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

January 16, 2013


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.


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.

[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!!!

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.


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.


36 Comments leave one →
  1. clpants permalink
    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!


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