The Howling (1981) / Horror-Mystery
MPAA rated R for strong violence, gore, nudity, sexuality, and language
Running time: 91 min.
Cast: Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, Dennis Duggan, Patrick Macnee, Belinda Balaski, Robert Picardo, Elisabeth Brooks, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Dick Miller, Meshach Taylor
Cameo: Roger Corman, Robert A. Burns, John Sayles
Director: Joe Dante
Screenplay: John Sayles, Terry H. Winkless (based on the book by Gary Brandner)
Review published October 25, 2011
Los Angeles TV newswoman Karen White's (Wallace, 10) latest expose sees her involved with the police trying to crack the case of the city's most dangerous serial killer, the mysterious Eddie Quist (Picardo, Explorers). Unknown to Karen, when she has the culprit cornered, Eddie reveals a secret so terrifying that she blocks out the memory of it, only coming out during the perpetual nightmares she experiences long after the event. Her New Age shrink (Macnee, A View to a Kill) tells her she needs to get away, sending her and hubby Bill (Wallace's future real-life husband, Stone, Cujo) to a California coastal resort called "The Colony", for some R&R and cathartic healing with her fellows. But the nightmares not only continue, they get worse, as the creepy locals and the persistent howls she hears at night have Karen spooked beyond her wits. It turns out the Colony is not a support group retreat so much as a breeding ground for werewolves, and they have their eyes set on their newest prey.
Horror movie fanboy Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace) continues with the tongue-in-cheek horror b-movie genre, coming after Roger Corman's Piranha, with another relatively low budget endeavor that benefited from the creepy special effects that were, for its time, effective. Today, the effects are quaint and might even generate snickers from younger viewers who've grown up on nearly seamless CGI transformations to werewolves, such that, even with the once effective shot, crafted by effects artist Rob Bottin (The Fog, The Thing), of Quist transforming from human to wolf, can seem overly dramatic, drawn out, and not entirely convincing when seen through the jaded eyes of today's horror frequenters. That it goes on for, literally, minutes will just have viewers laugh, questioning why Karen waits around for the transformation to complete before taking any action whatsoever.
Film-buffs, particularly those versed in horror, will enjoy this rather common werewolf story more than most, as the script, co-written by Piranha scribe John Sayles (Lone Star, Limbo), who also has a small role as a morgue attendant, contains a plethora of homage and copious in-jokes to cinematic werewolf flicks of the past. Casting Invasion of the Body Snatchers' Kevin McCarthy and The Thing (from Another World)'s Kenneth Tobey is worth the price of admission for those in the know, and these fans may also delight at the small cameos by Roger Corman and Dick Miller. For others, it's relatively mild stuff, as without being in on the joke, this is a surprisingly routine outing, based very loosely on the book by Gary Brandner, that follows a predictable plot throughout, and makes very little sense if given even a moment of deep thought, though it does end with good humor and directorial zip.
What Joe Dante has essentially created is his own B-movie that knows it is a B-movie, and is a reverent throwback to other such low-budget shockers he grew up on. The best part of the film comes from the subtle satire on New Age beliefs, in which the cure for one's anxieties is not to suppress one's baser emotions, but to let them out -- and the werewolves know the cure for what ails us all. It's not terribly scary as horror flicks go, and the monsters look more menacing than they seem to be, but there are shocks, titillation, and a few good laughs to placate those looking for low-rent fare.
-- Followed by Howling II (1985), Howling III (1987), Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988), Howling V: The Rebirth (1989), Howling VI: The Freaks (1991), Howling: New Moon Rising (1995), The Howling Reborn (2011)
©2011 Vince Leo