Good werewolf movies are difficult to come by. Most just don’t find a way to make them interesting, alluring, or entertaining like vampire films are more easily able to do. However, there are a few universally accepted classics of this subgenre, and this 1981 film from director Joe Danté based on the novel by Gary Brandner is indeed one of them. For me, it’s a movie that’s taken some time to get into. The first time I rented it on VHS I was working twelve hour shifts to the early morning hours, and fell asleep halfway through, same as with The Amityville Horror. This time, I gave it my full attention and patience.
Severely shaken after a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, TV newscaster Karen White (Dee Wallace) takes some much-needed time off. Hoping to conquer her inner demons, she heads for “the Colony,” a secluded retreat where her new neighbors are just a tad too eager to make her feel at home. Also, there seems to be a bizarre link between her would-be attacker and this supposedly safe haven. And when, after nights of being tormented by savage shrieks and unearthly cries, Karen ventures into the forest to find answers, she makes a terrifying discovery. Now she must fight not only for her life, but for her very soul.
The Howling is an extremely slow burn film. Joe Danté gives you only the vaguest of teases early on hiding his ravenous creatures in the shadows and brief glimpses, which can be effective. The best execution of this is in the first act of the film where Karen encounters Eddie, the supposed serial killer portrayed by Robert Picardo. The use of darkness, suspense, and subtle backlight is a brilliant work of art. However, my suspicions from way back on first viewing were right in that we don’t see a werewolf in all its full glory until well past the halfway point in the movie. Until then, Danté takes the time to utilize some psychological aspects as Karen is haunted by her experience with Eddie. She is hit with nightmares and startling visions that heighten her fear and paranoia. This film is a bit of give and take. You certainly go into this wanting to see the werewolves reeking havoc often, but you have to wait a very, very long time to get to that point. However, once you do, the pay-off is excellent as Danté doesn’t hold back anything.
Many would know the special make-up effects work of Rob Bottin from John Carpenter’s The Thing, but that would be another year after this picture. Here, he creates some of the most amazing werewolf effects ever. Everything is so lifelike with very fine details and textures in addition to very elaborate methods used in the transformation sequences. Today, it would all be digital effects, but in 1981, you needed a practical effects master to realize something of this stunning vision of horror. The full size werewolves are wholly frightening as they tower probably at a good seven feet tall with every ferocious quality imaginable. What Bottin accomplished here will truly unnerve and terrify many. How he did it on a $1.5 million budget, even in 1981 dollars, just floors me.
This is also one of the absolutely most beautifully shot horror films I’ve ever seen. Joe Danté and his cinematographer John Hora utilize some very inspired camera angles and compositions. However, the most gorgeous aspects are the brilliant backlighting and the use of colored gels to create a wonderful haunting atmosphere. There are films that are simply shot in color, and then, there are films that utilize color in remarkable ways. The Howling is truly the latter as these reds, blues, and greens highlight the creepy and eerie moments like fine brush strokes of artistic inspiration.
The Howling does more than simply give you werewolves slashing and gnawing on humans. Firstly, it has some satire on the entire self-help movement. Trying to aid those afflicted with being a werewolf with therapy and a push towards integration into society is handled with the right kind of wit without being comical. Joe Danté definitely has that talent to fuse horror and humor such as with Gremlins, but he keeps things on point with the horror and barely diminishes that at all. Furthermore, this film gives us a strange but perfectly executed mix of sensuality and terror in one sex sequence. Once again, the artistic beauty of the film is on display as two people engage in sexual activity at a campfire, but as the act becomes more virile, the beats within are unleashed and they begin to transform. What begins as very erotic turns into a frightening, primal act that still gets the heart pumping. This is a very tantalizing and compelling sequence melding these two things together in a very provocative way.
The cast of this horror classic is jam packed with excellent acting talents such as Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo, Noble Willingham, Dick Miller, and several others. Every single one of them does a solid job bringing forth the distinct qualities of their characters’ personalities. In particular, Dee Wallace leads the film with the right level of vulnerability and traumatic unease. The fear the audience regularly feels is channeled through her performance, and the journey her character goes through in this results in a unforgettable conclusion. Also very notable is Robert Picardo proving yet again that I know he’s a great actor. What he does as the supposed serial killer Eddie is tremendous and dead-on-the-mark showing a very subtle intimidation factor with his restrained charisma and clear full fledged absorption of this character into himself. He also acts through all the wickedly good make-up with exceptional ease. He might have only a few brief scenes, but he really becomes one of the most memorable things about this cast.
The ending of The Howling is fantastic and frightening. First off, the entire third act is just excellent every step of the way as we finally get our full helping of werewolf awesomeness in a hair-raising escape sequence. However, what comes after that when Karen returns to the television studio for her news report is exceptionally tragic and clever. What she sets out to accomplish with her live report is smartly turned on its head by these filmmakers. Almost no one believes what they see and dismiss it as a high quality fabrication. They believe it to be spectacle instead of the raw, chilling reality that it is. The film concludes on a very signature Joe Danté beat of wit and humor. He has always been a unique filmmaker infusing a special, unmatched blend of the bizarre and the humorous with excellent results.
Now, is The Howling a horror movie for everyone? Maybe not. I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t enjoy sitting around for fifty minutes before we get a real good look at a werewolf, which I honestly had an issue with. After Karen’s early encounter with Eddie, there’s very little horror or suspense to engage you on the horror movie level until you’re more than halfway through the movie. The characters and performances are perfectly fine to move the plot forward in the interim, but there’s hardly anything to get your heart pounding with terror in that time. However, I appreciate the artistic brilliance of this film, and anything that doesn’t quite work for me is possibly more attributed to just not being quite my style. I also wholly endorse teasing us with the werewolves, much like Ridley Scott did with his creature in Alien. Build up suspense with it, and then, once you finally reveal it, you’ve got a great, startling moment of awe. This is a remarkably well made movie, and one that absolutely has its rabid fan base that I entirely respect. Whether or not the slow, slow build up and reveal is to your taste, this is one of those horror essentials you need to see. The pay-off for that build-up is definitely well worth the wait, and seeing what practical effects could achieve back in the day will show you what CGI has almost never been able to replicate.
I am so glad that I did see this animated feature in theatres twenty years ago. Being a major fan of the animated series, there was no way I couldn’t be excited for it, and it has become a very respected high mark in the DC Animated Universe. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does tend to get lost in the mix when discussing the best Batman or even best superhero movies because it was an animated feature. The film didn’t perform well in theatres, likely do to a less than aggressive marketing campaign. Even professional film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert did not see it in its theatrical run, but when they did eventually watch it, they indeed loved it. So, with this preface, I think it’s easy to deduce that this is a definite favorite of mine.
When Gotham City’s most feared gangsters are systematically eliminated, the Cape Crusader is blamed, but prowling the night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with a vengeful agenda. Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, the one time love of Bruce Wayne’s life, returns to Gotham City stirring up memories including those of how he almost didn’t become Batman. As all of this unfolds, and the Phantasm becomes a more imminent, lethal threat, the Joker is brought into the fold as a major wild card. Now, can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his name?
If you’re unfamiliar with the 1990’s animated series, you need not worry. This film works entirely as a standalone feature, but for those who were serious fans, there’s a great sense of expansion and increased depth that this film offers. This is a great story interweaving all threads into an excellent Batman origin, romance, and superhero action movie. The heart of it is the romantic and heartbreaking story between Bruce and Andrea. It starts with so much hope and passion, but as with many of Bruce’s loves, it ends in despair and some tragedy. It’s a beautifully crafted tale that does touch an audience’s heart, and truly shows the emotional depth and humanity of Bruce before and after he becomes Batman.
This film shows us the events leading directly up to Bruce Wayne actually becoming Batman. I love seeing his first outing as a crime-fighter. It’s just him in black street attire and a ski mask. He has the skills, but not the persona, yet. Batman hasn’t been born, and thus, the key essentially elements of intimidation and mystique aren’t in play. He’s not the haunting creature of the night that will frighten the criminal element, and afterwards, Bruce realizes that is what he’s missing. It’s a thrilling action scene as Bruce takes down a group of thieves, and then, hangs off the back of an open van during a police chase. Yet, the very moment where Bruce Wayne dons the cowl and becomes Batman for the first time is a quintessential moment in my Batman fandom. No other film has ever matched this moment for me. Done wholly in shadows, it is a purely simple scene, but perfectly effective and iconic in my eyes. When he turns to reveal himself to Alfred, the reaction from Bruce’s loyal and lifelong butler is pure shock and fear. That still sends chills all over my body.
Now, I absolutely love how the stories of Bruce and Andrea intertwine. The flashbacks to their hot and fast romance are beautiful and classy. You can see that Bruce is ready to give up the vigilante nightlife to be happy with Andrea forever, but the shady elements of her father, Carl Beaumont’s business dealings forge an inevitable wedge between Bruce and Andrea. Smartly, these elements are the core of the present day story between Batman and the Phantasm. It’s also a great turn that the Phantasm’s murders are framed on Batman simply by misidentification. This forces the Gotham Police to begin a manhunt against Batman, but strongly true to his character, Commissioner Gordon refuses to be apart of it. He knows that Batman doesn’t kill, and that little moment shows the bond of trust between Gordon and the Dark Knight. It’s only a shame that that is Gordon’s only scene in the film. Every aspect of this story flows organically and tightly. With a 76 minute runtime, it could move at no other or better pace.
By no doubt, Kevin Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman for over two decades now for legions of fans. Whenever I read a Batman comic book, it is his voice that I hear as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Conroy reflects all the best qualities of the character from the upbeat playboy, the serious businessman, the dark, brooding man in the shadows, and the powerfully imposing Dark Knight. The most important thing is he brings life, depth, and intelligence to Batman. Producer Bruce Timm and co-writer Paul Dini perfectly understood the character, and throughout this DCAU from Batman: The Animated Series to Batman Beyond to Justice League Unlimited, they stayed true to the core of Batman. The ideals of justice, humanity, and undying determination have always thrived in this animated interpretation. Beyond anything else, we see the world’s greatest detective at work, which is something none of the live action films have ever fully embraced. Batman unravels the mystery of the Phantasm and these crime bosses with cunning and perceptive intelligence. Conroy embodies all of these subtle, inspiring, and engaging qualities of Batman with a lot of heart and care. It might only be voice work, but this still stands as the best adaptation of the character to date.
And I couldn’t discount Mark Hamill’s Joker. Much like with Conroy, he has been a definitive voice for the character to many fans for so long, but has had real competition from great actors in this role. I am a fan of all versions from Ceasar Romero to Jack Nicholson and beyond. With the Joker, there’s almost no wrong way to go with him because he is such a radically unpredictable character that he could be very Romero one day and very Ledger the next. What Hamill does is make the Joker this insane clown who will do whatever hits the biggest punchline in his own twisted mind. He will still likely kill you, but he’s going to laugh his ass off doing it. Hamill brings the jovial zaniness meshed with a lethal intimidation that forges a colorful maniac that is endlessly fun and entertaining while still being a major threat.
Beyond the fact that I do really adore Dana Delany, I believe she was a perfect choice to voice Andrea. She brings a touching beauty of heart and soul to the character. As the younger Andrea, she’s very optimistic and vibrant. She’s a young woman with everything to love and embrace in life. In the present day, she’s a little more heartbroken and tender. There’s a great emotional complexity to her by the end which is very sad and sympathetic. Delaney is a wonderful, charming actress, and she does a remarkable job voicing Andrea Beaumont.
The animation style of this feature film is definitely a solid step upwards from the series with more dramatic shading, and a bit more dynamic action sequences. The opening title sequence even features a beautiful CGI fly through of the Gotham City skyline. The entire series was heavily inspired by the classic Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, and that is very evident, especially with the great art deco designs. Adapting this style to Batman pushed everything into a great film noir realm that works stunningly for him.
The main theme from Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movies lived on in this DC Animated Universe. They were reworked by the great, and now late, Shirley Walker. For this feature, she makes it even more gothic and haunting with a beautiful chorus. Yet, that’s only just the start of her stunning work. It’s a fantastic score that rouses an audience, and nails all over the wonderful emotional beats.
And there is plenty of thrilling action throughout this movie. The Phantasm’s stalking of mob bosses are dark, shadowy, and even a little scary. They have a looming, ominous presence. The film unfolds some rousing and even explosive moments at a regular interval, but they entirely flow from the progression of the plot. Nothing’s extraneous, and it really wastes no time crashing you headlong into the action and story. The climax with Batman and the Joker at the abandoned World’s Fair is pretty fun. It shows the Joker’s dangerous playfulness, and creates an escalating sense of peril as he has rigged the whole place to explode. Yet, the movie ends on the appropriate emotional beats remembering that the story is paramount, and it treats its character with due respect.
Unlike many live action movies, this animated feature was given a lot of creative freedom to its production team, and they were able to deliver a very well fleshed out, wonderfully balanced story. This is entirely reflective of the quality that was consistently on display with the animated series and its spin-offs and follow-ups. If you’ve never seen Batman: The Animated Series, this is a great introduction to it, and if you’ve watched and loved it, this is a gem that will satisfy your fandom. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a delightful and amazing animated Batman adventure that is well worth your time.