Synopsis: A disillusioned housewife returns to her family home in a small Nevada town and discovers her father missing, strange behavior by the townsfolk and a mysterious howling in the woods at night.
Stars: Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman, John Rubinstein, Vera Miles, Tyne Daly
Director: Daniel Petrie
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: The phenomenon known as the YouTube black hole is real thing. There have been times when I’ve logged onto the popular streaming site to look for one short clip and wound up, hours later, having exhausted myself viewing endless videos of something else entirely. One late night spiral led me down the path of old TV movies never formally released on any kind of video (VHS, DVD, BluRay, etc.) and, more specifically, the thrillers produced by major television networks featuring their top tier talent. A number of these are fondly remembered as the first exposure some had to being truly frightened as a child, though watching them as an adult the effect is admittedly not as severe.
What truly has surprised me is reading up on these films and noting how highly rated they are by viewers even now and that made them an attractive opportunity for inclusion in 31 Days to Scare. A few years back, I covered the creepy Christmas-set 1972 Home for the Holidays starring Sally Field and a number of other well-respected actors and that one actually held up over time. Over the past year, I had saved a few to have at the ready for this month and found myself in the mood the other night roll the dice on a title I selected at random. So I ditched plans for the newer crop of films I had queued up and put aside the classic titles on physical media that were on my “To Watch” list in favor of the low-quality kitsch of 1971’s A Howling in the Woods.
Premiering in November 1971 on NBC, A Howling in the Woods was produced by Universal Television (it even starts with the modified Universal logo…glorious) and reunited I Dream of Jeannie stars Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman. Based on Velda Johnston’s 1968 novel, the film was directed by Daniel Petire who already had a huge list of TV and film credits (including the 1961 version of A Raisin in the Sun) to his name. Rounding out the cast are John Rubinstein, before he made his Broadway debut in the title role in the original cast of Pippin, an early performance Tyne Daly who already hinted at the solid Emmy winning actress she’d become, and still-stunning Vera Miles (Psycho II) as Eden’s warm stepmother. Scored by future eight-time Oscar nominee Dave Grusin and shot on location in picturesque wintery Lake Tahoe, the made for TV movie looks and sounds great all around. I mention all these credits up front to give you an idea of the level of production value in front of and behind the scenes that went into this because it wasn’t unusual for these types of films to have an A-team assembled.
So…to the story. I’m not sure how closely Richard DeRoy’s adaptation follows Johnston’s novel but this mainly revolves around Liza Crocker (Eden) returning to her hometown (Stainesville, named after her family) after years of being away and not receiving the warmest of welcomes. Former friends now give her the cold shoulder and business owners grudgingly provide service and not with a smile. What has she done to deserve this? She certainly seems like a pleasant person with her glam fashion and perfect hair and make-up. Speaking of that, I did find it hilarious that Eden is never anything but totally flawless throughout; even when caught in the rain her hair is never out of place nor does her mascara run. And, of course, she goes to bed in full 0make-up, fake eyelashes, foundation, eyeshadow, et. al.
Arriving at the inn owned by her family, she is greeted by her stepmother, Rose (Miles), and a stepbrother, Justin (Rubinstein), she never knew she had. Her father is unexpectedly out of town in Mexico, which makes sense at first since Liza’s visit wasn’t planned and none of them knew she was arriving. She’s come home without notice because she’s leaving her husband (Hagman) for reasons we’re never quite sure of (it still isn’t clear to me now) but no matter, Rose and Justin are happy she’s there and make her feel at ease even if the townspeople make her feel uneasy. Then, she begins to hear a howling in the nearby woods and though she’s told by everyone to ignore it, she can’t resist investigating the source, uncovering a mystery (or maybe two) meant to stay a secret.
There’s good atmosphere to be had here and, more importantly, good acting throughout by a cast that knows how to handle this kind of material. It’s not incredibly deep stuff nor is the mystery all that hard to decipher once one thread it is pulled out, however there are still a few surprises to be had along the way. Mostly, it’s a pleasantly paced and accomplished work that has more thought put into it than many similarly pitched thriller films you’d see produced today. Watching it now you’ll find things to pick apart or wish would be handled better for overall pacing issues but by and large I can see why this one is still popular with fans of these old television classics.
Evidently, someone else thought this was a cut above the rest as well because like a number of other TV films A Howling in the Woods was picked up for international distribution and released theatrically in Europe. I can’t imagine this playing well in a movie theater, it’s too small of a production to work well on a big screen, even watching on my large television was slightly too much. However, if you happen to have 93 minutes to spare on a phone/laptop/or can stream this to your smaller TV, you might get a nice throwback thrill from this.
Here’s A Howling in the Woods on YouTube, in case you were interested!