I love werewolf films. They are primal, carnivorous, sexually charged fantasies that are without peer. Now a days there are few worth talking about but back in the early eighties, they were the stuff of legend. We had never seen a man turn into an animal on screen before and in one year, we got two! An American Werewolf in London seems to be the more popular of the two. It has a sense of fun to it that is overt and entertaining with distracting from the horror. However, the other film is a more even and satisfying film that brings the horror and has an undercurrent of comedy for those that know how to watch it. I am talking about Joe Dante’s The Howling.
The Howling begins sleazy, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Karen White is a reporter, undercover in a dirty Los Angeles Red Light District, meeting with an alleged killer, Eddie Quist. He leads her by way of a series of Smiley faces, culminating in a meeting inside a jerk-booth. He wants her to watch a rough sex/rape movie while he explains his purpose. He seems to find a kindred spirit in Karen and wants to give her something. That doesn’t quite work out since Eddie ends up riddled with bullets. Karen escapes but not without her own mark. Eddie violated her, not physically, but the damage was done. After all, In Los Angeles the wildest thing she ever heard was Wolfman Jack (if you don’t know who Wolfman Jack was then google him)!
To get herself together, she follows the advice of local Dr. George Waggner and along with her husband Bill, heads up to the Doctor’s retreat, known as The Colony. What Karen finds there endangers everyone and everything she has ever known.
The Howling just may be the greatest werewolf film ever made and I stand by that statement. Often considered number 2 in the all-time greats category behind An American Werewolf in London, I have to disagree on the basis that the werewolf from American werewolf looks like a big shaggy dog and nothing more. Rob Bottin and Joe Dante’s classic werewolf design is not only a standout but has been copied time and again in one form or another. A ferocious, two legged man wolf that towers above its prey… man.
Another thing the howling brings to the table is werewolf lore. Though he’s only in a couple of scenes, Dick Miller brings another memorable character to the screen as bookstore owner Walter Paisley. Back in the day, Pasadena had lots of used bookstores that fit this bill, sadly now, there’s only one, and it doesn’t have quite as cool of an occult section. But that’s neither here nor there. In the film, Walter informs Karen’s friend and coworker, Christopher, about the nature of the werewolf and most importantly how to kill him. We’re giving back story and legend in a way that doesn’t stop the narrative that is a big plus.
The film is very serious with humor in the right places but if you are a serious werewolf fan, there’s a lot to make you smile. The characters names come from director is the werewolf films and many werewolf films and books are referenced and seen in the background.
I started by saying that the howling begins sleazy and I must say that the sleaze factor is an undercurrent throughout the film. How much of this has to do with Joe Dante’s tenure in the exploitation scene is debatable but undeniable.
The film opens in a porno bookstore and though the setting is not revisited again, the theme of rough sex, sexual bloodletting, and infidelity permeates the rest of the film. As a matter of fact, this film contains one of the greatest horror sex scenes of all time!When Eddie’s sister and nymphomaniac, Marsha, beds Karen’s husband Bill. They climax, not in orgasm, but in transformation. An eye popping scene that has been imitated but never duplicated.
In fact, the film follows the slasher formula in the sense that while all her friends are a fun-loving, sexually active individuals, our heroine Karen is rather uptight and virginal. Yet she’s married, yet she’s been through a traumatic experience, but the end result remains. She is the classic final girl, but with a twist.
The cast is fantastic. This was actually my introduction to Dee Wallace-Stone and she is so believable that I couldn’t help but take a journey through her eyes. Christopher Stone, looking very much like the “Brawny man” (from the paper towels), is likable enough without being overly sympathetic. Patrick Macnee owns the scenes he is in with his authoritative voice and commanding demeanor. You buy him as the leader in voice of the colony, but just like a pirate captain, he only retains his position as long as things are going well. The standout performance, in a way, is Robert Picardo as Eddie Quist. Though the part is relatively small, the character represents everything that the movie is about. Let me explain. It is a talented artist, a creative so to speak. He would be drawn to others of his ill like Karen, who been a reporter, is in the entertainment field. He is the dominating werewolf presence as well. It’s his transformation we witness, his showcased attack on Karen’s friend Terry Fisher, and ultimately he is the catalyst for the film in the first place. In a way, he actually succeeds in his original goal. At the being of the film he wants to turn Karen into a werewolf, though this is stated at the time. His goal is to give her his gift because he is drawn to her, he sees something in her. Though he fails at the time, it is widely believed that is one of his family, if not him, that bites Karen’s husband Bill cursing him with lycanthropy. It is Bill who ends up biting Karen, finally cursing her as well. So Eddie’s blood line flows through her veins.
Though we’ve had a lot of werewolf films come out this year, none of them compare to The Howling or any werewolf film from that era. Since CGI has taken over classic special makeup effects are a rarity and I’m sorry but werewolf films don’t work with CGI. Now just to be clear, blurring the line by using special makeup effects enhanced with CGI, I’m all for. With CGI only effects as it Van Helsing or, hell, even Full Eclipse do nothing but destroy whatever performance that the actor has brought to the character with thus far. Okay I’ll get off my soapbox now.
The Howling is a film that gets better each time you watch it. It gets a little sleazier, a little funnier, as you examine more of each frame. This film does it demand repeat viewings but encourages them in the machine the experience each time. After all, very few films get better each time you pop them in.
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