An American Werewolf in London every time I hear the term “Blue Moon”. I never wrote about that film, one of my two favorite werewolf movies of all time. But I did write about the other one: Joe Dante’s The Howling. It still stuns me that they were both released the same year, both played to the same audience, and both reinvigorated the concept of “the horror-comedy” like no American movie since Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. In honor of this lunar event, here is another piece from my days reviewing DVDs for the dearly departed Laser Exchange.

The Howling

April 19th, 2001

Review by Robert Jeffrey

When I first saw Joe Dante’s The Howling, it was via the film’s original videotape incarnation (unfortunately I missed out on the theatrical run). At the time, I thought the film was bizarre and rather overrated. Of course, I was only seeing part of the film; the video was so dark and murky that I could not see what was going on most of the time. It was not until years later that I watched a “cleaned up” cable presentation and realized what a good movie The Howling really is. Perhaps the better the image, the more enjoyable my experience, because seeing The Howling on DVD I was finally able to fully appreciate its greatness.

Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a Los Angeles reporter suffering from nightmares, panic attacks, and frigidity as a result of a botched undercover mission that results in the shooting death of a serial killer called ‘Eddie the Mangler’. Karen’s psychologist, Dr. Waggner (Patrick MacNee), advises her to stay at “The Colony”, a self-help village that he operates. She and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) travel to this secluded sector in Northern California for a week long “therapeutic vacation”. Before long, though, Karen starts to sense something is very wrong in The Colony. Her nightmares are becoming more vivid, and are now incorporating images of her husband and of people staying in The Colony. She hears howling in the night, and finds a mutilated cow in the woods.

Meanwhile, back in L.A., Terry (Belinda Balaski) and Chris (John Dugan), a young couple working at Karen’s TV station, investigate the death of Eddie the Mangler for a news special the station has planned. Eddie’s body disappears from the morgue, and they investigate further, only to discover that he was obsessed with werewolf mythology. When a panicky Karen calls Terry to tell her that Bill was bitten by a wolf in the woods, Terry rushes to The Colony to offer comfort and further her investigation. At this point, you can probably figure out where all this is headed. But The Howling is a film full of twists and turns, and to spoil even one would be an injustice to first-time viewers.

I have not seen enough werewolf movies to recognize every homage paid by this film, but apparently most of the characters are named after werewolf movie directors. An expository scene from The Wolf Man plays as Terry learns that Bill has been bitten by a wolf, and a cartoon adaptation of The Three Little Pigs is cut into one of the most classic, terrifying sequences. Additionally, there is a stellar roster of genre cameos: Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), B-movie king Roger Corman, and Joe Dante regular Dick Miller, to name a few.  Sound familiar? Sixteen years before Scream was even a reality, The Howling invented the “self-referential scary movie” sub-genre. In fact, the humor laced throughout the film is generally the most celebrated element of The Howling. It was certainly among the most influential, for such contemporary classics as Evil Dead, Fright Night, Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator, and of course Scream owe a debt to the road paved by this film.

The humor may be the most widely regarded facet of this film. However, in the end, this is a horror movie, and a damn scary one. Even coming on the heels of such classic shockers as Friday the 13th, The Shining, and Dressed to Kill, The Howling still manages to hold its own-and then some. Joe Dante, who at this point was best known for the cult classic Piranha, updated werewolf folklore by applying it to two of the more popular horror trends of the time: female paranoia (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Suspiria) and fear of non-urban environments (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes). Dante makes the most of these two thematic elements, while also cultivating a classic, spooky atmosphere all too rarely seen in post-Psycho horror movies. Dante also manages to tap into primal childhood fears of the dark, the woods, the fog, and The Big Bad Wolf. In fact, some of the film’s most terrifying scenes make their mark because they so aptly recreate images from Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs.

Looking back, it really is amazing how ahead-of-its-time this movie was. Not only did it turn the mirror on horror films of the past and present, but it also offered a shockingly accurate, post-Network glimpse into the media. From what I have read, the novel The Howling, by Greg Brandner, is vastly different, particularly in this regard. Instead of being an author, as she was in the book, Karen is a reporter, and this allows Dante to explore the notion that the American public in the early 80s was so desensitized that television had to resort to extreme shock tactics to maintain viewership. It also suggests that the same public was nonetheless too sophisticated to believe what was happening right in front of them. In this time of unprecedented cynicism and complacency (not to mention being the era of “reality shows”), Dante’s message is more relevant than ever.

When The Howling was released, it was extremely well received by critics and became a box office hit. Joe Dante went on to direct the blockbuster Gremlins. Dee Wallace went on to play the mother in E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which years later prompted one of the funniest lines in Scream. And special make-up effects man Rob Bottin went on to do equally classic work in such films as The Thing, Total Recall, and Se7en. As the cast and crew were busy moving on with their own successes, The Howling did not get its inevitable sequel until 1985’s loosely related (or so I have heard) The Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf. Over the next ten years The Howling would amass a total of six sequels, many of them barely released in theaters or sent straight to video. I have never seen these films (has anyone seen them?), but from what I understand they give Amityville a run for its money as the worst horror franchise of them all. In fact, The Howling IV: The Original Nightmare, is actually a remake of the first film! Normally a string of ill received follow-ups harms a film’s reputation, but in this case, it may have actually strengthened it. More than two decades after its initial release, The Howling remains one of the most enduring horror films of the 80s. 

NOTE: This review was pared down to omit references to the Dutch DVD I was reviewing, as it is no longer in print and I was frankly more qualified to talk about horror movies than DVD technology. If my comments sound familiar, that’s because a similarly amended version of this and most of my other Laser Exchange reviews were ported over to The Internet Movie Database ten years before I began this blog.

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