It’s not even up for debate that 1981 was emphatically the year of the Werewolf. Not only did it see the release of lycanthope pack alpha, An American Werewolf In London and interesting also-ran Wolfen, it also boasted Joe Dante’s The Howling, a fanged, shaggy satire on 80’s life that seems to enternally rank silver compared to American Werewolf’s gold. While silver may not initially sound like the best element to represent a werewolf considering their vulnerability to that particular metal, coming in second place isn’t so bad when you realise that this particular moon howler is not only the second greatest werewolf movie made in 1981, but it’s also the second greatest werewolf made, period.
Witty, original and deftly turning the genre on it’s head, prepare to enter the Colony and experience a movie that will give you paws for thought…
News anchor Karen White is helping bring in a serial killer who is fixated on her in a sting that ends in a hail of bullets at a porn theater. The killer, the bestial Eddie Quist, catches a couple of lead pills on the brain pan and his reign of terror seems to be mercifully over, but the traumatic events leave Karen in a highly emotional state so her therapist, Dr Waggner recommends she and her husband spend some time at a psychiatric retreat dubbed the Colony.
While Karen is introduced to the various kooky characters there and her husband Bill tries to avoid local neumatic nymphomaniac Marsha, two of Karen’s work friends, Terri and Chris continue building a profile on Quist for an upcoming news profile only to discover that his body has gone mysteriously missing from the morgue. Meanwhile, after rebuffing Marsha’s latest come on, Bill is attacked in the woods by a large wolf who bites the crap out of his arm, but despite Karen’s growing uneasiness with the Colony, Dr. Waggner convinces her to stay so the increasingly nervous woman asks Terri to come keep her company. It’s at this point that the Colony’s secrets start to unravel faster than Marsha’s underwear as it turns out that everyone at the Colony – including Dr. Waggner – is actually a werewolf and they’re all relying on him to help Purge them of their old ways to better blend in with modern living. Worse yet, Eddie Quist used to be a resident and because standard issue ammo for cops ain’t silver bullets, the evil fucko is still alive and has a fateful meeting with Terri who has just figured everything out. Hoping to bring Karen and her husband into the pack in order to keep her brush with Quist’s lycanthopy a secret, the pack nevertheless has been fracturing within with a sizable contingent longing for the old days. With help on the way in the form of Chris, a rifle and some expensive looking bullets, can Karen survive this lupine conspiracy after her husband finally falls for Marsha’s wolfy wiles?
Smartly co-scripted by John Sayles who also gave us lashings of social commentary alongside things that want to fucking eat you with Piranha and Alligator, The Howling manages to pull off the neat trick of feeling like a classic monster movie while still feeling contemporary and fresh (for the 80’s anyway). Huge credit for this obviously must go to director Joe Dante who’s talent for melding his love for old school horror (too many cameos and film clips to list) with funky weird concepts frustratingly got sidelined after he hit the big time with Gremlins. Up to that point he was pretty hardcore, with The Howling featuring a surprisingly cruel edge when it comes to the sexual appetite of it’s free spirited werewolves. Whether it’s Eddie Quist’s upsetting proclivity for watching brutal S&M movies in in the wank tank of a porno store (deeply uncomfortable when you add in a wide-eyed Karen), to the movie’s ballsy attempt and fitting in a full blow Werewolf sex scene as Marsha and a weak-willed Bill transform as they rut in the woods (if you have a personal distaste for copious body hair, you’d better skip the scene, pronto).
However, for every thing that sets it apart, you just can’t help comparing it to John Landis’ landmark rival – while Dante jokely plays with werewolf mythology, Landis upends it; while Dante goes for subtle chuckles, Landis goes for big belly laughs and when the former goes for it’s big transformation scene, the differences between the two movies couldn’t be more apparent.
American Werewolf gave effects deity Rick Baker an impossible task to realise a man transforming into a wolf before your very eyes in bright light with virtually no cutaways – in comparison, Rob Bottin’s attempt, while easily just as professional and far more stylised, simply didn’t break the mold because it’s shot far more traditionally.
And that’s the whole thing; The Howling is generally (and unfairly) treated as being “inferior” because American Werewolf’s innovation has prevented it from dating itself as severely while The Howling’s perceived adherence to conventions make it often seem more than a little cheesy but in actuality it has the far crazier plot.
It’s also got fucking awesome werewolves as well (surprisingly important in a werewolf movie as I’m sure you’ll agree), big, towering bipedal bastards with the dental work of a jagged cliff face and drool glands that could go toe to toe with the Alien any day of the week. They’re truly impressive beasts, intelligent and aggressive and the magnificent array of character actors enlisted to portray the inhabitants of the Colony are as eccentric as the characters they portray with names like Robert Picardo, Patrick Macnee, John Carradine and Slim Pickins filling up the cast and it’s a shame that Dee Wallace’s lead is one of those female character’s that errs on the hysterical side with Belinda Balaski’s Terri proving to be a far more spunky prospect, but then Karren is supposed to be mentally fragile due to her experiences with Quist, so I guess it gets a pass.
What doesn’t get a pass is The Howling’s impressively awful legacy which boasts one of the most shitty franchises in horror history, something that’s undoubtably also been an anchor around it’s pelt for decades, but Dante can hardly be blamed for that…
Sometimes seemingly flawed due to some unavoidable dating of it’s contents (the werewolf transformation in the final scene has always looked like a giant fucking pomeranian to me and always will), but The Howling deserves far better recognition for being a sharply cynical monster mash that matches it’s teeth and claws with a wit that cuts to the bone far deeper.
Wolf it up.