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.
Back in my favorite year in film, 1995, David Fincher brought us a terribly disturbing and gripping crime film in Seven that changed the genre dramatically, and set Fincher forth on a very successful, high profile directorial career. His previous film was Alien 3, and that was plagued with production difficulties and creative clashes. It was not a success, but Seven showed what an unencumbered David Fincher was capable of. Supported by a powerful cast and a brilliant screenplay, this didn’t just spark his career, it ignited it.
Lieutenant Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a seasoned investigator who is on his final days before retirement. Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, impulsive cop looking to make a difference, and maybe even a name for himself, here on the grimy, ugly side of this nameless city. They are put together on a series of murders that Somerset soon determines is the work of a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each crime is more ghastly than the last as this sociopath “John Doe” uses them as a garish method of preaching. While Mills is quickly convinced that this killer is a certified whack job, Somerset sees the calculating, educated rationale behind these crimes. Both men slowly descend into this frightening and disturbing world that culminates in an unforgettable climax that tests the resolve of both men.
While there had been serial killer films before this, Seven really applied an original concept and environment to the subgenre. Having the killer, John Doe, be motivated by the seven deadly sins opened up the film to social commentary, and that is handled exceptionally well. Somerset is someone who you would like to know what kind of person he was before he was damaged by the apathy and amorality of the world. He’s someone that appears to have once strongly believed in certain admirable principals, but has since lost his zeal for them. He’s perhaps looked far too deep for too long into the grimy darkness of humanity, and Mills is someone who, likely, hasn’t looked deep enough. He judges everything on surface appearances, and doesn’t entertain the possibilities of a deeper psychological analysis of their adversary. Somerset slowly tries to educate Mills to be a more insightful and knowledgeable investigator, and while it brings them more into alignment with one another, it can’t wholly change who Mills is at his core. The scenes of both Detectives discussing philosophies on Doe’s motives and how they reflect upon society are amazingly well written and perfectly acted by Freeman and Pitt.
With the film never stating what city this takes place in, it creates an enveloping environment in which one can never get quite comfortable, and you’re not supposed to. The world of Seven is dangerous, seedy, disturbing, and filthy. This feels like a city where decency of any kind is in the extreme minority. The production design creates a world that is probably even more weathered than Somerset is. There is deep texture put into every aspect of every setting to give it a worn down history. There’s nothing new and shiny here. It’s all old and deteriorated by time. The grime seeps through in every frame of film, and the color timing adds to that further with a slightly de-saturated quality. The near constant rain just adds to the miserable conditions that these characters have trudge through every day. It was an excellent choice to have the entire climax take place outside of the bleak urban environment and put it into a sun-baked desolate open field. The visuals in that sequence depict a dead landscape.
The cinematography of Darius Khondji enhances the production design further with a modern noir quality to it. This is much different than a Michael Mann type of neo noir where things are glossy and colorful, but still offering a depth of darkness. This is a style of noir that emphasizes the dreadful and macabre aspects of this world. It’s meant to show off a gritty, unsettling realism that will horrify. Khondji composes shots with a lot of dramatic weight, and makes use of dolly tracks very well in specific moments. I love the tracking shot after the duel interrogation scene after the “lust” killing. It’s just Somerset and Mills sitting in separate interrogation rooms quiet and still. They are taking a long moment to recover from everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced. The shot smoothly tracks from the one-way window of Somerset’s room to Mills’ room. It’s a quiet downbeat moment for both the characters and the audience to soak it all in. The main action sequence of the Detectives chasing after John Doe is exceptionally well shot maintaining a solid sense of geography with each character, and letting each shot count as the sequence moves from one location to another. The scene constantly evolves adding in new obstacles and dangers along the way. Every aspect of its execution is excellent. Overall, the cinematography of Seven is superb and masterful. It is definitely a result of a cohesive artistic vision.
Rob Bottin was a special make-up effects master starting with his amazing achievements in John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982. In Seven, his signature grotesque and stunningly detailed work is highly evident. He knows how to bring out the garish realistic horror in his creations. It fits Fincher’s visual style dead-on presenting the smallest details with great clarity to make you believe that everything your seeing is frighteningly real. Bottin worked with great filmmakers like Joe Danté and Paul Verhoeven before joining with Fincher, and I could praise Bottin’s body of work to endless extent. It has always had a particularly off-beat and strange approach which reflects Bottin’s personality very well. While Seven went grossly under-appreciated at the Academy Awards with only a well deserved nomination for Best Editing, Rob Bottin won a Saturn Award for his work here, and it was also very well deserved.
It is a very taut and suspenseful story that Andrew Kevin Walker wrote and Fincher executed. No time is really wasted getting our characters into the plot. We learn about them along the way through the investigation instead of introducing them in a standard first act structure of seeing them go through their daily lives before something adverse occurs. How they each approach the case tells us all we need to know about Mills and Somerset, as I stated earlier. The case and plot unfold with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue as both Detectives uncover the chilling theme behind these murders. Each homicide becomes increasingly more graphic and horrific, thus, heightening the twisted psychological state of the killer. Meanwhile, there is Somerset getting to know David and his wife Tracy, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tries to adjust to their new home, which she is not very fond of. She confides in her husband’s new partner after getting to know his sensible and compassionate manner. These scenes and character beats are nicely interwoven to continue developing these characters and their relationships. This maintains an audience’s invested interest in how they deal with everything that’s going on, and the repercussions of what they encounter.
The film presents a definitely interesting psychological state of its killer. How he gets into police custody is quite unexpected, and sets up a very compelling final act where John Doe is in control. He might be in handcuffs, but he’s the one leading the Detectives towards a chilling conclusion. A friend of mine believes that Brad Pitt over acts drastically in this climax. I’ve never had a problem with it. In that moment, David Mills is severely torn in an agonizing emotional state where he wants to lash out, but repeatedly tries to restrain the urge. He’s already established as an impulsive and brash person, and attempting to not lash out in anger would be extremely difficult for a man like David Mills to do. He’s fighting raw, instinctual emotion, and that would likely result in the reaction Pitt presents here.
Brad Pitt’s performance all around is rich with depth and emotion. Mills is a guy who cares about what he does, and wants to make a difference. He could easily become an ignorant jerk of a character with his brash attitude and closed mindedness, but Pitt gives him enough heart and humanity to make him likeable. He takes the hard headedness, the intensity, the loving husband, the optimistic outlook on humanity, and the naivety and mixes them into a cohesive whole. As do all the characters in this film, David Mills has his complexities, and Pitt makes it all work and make sense. Pitt also visually inhabits the role well giving Mills a dirtier, more gritty look than Pitt had ever adopted before, and truly makes the character seamless with the world he inhabits.
The synergy between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman is solid. They counterbalance one another beautifully with their characters existing with polar opposite mentalities. They hardly ever agree on anything, but are both motivated to see this investigation through to the end. When they occasionally do get on the same page, it’s a great spark that quickly motivates the story forward.
Freeman, as always, is exceptional. He embodies the dour philosophical mindset of William Somerset wholly. Again, he’s a man worn out from the moral decay of society, and only reluctantly gets pulled towards this case. At first, he wants to avoid it, but Somerset’s intuitive and educated mind drives him towards it. Freeman greatly captures that reluctant attraction, and conveys the character’s psychological investigative approach with a great deal of skill and weight. Somerset is very meticulous, never jumping to conclusions, and Freeman has the right seasoned quality and grasp on tone to sell those qualities well. So much of the film’s tone is sold through him. Prior to the appearance of John Doe, all of the religious ideology and deconstruction of motive is carried by Morgan Freeman, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done it as well as he did. While the screenplay explains it all very well, if handed over to the wrong actor, it might not sell remotely as well or as coherently. Again, it’s all in the tone, which is pitch perfect through Morgan Freeman’s deeply talented abilities.
In the same year that Kevin Spacey gave us his exceptional performance in The Usual Suspects, he also gave us this fascinating surprise performance as John Doe. It’s a greatly subdued and conservative piece of work that makes Doe so much more unsettling. Throughout his screentime, there’s that knowledge that Doe is not done, yet. There is something more chilling and frightening still to come, and Spacey’s performance is very foreboding in the most subtle way possible. He’s in control, and he is reveling in the impending completion of his masterpiece. It’s all amazingly compelling. Spacey won an Academy Award for his turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and this role is equally deserving of that accolade.
The supporting cast is very solid. R. Lee Ermy is the tough Police Captain, but never falls into that Full Metal Jacket stereotype people like to shoehorn him into. While he doesn’t have a great amount of screentime, his character is given enough character beats to make him feel fleshed out and genuine. Gwyneth Paltrow is perfectly cast as Mills’ wife Tracy. She’s a very compassionate and loving woman who is not pleased with their current situation moving into the city, but has no desire to cause David any stress or turbulence by voicing her worries. She is an exceptionally decent young woman that definitely is out of place in this decaying urban setting, and Paltrow plays these emotional beats with depth and heart. Everyone else filling out the cast holds their own strongly, and help to create a very full and dimensional world for this film.
Lastly, Howard Shore composed a strong score by bringing weight to the grim, horrifying atmosphere. It truly emphasizes the drama, urgency, and intensity of the film. It’s not a score that jumps out at you, and nor should it be. It maintains and enhances dramatic tone throughout. Shore has proven to be a widely diverse film composer, and he is able to complement David Fincher’s darker cinematic style so very well here.
Andrew Kevin Walker put together a deeply impressive and stunning screenplay here, and Fincher was the absolute perfect choice to realize it. Much of what I write in these reviews is more than just saying if the film is good or bad. In a case such as this, it’s about spotlighting the brilliant achievements in filmmaking, and analyzing what made it such an instant, powerful classic. Seven is a landmark film for the genre, and especially for New Line Cinema. It was really their first A-list type of film attracting high profile movie stars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and securing an amazing director with incredible vision in David Fincher. It’s entirely shot as a major studio film, and strongly moved New Line Cinema into contention as a serious, big budget studio. Only six years later would they release The Lord of the Rings trilogy to massive commercial and critical success. This was a pivotal film for both the studio and David Fincher. It is an all around shocking and amazing piece of work that delivers an intelligent story with thematic and dimensional elements along with startling images of graphic horror.
Right behind Michael Mann, John Carpenter is my favorite filmmaker of all time. The diverse range of films he has given the world are entirely unique and wildly entertaining. In 1982, he ventured to pay homage to one of his favorite filmmakers, Howard Hawkes, by helming a re-adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?” Hawkes had done so previously in 1951 with The Thing From Another World. What Carpenter gave us is what I consider the best film he’s ever made. A grippingly effective science fiction horror film with an amazing atmosphere of slow building paranoia and sickening alien gore. John Carpenter’s The Thing became a classic of the genre due not only to a solid ensemble cast, but an elite crew that make this such a fantastic film that continues to hold up thirty years later.
In the winter of 1982, a twelve-man research team at a remote Antarctic United States research station discover an alien life form that was buried in the snow and ice for over 100,000 years. They soon realize that not only is it still alive after a deep freeze burial and a fiery defeat by a Norwegian camp, but that it has the ability to imitate any living thing to exact detail. Before they know it, the alien organism has infiltrated their camp, posing as any number of these men. Paranoia and distrust runs amuck in this isolated compound as no one knows who is human, and who is The Thing.
Time always seems to be the best judge of quality. Upon its release, The Thing did poorly. This was because 1982 was the summer of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, and many dark science fiction films did badly in the shadow of that wondrous, fantastical film. Blade Runner, which opened the same weekend as The Thing, also suffered at the box office because of this. However, since then, The Thing and Blade Runner have become two of the most revered films of the genre garnering massive praise, and are recognized among the best works from directors John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, respectively. They are both amazing films in different ways, but have both influenced the genre immensely.
Beyond anything, what stands out the most in this film are Rob Bottin’s amazing creature effects. What he achieves puts him on the same level with the absolute best in the business. Effects master Stan Winston also lent a helping hand in a sequence or two, but Bottin is the main man responsible for the richly disgusting slimy alien gore and mind blowing physical creations here. The detail he put into his work to create such twisted and purely alien designs remain as impactful and effective today as they were in 1982. That’s the work of a master, and it lead to him working on blockbusters such as RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, Mission: Impossible, and Fight Club. It is a massive loss to the industry that he has been absent from it since 2002. Bottin was a fascinating personality with a wild artistic mind that was ripe with brilliance. This film is eternal testament to his talents.
Speaking of which, John Carpenter’s pure horror talents have never been more taut or focused than in this film. It’s the perfect blending of paranoia, creepiness, gory horror, tension, and suspense. Nobody does it like John Carpenter, and only from his expert direction could this film have become as timeless and consistently effective as it has become. Also from him comes a perfectly selected cast fronted by Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady – the cool and rational mind, the level-headed one of the bunch. Also featured in this ensemble are Keith David, A. Wilford Brimley, Thomas Waites, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, T.K. Carter, and Donald Moffat. They all inhabit their characters so distinctly and vibrantly. Each man has their own look, and aren’t easy to mistake one for another. Their personalities and characteristics set them all apart very nicely, and all of the cast grasped onto the growing paranoia excellently. A beardless Brimley brings forth a fantastic performance as well as Blair flips out partway through the movie tearing apart the communications center. He plays crazy to immensely entertaining effect. Later, he is truly unsettling leading into the film’s climax. Keith David is constantly entertaining as the gung ho, take-no-crap from anyone Childs. However, Russell clearly remains the most central protagonist of the film bringing stability to the chaos, and handling all the various dimensions of MacReady awesomely.
The script written by Bill Lancaster is wonderfully constructed. Sadly, Mr. Lancaster passed away in 1997 due to a cardiac arrest, and was not able to contribute his thoughts to Universal’s amazing Collector’s Edition DVD. The Thing was the last piece of cinema Lancaster was directly involved with, and at least he could say that he bowed out of filmmaking on a seriously high note. This happens to be a pure classic in the genre of science fiction & horror. The dialogue is always great, never ever cheesy or cliché. There are bits of humor, but nothing that works against the tone of the film or the scene. Any director would be privileged to work with a script this well-conceived.
The cinematography is an absolute pleasure here, and that is forever to be expected from Academy Award winning director of photography Dean Cundey. In the opening minutes of the film, we are given stunning shots of the immense arctic landscape that clearly establish how isolated our characters are. The photography can even prove to be terribly creepy at times such as the storage room scene after MacReady breaks into the compound. Kurt Russell looks ghostly with the brilliant blue lighting upon his snow covered self. Cinematography in a Carpenter film has always been a strong point, and you cannot deny its strength here. It helps evoke the proper emotions at the right times by capturing atmosphere in its compositions and lighting. Another such element is Ennio Morricone’s score. Right from the get go, it sets the tone for the entire film. It grips you and never lets go. This score is haunting, relentless, brooding, and terribly chilling. This is such a powerful score, and despite that Carpenter did not compose it, it does have many elements of his own scores in it. Morricone had scored many “spaghetti” westerns including The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, and we would later score The Untouchables. To this day, Morricone continues to score many films, mostly Italian ones.
What makes this film so effective is due to the psychological aspect of the story. The paranoia slowly develops in the company of these men while trust diminishes. These characters are nicely setup from the start establishing their relationships and personalities so vividly that later you see how seamlessly the alien has infiltrated their ranks. No one acts any differently, and it is surprising how complete the disguise is. Under a human guise, the Thing turns down the chance to take over as the leader of the group. The life form is not looking to be obvious. It has no ego, and is possibly doing this out of fear for its own survival. It wants to hide, be subversive so that it can keep doing what it does without suspicion. Using covert methods, it can slowly take over the entire camp until it is in total control. However, when threatened, it is a brilliant idea that each part of it is an individual whole that will fight for its own survival. This makes it just that much harder to definitively defeat as even one molecule’s survival can be disastrous, in time. Mixed in with the diverse and dimensional performances, every aspect of paranoia and fear that this film deserved is greatly fleshed out and realized here.
When taking in all of this excellence, one can’t help but realize they are watching a classic piece of science fiction / horror cinema with John Carpenter’s The Thing. From Carpenter’s expert direction, Bottin’s masterful effects work, the stellar production values, the power of Morricone’s score, the amazing cinematography, and certainly the stellar acting talents of this whole ensemble cast you will get a perfect film. The atmosphere in this motion picture is something that many filmmakers fail to inject into their own films. My interest in horror films has waned in past several years. First, it was the torture porn trend, and now, I just don’t see much of anything out there with this level of atmosphere and craftsmanship. John Carpenter’s masterpiece gets a perfect, solid rating from me – 10 out of 10. I did see the 2011 prequel, and while it excelled in the horror and atmospheric areas, it didn’t have the memorable characters or amazing creature effects that set Carpenter’s film apart from the competition. You surely can’t perfectly imitate a masterpiece.