Monday, May 6, 2024

THE HOWLING (1981)

Director: Joe Dante

Writers: John Sayles, Terence H. Winkless, adapting the novel by Gary Brandner

Producers: Michael Finnell, Jack Conrad

Cast: Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, Patrick Macnee, Belinda Balaski, Dennis Dugan, Elisabeth Brooks, Robert Picardo, Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, Slim Pickens, Margie Impert, James Murtaugh, John Carradine, Don McLeod, Kenneth Tobey, Jim McKrell, Noble Willingham, Herb Braha, Steve Nevil, Joe Bratcher, Bill Sorrells, Mesach Taylor, Ivan Saric, Wendell Wright, Michael O’Dwyer, Sarina Grant, Chico Martinez, Daniel Nunez, (and uncredited cast) John Sayles, Forrest J. Ackerman, Roger Corman, Michael Chapman, Mick Garris, Robert A. Burns, Robert Hammond, John Jensen, Jonathan Kaplan, Kelli Thompson 

Eddie ‘the Mangler’ Quist (Robert Picardo) is a serial killer that has been using Los Angeles as his hunting ground. He has a fixation on television news anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace). In cooperation with the police, Karen agrees to meet with Eddie in the hopes that this will result in the killer’s capture. The dangerous encounter results in Eddie being shot to death and Karen being traumatized. To help recuperate from this disturbing experience, Karen and her husband, Bill Neill (Christopher Stone), take a vacation at The Colony, a country retreat for group psychological therapy. Karen finds more stress with some of the odd characters staying at The Colony, and the howling that she hears from the woods around her cabin frightens her. 

The Flashback Fanatic movie review 

Director Joe Dante’s previous fright flick, Piranha (1978), was his sci-fi variation on Jaws (1975). His horror follow up here is a modern spin on werewolves that reveals they are as susceptible to incompatibility with modern society as anyone else. In their case, those concerns are not just to achieve happiness but also to ensure their survival. 

Although this film is adapted from the original novel by Gary Brandner, director Dante was unsatisfied with earlier scripts that were more faithful to the source material. So, John Sayles was brought in to write an entirely new story using just a few elements from Brandner’s novel. Sayles once again concocts a fine mix of horror, humor, and quirky characters as he did for Joe Dante’s Piranha. Sayles also plays an uncredited role as the morgue attendant. 

Another of the talents from Piranha, special make-up effects artist Rob Bottin, created a lot of The Howling’s attention-getting buzz with a fantastic transformation sequence. His efforts result in the scene that set the creature effects standard for decades to come. Bottin’s expertise was noticed and he became a much-in-demand talent. He would continue to distinguish himself with his work in a succession of thrilling genre films, such as The Thing (1981), RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), and many more. 

The Howling is a film that looks and sounds great. Cinematographer John Hora’s lighting enhances the mood of just about every interior scene and his views of the foggy forest have a nightmarish beauty. Pino Donnagio’s fine music score boosts the creep factor even higher. 

Ably assisted by these great talents, director Joe Dante once again expertly mounts a horror gem of many facets. The Howling flaunts humor that is never at the expense of the horror, which is a pretty tricky balancing act. Much of that humor is used to expose the pretense and crassness of media that caters to a cynical and apathetic audience. The film’s characters are not explored at any great depth, but they are all well realized with good performances. 

Anyone who can’t fall in love with Dee Wallace during this movie is heartless. As our heroine, traumatized newscaster Karen White, Wallace gives a great performance with her simply drawn character. Her sensitivity and vulnerability keep us loyally on her side every minute. Wallace had appeared in horror specialist Wes Craven’s classic The Hills Have Eyes (1977). She would soon star in the Steven Spielberg sci-fi blockbuster E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). When Wallace got top billing in the Stephen King novel adaptation Cujo (1983), she was joined in the small cast by The Howling’s Christopher Stone. 

Dee Wallace’s soon-to-be husband, Christopher Stone, appears in The Howling as her character’s spouse, Bill Neill. He provides a nice, solid support to the traumatized sensitivity of Karen White. Bill seems like a stable and caring sort of guy and is responsible for prompting Karen to follow through on visiting the retreat to help with her emotional trauma. Unfortunately, Bill eventually becomes unreliable and creates even further stress for our troubled heroine. 

Belinda Balaski, who was so likable in Piranha, continues to win me over as Karen White’s best friend and co-worker, Terri Fisher. She is featured in two of this movie’s scariest scenes. 

The third beauty to grace the main cast is Elisabeth Brooks. She is unforgettable as Marsha, the most exotic resident of The Colony. Whether decked out in her provocative leather dress or much less, she manages to be both sexy and unsettling. 

Certainly the film’s most unsettling character is Eddie ‘the Mangler’ Quist. Robert Picardo plays Karen White’s fiendish fanboy to perverse perfection. His rendezvous with his favorite anchorwoman in the movie booth of a porn shop is the first of many creepy scenes in The Howling. We are introduced to Eddie as only a shadowy presence that neither Karen White nor the audience is allowed to get a good look at. Picardo’s soft-spoken dialogue is dripping with lust and menace that makes the audience squirm as much as poor Karen. 

One of director Dante’s favorite actors and cult film favorite, Dick Miller, plays yet another of his characters named Walter Paisley. This time around he is the proprietor of an occult bookstore. Miller’s character is this film’s brusque, modern answer to the Professor Van Helsing-type of folklore authority found in many traditional horror films. Miller has said that this was his favorite role and he really shines during his brief time in it.


The cast is rounded out with a lot of other great actors for fans of genre films and television. Patrick Macnee, John Carradine, Kenneth Tobey, Slim Pickens, and Dennis Dugan join Piranha’s Kevin McCarthy. Even Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine editor Forrest J. Ackerman makes an appearance. 

With such casting, it is apparent that director Joe Dante was indulging himself and other horror film fans. In addition to The Wolf Man (1941) playing on television, many of this film’s characters are named after directors of werewolf films. Despite this sense of fun, the film never lapses into meta-film contrivances that take us out of the movie. Dante still keeps us invested in the characters’ situations and concerns. 

“Repression is the father of neurosis,” states Patrick Macnee as trendy psychotherapist celebrity Dr. George Waggner. The effects of repression on individual behavior and society are evident throughout The Howling. We see the denizens of the sleazy side of town called “flotsam and jetsam” by Kenneth Tobey’s veteran cop, yet many of them are there just to partake of the disreputable delights of prostitutes and pornography. Repression by society does not quell those longings; it merely makes their indulgence more dangerous. 

While repression has been responsible for so many people throughout the ages being guilted into their hang-ups, society also recognizes that an individual’s amoral freedom can pose dangers to others. The Howling explores the sociopathy of hedonism. Releasing the most basic inhibitions may be a lot of fun, but lycanthropy demonstrates the worst-case scenario for such behavior. The abandonment of empathy and conscience results in a loss of humanity. It is this total disregard for others and ultimately the resulting destruction of a stable society that is the danger posed by everyone giving in to all of their innermost, selfish desires. 

The Howling also makes the sensual aspect of werewolves more overt than prior films. Lycanthropy is not treated as a curse but as a turn-on. However, turning into a werewolf is risky behavior. Civilization has a long and often shameful history of persecuting those not conforming to prevailing social norms, but stopping monsters that enjoy killing people seems to be a wisely accepted standard. The main concern here for those afflicted with lycanthropy is not being cured but to figure out how to keep getting away with it. As if that’s not deep enough for you, The Howling also answers the burning question: Do werewolves do it doggy style? 

1981 was a golden age for horror films. As a regular reader of the new Fangoria magazine, I had been really jazzed to see The Howling, and it did not disappoint. Its perfect blend of horror, humor, sex, and satire serves up a fun fright flick that is thrilling, touching, and just a bit thought provoking. The Howling was one of the best times this horror hound has ever had at a movie theater.

4 comments:

  1. I only saw this movie once, on cable, sometime in the 80s, and I remember nothing about it. That includes remembering all the great names in the cast. This may be one I need to check out again. Dick Miller? I'm in. Wasn't there a sequel?

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  2. If you don't remember the cast of THE HOWLING, maybe you actually saw one of the seven "sequels." HOWLING II: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF (1985) is barely connected to the original film. I believe that all of the other installments are unrelated werewolf stories. All are inferior to the great Joe Dante film. I hope you get a chance for a fresh viewing of that creepy classic.

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  3. Great analysis of one of my all-time favorite horror films. The combination of writer Sayles and director Dante, although brief (just two films), was pure gold. As you point out, they managed just the right balance between humor/satire and horror. And that cast! The Howling is one of those rare movies that bears repeat viewings, revealing fresh, compelling moments each time.

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  4. Thanks! Sayles & Dante were a great writer/director team. I wish that they had collaborated on more horror films. At the same time Sayles was writing THE HOWLING, he was also working on the script for ALLIGATOR (1980). As I recall, that was also a fun and quirky fright flick, and I really need to track it down again.

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