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.
Up until about a month ago, I had only seen the James Bond films from The Living Daylights onward. So, this became my first exposure to Roger Moore as Agent 007. I was mainly attracted to the film because I got hooked on the title song by Duran Duran. While A View To A Kill received a very negative criticism in its day, and even Moore himself holds it as his least favorite that he did, I found the movie to be quite enjoyable. It’s clear that Moore likely did have far stronger outings, but other Bond actors would have far more ill entries in the franchise.
British spy Agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore), retrieves a high-tech silicon chip from the U.S.S.R., a chip that is identical to a prototype British design capable of withstanding a nuclear electromagnetic pulse. The British suspect industrialist Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) of leaking details of the design to the Russians. When Bond is sent to investigate he finds that Zorin is stockpiling silicon microchips, and is secretly planning to corner the world microchip market by literally wiping out Silicon Valley. In addition to Zorin himself, 007 must contend with the madman’s beautiful and deadly companion May Day (Grace Jones), but is aided by the lovely geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts). Bond’s mission will take him from the heights of the Eiffel Tower to the towering danger of the Golden Gate Bridge to stop Zorin’s maniacal scheme.
What always turned me away from checking out Roger Moore’s Bond films was the stated campy nature of them. I didn’t want to see a silly James Bond. However, if this film is any evidence as to Moore’s overall best quality approach to the character, I find it quite entertaining without betraying the integrity of the character’s legacy. I certainly do prefer Bond actors who put more dramatic weight into their performances, but Roger Moore is far from giving a bad performance in this film. While his 57 year old age was clearly evident in this film, which was partly to blame for the film’s negative criticisms, Moore still brings a charming, suave sensibility mixed with a fine wit and levity. The only real downside to his age is the fact that he couldn’t be highly involved with the action scenes. Right from the pre-credits sequence, you can tell it is a stunt double doing the rigorous work while the filmmakers edit in close-up shots of Moore done on a soundstage. It gets more seamless in later action sequences with much better close-ups, but it varies, especially with the rear screen projection shots in the San Francisco chase sequence. Regardless of this, I think Roger Moore is quite enjoyable in this portrayal of Agent 007.
Now, I really like the opening title sequence. Obviously, Duran Duran’s title track ensnared me into watching the film, and it is a great collaboration with composer John Barry which became a classic for the band. I really like a couple of Duran Duran songs, but this one really hits up another level with a mysterious and seductive quality with an exciting sonic punch. It definitely has the feel of a Bond title track, but with a sound distinctive of its times. The credits sequence goes along well with the lyrics with the use of fire and ice, and using some very 1980s black light effects to create a series of vibrant, stylized images against black backgrounds. As the best of these sequences do, it sets up a very exciting and intriguing tone for the movie as a whole.
Overall, the action scenes are pretty good. They are thrilling and imaginative as well as well plotted, shot, and executed. While they often have a little dash of humor from Bond ultimately driving a car that’s been sliced in half to comically hanging off the back end of a fire engine in San Francisco, I don’t mind them. They are well done, and just added to the entertainment value of the film. These moments never become ridiculous, thankfully. The closest we get is during the pre-credits sequences where Bond begins snowboarding down a mountain, and the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” begins to play. It certainly could rub you the wrong way, but I was able to roll with it. Once you grasp the tone of the film, and come to accept it, you shouldn’t have a problem with these quirks.
That tone is mostly focused on the dramatic aspects and implications of the plot, but it’s a film that is able to have some fun with itself, when appropriate. It maintains a serious threat level with Zorin’s plans, and the film flows very nicely. Like most Bond films, it makes the most of its runtime keeping everything focused on the plot, and moving it forward in very efficient and smart ways. It doesn’t have as much dramatic weight as some of my favorite Bond films do. Instead, it does try to maintain some levity throughout, but balances everything very well. It never goes too far in one direction or another, but never really excels in either direction.
The plot is pretty standard with some megalomaniac wanting to destroy in order to benefit his own greed. It is nice that it’s actually a corporate mogul at the head of this scheme, wanting to dominate industry instead of dominating the world. So, it has a somewhat more believable approach, but still has its unique Bond quirks which make the characters entertaining and the film nicely exciting. I wouldn’t classify A View To A Kill as any adrenalin rush, but again, it has its fair share of danger and action which properly support the story. The climax on the Golden Gate bridge has some fantastic visuals which I’m sure there must have been some optical effects work done, but the shots were entirely seamless to my eyes. The action is definitely suspenseful as Bond hangs perilously from high atop the bridge, fending off Zorin’s attacks. Ultimately, it’s an explosive finale that is quite satisfying, and tops the film off spectacularly.
Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin is an all right villain. He’s certainly better than some of the misconceived ones I experienced in the Pierce Brosnan era, but Walken’s performance is pretty lightweight when compared to many of his later, more prominent roles. Being familiar with Walken’s string of heavies from King of New York, Batman Returns, True Romance, The Prophecy, and Suicide Kings, I anticipated something much more impressive here. I had wanted to see A View To A Kill since the VHS rental era because Walken was the villain, and so, there was some anticipation to see him really deliver something meaty as Zorin. His performance is certainly not substandard, but it’s not as fascinating or intimidating as I had hoped. In the least, it’s obvious that Walken was having a lot of fun on this movie resulting in a villain who is entertaining to watch. There is plenty of charisma flowing out of Christopher Walken here. I do think the blonde hair was a nice touch which gave Walken’s appearance a little more distinctiveness.
Tanya Roberts is a fairly decent Bond girl as Stacey Sutton. There’s not much substance for her to dig into, and thus, her performance is also a little lightweight. She plays well off of Roger Moore, but I’m sure the obvious twenty-eight year age difference between them might not work so well for some viewers. Despite that, Roberts and Moore have fine chemistry that I feel is effective, and helps enhance the peril they fall into together. I could honestly feel the genuine feelings between the characters in those moments. Tanya Roberts is also quite gorgeous and charming, making her welcoming to look at.
Quite interesting is Grace Jones as the henchwoman May Day. I think she complements Walken very well. They seem like a peculiar couple with a shared mind for villainy. They definitely have a solid, natural chemistry that puts them on an equal footing. May Day rarely feels like a subordinate, but someone Zorin respects quite a bit, to a point. Jones showcases some very good physicality, likely doing most if not all of her own stunts. She proves to be a unique villain with an original fashion sense, but the film has her take a turn when Zorin leaves her to die in a mine explosion. It does rob the audience of an appropriate comeuppance, but it can be nice to see a villain change sides. She at least has a solid farewell scene.
Overall, I find A View To A Kill to be a generally enjoyable Bond film. As I said, I’m sure Roger Moore had far stronger outings, in both performance and story, but this really doesn’t deserve the scorn it was originally met with. It’s a fun adventure with plenty of wit and charm, but not much else to speak of. Yes, it was time for Moore to bow out for a younger actor to revitalize the franchise, and maybe it’s not the swan song Sir Roger Moore would have preferred. Despite that, A View To A Kill is a very competently made film that is very expertly shot with a fine score and entertaining action. It maintains enough integrity for the series and the characters to be respectable. It wasn’t an ambitious entry in the franchise, but there’s nothing at all wrong with that. For me, it was an enjoyable ride that opened the door to possibly check out earlier James Bond films starring Roger Moore, but as 007 Week moves forward, so do the reviews. With that said, James Bond will return in The Living Daylights.