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.