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The Howling (1981)

The HowlingGood 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.


Fire in the Sky (1993)

Fire in the SkyIt’s unusual to review a movie of this sort.  Fire in the Sky is based on a true story of alien abduction.  I know there are skeptics out there about this sort of thing, understandably so, and my stance is that I’m willing to believe, same as with the paranormal.  I can’t apply the same approach to a film of this sort, talking about characters like they’re fictional creations, or how clever the story is conceived and executed.  This is about how well the reality of these peoples’ lives are conveyed on screen, and the quality in which these events are portrayed.  What we have here is a great, solid movie that I really should have watched a lot more over the years.  I first saw it as a VHS rental back in the late 1990s.  I owned the DVDs for probably five or six years before I actually watched it.  So, I can accurately say that for this review, I watched Fire in the Sky for the third time, ever.

Six men saw it.  One man became a prisoner inside it.  But who would believe them?  In 1975, logger Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) and his co-workers discovered a hovering UFO.  Walton’s pals fled, but Walton was not so fortunate.  Whisked aboard the strange craft, he was subjected to a painful, unearthly medical study.  This is the amazing tale of that ordeal, and of the contempt and ridicule endured by his co-workers as they try to explain Walton’s mysterious disappearance.  Skilled investigator Frank Watters (James Garner) suspects their story may be a murder cover-up, but these men, led by Travis’ best friend Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), stand by the extraordinary events they recount.  When Walton is returned in a severe traumatic state, questions become even more fantastical with the answers being more disturbing than they could imagine.

This film is smartly structured starting out with the aftermath of the abduction, and then, having Rogers and the other loggers fill in the story with their own words.  Everything that is shown about Travis pre-abduction is done in lengthy flashback, and I feel that was the perfect way to start out the movie and present Travis – show him through the eyes of his best friend.  This also presents the idea of witness accounts showing us the story from a subjective point of view, and sets up the real life oppositions these men had to face from their fellow townsfolk.  Next to no one would believe such a wildly fantastical story, and the police would surely look for criminal motives for Travis’ disappearance.  They have to fight for every ounce of credibility they can get, and the film takes us on that journey while focusing very deeply on their emotional turmoil.

D.B. Sweeney does a wonderful job in these flashback scenes showcasing a very lively, fun, and enthusiastic young man full of aspirations.  He’s clearly the brightest personality amongst these men with the biggest heart.  Showing the audience these substantive glimpses into Travis makes the impact of his traumatic abduction all the more terrifying and disturbing.  The abduction scene itself is frightening, and still gave me choked up chills.  This is a credit to the realistic, grounded, and textured nature of the film.  Director Robert Lieberman makes the danger feel paralyzingly real, and gives the film honest, emotional weight.

The last time I watched Fire in the Sky I made a note reminding me of just how great of an actor Robert Patrick is.  He really is the lead for most of the movie holding the weight of emotion on his shoulders, and doing so in masterful fashion.  The absolute depth of pain and fear is soaked into every fiber of his performance with his eyes selling so much.  Patrick is both very sympathetic as well as full of conviction and fire.  As Mike Rogers, he is both a confident, passionate leader and a man dealing with his own internal fears and grief.  There is so much humanity and strength in what he does here that this should stand as one of Patrick’s best performances.  He genuinely made me feel every emotion that he poured out of his soul, and it was a very wide and complex range of humanity offered by him.  It is only a shame that the only accolades he was offered for this film was a Saturn Award nomination.  He clearly deserves a lot more notoriety for having this level of talent.

This film is also packed with a strong supporting cast.  James Garner puts in a very solid performance as the consummate investigator Frank Watters.  You can sense the fair and just manner of Watters from everything Garner does on-screen.  He never jumps to conclusions or to condemn these men.  Even at the end, he’s not convinced of what they all say is the truth as the evidence is simply not there for him to make a conclusion.  He’s simply willing to wait and see.  Peter Berg and Henry Thomas greatly portray two of Travis’ friends, David Whitlock and Greg Hayes, both with their shaken qualities.  Yet, both actors showcase strength where needed to show that these men were standing by their statements.  Craig Sheffer has a surprisingly excellent turn as Allan Dallis, one of the loggers who has a bad attitude and doesn’t get along with anyone.  I’ve only seen Sheffer in some really poor Dimension Films direct-to-video sequels, and has never impressed me before now.  I think he did a very solid job making Dallis a very strong element in this story as a sort of wild card in the mix.  Dallis almost went out of his way to make it known he didn’t like Travis, and Sheffer’s performance really brings that friction and tension to the forefront.  Lastly, Noble Willingham fits very comfortably into the role of the local Sheriff Blake Davis bringing a trusted, honest, firm quality.  Overall, every performance feels very authentic with both obvious and subtle depth throughout.

In the latter third of the film, when Travis Walton does return, he’s in a terribly traumatized state with Sweeney putting in a great performance.  The lively young man that he once was has been entirely eviscerated leaving only a shell of a man behind.  This abduction experience forges a hard, deep wedge between Travis and Mike.  Travis is so traumatized that he resents Mike for running away from the scene of the abduction instead of helping him when he had the chance.  Unfortunately, this aspect is not given much screentime as the film shifts its focus deeply towards Travis’ struggles.  I certainly would’ve liked to have seen that strained friendship drama play out more to see how hard it truly hit Mike, and the process of how it damaged his life.  Fortunately, the film doesn’t forget about this as it is given its proper due by the end remembering that it is the people and their lives that mean the most here.

When we are finally shown what Travis Walton experienced during those five days, it is the most visceral and terrifying alien abduction sequence ever committed to film.  The production design is stunning like something out of your most dreadful nightmare with its surreal qualities and purely absorbing, grim reality.  It is something that would leave you scared out of your mind, and leave you never being the same person you once were, if you experienced it in reality.  This is a very elaborate and long sequence that will freak you out down to your very core.  This is possibly the most paralyzing sequence I’ve ever seen in a film.  Even after it ended, it took me a minute or so to ease myself out of it.  To even consider that this might have actually happened to another human being is unfathomable.  Industrial Light & Magic did an unspeakably remarkable job on this entire sequence.  The aliens themselves are so finely detailed and textured that you’d swear they were real, and this adds further to how visceral this all is on film.  It is stunning work down to the smallest nuanc.  So much so that this deserved special awards recognition at the time as well, but sadly, received none.  Of course, it’s very little in terms of visual effects as it is an overall collective work of production design, cinematography, physical effects, animatronics, sound design, and music that made this sequence so chillingly effective.

And of course, the cinematography is damn good all the way through.  Bill Pope and director Robert Lieberman clearly worked very hard to create a look for Fire in the Sky that was firmly grounded in reality.  There is such texture and weight to every shot to maintain that solid grip on the fact that this is based on a true story, and directly avoid injecting even the smallest sense of fantasy into this.  I know that sounds a little peculiar due to the alien abduction nature of the story, but even that feels shockingly real down to the grittiest of details.  This film is shot exceptionally well with wonderful angles and compositions which complement the dramatic scope of the story, both internal and external.  In all technical qualities, this is a superbly executed film made by a very solid crew of creative forces.

Now, the thing that tends to make films based off of true events different than fictional films is that there’s rarely a traditional conclusion to them.  The lives of these people continue on, and not everyone gains closure from what is documented in the movie.  So, there’s only so much of a complete story the film can offer.  Thus, Fire in the Sky is more focused on the people involved instead of a traditional three-act structured plot.  I’m sure there were a few tweaks to reality, such as the filmmakers reducing the number of loggers from seven to six for ease of storytelling, but I’m sure the human emotion of what happened remained very much intact and accurate.  Also, unlike many true stories, this one still requires the audience to believe in something they may not be inclined to believe in terms of extraterrestrial life.  However, even if you are not a believer, there is still a very strong, human story to experience in Fire in the Sky.

This is an amazingly effective and masterfully executed movie that brings more impactful reality to an alien abduction story than I’ve ever witnessed on film.  A viewing is highly worth it for two things  – Robert Patrick’s deeply emotional performance and the entire terrifying sequence aboard the alien spacecraft.  Even the film’s trailer is scary featuring only brief glimpses of that sequence along with a very foreboding voice over.  Ultimately, this is a hell of a great movie that is definitely worth your time, if this genre is your thing.  Again, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Mike Rogers in the aftermath of Travis’ traumatic return to give their reconciliation more pay-off, and to follow through on how this entire experience affected Mike, in detail.  Still, what we are given is solid, fascinating, and disturbing.  Fire in the Sky is a unique film that surely deserves more credit than time has seen fit to grant it, and I hope my words of praise here will help a little in that regard.