September 26, 2008
The Howling (1981)
Shapeshifters, the mythical creatures able to transform their bodies from human to the one of an animal, have been an important part of the world's folklore since the origin of mankind. Among those legendary creatures, werewolves have always been very popular, evolving to the point of being nowadays an icon of horror fiction thanks to the movies made about them. George Waggner's "The Wolf Man", starring Lon Chaney was probably the most influential of all, as almost single-handedly it created the basis for the modern werewolf's myths; however, in 1981 three movies appeared that revolutionized the werewolf in film, giving the creature a brand new set of fangs: Michael Wadleigh's "Wolfen", John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London", and this movie: Joe Dante's "The Howling". The fresh and original spin that these three movies gave to the werewolf's myths has proved to be enormously influential, and it's safe to say that 1981 was the year of the wolf.
Dee Wallace plays Karen White, a journalist who has become the new target of infamous serial killer named "Eddie" (Robert Picardo). Working with the police in the case, she gets traumatized after a near fatal encounter with the killer (which ends with the police killing Eddie), so she is ordered to take a vacation in order to recover from the shock. In Dr. Waggner's (Patrick Macnee) colony, she finds some tranquility and relaxation, however, she also finds that something is wrong with the other inhabitants of the resort. Unfortunately, she can't count with her husband Bill (Christopher Stone), as he as been seduced by one of them (Elisabeth Brooks), breaking their marriage; however, this will be the lesser of her problems as she unveils the secret behind the Colony's existence and the true nature of its inhabitants.
While the movie is based on Gary Brandner's novel of the same name, it has to be said that most of the film's charm comes actually from writer John Sayles (Dante's regular collaborator), who took on Terence H. Winkless's early screenplay and gave it his very own touch, adding a subtle spice of black comedy and nice tributes to the history of werewolves in film. However, not everything was changed from the novel, as Brandner's erotic and brutal re-imagining of the werewolf is still overtly present in the story, giving the film its characteristic sleaze. The plot is very well developed, playing with the natural mystery and suspense of Bradner's story, although it's safe to say that it lacks good development of several supporting characters. Still, it can be said that while different, John Sayles's version of "The Howling" is a nice adaptation of the now classic horror novel.
Right after directing three of Roger Corman's better known cult classics from the 70s, director Joe Dante arrived to the project with his very own idea of what he wanted for the movie. Dante shows in "The Howling" a big talent for creating haunting atmospheres, as well as a complete understanding of the satirical tone of Sayles' (another of Corman's former protegés) script. Cleverly using a wide variety of special effects (from Rob Bottin's awesome make-up to different kinds of animation), Dante makes a wonderfully film that certainly looks better than movies with bigger budgets. However, in a film not everything is about good special effects, and Dante knows it, so he keeps his monsters hidden during most of the film's runtime, in order to effectively showing them up in a couple of remarkable climatic scenes.
While nothing surprising, the cast as a whole is very effective and truly better than the average for horror movies. As Karen White, Dee Wallace delivers a very good performance and carries the film with dignity. Christopher Stone is one of the bad seeds in the cast, as his performance is probably the weakest of the movie, and actually hurts the film. Dennis Dugan and Belinda Balaski play Karen's friends, and both are excellent in their roles, specially Balaski. Among the supporting cast we find excellent performances by Patrick Macnee, Elisabeth Brooks and Don McLeod. Legendary actors John Carradine and Slim Pickens appear in small but memorable roles that like most characters are named after horror legends. Overall, one could say that despite some exceptions, the cast is quite good and manage to shine despite some poor development of minor characters.
Like the ones used in Landis' film, the special effects of "The Howling" are without a doubt some of the most celebrated works in this filed, and certainly one of the highlights of the movie. While a bit too dark (and oddly with that glossy, shiny look so typical of the 80s films), cinematography by John Hora is appropriate, as it gives the story a nightmarish surreal look, similar to the one given to 1941's classic "The Wolf Man". Pino Donaggio's original score for the movie is good, although sometimes too eclectic, with some parts working perfectly while others feeling definitely out of place in the story. Sadly, even when "The Howling" is definitely an almost flawless film, it has earned a terrible reputation due to the awful quality of its sequels, which have gone downhill ever since "The Howling II" was released.
Among horror fans there is always the question about which of the three werewolf movies of 1981 is the truly best, and while personally I feel inclined to say that "An American Werewolf in London" is the one, Joe Dante's "The Howling" is, in my opinion, a very underrated classic that despite the constant release of bad sequels, has kept its magic intact all those years. This film is really top-notch horror, and a movie worth to check out, not only for horror fans.
Buy "The Howling" (1981)