Hungry Like the Wolf: “The Howling”

May 12, 2010

So, I’ve been meaning to watch The Howling for a while now. It’s been sitting there in that red envelope for about a month, but I had this problem with my DVD player, and then I got sent to KL. I was going to bring it with me and watch it there, but then I…okay, I’m rambling a bit here. Let’s just cut to the chase: This is an awesome movie. Every time I bitch and moan about how some dumb genre movie has disappointed me–and you’re tempted to think that I’m just being overly-critical, or maybe I’m quitting smoking, or need to get some–watch this movie. This is precisely what Hollywood is seemingly incapable of producing anymore: a fun, effective, entertaining movie.

The Howling begins like one of those crime-in-the-city movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s as anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace-Stone) ventures into a scuzzy, porno-district of L.A. in pursuit of a serial killer who has been feeding her clues to his identity. Karen is wired for sound, with her news colleagues and LAPD detectives listening in, but the excessive neon in the neighborhood effectively blocks reception. Thus, they are completely cut off when she steps into a flick-show booth with the killer, a man named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). Something happens in the booth, and Karen’s screams bring some nearby LAPD officers to the scene, one of whom opens fire into the door to the booth (nice to see the LAPD’s use of force continuum remains consistent), killing the unseen menace.

Karen tries to return to work, but is too freaked out by her experiences to project the appropriate vapidity at the camera. More ominously, she has no knowledge of what happened in that booth. At the behest of her fuzzy-headed therapist (Patrick Macnee), Karen and her boyfriend  Bill (Christopher Stone—Dee’s then-fiancé) to a  therapeutic resort in Northern California called The Colony.

It turns out to be filled with werewolves.

Sorry, my attention span just evaporated there. But yeah, The Howling is a werewolf movie. I mean, what else would be about? Some dumbass Allen Ginsberg tribute? What else howls? The movie’s 30 years old, and you haven’t managed to figure out that it’s about werewolves? What’s wrong with you?

But it’s such a good werewolf movie, and on so many levels. As a pure horror flick it more than delivers the goods. From its urban-noir beginning to its mist-enshrouded climax, this is a movie that know precisely how to hits its beats.  Much of this is due to the sheer filmmaking craftsmanship of director Joe Dante, who knows both how move the story along and make each scene resonate and is described by one actor on the DVD commentary as a director who mentally storyboarded movies since he was a kid. The movie is never boring, never padded, never rushed.  But it also looks perfect. On top of all that, Dante finds the perfect tongue-in-cheek tone, parceling out chuckles amid the screams in perfect proportions (watch for the cameo from Roger Corman where he looks for forgotten quarters in a payphone–probably pulling together a budget for his next movie).

The Howling, like The Stuff and Outland, is a throwback to a time when movies had actual work put into them. Even a modestly-budgeted horror flick of modest expectations had guys with genuine chops behind the helm. Alongside Dante, you have screenwriting great John Sayles banging out the script (simultaneous with his script for Alligator as it happens). Sayles would take his swag from Alligator, The Howling, and Piranha and go off and make a career out of writing and directing quiet personal dramas. So it’s really no wonder that the dialogue crackles, even if Sayles cranked out the creature-schlock strictly for the money (he’s not bad in front of the camera, either, as a laconic medical examiner).

Dante’s picture is also filled with greats journeymen actors. Along with the Stones and Macnee (the proven elements), you’ve got Slim Pickens, James Murtaugh (the guy from the old A1 commercials as well as a million other bit parts),Kevin McCarthy, and  the ever-reliable Dennis Dugan. Hell just check out this scene with Dante-regular Dick Miller:

As the seductive she-wolf Marsha, the late Elisabeth Brooks is ridiculously sexy. She’s not much of an actress, but then again, she doesn’t really need to be—she just needs to melt the screen when she takes off her clothes—which she more than capably does.

Finally, you have the sheer genius of Rob Bottin’s transformation sequences, which were an epochal leap forward in special effects. Until then, werewolf films typically used time-lapse effects to suggest transformation. Bottin managed to show a person transform with no cutaways by utilizing small air-bladders (actually condoms—“new condoms” Picardo helpfully points out) to give the illusion of flesh and bone radically changing shape. They single-handed stop the film short and managed to scare the hell out of me when I was nine.

Almost nothing good was born of The Howling. The movie spawned six truly atrocious sequels that retained none of the original cast or creative team. Bottin’s effects would be swept away by the uninspired sterility of CGI. Dante and Sayles had some successes, but mostly remain rarified tastes. Mid-range movies like The Howling have pretty much ceased to exist—as Dante himself points out in the DVD commentary, there are no medium-budget movies anymore. Oh, and werewolves have become real pussies.

Still, Hollywood got it all right one time, and it’s worth a look back when they did.

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