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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Halloween Hoardefest: The Howling

Over the decades, traditional monster lore such vampirism, flesh reanimation and especially werewolves have experienced revival periods, and in the horror boom of the eighties, it was the lupine species that got a serious jumpstart once again. Consider Wolfen, The Company of Wolves, Silver Bullet, American Werewolf in London, hell, even freakin' Teen Wolf if we have to. Even the highly enjoyable Fright Night, which was largely a vampire flick, had a quasi-wolf.

Outside of John Landis' wonderfuly smarmy American Werewolf in London, the decade's affinity for wolfsbane came directly from 1981's The Howling. As inventive as Landis' horror schlock, The Howling's deep-buried sense of humor is rather subtle. Indeed it is a tribute to the horror genre itself as much a werewolf salute. You can parallel, if you like, Dee Wallace's reporter character Karen White and the entire claustrophobia she feels in the news room after her harrowing experience in the film's opening montage to an understated peck on the cheek to the clouting desperation and fear inside the chaotic t.v. station featured in the original Dawn of the Dead. You can spot Lon Chaney, Jr. on the tube in The Howling hailing a scene from The Wolf Man. By and large, however, The Howling's sense of free-spirited play beneath its dreaded terror zone comes from cameos and cast appearances from established actors known to crop up in horror films, in addition to cheeky movie references. John Carradine and Slim Pickens crop up in The Howling, as does character names like Terence Fisher and George Waggner (Dee Wallace's therapist, played by Patrick MacNee). Also be on the lookout for a quick-spot howdy from none other than Roger Corman, who is the guy standing outside the phone booth waiting for Dee Wallace to finish. Where was Michael Landon in this thing? Oh yeah, picking burrs out of his britches on the set of Little House On the Prairie.

Getting down to business, though, The Howling's creative sense of exploiting Dee Wallace's traumatic experience by thrusting her into an underworld society was pretty cutting edge stuff for 1981. She's already had to contend with being a pawn in the capture of a wanted killer named Eddie Quist as the film opens. She is submitted to torture porn and a shadowy exposure of Quist's true internal beast, which leaves her vulnerable to the subculture she's prescribed by a shady doctor with his underground society's (known as "The Colony") interests more at heart than Dee's.

After Dee's husband Bill (Christopher Stone) is attacked by a werewolf following his rejection of advances from a carnivorous nympho (Elisabeth Brooks), he surrenders to his infused impulses and has sex with Brooks, as their tryst completes his transformation. In one of the film's creepier segments, the silhouette of their infidelity mutates into humping werewolves by a campfire. Here is where director Joe Dante bravely ushers the subgenre into a more erotic feel, which was unfortunately propelled to absurd heights in a series of non-essential sequels. Still, don't you sometimes wonder if Michael Landon wished he could've scored during the fifties-era I Was a Teenage Werewolf?

Bringing her detective friends (Dennis Dugan and Belinda Balaski) to The Colony for help as her world begins to crumble around her, Dee Wallace is brought closer to the gruesome secret that lurks beneath the beachside barbecues and a purported retreat for healing. She discovers to her dismay that Eddie Quist is alive and well after being shot at the beginning of the film; it's suggested that a silver bullet was not used, hence he survived to stalk another day. In an extensive transformation sequence that almost seems to throw down at John Landis' state-of-the-art effects in American Werewolf in London, Quist comes after Dee Wallace again--after she's been standing literally paralyzed through the entire mutation. She escapes her attack (but not without later repercussions) and Quist is later dispatched by Dennis Dugan, who has wisely consulted the werewolf rule book and uses a silver bullet to smite him.

Together, Dee and Dennis burn The Colony after a somewhat grisly revelation sequence that shows a chewed human carcass in a barn full of werewolves. At this point, we've learned there a new rule to the werewolf ledger book, or at least an exception clause for this particular cult. They're changelings who don't need the full moon to transform into werewolves, yikes!

This sets up the ending as Dee Wallace squeamishly returns to the t.v. station and broadcasts a warning about the werewolf clan and to prove her point, she mutes into a wolf on-camera before Dennis Dugan takes her out on live television with a silver bullet. The end posit of the film focuses on the viewers, who all wonder if what they've seen is real or a publicity stunt.

That ending is brash, intelligent and remains today a slick deneumont to a modern-day horror film. Would that it had remained untouched at this point instead of tainting its gut-poked impact with six sequels, the worst of the lot being Howling II: Your Sister's a Werewolf... Not even Christopher Lee (who should've known better) and the repeated exposure of Sybil Danning's tits could redeem that piece of celluloid trash. The fact that turd opens with the acknowledgement of Dee Wallace's death in the original film bastardizes the whole endeavor. Perhaps Joe Dante should've done a new film merging his famed biter fish against the fanged wolves: Piranha Vs. The Howling. Couldn't have been any worse than what came after the originals of each.


dschalek said...

Hate to say it Ray, but Landis' film holds up much better.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

And I likewise prefer American Werewolf to The Howling, so there's no worries there, amigo

Metal Mark said...

I have never watched any of the sequels. The only thing I don't like about this film is the werewolf make-up on Dee Wallace's character at the end of the film. The other werewolfs looked fine for the times, but then they have a big scene with a close-up and they use this make-up that looks like a cross between a wookie and Disney's Shaggy Dog.

"Even the highly enjoyable Fright Night, which was largely a vampire flick, had a werewolf sidekick in tow."

Actually "Evil Ed" was a vampire who could turn into a wolf, he wasn't a werewolf. He was bit by a vampire, he showed his vampire teeth and he was killed by a wooden stake.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

good call, Mark, and I amended the review accordingly, now I've got to go pull that one off the shelf

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