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John’s Old School Horror Corner: The Howling (1981), the second best werewolf movie of all time!

January 16, 2013

Howling.jpg

MY CALL:  Werewolves taken seriously and done well!  I can still watch and enjoy this movie alongside new releases–and not because it’s so bad it’s good, but because it’s just plain good!  This is the second best werewolf movie ever made–behind An American Werewolf in London (also 1981).    IF YOU LIKE THIS WATCH:  Before turning to the silly, unrelated sequels in this franchise (e.g., Howling 3: The Marsupials) which number up to part VI or VII plus a remake/reboot, aim for An American Werewolf in London (1981; undisputedly the greatest werewolf movie EVER), An American Werewolf in Paris (1997), Cursed (2005) or The Company of Wolves (1984).  None of these movies take themselves seriously like The Howling.  But they manage to do a good job honoring werewolves with their own distinct sense of flavor and/or farce.  FOR THE SUPERFANS:  There are a lot of major familiar faces in this movie.  The director also took every possible chance to throw wolf cartoons, movies and books in the background, werewolf movie directors’ names for characters, etc. throughout.  This could make for a great horror geek drinking game!

After a stalker (Robert Picardo; Legend, Munchies, 976-Evil) attacks newscaster Karen (Dee Wallace; E.T., Cujo, Critters, Hansel and Gretel), she is a wreck–she can’t work, she can’t sleep.  As a form of rest-and-relaxation therapy, Dr. Wagner (Patrick Macnee; Bloodsuckers, Waxwork, Waxwork 2) prescribes some time at ‘the colony.’  So she and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone; Cujo) venture to this hospitable, beachside, group-therapy retreat run by Dr. Wagner.

The locals are a mixture of odd, inbred, occult and hillbilly–but generally friendly.  Colony locals Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks; Deep Space) and Erle (John Carradine; Buried Alive, The Nesting, The Sentinel) serve as harbingers that something strange is going on…you see, they’re all werewolves!

Annnnnd, that’s the plot.

Meanwhile, Karen’s colleague Terry (Belinda Balaski; The Food of the Gods, Piranha, Gremlins) is investigating werewolves with her boyfriend.  Why?  Because Karen’s stalker had weird werewolf drawings–including a werewolfed-up Karen–all over his apartment.  Evidently, he was a werewolf!  Under the guidance of used bookstore owner Dick Miller (Piranha, Gremlins), they watch old movies, read up on lycanthropy.  Then Terry joins Karen and Bill at the colony while Terry’s boyfriend rounds up some silver bullets.

Howling2.jpg

Yeah. This makes sense.  I often seek sage advice from used bookstore owners in small towns.  Especially when dealing with all things supernatural.  Totally normal.

The build-up is long and slow, but things get moving when Bill is attacked by a werewolf during a display of non-CGI, creature costume effects that today’s standards find laughable.  Suddenly Bill, a vegetarian, is eating meat and loving it and succumbing to the sexual draw of “the beast within.”  Keeping in step with sex and the beast, the first transformation scene is mid-coitus.  On camera we see incisors elongate, but otherwise the camera looks away, then returns to a yet hairier, now contact-lensed Bill.  The effects turn to crude “wide angle” silhouette animation.  It’s awful in terms of effects quality, but in its 80s horror-ness, it is not without some charm.  Further indicative of budgetary and technological limitations, we largely see only the head or only the claw or arm of a werewolf during attack scenes earlier in the movie.  Again, though, with an 80s horror appeal to it.

[new camera angle]
Grrrr!  I’m hairier now!

[wide camera angle]
Grrr!  I’m animated now!

However, breaking away from typical 80s limitations, we do eventually see many good shots of “whole” werewolves.  I must say, for 1981 (or even today!!!), it looks really impressive and rather cool even next to more recent releases using CGI (Underworld Awakening) or costume/make-up (Cursed).  It’s more lean, tall, shaggy and rough looking; more sinister and monstrous than simply a man-wolf hybrid.  This really may be the scariest looking werewolf ever.  They did a damn good job!!!

Is Werewolf Wayne Brady gonna’ have to choke a bitch?

The gore is not abundant in the first hour, but several scenes delivers some cool, gross, slimy effects after the hour mark.  I should also add that, like what more we see of the creatures later in the movie, we likewise will see more provocative transformations with pulsating skin and elongating jaws.  We see a long transformation that the director really wanted us to enjoy, much as in The Company of Wolves (1984) or An American Werewolf in London (1981).  They’re fun celebrations of slimy latex prostheses.

That looks painful.

And that looks like you made a wrong turn.

Director Joe Dante (Piranha, Gremlins) took a new approach to the werewolf movie and it worked.  Dante gives us werewolves that regenerate at a “realistic” speed with their classic vulnerability to silver, but unlike most movies of the time, he presented werewolves as a subspecies living in a group, like a wolf pack.  Other approaches up to that time were limited to single, cursed individuals depicting werewolves.  These depictions were very Jekyll and Hyde, with the afflicted individual having no control or recollection of the actions of the wolf.  In The Howling, lycanthropy is still a transmittable affliction, but it alters the psychology of the afflicted rather than adding an altogether new and mutually exclusive personality.

The ending is cool–and even gets farcically ripped in Howling 3: The Marsupials.  Make sure you see this classic.  Even effects whores will be happy with the gore, transformations and make-up work which stand the test of time.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2013 11:15 pm

    Not a big fan of this one, although I agree 100% about “American Werewolf in London.” Now THAT is a fantastic werewolf flick!

    • johnleavengood permalink
      January 23, 2013 7:19 am

      A welcome and understandable opinion. A lot of folks put Ginger Snaps and Dog Soldiers above The Howling. While I love the other two very much, there’s just something about the style of a bad horror movie which, when done well “for a bad horror movie,” wins me and many other fans over. Horror is like wine. Even though we both love red, some people are more about California cabs and can’t stand chthonic malbecs–I don’t understands why. Especially when chthonic sounds a bit like Cthulu. lol

      Please keep commenting!

  2. Victor De Leon permalink
    March 6, 2014 8:44 pm

    My fav werewolf film. Saw it as a kid in NYC and it left a huge impression on me. Also my fav transformation scene, too. Looked way more visceral to me than Baker’s work on AAWWIL. (My second fav WW movie) Dante totally owns this movie.

    I like that you went into the way Dante and Sayles depicted the WWs living in a rural and feral community which is scary as hell. Dick Miller and that 80’s horror appeal is spot on in this movie and it had the right amount of camp and humor, too. Great review!

Trackbacks

  1. Howling (2012), which is frustratingly NOT a werewolf movie! « Movies, Films & Flix
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  3. John’s Old School Horror Corner: Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988) « Movies, Films & Flix
  4. John’s Shamefully Bad Horror Corner: The Howling: Reborn (2011) « Movies, Films & Flix
  5. John’s Old School Horror Corner: Howling V: The Rebirth (1989) « Movies, Films & Flix
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  8. John’s Horror Corner: Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College (1991) | Movies, Films & Flix
  9. John’s Horror Corner: Ginger Snaps (2000), a coming of age tale of lycanthropy | Movies, Films & Flix
  10. John’s Horror Corner: Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004) | Movies, Films & Flix
  11. John’s Old School Horror Corner: An American Werewolf in London (1981), the greatest werewolf movie of all time! | Movies, Films & Flix
  12. The Best Horror Came from the 80s: Horror movies that stand the Test of Time and their more modern counterparts, Part 2 | Movies, Films & Flix
  13. John’s Horror Corner: The Lords of Salem (2013), the softer side of Rob Zombie | Movies, Films & Flix
  14. John’s Old School Horror Corner: Evils of the Night (1985) | Movies, Films & Flix
  15. John’s Horror Corner: Chopping Mall (1986), a crazy melee of killer robots that shoot frickin’ laser beams from their eyes | Movies, Films & Flix
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  17. The Best Transformation Scenes of Horror, Part 1: Tales from the Darkside (1990), Zombeavers (2014) and Wolfcop (2014) | Movies, Films & Flix
  18. John’s Horror Corner: The House of the Devil (2009), style trumps substance in Ti West’s delightfully atmospheric callback to 70s and 80s occult horror. | Movies, Films & Flix
  19. Late Phases: The Old Man and the Werewolf | Movies, Films & Flix
  20. 15 Days until Halloween! October Suggestion #3: An American Werewolf in London (1981), the greatest werewolf movie of all time! | Movies, Films & Flix
  21. John’s Horror Corner: Late Phases (2014), throwing tropes out the window to deliver a fresh indie werewolf movie with a blind elderly antihero. | Movies, Films & Flix
  22. John’s Horror Corner: The Company of Wolves (1984), featuring two of the most stylishly weird transformation scenes in the genre. | Movies, Films & Flix
  23. The Best Transformation Scenes of Horror, Part 2: A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), Late Phases (2014) and The Company of Wolves (1984) | Movies, Films & Flix
  24. John’s Horror Corner: Critters (1986), a sci-horror comedy creature feature follow-up to Gremlins (1984) with viciously cute flesh-eating aliens. | Movies, Films & Flix
  25. John’s Horror Corner: Burying the Ex (2014), a horror comedy RomCom zombedy about an undead love triangle. | Movies, Films & Flix

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