When your film's co-written by indie icon John Sayles (who did quite a lot of genre writing for Roger Corman, among others in his early days), you know you're not going to get a straight-up werewolf film. And THE HOWLING is anything but that. You get your horror, but you also get a healthy dose of quasi-psychology/media satire/new age to go along with it, in a movie that (at least to my mind) sits as one of the more unique werewolf films made in recent history.
Genre vet Dee Wallace (CUJO, E.T.) plays Karen White, a television journalist who's been in contact with suspected serial killer Eddie Quist. The beginning of the movie works as a brilliantly styled horror film in itself, providing most of the THE HOWLING's predatory horror while simultaneously setting the stage for what's to come. Quist lures Karen, who's wearing a bug for the police, to a shady adult shop and attempts to kill her while simultaneously forcing her to watch violent porn. He won't let her look at him until he says, and when she does he's obscured by the bright light of the movie projector bulb. But it's obvious there's something not quite right with Eddie, and before he can kill her cops come in and shoot him dead. Director Joe Dante paints everything in the hues of the neon that marks the neighborhood, and the striking imagery of the porn, the mark of a Smiley Face to show Karen the way, and finally the glimpse of Quist, silhouetted by the projector bulb as he caresses Karen is outstanding, illuminating the entire sequence in a garish nightmare lighting that makes the terror more palpable, even as the colors appear more outlandish.
After the "death" of Eddie Quist, Karen begins to suffer from a sort of post traumatic stress and together with her husnband Bill (Christopher Stone) takes a leave from the station to visit the Colony, a "healing retreat" run by Dr. George Waggner, played by Patrick McNee with a knowing smile. And here's where the story picks up and heads to Wacky Town. Turns out the Colony is more than just an experiment in communal healing, it's also the home for a werewolf collective, and Dr. Waggner's true "experiment" is an attempt to have his kind live together on the outskirts of humanity's habitats. As Karen and Bill deal with life, love, and lust in the Colony, her friends Terry and Chris investigate Eddie Quist. They check out his body in morgue, only to find that he's mysteriously disappeared. Pictures of wolves and wolf-men adorn his shabby apartment. A picture of a lake turns out to match a location up in the Colony, and things start to come together.
Although the film is loosely based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, Dante and Salyes really go out on a limb to provide a werewolf movie that provides a little more substance that what we've seen before. 1981 seems like the year for intelligent werewolf movies, as THE HOWLING sits alongside both WOLFEN and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which came out the same year. But while WOLFEN looks toward spirituality and evolution for its substance, and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON speaks on a host of different topics (and is, not to mention, hilarious), THE HOWLING firmly rests in the balance, or lack thereof, between man's civilized nature versus his more animal, primal side. That it does this in an early 80s mainstream horror flick is no small feat, and is just indicative of the types of things Dante and Sayles would both go off to do separately later on in their careers.
Much is made of the practical effects for the transformations, courtesy of Rob Bottin, who would later trump himself with the excellent John Carpenter re-make of THE THING. Looking at it now, I was reminded of the effects Bottin employed for Dante in his segment of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, especially in still #2, where Quist's face takes on that maniacal grin:
Once fully transformed, the werewolves are suitably (ha!) impressive, standing on two legs with long, wolfish snouts as opposed to the Lon Chaney WOLF MAN look. But not everything is bladders and rubber masks. In one scene, as Karen's husband (having previously been bitten) is seduced by a sexy tooth-necklace she-wolf, their love-making induces a transformation, and as we see them by fire and moonlight we're treated to an animated sequence that means well, implying that Bill's (and ours) animal side takes over during sex, but ultimately now looks a little silly. It's just age, I guess - there are a lot of similar effect from older films (FORBIDDEN PLANET comes to mind) that I accept and believe fully, but in light of the great effect work Bottin does elsewhere in the film, this sequence is a bit rough.
Later on things at the Colony come to an inevitable head, as our heroes fight the entire Colony for their survival. We even get a little stop-motion for a few frames that doesn't detract from the film the way the animated sequence did. But Dante serves up his tastiest morsel at the end of the film, and it's a bit of mindfuck for me. With almost everyone dead, Karen and Chris (Terrie's boyfriend) escape, only Karen is bitten at the last minute. Desperate to inform the world of the existence of the beasts, she makes the decision to show the world by transforming ON AIR. It's a great moment, one that stuck in my head for years the first time I saw it. Time, however, plays a bit of a game with your head after so many hears, and I was surprised to find myself laughing when the big reveal happens:
Yes. Dee Wallace transforms into my grandmother's Lhasa Apso. It's one of those moments that you pray won't spoil the sense of dread and surprise THE HOWLING has been building towards all this time, but seeing it now, it's hard not to look and wonder what the reasoning was behind making Wallace look unlike any other werewolf we've seen up to this point.
Nothing, however, can spoil all the greatness THE HOWLING has to offer. I don't think it's Dante's best work by a long-shot, and I can't even say it's the best werewolf movie to come out in 1981 (that honor going to - surprise - AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON). But the ideas behind the movie, the great lighting and tension Dante sets up, especially in the fantastic opening sequence (something that on hindsight isn't really maintained to the same level of excellence throughout the rest of the film), and the effects by Rob Bottin all go a long way toward including this on any Midnight Movie marathon with your friends.