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Retro Review 1981: The Howling

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Friday, April 22, 2011

The Howling (Original Release Date: 10 April 1981)

Some horror movie must have done a real number on my mother.  I was barely three when she started showing me scary movies.  At the time, I thought she was the one who wanted to watch them, and that she was simply being kind enough to let me watch them with her.  When I look back, though, I suspect she was on some kind of crusade.  There were the kids' movies she let me see/used to babysit me, and there were the movies she showed me.  The movies in the latter group were the ones she would sit down to watch with me.  I think she thought she was doing this for my benefit, as this was not the way she usually watched movies.  When she watched them for her own enjoyment, she watched them while multi-tasking.  Press play, pay bills, water horses, boil oyster stew, stabilize wobbly chair, stitch blown-out ass of bluejeans. 

When she sat down to watch movies with me, she frequently interrupted to make sure I understood what was going on. She also wanted to make sure I realized that what was on screen wasn't real.  Often, she would pause the movie to do this.  If there's a telltale sign she was watching these more for me than for her, it was this.  To this day, my mother never pauses a movie she sets out to watch for herself.  She may miss an hour or more. Doesn't matter.  If you're unlucky enough to be watching it while she's "watching" it, she will expect you to talk over the movie and synopsize what she missed.  ("Don't pause it!  Just tell me what happened!")

The horror-movie-to-non-horror-movie ratio was easily 2:1.  It was clearly important that I see these movies, and it was important that I not be scared by them.  The Howling was one of the movies she showed me.  She fast-forwarded through the sex, and I was told to cover my face whenever there was nudity on the screen, but the gore and profanity were presented to me in their entirety.  In some ways, then, I had the typical American upbringing.  If we're prudish about anything, it's the naked human form.  My mother also drew my attention to Dee Wallace, and reminded me that she was, as she put it, "E.T.'s Mom."  (Incidentally, the only movie that ever scared me as a child was another 1981 release: the original Clash of the Titans.  It was considered a "babysitter" movie, and I was left to watch it with no supervision.  I was convinced I would turn to stone if I ever looked at Medusa while she was on screen.  Maybe my mother should have pointed out to me that Ammon looked a lot like that gray-haired guy with the twisted mouth who kept shouting at Rocky.) 

Watching The Howling again, I'm a little surprised my mother presented it to me as horror.  It's full of silly characters and moments, in-jokes, and particularly un-threatening monsters.  The Howling werewolves are goofier looking than the one Rick Baker cooked up for An American Werewolf in London, and that movie is often labeled a comedy.  The other werewolf Baker cooked up for Landis--Michael Jackson's werewolf in the "Thriller" video--is also probably scarier than the Howling werewolves.  There's a rubbery quality to the transformations that makes it hard to take them seriously, and the werewolves' ears are so tall that it's hard not to look at them and laugh.  Rob Bottin, the Baker protégé who took over designer duties after Baker left to do An American Werewolf in London, would go on to do some great FX work (see: Carpenter's The Thing, Robocop) in the future. He acquits himself well here, but I'm not convinced the intention was (solely) to scare.

While I've seen The Howling described as the only "all-out horror" movie among the Class of '81's wolf pack  (other members of the pack: Full Moon High, the previously mentioned An American Werewolf in London, and Wolfen), I really don't think it is.  It probably comes a little closer than the rest, but I suspect Joe Dante paid too much attention at the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking to go full-on horror.  Or maybe it was just the times.  Looking at Landis's and Dante's werewolf movies side-by-side, I see a number of similarities.  I feel like both these guys are film fans first and horror fans second.  I'll probably review Landis's movie later on, so I don't want to concentrate too much on it now, but it, like The Howling, feels like it was made by a guarded director afraid to be caught with his tongue entirely out of cheek.  In The Howling, you get a subtle string of signs to let you know not to take it too seriously.  

There's John Carradine, an actor who presumably knows when to ham and when not to ham, hamming more as the token Eccentric Old Dude (with a twist) than he probably ever has.  There's Kevin McCarthy book-ending the movie with a performance that isn't all that far removed, tonally, from his role in UHF.  There's Corman alum and soon-to-be Dante regular Dick Miller (whenever a guy has a funny name, I feel it is my duty to point it out; Dick Miller has such a name) dropping in to deliver a few one-liners as a used bookseller.  There's a werewolf-teeth-baring Slim Pickens as a hick cop.  (I can probably Q.E.D. stamp it and stop right there.)  There's a woman we know to be a werewolf looking directly into the camera, smirking, and answering "rare" when asked how she wants her steak cooked.  There are characters who stare in stunned silence as men take upwards of two minutes to transform into werewolves.  (Granted, Bottin wants to show off his effects, and it can be argued that the characters are so rapt with terror they can't react, but these werewolves come across as utterly toothless while they're taking their sweet time to transform.)  There's a character very showily reading Ginsberg's Howl, and Chaney, Jr.'s Wolfman just happens to be on the television.  There's a werewolf sex scene that turns into a cartoon silhouette werewolf sex scene.  (Apparently, lack of funds was the culprit here.  That's the official story, anyway.  But in all honesty, wouldn't it take some time and money to animate such a scene?  I can't see how a two-second cartoon clip of two werewolf silhouettes transforming while they fuck would be cheaper than doing the same with puppets.  My guess is that they wanted to do an homage to the cartoon transformations of Universal vampires into bats--as can be seen in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, for example--but were cagey about it.) Also, Roger Corman shows up.

Still, it's by no means a comedy.  The subject matter is, on the whole, pretty heavy.  Much of what drives the movie is Wallace's character's attempt to cope with her near rape-murder at the hands of a serial killer in the movie's opening scene.  Another driving element is her attempt to reconnect with her husband.  Her encounter with the serial killer has left her emotionally distant--something of a last straw for her husband, who is already emasculated by her being the relationship's bread-earner.  They carry this baggage with them to a cultish retreat buried off in woods and away from civilization.  

The scenario is begging for werewolves, and it gets them.  It gets them on its own terms, though.  They look more lupine than cinematic werewolves had looked up to that point, and their transformations aren't dependent on lunar cycles.  They aren't even dependent on the moon's presence in the sky, which gives the movie some freedom to dash expectations and throw in a surprise transformation or two.  If there's a genius to The Howling, it's this: it dares to mess with the accepted mythology while continually reassuring us it's well-versed in it.  This works more often than it doesn't.  The Howling works, too, though it sometimes works better as a love letter to cinema than it does as a horror movie.

The Final Word: Recommended?  Maybe.  Older horror hounds may find it satisfying, but younger horror fans are liable to find it tame and dull.  Practical effects fans will probably want to see it for the transformations.  The end result of the transformation may not be all that scary, but the transformation itself is pretty impressive, and some of the in-between stages are a good bit creepier than the fully formed werewolf.  I mention the rubbery quality of the wolves' transformations above, but considering the medium (latex), I'd say it was an inevitability.  In terms of physical effects, Bottin's werewolf transformation scenes are considered to be second only to Baker's.  When the only other person who ever did it better than you is Rick Baker, there's no need to be ashamed.

Availability: You will have no trouble finding this.  Amazon has it on DVD and Blu-ray, and it's available on Netflix Instant.

Standout Scene: The transformation scene is it.  It's the reason anyone may remember this movie seventy years from now.

Hey!  I Know That Guy!: I blew my load on this one up above, where I mentioned all those cameos by name.  The only actor I withheld from you is Patrick Macnee, since he has a full supporting role in the movie.  Macnee is probably most famous for his role as John Steed in The Avengers.

Nostalgia Score: 7/10

 

 

Review Score: 68 / 100

Jack S. Pharaoh
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Posts: 2231
Posted: 7 years 8 weeks ago

I remember watching 'The Howling' years ago when I was a teenager, probably on TNT or some other cable channel.  It seemed pretty cool at the time, since I liked fantasy, horror, monsters, people turning into monsters, and sex.  I watched the movie again this weekend, and I kinda liked it, though I simultaneously found it not that interesting.  I remember as a kid liking that scene at the end where she changes into a werewolf on TV to show the world that they exist (and I found it hysterical watching it this time that the guy just shoots her right there on the air).  That seemed like a weird ending, both then and now; these stories always exist in this kind of weird reality, where it's supposed to be the real world (I guess) but then they explain how things like werewolves really exist but nobody knows about them.  Sometimes, in something like 'They Live', the goal is to get the word out, but usually the heroes want to kill the monsters without anybody outside their group finding out what is going on, like in 'The Lost Boys' (mostly I think this is done because movies like to focus on a few characters who are fighting against something, so even if one of them tells the cops they won't be believed, though then there will probably be a payoff where the cop finds out the supernatural stuff is real, probably right before he bites it).  Having the lead character reveal herself as a werewolf on TV sort of breaks the reality of the movie away from our reality a little more, but since it comes at the end I guess it doesn't matter unless there's a sequel (which I guess there is, but I haven't seen it).

The Swollen Goi...
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Posts: 14343
Posted: 7 years 8 weeks ago

Thursty probably wanted to get into the absurdity of the ending, but ran out of space.  He tells me that's the most frustrating thing about doing this.  He's a wordy motherfucker, and it takes him a damned mile to get to the point.  He tells me he has a self-imposed word limit, though it appears to shift around a lot, so I'm not sure he's taking it very seriously.

I, personally, think the ending is a mixed bag.  It tries to do too much.  First, you have the cutesy DeeWolf, who doesn't look anything like the other werewolves we're shown.  I see where some IMDb users have argued that she's cutesier because she "resisted."  I dunno.  Seems lame.  That should probably be the ending, but they try to give it an underlying irony by cutting to people viewing it in a pub.  Most of the people watching appear to think it's a makeup-enhanced stunt.  (It sure looks like one.  I don't blame them for believing this.)  Even the ones who don't don't make a big deal out of it.  Consider this exchange, which also seems like it should end the movie:

Guy 1: "It was real. She turned into a werewolf, and they shot her."
Guy 2: "You're plastered."
Guy 1: "Doesn't mean it wasn't real."

I guess all this is supposed to be understood as societal commentary.  It's a pretty dull bit of commentary.  Yes, we're desensitized.  We know this.  (We're desensitized to being told we're desensitized, as the old joke goes.)

Still the movie doesn't end.  The camera keeps floating around this pub, where we finally stop on a character we've met before and know to be a werewolf.  She orders a hamburger.  She's asked how she wants it cooked.  She looks directly into the camera, smiles, and says, "Rare."  

You have the serious ending, the ironic/social commentary ending, and the joke ending.  It's too much.
 

 

Quasar
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Posts: 7588
Posted: 7 years 8 weeks ago

I think they should want their meat to be "bloody".

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline