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THE HOWLING (1980)

"Humans are our prey. We should feed on them like we’ve always done. Screw all this "channel your energy" crap."
howling.jpg (10867 bytes) Director: Joe Dante

Starring: Dee Wallace, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Patrick Macnee, Elisabeth Brooks, Robert Picardo, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Dick Miller, Slim Pickens

Screenplay: John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, based upon the novel by Gary Brandner

Synopsis: News anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) uses herself as bait to trap a psychotic killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). Unaware that her support crew has lost electronic contact with her, Karen meets Eddie as agreed in the back of a sex shop. As the two talk in a pornographic movie booth, something begins to happen to Eddie in the shadows of the room.... The police arrive, and gun Eddie down. A traumatised Karen is taken home, and later finds that she cannot remember what actually happened. She begins to suffer bad dreams, and freezes on her first night back in front of the camera.

Karen’s colleagues, Terry (Belinda Balaski) and Chris (Dennis Dugan), locate Eddie’s apartment, where they find animal skulls, numerous newspaper clippings about horrific murders, and drawings, including one of Karen. Karen consults Dr George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), who did the psychological profiling of Eddie Quist, and has written a book on the primitive instincts within man. He suggests that Karen and her husband, Bill Neill (Christopher Stone), spend some time at his health resort, which is known as The Colony.

The two try to settle in, but Karen is disturbed by the strangeness of some of the other guests, and the sound of howling in the woods at night. Terry and Chris go to the morgue to see Eddie’s body, but it has disappeared. They carry their investigation to an occult bookshop, where the owner (Dick Miller) lectures them on the ways of werewolves.

In response to Karen’s fears, a number of The Colony’s men, including Bill, form a hunting party but find nothing more threatening than a rabbit, which Bill shoots. Told he must eat what he kills, Bill takes the rabbit to Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), who does the cooking; she quickly makes her interest in him clear. Walking back from Marsha’s house, Bill is attacked and bitten by a wolf. When Karen calls with the news, Terry heads immediately for The Colony. The following night, Bill is unable to sleep, and walks in the woods. There he meets Marsha, and the pair engage in heated sex, during which they both undergo a startling transformation....

Comments: The first of the early eighties’ wave of werewolf films, The Howling is the best of the bunch. While in general the film bears a close resemblance to An American Werewolf In London (1981), which similarly combines black humour with its straight horror and its spectacular transformation scenes, it ultimately succeeds better because it has the courage to follow its central premise right through to the end.

Also, unlike many horror films, The Howling doesn’t make the mistake of having its investigating characters so many steps behind the audience that they come across as either ignorant or stupid. Since everyone knows perfectly well that this is all about werewolves, the script allows Terry and Chris to entertain the idea quite early on, albeit reluctantly ("It’s only a movie," Chris insists uneasily as a screening of The Wolf Man (1941) coincides with the news that Bill has been bitten by a wolf). Bookstore owner Walter Paisley (Dick Miller, natch) rattles off what seems to be this film's game plan (for the record, silver bullets are endorsed, but the effects of the full moon are dismissed as "Hollywood bullshit"), then casts doubts over it by answering Chris's inquiry as to whether he actually believes all this with, "What am I, crazy?" This allows the screenwriters to have their cake and eat it too, by playing games with audience expectations.

As it turns out, even the characters’ expectations are messed around, as when a cocky Eddie Quist contemptuously gives Chris his gun back, only to discover that it’s loaded with silver bullets. The film’s revelation that The Colony is a sanatorium for maladjusted werewolves is a marvellous conceit, and the inmates’ final rebellion against the teachings of Dr Waggner (during which John Carradine gets to utter the immortal line, "You can’t tame what’s meant to be wild, Doc. It ain’t natural.") contains funny and scary moments in about equal quantities.

The special effects aren’t quite up to those in American Werewolf, but The Howling uses them much more imaginatively, in the sick joke of Eddie Quist prefacing his transformation by announcing, "I wanna give you a piece of my mind" and extracting from his brain the bullet that was supposed to have killed him; the wonderful shots of hands becoming paws as the trapped werewolves pound against the barn walls; and the climatic scene (if you’ll pardon the expression) of Bill Neill and Marsha transforming while having sex.

The Howling balances its horror and its humour so well that you almost don’t notice that nearly all of its sympathetic characters end up transformed, or dead, or both. Unfortunately, this means another grisly demise for Belinda Balaski, who seemed to die with monotonous regularity in Joe Dante’s films. Having been devoured by the titular creatures in Piranha (1978), here she gets disembowelled by a werewolf.

The film ends with a quadruple whammy, with Karen telling her story on TV, then proving it by transforming it on camera (once transformed, she actually looks more like a maltese terrier than a werewolf, but after all, it is Dee Wallace); this segues into the viewing audience’s response ("The newslady’s turned into a werewolf!" calls out a watching child, while inevitably, someone else remarks, "The things they can do with special effects!"), the revelation that Marsha has survived, and finally the parting shot of another clip from The Wolf Man (1941).

As in many of Joe Dante’s and John Sayles’ films, the screenplay is littered with in-jokes that entertain the buff without detracting from the story. Characters are named after werewolf-film directors, while in addition to Dick Miller's appearance, the film gives John Carradine one of his best late-career roles, and features cameos by Kenneth Tobey as a veteran cop, John Sayles as a morgue attendant, Forrest J. Ackerman as a bookshop customer, and Roger Corman as a man outside a phone-booth.

Corman alumnus Dante takes two swift swipes at his mentor, first by having Karen worry that he might be the killer, then by having the legendary penny-pincher scrabbling for coins in the phone’s change slot. There are several references to Corman’s own work here, including a newsreader’s sudden switch from his TV-voice to his natural accent, a joke lifted from The Wasp Woman (1955). The Howling may also have inspired an in-joke of its own: Dr Waggner’s book is called "The Beast Within", which is the title of Philippe Mora’s 1982 film about the offspring of monster rape, who himself undergoes a hideous transformation.

Footnote: The referenced directors' qualifications are as follows: George Waggner, The Wolf Man (1941); Terence Fisher, Curse Of The Werewolf (1960); Freddie Francis, Legend Of The Werewolf (1975); Erle C. Kenton, House Of Frankenstein (1944) and House Of Dracula (1945); Sam Newfield, The Mad Monster (1942); Roy William Neill, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943); Jerry Warren, Face Of The Screaming Werewolf (1964); Lew Landers, Return Of The Vampire (1944); Charles T. Barton, Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948); and Jacinto Molina, better known as Paul Naschy, who devoted his entire career to making werewolf movies, and usually played them.

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