The Howling (1981) ***˝
Up until the 1980’s, werewolf movies (narrowly construed here to exclude the occasional were-cat, were-snake, or were-moth flick) were just about the most compulsively formulaic horror films in existence. Rarely was there more than one werewolf at a time, the werewolf was almost invariably male (She-Wolf of London doesn’t count, so that leaves us with Legend of the Wolf-Woman and… that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?), and in the majority of cases, he was also the central character. Furthermore, even when it wasn’t the protagonist turning into a wolf on nights of the full moon, the movies generally regarded werewolves more as tragic figures than anything else— whether it was black magic or a mad scientist or the bite of another lycanthrope that did the job, it certainly wasn’t the fault of the werewolf himself that he turned into a ravening monster from time to time. Joe Dante’s The Howling changed all that. Sure, there were still a few werewolf movies being made according to the traditional recipe, but once The Howling came along, it was like everybody in the business suddenly saw lycanthropy in a different light. Seemingly overnight, we had multiple werewolves, female werewolves, werewolves in the army, werewolf cults, werewolf secret societies— even marsupial werewolves, for the love of Artemis! Not only that, for the first time ever, the special effects artisans employed on the sets of werewolf movies began making consistent good-faith efforts to make their monsters bear some recognizable resemblance to wolves. The Howling deserved to be a trend-setting film, too. Though some fifteen years’ worth of mostly worthless sequels have made this somewhat difficult to believe, the first entry in the series is among the very best movies yet made on the subject of lycanthropy, and remains so even if we take no specific notice of the way in which it reinvented the subgenre practically from the ground up.
The first reel is deliberately disorienting, skillfully crafted with an eye toward keeping the audience at least one step behind the action until it’s ready to get down to business. Gradually, it becomes apparent that Los Angeles is being plagued by a brutal serial killer, and that Karen White (Dee Wallace, from The Hills Have Eyes and Critters), anchorwoman for the KDHB evening news, may have been targeted as his next victim. Some time ago, a man calling himself Eddie (976-EVIL’s Robert Picardo, in a role that’s light years removed from his long-running gig as the holographic doctor on “Star Trek: Voyager”) got in touch with Karen, asking her to meet him for a little one-on-one chat, leaving all kinds of unnerving hints when he did so that he was the one who has been murdering and chewing on women in one of the poorer, scummier neighborhoods in the city. Karen has agreed to meet up with Eddie; what she hasn’t told her mysterious caller is that she’ll be wearing a wire, and that the KDHB news crew and the LAPD will be monitoring her every move on the night of the rendezvous. White’s husband, ex-college football hero Bill Neil (Christopher Stone, of Cujo and The Notorious Cleopatra), doesn’t like the idea one bit, but her boss, station manager Fred W. Francis (Invitation to Hell’s Kevin McCarthy, better remembered for his turn in Invasion of the Body Snatchers), is beside himself with ratings-driven glee. Things don’t work out quite the way Francis envisions, however. When Karen finds the telephone booth marked with the yellow smiley sticker that serves as his calling card, Eddie rings her up with directions to a porn shop, where she is to wait for him in the similarly labeled peepshow booth. (Pay attention to the guy who comes in to use the phone after Karen— that’s Roger Corman rifling the change slot for unclaimed nickels!) Eddie turns out already to be in the peep booth, and while he makes Karen watch a rape-themed hardcore short, he launches into a spiel which strongly implies that something not too dissimilar to what’s happening on the screen will soon befall the news reader herself. Eventually, Eddie tells Karen to turn around and look at him; the glare from the projector makes it impossible to make out his features in any detail, but there’s definitely something wrong about them, just as there is something wrong about his voice when he gives her that final instruction. A pair of cops (tipped off by the eavesdropping news crew) burst in and lay Eddie out with their sidearms just as he makes his move.
In the weeks to come, Karen suffers from traumatic amnesia, unable to remember anything about what happened in that peepshow booth, except in terrifying fragments that haunt her dreams. She freezes up on camera when she tries to return to work, she freaks out whenever Bill goes to kiss or otherwise expresses any sexual interest in her, and in general, she gets her close friends, Terry (Belinda Balaski, from Piranha and Food of the Gods) and Christopher (Dennis Dugan, of Night Call Nurses), terribly worried about her. Eventually, Chris and Terry talk Karen into seeing celebrity psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick MacNee, from Incense for the Damned and Waxwork), who in turn convinces her to go on sabbatical at the Colony, the mental health spa which he maintains in rural Llandwelly County at the northern end of the state. Karen just hopes her fellow campers aren’t all going to be weird.
That there is what you call “famous last words.” Even for Northern California, the Colony is a great place to meet weirdos (especially if you’re looking for weirdos named after directors of old werewolf flicks). There’s Earle Kelton (John Carradine, from The Bees and The Ice Pirates), the histrionic old man whose favorite ploy for attention is to make public attempts at self-immolation. There’s the long-suffering Jerry Warren (James Murtaugh) and his wife, Donna (Margie Impert), the latter of whom had cycled through every quack psychotherapy craze of the last ten years before tucking herself under Dr. Waggner’s wing. (In fact, considering how much energy The Howling expends on genre in-jokes, I’m surprised that Donna doesn’t name-drop Psychoplasmics when she rattles off the litany of her previous efforts at psychic self-improvement.) There’s wannabe cattle rancher Charlie Barton (Noble Willingham). And to cap it all off, there’s the asocial and nymphomaniacal Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks, of Deep Space), who lives in the most isolated, dilapidated cabin in the Colony with her feral and bestial brother, T.C. (Don McLeod), and who openly comes on to Bill Neil the moment they cross paths for the first time. (Bill: “I’m looking for my wife.” Marsha: “Why?”) These are the people with whom Karen will be having encounter groups and therapy sessions and whatever the hell else goes on during a stay in a trendy fad psychiatry camp. No wonder she doesn’t seem to be making much headway on her recovery.
In point of fact, staying at the Colony looks to be increasing Karen’s stress level. As Bill so eloquently puts it, Karen White grew up in Los Angeles— the wildest thing she ever heard was Wolfman Jack. Consequently, she finds it extremely unnerving to wake up each night to the howling of wolves or coyotes or maybe just feral dogs. Her worries are thrown into sharper relief when she and Donna find the mutilated carcasses of several of Charlie Barton’s cattle in the wee hours of one morning, after a particularly vigorous chorus of howling. The scale of the damage to the dead cows’ bodies fairly obviously rules out anything as innocuous as coyotes or a pack of wild dogs. Donna calls in county sheriff Sam Newfield (Slim Pickens, from The Swarm and The Black Hole), and Sam temporarily deputizes just about every male in the Colony for a big wolf hunt; the only thing any of the Great White Hunters ends up shooting is the rabbit Bill bags while the sweep of the forest is winding down. At T.C.’s suggestion, Bill brings the dead bunny around to the cabin for Marsha to skin, clean, and cook, and while he’s there, Marsha makes another play to get into his pants. Bill isn’t having it, even despite the current sorry state of his marriage, and he rushes back to the cottage where he and Karen are staying. Before he gets there, though, he is waylaid and bitten by some gigantic, wolf-like animal, which strangely breaks off its attack after taking a little piece out of his right bicep, even though it has Bill completely at its mercy.
Karen calls Terry for moral support the next day, and the latter woman hurries over to the Colony regardless of the resulting interruption to the project she and Christopher have been working on since the night of Karen’s run-in with the killer the press is now calling “Eddie the Mangler.” The two reporters had managed to locate Eddie’s apartment, which they found full of strange trophies constructed from feathers, bones, and preserved animal parts, the walls covered almost completely with newspaper clippings detailing his killing spree and shockingly accomplished drawings of shaggy, pointy-eared beast-people. From the signatures on the drawings, Terry and Christopher discovered the killer’s full name, and they have managed to sell Fred Francis on the idea of broadcasting a special report to be called “The Mind of Eddie Quist.” Taking a cue from Quist’s drawings, they plan on approaching the subject from an “animal in man” angle, and with that in mind, they’ve spent the past couple of weeks researching werewolf lore at an occult bookshop downtown. Evidently they’re not the only ones with an interest in the subject, either, for the proprietor (Dick Miller, who would later play similar small parts in Night of the Creeps and The Terminator) mentions that another customer recently had him order a box of custom-made, solid-silver rifle bullets! But the strangest thing their investigation has uncovered is the disappearance of Quist’s body from its locker in the morgue. With all that going on in the background, it gives both Terry and Christopher a weird little twinge when they hear about Bill getting bitten by a wolf out at the Colony. Terry gets a hell of a lot more than a little twinge during the next couple of days; when she realizes that one of Eddie’s drawings depicts the ocean as seen from the Colony, she begins a second investigation which will eventually prove to her that werewolves are real, that Eddie Quist was one of them, and that Marsha and T.C. are his equally lycanthropic siblings. Marsha, meanwhile, has brought Bill into the fold, and unless Terry misses her guess, Dr. Waggner is in on the secret, too. Terry hasn’t figured out the half of it, though, and she, Karen, and Christopher will have much need of those silver bullets lying unclaimed at the occult bookstore before all is said and done.
There is one obvious respect in which The Howling simply wouldn’t have been possible before the early 1980’s. The technology necessary to produce Rob Bottin’s credibly lupine werewolves, to say nothing of the astounding (if also improbably time-consuming) transformation scene that accompanies Eddie the Mangler’s reentry into the story, just didn’t exist until a few years before The Howling was made. The passage of time has handled a few of the special effects a bit roughly (for example, it no longer looks at all convincing when the severed paw of one werewolf transforms before our eyes into a shamelessly rubbery human hand), but Bottin’s work was still wowing audiences ten years later, and even today, the majority of the set-pieces are awfully impressive.
More important, though, is the fact that director Joe Dante was not content merely to make a conventional werewolf movie with state-of-the-art special effects, the way John Landis was at about the same time. While An American Werewolf in London differs little in terms of plot or premise from the likes of The Wolf Man and The Undying Monster, The Howling forges boldly on into unexplored territory. It posits an entire underground society of werewolves, complete with squabbling factions of bleeding-heart liberals (who want to coexist with humans in peaceful secrecy) and militant traditionalists (who just want to hunt, kill, and eat them). It incorporates the psychosexual insights of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (you don’t get much more Freudian than Bill and Marsha turning into animals while having sex in the middle of the woods) in a manner more in keeping with the permissive grindhouse sensibility left over from the 70’s, putting a carnal spin on lycanthropy that even such deliberately unconventional films as The Curse of the Werewolf had only hinted at. It goes its own way with werewolf lore, weaving the Medieval tradition together with that of Hollywood to create something that is simultaneously familiar and (at least at the time) unique. And best of all, it does not go where you expect it to. There are faults, to be sure, especially in the acting department— most noticeably, Elisabeth Brooks is much better at slipping out of her dress than she is at delivering a line of dialogue, and some of Dee Wallace’s descents into hysteria are more laughable than anything else— but on the whole, The Howling is such a potent reworking of its age-old subject that it’s easy enough to understand how it could spawn six or more sequels over the next fifteen years. What isn’t so easy to figure is how precipitously those sequels declined from their starting point. We’ll talk about that some other time, though.