“A secret society exists, and is living among all of us. They are neither people nor animals, but something in-between,” says Karen White.
1981 was quite a year for wolves in cinema. Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen gave us wolf spirits who assumed physical forms to seek revenge for wrongs being committed. John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London gave us one of two significant werewolf films that year. The significance comes not in the fact that they were werewolf films but in the evolution of the special creature effects that made audiences look at werewolf transformations in a whole new way (the work Rick Baker did for Landis’ film would go on to be nominated as well as win the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup). The other significant werewolf film that year was Joe Dante’s The Howling, a film that would catapult his career and remain a genre favorite for years to come. I’d seen Dante’s film on DVD and Blu-ray a few times, but I did not get a chance to see it on the big screen until a year-and-a-half ago at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. It screened as part of a mini-Dick Miller retrospective in an old 35mm print (a print so old that some parts of it were starting to turn red). It may not have looked its best, but it was still an enjoyable experience.
1981’s The Howling follows a female news reporter who, after witnessing the death of a serial killer as part of a sting, goes off to a countryside resort called the Colony to deal with the trauma she endured, unaware that a werewolf (or werewolves?) is on the loose. Dante gathered an impressive ensemble that included Dee Wallace (as Karen White), Patrick Macnee (as Dr. George Waggner), Dennis Dugan (as Chris Halloran), Christopher Stone (as R. William “Bill” Neill), Belinda Balaski (as Terri Fisher), Kevin McCarthy (as Fred Francis), John Carradine (as Erle Kenton), Slim Pickens (as Sam Newfield), Elisabeth Brooks (as Marsha Quist), Robert Picardo (as Eddie Quist), Margie Impert (as Donna), Noble Willingham (as Charlie Barton), James Murtaugh (as Jerry Warren), Jim McKrell (as Lew Landers), and Dick Miller (as Walter Paisley). Wallace is excellent as a reporter trying to recover from a recent traumatic experience. Stone brings some obliviousness to his role as Bill; by the time he has been seduced by the Colony (specifically Marsha), it is too late for him to escape their clutches. Picardo brings the creepiness as the serial killer Eddie, and the other supporting cast members get their moments to shine as well.
Dante brings his brand of humor to this horror classic; at several points in the film, a character is watching a program on TV that is wolf-related (1941’s The Wolf Man, the 1936 animated short Little Boy Blue, etc.), Karen’s husband Bill is reading a book (some time after being bitten by a werewolf) in bed called You Can Never Go Home Again, and some of the characters are named after film directors who made werewolf movies (George Waggner directed The Wolf Man, Terence Fisher directed The Curse of the Werewolf, Roy William Neill directed Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Charles Barton directed Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, etc.). The screenplay by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless loosely adapts Gary Brandner’s novel, slowly building the suspense and is definitely a straight-out horror flick even with Dante’s humor littered throughout.
Rick Baker was originally supposed to do the creature effects, but a scheduling conflict with Landis’ film prevented this. Baker stayed on as a consultant, and passed the work along to his associate Rob Bottin, who did such a phenomenal job with the werewolf designs and transformations. John Hora’s cinematography enhances the film’s eerie tone and suspense, as does Robert A. Burns’ production design and Pino Donaggio’s terrific score. Joe Dante’s The Howling is a horrifying yet humorous werewolf film that helped boost the careers of Dante and Bottin (amongst others), is filled with memorable performances, and is a standout among horror films in a year that also saw the releases of An American Werewolf In London, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. Ignore the so-called sequels and stick with the original and best Howling film ever!