Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Gary Brandner (based on his novel), John Sayles (screenplay), Terence H. Winkless (screenplay)
Starring Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Belaski, John Carradine, Dick Miller, Slim Pickens, & Elisabeth Brooks
It’s debatable, but THE HOWLING is probably the best werewolf film ever made. I say this, knowing that there will be others who will tout WOLFEN or SILVER BULLET or AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON as such. And on some days, I agree that all of those are damn fine werewolf films. But THE HOLWING almost gets it all right, in my book.
I say this after rewatching THE HOWLING for this column and realizing that director Joe Dante seems to be taking this deadly serious one minute, then switching gears and winking to the camera the next. How he can follow an ending so powerful as Dee Wallace wolfs out on camera for the world to see and then follow with an actor winking to the camera and saying a bad pun is beyond me. It’s one of those last moments in a film that almost ruins the entire experience. There are quite a few of these moments in THE HOWLING where some moment of ultra heft is torn asunder by a quirky coincidence that Universal’s WOLF MAN or Loony Toons’ THREE LITTLE PIGS is playing on the television as a real werewolf is attacking someone. It’s almost as if Dante didn’t have the courage to make a serious examination of man’s more primal side, so every time there’s a moment of real fear or depth involving this fascinating theme, he guffaws and reminds the audience that this is just a movie. To me, that proved to be the sole frustrating aspect of this otherwise awesome werewolf film.
I mean, John freakin’ Sayles wrote the screenplay of this one. I’m sure the dingy themes of animalistic sex and violence and man’s psychologically darker side come from his input. Having this film start out as a reporter (Karen White played to perfection by Dee Wallace) confronts her stalker in one of the worst stakeouts ever performed by an inept policeman is some pretty heavy stuff. She meets this heavy breathing stalker in a porn shop back room with a rape movie playing on the screen. This is a grimy scene of absolute abandonment of everything that makes us human played out to perfection. Dante’s camera doesn’t blink as the stalker forces the stalkee to watch this deplorable act on screen, then loses control himself and begins to turn into something monstrous. Upon watching this scene again, I realized that had Dante wanted to go there, he could have really made a film dissecting the animalistic side of humanity and how it’s in all of us.
And for the most part, he does that. There’s a psychologist spouting psychobabble: “repression is the father of neurosis…self hatred.” are the first words of THE HOWLING, followed by the psychologist’s suggestion that Karen take in some nature and go to a retreat called “The Colony.” There they meet quirky and wholesome characters alike, but things start to dog-eared pretty quickly and soon Karen’s husband is scrogging a nymphomaniac she-wolf (played by Elisabeth Brooks) by the fire and the supposedly deceased stalker who she confronts in the beginning shows up for round two.
Though I was disappointed that the heft was lightened most of the time, this is a fantastic film nevertheless. There are a lot of fun little cameos in this film, too. Slim Pickens plays the backwoods sheriff who spits tobaccy, eats beans from a can, and sings out heeds and warnins’ and no-never-minds to the city-folk. John Carradine is a suicidal local old timer. Dick Miller shows up as an occult shop owner who serves as Mr. Exposition and explains the rules of lycanthropy–but it’s Miller delivering his usual gruff charm, so despite the heavy handed way of explaining these rules, it’s still fun to watch.
The effects in THE HOWLING are wholly unique. One of the old werewolf film standbys is the transformation sequence. It’s the point of the film where everything narrative skids to a halt and everyone (screaming woman witness included) stops everything to wonder at the special effects the FX wizard came up with to make this transformation unique from all others. I have to say, the transformation scene in THE HOWLING is impressive. Rob Bottin did a fantastic job of making the central transformation piece unique with clothes ripping, craniums de-and reforming, muscles quivering and expanding. As a spectacle and an example of what your FX team can do, it is a marvel to behold. But as a point in the narrative, it’s excessive and does get a bit ridiculous as Dee Wallace stares and stares and screams and quivers and stares and screams and stares as this vivid and detailed transformation happens over the span of two or three minutes. Not until the very end of the transformation does she act by tossing a jar of acid into the werewolf’s face. I would have beat feet at convulsion one. Later, everyone begins this transformation as the hero easily picks them off with a rifle. Apparently, aside from and allergy to silver bullets, werewolves tend to have these epileptic spasms prior to transformation which puts them in a ridiculously vulnerable spot, and allows the intended pray to a) run off, b) blow you away with a gun, or c) stand and stare like a deer in the headlights. In most werewolf films, c is the most popular option which to me is beyond annoying.
Dee Wallace really deserves credit for shooting for the moon with this role as the lead. She has a wholesomeness that mixes strength with vulnerability that stays consistent throughout the film. Though after everyone knows werewolves exist, it sort of turns into an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/FREAKS ”one of us” typical scenario where everyone seems to be a werewolf, Wallace is the constant that brings a quality of acting to the role that I don’t think many others could have done.
I know I spent a lot of time talking about what annoys me with THE HOWLING, but I guess you’re hardest on the ones you love. There are moments where THE HOWLING teeters on the brink of awesome and debates whether or not it wants to dive in to the well of poignancy regarding a dissection of what separates man from beast, but just at the last minute, it decides to wink at the camera and say “It’s only a moobie” instead. Because of that, THE HOWLING is a classic that I love with all my heart, but frustrates me at the same time.