31 Days to Scare ~ The Howling (1981)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a bizarre and near-deadly encounter with a serial killer, a television newswoman is sent to a remote mountain resort whose residents may not be what they seem.
Stars: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Elisabeth Brooks
Director: Joe Dante
Rated: R
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Memories of trips to the various local video stores we had in our neighborhood growing up are seared into my mind. Lacking the branding and organization of a big-name retailer, these mom-and-pop storefronts would be like entering a new world each time you go in. Who knows what you would find on their shelves or the layout? It’s why I always begged my parents to let me go into any video rental store we saw when we traveled. One of my most vivid memories was of G&M Video, a few scant blocks from my home that I could easily walk to. Rows of worn VHS boxes were spread onto tiers, and before small outlets acquired large stockpiles of films, there was enough space for each movie to be well-featured. 

Before I was old enough to have a say in what movies we rented, two VHS covers always drew me in, fascinating me as to what scary stories they could be waiting to tell. These were 1981’s The Howling and 1985’s Howling II (which I later learned was subtitled the comical Your Sister’s a Werewolf), and both had tantalizing marketing, early examples of perfect visual hooks to nab viewers’ attention. Despite my pleading, it took me a while to catch Howling II, and the less said about that silly and horny film, the better. However, strangely enough, the video clerk told my parents The Howling wouldn’t scar me so I could see it early.

Based on a 1977 novel by Gary Bradner and adapted by John Sayles (who wrote Alligator the year earlier), director Joe Dante’s The Howling is often included in the list of classic ’80s horror films and is an entry in the cycle of werewolf films notable for its landmark effects. News anchor Karen White (horror legend Dee Wallace, The Lords of Salem) is nearly killed while helping the police catch her stalker, a noted murderer who assaults her in an adult movie arcade before being gunned down by cops. Psychologically damaged, she accepts an offer from her therapist (Patrick Macnee, A View to a Kill) to visit The Colony, his secluded forest retreat in Northern California.

Arriving with her husband (Christopher Stone, Wallace’s spouse IRL), Karen nervously attempts to relax and begin a healing process through therapy. However, she is distracted by the weird residents and a creepy howling on the foggy nights. As her colleagues back in L.A. (Dennis Dugan, Parenthood, and Belinda Balaski, Matinee) research the man who nearly killed Karen, they uncover details that suggest he might have been something other than human. When his body vanishes from the morgue, the red flag is raised. Back at The Colony, Karen’s husband is becoming distant, possibly because of slinky Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), and she begins to suspect her peaceful paradise is a sinister front for a secret society that will go to deadly lengths not to be exposed.

It had been some time since I’d sat down and watched The Howling from start to finish, and in my mind, I had remembered a film with more propulsive energy. Dante kicks things off with a doozy of an opener, a grimy and creepy visit to the seedy L.A. strip of adult bookstores and XXX movie houses that no longer exist. Once that’s done, it takes a while for anything else to happen until our first hairy beast arrives. The script from Sayles is wryly humorous throughout, nicely ribbing the frou-frou new age psychology so popular in that era. Still, much of the dialogue is flat and uninteresting, exposition at its most obvious.

When Dante does kick it into gear, such as a tense chase of one doomed character that extends into multiple locations, it shows the director’s still developing talent for concise storytelling and the ability to lead the audience exactly where he wants them. Wallace has some nice moments, but overall, I think she’s been more effective in her other known-for works (Cujo, E.T., Critters, The Frighteners). The entire cast is solid, with Dante casting several familiar faces in cameos like cinematic Easter eggs.

Noted at the time for its effects, The Howling can’t help but look dated now in this era of CGI. You must mentally throw the forty years of technological advancements away and put yourself back in the shoes of the skilled artists who problem-solved their way to these impressive achievements. Yes, they look a little shoddy at times, and the effort to display each featured change takes up multiple minutes of screen time, but the practical effects are equally unique to see in action. It always makes me wonder why a victim would pause and watch someone turn into a werewolf for three minutes like the viewer has to…but that’s just a logical piece I must get over.  

Call The Howling a landmark, a classic, iconic, whatever. Yes, it’s all those things that helped move the careers of its filmmakers and cast forward.   It hasn’t aged well, though, so it’s hard to encourage more than a casual rewatch for old-time’s sake. I showed it to someone who had never seen it, excited for them to experience it for the first time, and was disappointed that it felt so slow and uneventful. Seven sequels of degrading quality followed it (do check out Howling V: The Rebirth; that one is fun!), but I’m going to be a bit blasphemous and say this is another franchise I’m amazed hasn’t been revisited. There’s strong remake potential here, even going back to the source novel (and its sequels) that was altered in adaptation. Someone must be considering it; what’s the worst that could happen?

Where to watch The Howling

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