The Howling Review
Please note that this review is for the German Blu-ray release of The Howling from Kinowelt, and is encoded for Region B.
Remember my previous two werewolf movie festivals, entitled Full Moon Frenzy? Well, there was one glaring omission from that ravenous roster … but, here, at long last, is one of the most celebrated members of the pack! So bolt the doors and lock the windows, pop a silver bullet into the chamber and listen out for the sound of The Howling.
“Honey, you were raised in L.A. The wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack!”
As any horror fan can tell you, 1981 was the Great Year of the Werewolf Movie. Michael Wadleigh’s awesome Wolfen may not have actually boasted wolf-men running about their New York hunting ground, but its terrifying atmosphere and adherence to Indian shape-shifting mythology and genuine lupine stars puts the film firmly on the furry map. Low-budget horror auteur Larry Cohen uncharacteristically fumbled the ball when he brought us the howling japes of Full Moon High, though. But, most famously, this was the year that saw the two modern classics of the genre go almost snout-to-elongating-snout at the box office in a rip ‘em up riot of contorting bodies, savaged flesh and much howling at the Moon. Joe Dante’s The Howling just beat John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London to a release and brought the new breed of special makeup effects to a stunned audience first, launching prosthetic wunderkind, and new kid on the block (literally … he was only twenty-one) Rob Bottin upon an unsuspecting world … and opened the floodgates to the joys of pulsating air-bladders, latex, chango-heads, latex, animatronics and yet more latex.
With a screenplay from the ever-witty John Sayles, augmented by Terence H. Winkless (based very loosely on the rather crass and trashy novel by Gary Brandner), that didn't take itself too seriously but was hardly overtly comical either, Joe Dante modernised the myth for the first proper time since The Beast Must Die, from Amicus (see my DVD review). The contemporary setting of California – first the neon-draped sleaze of downtown LA, and then the type of gorgeous northern bay retreat that was also the sort of locale that would be terrorised in John Carpenter’s The Fog, and might see Angela Lansbury's Yankified Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, going for a morning constitutional to get her deductive juices flowing – was able to evoke the spectral glens and woods of medieval folklore and, ironically, return the werewolf to his more traditional environment. And this mix 'n' match of the tried and trusted with the more modern was the thing that thrillingly shunted the hairy sub-genre out of the gothic and made it more palatable for audiences who had left period chills long behind in the wake of The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alien. Indeed, the script revolves around the very predicament that the modern werewolf faces in these times of television, hardcore porn, fast food, celebrity psychotherapists and within a society that has been weaned on the mythology of their existence via a plethora of books and movies. What's a self-respecting wolf man to do?
Well, if you happen to be Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo, long before he traversed the stars in Trek spin-off, Voyager), gifted artist, raw-meat-eater and sexual deviant, you prowl the urban forest and prey on the nubile vixens you find out there on the street beneath a neon moon. But Eddie, or The Murdering Messiah as the press have christened him, like so many serial killers before him, wants more. He wants celebrity and fame, no matter how grizzled and ravaged such notoriety may be. Getting in touch with go-getting TV newswoman, Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone), he arranges to meet her so that she can learn all about his, ahem, curious appetites. Intrepidly, she agrees to a rendezvous with the infamous murderer, much against her husband's wishes and all to the hand-rubbing glee of ratings-greedy TV station, Channel 6, that she works for. With the signal fading from her hidden microphone the deeper she gets into the seedy part of town, the police “sting” operation that is backing her up in the hopes of ensnaring this monster suddenly looks as though it has left her at his mercy. The opening of The Howling is filled with the dread and suspense of this taut set-piece, Dante capturing the danger of a hormonal hunting ground in which even mortal men can be reduced to slavering monsters and a lone female courts the attention of wicked desires that have no need of any supernatural Viagra. Needless to say, the operation almost goes horribly wrong. Trapped within a porno film-booth with Eddie, Karen witnesses the beginning of some sort of transformation, the projector-light masking any details. With no apparent escape, Karen is lucky that a jittery cop who has just arrived on the scene in the nick of time, blasts Eddie full of lead, and she is hauled to safety.
The ordeal has left deep psychological scars on her, though. A breakdown in front of the cameras prompts her into seeking the help of renowned pop-psychiatrist, Dr. George Waggner (a post-New Avengers Patrick Macnee), who immediately recommends that she goes to his secluded private colony up north, a country retreat for people who have undergone emotional problems and suffer dreadful anxieties, and a place that should do her the power of good. Yeah, right.
As a front for a mismatched pack of werewolves, a sojourn at Waggner's variation on CentreParcs is going to be anything but restful, or recuperative. The woods are filled with the sound of howling, day and night, and the chewed-up remains of cows litter the idyllic scenery. The locals are an odd enough bunch even before they change into something a little, um, more comfortably hairy. The local nymphomaniac has the hots for Karen's vegetarian husband, Bill (Christopher Stone), and his sudden hankering for meat, a nibble on the arm and a few rogue scratches on his back mean that he may have bitten off more than he can chew after an extra-marital session of making the beast with two backs. Feeling increasingly isolated and frightened, Karen turns to her friends back in the city for help. Terry, played by the perky and irresistible Belinda Balaski (a regular with Dante, and no stranger to fanged terrors after being gobbled-up by the titular critters in Piranha), makes the trip up the coast, but the welcoming committee is indecently pleased to grrr-eat her. Dennis Duggan leaves his fresh-faced astronaut from Disney’s The Spaceman And King Arthur far behind as the valiant wolf-hunting rescuer, Christopher. Hot on the trail of Terry, his girlfriend, he knows enough that he will need silver bullets if he is do-battle with a tribe of lycanthropes. And, with nary a let-up in the film's adroit pace, The Howling crashes into a miasma of contorting flesh and bone, taloned hands and gleaming gnashers, and blessed high-calibre silver retribution.
Dee Wallace-Stone (then just Dee Wallace until she married co-star Christopher Stone) was on the fast-track to becoming a darling of the horror/fantasy circuit. A bloody stint for Wes Craven in The Hills Have Eyes (BD release soon, please!) and battling another fanged aggressor in Lewis Teague's claustrophobic Cujo, plus playing reluctant mum to a loveable space-turd in ET have ensured her status as a cult heroine. But as the beleaguered TV journalist Karen White, Wallace gets to lose some of her genuine bravado and play it all rather sappy. But this is exactly as it should be. She is playing someone who has gone through a terrifying ordeal and has been taken down a good few pegs as a result. Traumatised by the initial confrontation with Eddie Quist is one thing, but then she has to face the possibility of husband who is cheating on her with the local she-bitch too. Well, there’s worse to come, of course, but whilst Wallace acquits herself quite honourably, she is also saddled with a role that often relegates her to merely standing in front of large chunks of plot development and simply reacting to them … usually with screams, if she can actually get past that gasping, choked-for-air stage. I will say, however, that her reaction to the horrific discovery of a friend's mangled body is woefully poor and unconvincing, but she definitely has the best legs in shorts during that tennis scene. Still working like there's no tomorrow, the ever-sarcastic Kansas girl has had a few more genre entries lately, in the likes of the Halloween remake and The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto, both for Rob Zombie, the creepy 80's throwback The House Of The Devil (see separate BD review) and the more recent Raven.
Elsewhere, the cast is an eclectic bunch of the familiar and the dependable, turning The Howling into a compendium of likeable characters, and something of a who's who of genre film endeavour. Slim Pickens wobbles his jowls as the colony’s resident rozzer, Sheriff Sam Newfield, and who doesn’t feel a pang of bliss when even the most reliable cowboy on the range reveals his fangs? Kevin Conroy, a stalwart of fantasy with the likes of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (both the original and the 1978 remake – see separate reviews) and Piranha to his credit, hams it up as the head of Channel 6, mugging in a way that clearly spearheads his similarly histrionic performance in Dante’s episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie, “It's A Good Life”. Macnee was an odd, but an enjoyable choice. Mellifluous and all very English, even down to the cravat nestling within that safari-jacket, he strikes up that aloof quality of toffish academia, actually lending a sense of propriety and wisdom to what is really a façade for the wild-life enclosure he is running.
Whilst Elisabeth Brooks vamps it up as the voodoo-witch-nympho, Marsha, Don McLeod licks his lips and runs through the woods as nimble-footed and as instinctual as a bestial Rambo, as her feral brother, TC. With their surname being Quist, the same as the Murdering Messiah, our hackles are set to rise, especially when we realise that their big brother, who hasn't been killed by the rookie cop's non-silver bullets, has probably come home to the lair. Brooks does a mean, sexed-up Barbara Steele impersonation – all pout, cleavage and soul-burning eyes – but she is not a very good actress. She does, of course, make up for this in other ways. There are shades of the cannibal clan from The Hills Have Eyes about this dysfunctional, gypsy-like family. Both Eddie and TC are rogues without any moral code, other than loyalty to their own, but the screenplay clearly misses an intriguing avenue by never making any reference to this cohesive family-unit, other than the unsurprising realisation that Terry makes regarding their connection. Marsha and TC never mention Eddie, even though they would surely know all about Karen's encounter with him and would be harbouring some form of grudge. And, for his part, Eddie does not concern himself with any potential reunion upon his return. Robert Picardo, already a renowned stage actor by the time he made his film debut here (Benecio Del Toro's thespic variation of Larry Talbot in the enjoyable, but lame remake of The Wolf Man, is almost like a pun on this), isn't given a great deal to do, but his major sequence still offers a performance of bravura intensity and a chillingly laconic charm. And no matter what else he ever does, he will always be known as the big werewolf from The Howling.
None of these parts are particularly well-written. In fact, apart from what are obvious cameos from Pickens and Conroy, they are all just baton-changers for a plot that pretty much downsizes its originality and intelligence once the initial hook and conceit have dug their claws in. Even as a huge fan of the film, I know that The Howling has only the slimmest and most threadbare of stories. And what narrative we do get is littered with illogical developments and simple devices to link us to those celebrated set-pieces. But this is no detriment to a tale that obligingly sports us an anthropomorphic anomaly who can pluck a none-silver bullet from his cranium and spout the classic line, “I want to give you a piece of my mind,” before huffing-and-puffing his way into Horror's Hall of Fame.
What Dante did was to deliver a love-letter to a genre, and a creature that he clearly adored. The amount of in-jokes he stuffs into the film is extraordinary, even for a director that has made a career out of such knowingly movie-savvy shtick. Dr. George Waggner has been named after the director of the classic 1941 version of The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jnr., a portrait of whom actually hangs on the wall of the good doctor’s office. Plenty of other horror helmers are name-checked by the rest of the cast, as well, so get Googling those credits, though all have something to do with the more toothy of the classic monsters, such as Terry Fisher (director of Hammer's Curse Of The Werewolf) and Conroy's Fred Francis (helmer of Legend Of The Werewolf). The original film is even playing on the late show in Terry’s and Christopher’s place just as a pivotal character has been fatefully bitten. Dick Miller, who is virtually a living, breathing movie in-joke, himself, appears as Walter Paisley, the proprietor of that fantastic horror store that we all wish really existed, but be sure to check out the customer he ushers along – it’s good old Forrest J. Ackerman, creator of the cult magazine Famous Monsters Of Filmland, copies of which he clutches quite prominently in-shot. Even Roger Corman puts in an appearance as a guy that Karen initially thinks might be Eddie, as well as a Hitchcockian camero from Dante, himself. There’s good old Kenneth Tobey, the valiant US Air Force Captain who battles The Thing From Another World as the more wizened and cynical cop during the introductory nerve-jangler. Although we see lots of Big Bad Wolf cartoons on various TV screens, keep your eyes open for the little jars of Wolf Chilli, a paperback copy of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl on the desk, a pot of Wolfe's Treatment for ulcers, and various other lupine allusions and hints. There's even the mummified corpse of Grandma, lifted wholesale from that house of evil in Texas Chainsaw, sitting proudly in Miller's bizarre bazaar. At times, this sort of thing borders on the ridiculous if you're simply watching the film and looking for these references … as you won't be able to keep up with such a steady stream.
Dante does play about with the legend a little. Silver bullets may still do the honours on our hirsute friends/fiends, but these critters can transform whenever they want, succumbing to the beast within at will. I like this element because it gives them more determination, more purpose and eliminates the tragic, “woe-is-me” attitude that the affliction has caused in far too many werewolf candidates down the ages. If these guys can shape-shift when the mood takes them, or when the need arises, then they are considerably more formidable a foe. Plus, these guys actually want to be werewolves. They love it. This is the big difference that Dante’s film made to the cinematic strand of the lore. We aren’t supposed to sympathise with them, and this was a radical new dimension for the mythology. Plus, if Dick Miller says that the “classical werewolf can change whenever he wants” then it must be true!
But if Dante and Sayles don’t just stick with the hairy-angst of things, and are keen to point out that some of these guys cherish the “gift” of being werewolves - and, let’s face it, who wouldn’t? - they still address the difficulty of having such a condition in this enlightened age. This is the crux of Waggner’s colony, the very thing that he understands but rallies against. The beast will out … and every dog will demand its day. Whereas the overwhelming majority of wolf man movies, and stories, up until The Howling, had reflected upon the tragedy of poor victims cursed with the unwanted ability to change into a murderous monster and commit crimes that are abhorrent to their nature, Dante’s vision reversed this almost unanimous concession and presented us with a caste that actually enjoyed the “gift”, as Waggner calls it. There are various political interpretations to this of course, but let’s be honest, neither Dante nor Sayles really had metaphors of minority persecution in mind when the colony mutinies and reverts to its natural state, turning on its Dr. Moreau-style protector. Pack mentality is represented, but there is also much allowance made for the individual – the Quist family gamely embody such a wild and free spirit.
The Howling even opened up the concept of gun-toting werewolves. They may not be in the same uber-athletic league of cart-wheeling martial artists armed with sub-machine guns as the Underworld series or even assume the street-gang thuggery of Skin-Walkers, but there is the acknowledgement that weaponry could be a necessity in certain situations, although it is more akin to a cowpoke defending his ranch with a Winchester than the multi-mag strafing of some gung-ho avenger employing bullet-time acrobatics.
We’re going to take a close look at these beasts now … because, to date, they are the most frightening, and the downright coolest werewolves that the big screen has yet been able to conjure. And there's no CG in sight! The Bottin/Baker hybrid is definitely the Best Breed in Show. That’s right, I said Bottin/Baker hybrid … as in Rick Baker. Although we all know that Rob Bottin would get the credit for creating these fabulous bipedal monstrosities, the gig had originally been set for the already established and acclaimed Rick Baker. But when Landis’ unbelievably similar venture got the green-light after years languishing in development limbo, Baker took his groundbreaking ideas and jumped ship. However, the young man that he had been tutoring in such body-warping skills – he had recognised a unique talent in the teenage Bottin and took him under his wing several years before – he left behind to try his hand or, ahem, his paw at the job for Dante. Having already worked for the director before on 1978’s satirical flesh-chomper, Piranha (see separate BD review), and done some maritime wraith makeup for John Carpenter’s The Fog, Bottin was no stranger to a large-scale effects-shop, or the deadlines that they engender. But this was, without a doubt, the biggest gig of his career so far, and his effects would be the centre-piece of the whole show. Just as well, then, that Baker chose to oversee his efforts … although he did it largely without credit.
It is always fun to compare and contrast the transformations from The Howling with what Rick Baker did, and won an Oscar for, in American Werewolf. Both sequences were revolutionary and state-of-the-art, and both employed identical techniques that had been devised and pioneered by Baker. But they are miles apart in terms of execution. David Naughton's character is a alone, nude and in a well-lit room for his painful and unwanted metamorphosis in Landis' film. Robert Picardo has an audience before him, undergoes his change in the creepy shadows, and clearly loves every bone-stretching, sinew-snapping, muscle-swelling moment of it. And this is the crucial thing to remember about this protracted bout of bodily reconfiguration – it only lasts this long because Eddie is showing off. We can see that later werewolves can change pretty damn quickly when they want to, thus this monster is relishing the experience and dragging the whole thing out. And, of course, this is the movie's big money-moment, and neither Dante nor Bottin wants us to miss a thing. I also think that it is important to add that, at the midway point in David Naughton's harrowing change, the half-man, half wolf creature that he has become looks, quite frankly, silly, with that Peter Sutcliffe wig and those drumming paws. Picardo's Eddie never looks less than terrifying throughout the whole affair. It is also pretty clear that Bottin was modelling Eddie's look upon himself, as Picardo has often remarked.
Despite those annoying cutaways to Dee Wallace, the sequence is as scary as it is fascinating. Snot dribbling down from an enlarging snout. The fluttering claws of a lengthening paw rising up and up, the camera struggling to keep in line with a body that is steadily rising in stature from the ground and bursting, Hulk-style, from the confines of its clothes. I love the shot of Eddie with his arms outstretched to unveil an impressive chest that he thrusts out with strongman vigour a little further with each growling exhalation. The moody blue lighting, sound effects and general procedure was aped to perfection by Albert Pyun in the ludicrously entertaining The Sword And The Sorcerer which came out in the wake of the werewolf onslaught – the demonic necromancer of the title performing a very similar chest-bulging routine during one sequence. Savour the moment when Eddie grins at his own claws cutting their way out of the tops of his fingers, and then looks towards Karen to assess her reaction. The more that you watch the scene, and the more that you appreciate how Eddie is doing all this as a form of showboating torture, the darker and more frightening the whole thing becomes.
Dante deliberately opted to go for the upright, two-legged variant of the species as opposed to the fully lupine form that we see in American Werewolf, or The Beast Must Die. In this way he harkens back to the Universal vogue of The Wolf Man and his various appearances, Oliver Reed in Hammer's single feature-length sortie, David Rintoul's striking silver-white throat-biter in Tyburn's The Legend Of The Werewolf and Paul Naschy's rather rotund Spanish character of the noble neck-nibbler, Waldenar Daninski. The tall elegance of the Lassie-headed Highland pack in Dog Soldiers was a sure homage to Dante's werewolves, but where these more ragged entities win out over Neil Marshall's more balletic breed is in their sheer malevolence. These guys aren't pretty … and you definitely wouldn't want to stroke them. Fuzzy grey fur envelopes them with an itchy, scabbed courseness. Massively pointed ears make it clear that they could probably hear you on the Moon. Long limbs, tipped with cruel human-talons give them the aura of infernal dexterity – indeed, in one of the classic scenes, we even see a mighty paw reach down into the frame to pluck a dossier from an unsuspecting victim's hand, and to casually swipe the wide-eyed damsel to the floor.
It is justifiable to say that Bottin's raggedy-assed carnivores do actually resemble an embittered 8-foot tall version of Hartley Hare from the 70's kids' show Pipkins (come on, now, there's a few of you out there who remember this and know what I'm talking about), but there is an undeniably rage-filled pleasure at their own savagery about them that is quite heart-stopping to behold.
They even played about with stop-motion animation, courtesy of Jim Danforth, whose work graced Piranha with that adorable little Harryhausen-esque homunculus in the lab. Sadly, the results were not up to scratch and wouldn't convince opposite live-action, yet we must give Dante and his crew credit for trying to fully realise a creature that couldn't be mistaken for simply a man in a furry suit. A couple of stop-motion shots can still be seen, and they do create a wonderfully fantastical image for the brief time that they last, but they do stick out a mile as being stop-motion, though. And then there is that hairy sex scene that climaxes with an imaginative rotoscope-animation image from Peter Kuran. It is great to see so many techniques employed on a film when, today, everything would have been done on a computer. It shows the real passion that Dante and co. infused the production with.
Dante's wolf-men even seem able to throw their voices or, at least, to house some in-throat graphic equaliser enabling them to oscillate and calibrate their vocal range throughout the woods and, especially, to taunt their would-be victims. It is nice touch, and one that would cry out for a full surround sound-mix. As it stands, Dante and Ken King, his sound-designer, are able to thoroughly intensify the dynamics of such creep-out ambience, when the scene calls for it. Much is made of recorded sound, too. Eddie Quist, in-keeping with his salacious attitude, is addicted to recording his own howling and the screams of his dinner, and then playing back such ominous cues for his own delectation … and the taunting of others. Flash this story forward a couple of decades and Eddie would be filming his kills on a camera phone.
Although American Werewolf was a lot gorier and really showed you what such a savage monster could do to a human body, The Howling does supply an inordinately creepy and very disturbing on-screen kill … predictably from the grotesque Eddy-wolf Lifting its squealing and kicking prey high up towards it's cavernous jaws, horribly leering in close and sniffing as the morsel wriggles in paroxysms of terror, that countenance and snout so damn diabolical, it makes the kill with a surreal gentility – and even though we don't actually witness the teeth going in, we do feel them as the victim hangs off the jaws and slowly, ever so slowly, expires. It is almost akin to how a vampire drains the last dregs from his supper, strangely refined in spite of being such an incredibly savage and bestial slayer. But this is also how lions happily toy with a captured gazelle, savouring its last death-throes. Yet when the time comes for ferocity, these big fellers don't hold back either. The attack on Terry, which is very reminiscent of similar scenes in William Girdler's guilty-pleasure classic, Grizzly, is furiously well done. Even if the beast is really only glimpsed for a couple of seconds in each shot (it was the initial Bottin suit, and not up to prolonged exposure) the impression is of one gi-normous and very powerful monster. For me, this set-piece is still a white-knuckler and, in a show of complete audacity, Dante even has it play out in broad daylight, completely tossing convention to the wind!
I like the way that Dante even sets his main set-pieces all within the one room – Dr. Waggner's office - and all in quick succession too. It is cost-cutting par excellence, and he uses this one-set location exceptionally well, too. It is a thrice engaged battleground that does, admittedly, mean that he is able to half, at least, his coverage of three pivotal scenes and, inevitably, this leads to a swift feeling of deja vu. But the devastating effect of this triple-whammy is well worth the repetition. Dante's DOP, John Hora, works wonders with the outdoor scenes and creates excellently spectral woodland vistas. Look at the magical shot of the mist swirling from the left and right sides of the frame, leaving the central image of a foreboding copse utterly free of the stuff, almost at though the mist is weaving around the woods at will. Or the fleeting shot of a big grey paw as Terry foolishly probes deeper into the mysterious forest. Dante likes to shift angles around as well, and Hora creates a great couple of images that reflect just such a lurid comic-book visual style. We even get one of those Spielberg/Jaws wraparound zooms as well, Dante ensuring that he wrings every last scrap of class and ingenuity out of his film.
We can't overlook two glaring idiocies, though. Well, three, actually.
Everyone cites how ridiculous it is to simply stand there and stare as an already violent and disturbed man then changes into an eight foot tall monster right before your very eyes – yet this is precisely what Dee Wallace-Stone does during that show-stopping effects-cavalcade. We can argue back and forth about the fight-or-flight syndrome, and the paralysis that sets in when this impulse fails to activate, and Dante's own simple assertion that “Hey, it's a horror film!”, but the fact remains that it is, ultimately, dumb to the point of lunacy. I like to think that Karen is, um, transfixed, or mesmerised by the fantastic metamorphosis that she is witness to … and, hey, I reckon that's as good an excuse as we need. She's as impressed with Rob Bottin's work as we are!
And then there is Terry's lone walk through the forest after she has sussed out that the colony is situated exactly in the place that Eddie Quist has been sketching. When strange noises alert her to the presence of a possible stalker, and then she even hears her own name being snarled at her from the somewhere in the trees, she is still able to just switch off and conduct her own impromptu investigation in that seemingly deserted cabin, instead of just attempting to get the hell back to civilisation in a hurry.
But perhaps the biggest groan-inducer comes at the finale, when, after all the incredible transformations and monsters that we have seen, we are treated to the lame and giggle-inducing spectacle of the cutest werewolf that ever sniffed and growled. Honestly, this thing just looks like Chewbacca's little sister, and it really undermines what is actually a very inspired conclusion.
I have a love/hate relationship with Dante’s composer here. Pino Donaggio is one of those tunesmiths who normally thrive upon lush, old school symphonic scores akin to the Golden and Silver Ages of Hollywood, and there is nothing wrong with emulating grand old maestros like Miklos Rozsa, Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann. But the problem that I often encounter with his work is that the sweeping and “romantic” style that he adopts is all too often at odds with the film it accompanies. A regular stint with Brian De Palma may have seemed like the perfect marriage of two passionate creators, but this just compounded the utterly plagiarist nature of the pair. With De Palma, with only a couple of exceptions (Scarface and Carlito's Way), slavishly aping Hitchcock, getting his composer to completely mimic Bernard Herrmann, who had been the go-to guy for the Master Of Suspense, just pushed things too far into groaning parody. Scores for Carrie, Blow-Out, Dressed To Kill and Body Double have their fans, but I cannot class myself as one of them. For The Howling, you can hear that Donaggio is clearly attempting to break free from such shackles of replication and exploring new sounds and motifs. What he delivers for his solitary lycanthropic excursion is actually very good, even if he cannot resist some awkward lushness of orchestration that doesn’t quite sit right with the on-screen action. For Donaggio, there is a stately order in everything, but he does find some time to excite and turn the tables with The Howling, especially with that fabulous church organ (which he purloined from Spoleto) which adds a bizarre touch of ecclesiastical dementia to the proceedings, and clever use of synthesised effects and stingers.
There are lots of little things to look for even away from all of those loving references and in-jokes. The two nuns who enter Walter Paisley's store to snigger and grin at the esoteric artefacts and the black magic accoutrements is a wonderful little touch. The combination of reactions from the various viewers who witness the final on-screen transformation – from incredulity to simply “so what … it happens” - is precisely the telling mixture that such movies, themselves, receive at the hands of audiences and critics. Often forgotten about is the deliciously earthy performance from veteran John Carradine, who mopes about as a geriatric werewolf longing for the olden days when he could run wild and free. His alpha-male status has well and truly worn thin but, as long in the tooth as he is, there is still a devilish twinkle in his eye. The early scene in which Karen and Bill are introduced to the rest of the members of the colony during a beach barbecue sees Erle (Carradine) go from lecherous old dog to depressed pack-mate well passed his prime, and although Dante plays the scene mostly for Stepford Wives-style kooky cosiness, there is a real sense of poignancy from Carradine. Of course, this was a man who was teetering on the brink of his own mortality in real life. Once a cowboy, once a preacher, once even a Dracula in another werewolf film – the likeably inane House Of Frankenstein for Erle C. Kenton (who his character is actually named after) – and even the Devil, himself, it is hard not to imagine how the actor actually felt as he saw the new brood sweeping in across Tinseltown. But he gets the joke and you can see how much he enjoys baring those fangs.
The scene in the morgue, when Terry and Christopher go to inspect the body of the slain Eddie Quist, is another of those typical juxtapositions that attempts to show how blasé workers there are to the messy customers they have to deal with – the half-eaten burger right beside a brain oozing blood is now a cliché in itself. But the image of the casket-drawer with its door scratched apart and its disturbing lack of occupant is marvellously done … and I like the way that Dante and Sayles, who actually plays the morgue attendant in his own little cameo, refuse to pursue the issue about a dead serial killer seemingly just getting up and walking away. Look closely on the wall of Eddie's apartment and you might even recognise one of his proud sketches as being an early Rick Baker design for the ugliest of the nightmare Wolf-Nazis he created for American Werewolf, the two films becoming umbilically, as well as spiritually linked.
Scratch beneath the surface of all this geeky fun and you find some rather intelligent observations being made. Dante and Sayles poke fun at media sensationalism, and even provide their own little “take” on the great Network, in which John Finch goes round the twist, on-camera, and threatens to take the ultimate fade-out in front of millions, with a delightfully skewed moment of climactic Golden Television, destined for an outtake show coming soon. The plight of minority groups – in this case, werewolves – is addressed with Waggner's belief that his kind need to conform and adapt if they are to survive. But the “wild” is not a religion that can be assimilated, or can assimilate. If anything, I would have liked the screenplay to have explored his methodology and his doctrine a bit more. We aren't even entirely sure that he is a lycanthrope … at least not like the others. Thus, although The Howling is an out-and-out pulp thriller at heart, its makers aren't afraid to imbue it with hidden depths.
Finally, this German release of the film is identical to the cuts that you are already familiar with. The hot-tub scene has not been reinstated and those hilarious jumping werewolves still do not escape from the big barn fire.
The Howling is not as good as American Werewolf, but it is still a much-loved classic of the genre. Witty, exciting and far more intelligent than its exploitative style and visual excess would have you believe, Joe Dante, that most cinema-referential of filmmakers who isn't Quentin Tarantino, created an iconic and modernised take on one of myth's most neglected of monsters. That the film then spawned a number of increasingly naff sequels, that merely took the title and ran with it through a succession of poorly conceived scenarios, does Dante's original no harm, so strong is his vision. But then even American Werewolf had the dubious honour of a thoroughly despicable and shoddy follow-up. I'm elated to say that the two rivals for alpha male supremacy have stood the test of time remarkably well, and are both as influential, even today, as they have ever been.
The Howling is highly recommended, fur-fans, and makes a welcome transition to Blu-ray!