Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #68
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: April 10, 1981
Sub-Genre: Werewolf/Black Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $17,985,893
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Joe Dante
Producers: Michael Finnell, Jack Conrad
Screenplay: John Sayles, Terence H Winkless
Based on The Howling by Gary Brandner
Special Effects: Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, Roger Beswick, Roger George
Cinematography: John Hora
Score: Pino Donaggio
Editing: Mark Goldblatt, Joe Dante
Studio: Avco Embassy Pictures, International Film Investors, Wescom Productions
Distributor: Avco Embassy Pictures
Stars: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Elisabeth Brooks, Margie Impert, Noble Willingham, James Murtaugh, Don McLeod, Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Roger Corman, Mick Garris
Suggested Audio Candy:
Pino Donaggio The Howling
I have to start my appraisal for The Howling, as always, with sincerity. For as much as I would love to report that my revisiting this superior piece of werewolf folklore is indebted of a spot of intellectual chin-stroking, it’s nothing that cerebral. The truth is, I was loitering on the web with the usual intent, and I came across its wonderful poster art.
I also recall fondly that wonderful still of a wolf’s silhouette as it closes in on its quivering prey. That screenshot adorned the reverse of Embassy Video’s UK VHS sleeve and served perfectly to cement my desire. There are very precious pictorials committed to memory that stick quite so prominently in my mind than those of Joe Dante’s howl-fest and the seduction stretches back to 1981 when it hit video store shelves. Indeed, it beats both John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves to the punch on account of those two magnanimous images.
Dante’s film has since had to suffer the indignity of preceding some of the most wayward, awkward and wasteful franchise movies of the entire horror spectrum. Granted, Philippe Mora’s Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch possesses a certain Z-grade charm (although I would imagine my opinion isn’t shared by many) but, by the time the same director returned to the crime scene to spew out the turgid The Marsupials: The Howling III, I was all out of sympathy votes.
As a self-confessed completionist, I have the painful task of sifting through the rubble to attempt some sort of constructive critique at some point. While I remain open to the vague notion of being pleasantly surprised as I hear that Hope Perello’s sixth entry Howling VI: The Freaks is the cream of a crop of sequels way past its harvest, I won’t be holding my breath. Of course, it will receive a fair tribunal like any other film but for now I’m happy to put it on the back burner with the similarly miserable Children of The Corn franchise.
Many things spring to mind when I call to the stand Dante’s growling beast. Firstly, and apologies for going ass about-face, the sight of the delicious Dee Wallace reading the news in our finale. Those stunning peepers would sit next to Meg Foster’s in a draw by my bedside and observe me as I pleasure myself regularly. The second distinguishing feature would have to be the glorious practical F/X of a certain Rick Baker as the transformation effects on display here are of the very highest caliber. Baker was actually named as a consultant but the truth is he opted to work on Landis’ movie instead. Thus, his understudy Rob Bottin took centre stage and did a marvellous job in his associate’s absence. Some of Baker’s magic clearly rubbed off although, in years to come, Bottin would step out of his master’s shadow and reach the pinnacle of his field on his own merits.
After their earlier collaboration on Piranha, Dante and John Sayles again joined forces, this time in far more intimidating fashion with a contemporary take on the werewolf tale, which manages to sidestep cliché and instead focus on lycanthropy folklore. The bipedal creatures are pretty terrifying although this is offset against sardonic satire of the blackest variety. There is a thick line of dark humor running right through its core and it works a charm, tempered by some truly unsettling moments. The Howling strikes the right balance between horror or comedy and never veers too far from either.
The spotlight is on news anchor Karen (Wallace), who attracts the attentions of a demented serial killer and unwittingly agrees to offer herself up as bait in a bid to bring him to justice. After the encounter goes awry she begins to suffer from lucid dreams and nebulous recollections of that night’s events. Taking the advice of her psychologist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick MacNee), she and her spouse Bill (Christopher Stone) head off to an out-of-the-way Californian commune, where they take up temporary residence in a therapy retreat.
Rather than assuaging her distress, things soon get even less salutary as she began to meet the locals, a collection of fruit cakes if ever I saw one. Also, the sound of titular moans from the dense adjoining forest and the seduction of her husband by one of the malevolent she-beasts compound her anguish. Thankfully, her kindly reporter pals Terry (Belinda Belaski) and Chris (Dennis Dugan) agree to help her unravel the mystery of the colony. Their discoveries do not come easy, but rather as a result of hard graft, open minds, and diligence. Alas, luck is at a severe premium.
Dante’s direction is sound and John Hora’s cinematography lends itself perfectly to creating a truly haunting atmosphere. Meanwhile, Sayles works wonders with his witty screenplay and, with Pino Donaggio on strings, there are capable hands everywhere you look. The entire cast is also in on the joke although they wisely resist the urge to veer towards campy. Wallace provides us with the perfect troubled heroine and both Elisabeth Brooks and Robert Picardo make for some wonderfully baleful scary villains.
Bottin performs miracles with his effects and, while never quite as masterful as Baker’s efforts for An American Werewolf in London, they still stand rather proudly alongside them. Meanwhile, the werewolves themselves are never ashamed of their heritage, disinterested in fitting in, and are content in the fog-shrouded woodlands. Indeed, the self-accepting lycanthropes of Dante’s film display none of the self-loathing normally associated with becoming hairy on the inside.
“I want to give you a piece of my mind”
The Howling also offers a damning indictment of the media and Dante explores the conception that the American public were so desensitized by that time that shock tactics became necessary for television to preserve viewing figures. Our news anchor desires to shout from the rooftops on her return but, in a society inundated by relentless mass broadcasting, she struggles to make her voice heard. Folk were too urbane to believe any claims she made showing how complacent and deeply cynical the social order had become by the eighties. However, amidst all this biting social commentary is a good old-fashioned werewolf movie. Forget about its sequels as they amount to little more than a petite pile of marsupial dung; but overlook the original at your own peril.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Rating: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: There is judicious gristle on the bones of Dante’s delectable dark fancy and some astounding shape-shifting to sink your incisors into also. The sight of Ricardo offering up a piece of his mind will forever be etched in my hippocampus and, as for the vision of Brooks disrobing by the fire, that gets put to good use every time my palms grow hairy. If David Naughton wishes to wake up each morning in London Zoo without a stitch of clothing on then that’s his business but, personally, I prefer staying at home in the warm confines of my own boudoir tugging myself senseless and howling at the moon.
Keeper of the Crimson Quill
Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2016)