Joe Dante is a beloved man, his films are among the most humble and darkly funny the genre world has to offer. His work is the point which light and dark intersect within the horror and science fiction cannons. That is true save for the exception, that one film which stands out from the rest of his body of work in 1981’s the Howling. Where the typical Dante film is largely comic, light and airy, The Howling is an unambiguous horror movie with a nihilism and gore that saw it sit alongside the most iconic of the 1980s. Even with that being the case it is forever being overshadowed by John Landis’s equally landmark but higher budget and more openly mainstream courting American Werewolf in London.
Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a reporter for a local TV news station in Los Angeles and her current story sees her follow the series of murders perpetrated by Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), a story which culminates in a bizarre and fatal altercation in a scuzzy porno theater. Barely escaping with her life, Karen is in a daze and plagued by waking nightmares, so on the advice of the TV stations psychologist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) she heads to a retreat in the country called the Colony with her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) to rest and recuperate away from the noise of the city. Both Karen and Bill are blissfully unaware that they have strayed into a den for werewolves.
From the outside in, a werewolf movie is only as good as its transformation sequence. As reductive as it is, its how people rate films of this ilk – luckily that suits the Howling perfectly as Rick Baker leads the makeup department. The scene in question sees a heavily scarred and unrecognisable Robert Picardo mutate into a lycanthrope abhorrence, a process which sees his face contort and stretch and his flesh bubble and tear. Many effects predicated films of the 1980s have been subject to the ravages of time, not the howling, this scene is just as just as visceral and impossible to peel your eyes away from as it ever was. With an almost godly combination of puppetry, stop-motion, and makeup, Rick Baker heralded one of the greatest effects sequences in cinema history for my money. When people talk about in-camera effects being more significant than those done with software this is the always the example that comes to my mind. The genius of this one scene is worth the price of admission alone, both brutal and beautiful.
There is more to the Howling than the single greatest transformation sequence in cinema, not that this is a bad string to have to your bow. To return to the news angle, Dante imbues his film and his characters with a journalistic integrity that seems like a relic of the past whereby he almost presents them like heroes of the information age. In the case of Dennis Dugan’s character Chris, he’d also be a hero of a few other distinctions too. On the one hand, we have journalists who fearlessly pursue hard news regardless of their own safety, on the other we have their opposite numbers who are presented as the absurd entities they truly are. It is a Joe Dante film so there has to be some laughs and the biggest by far comes in a scene where we happen upon a male newscaster practicing his serious newsreader voice in the mirror only to drop it moments later. The news director also receives a similar treatment too, with Dante illustrating the idiotic misogyny that stretches as far as him ignoring what is happening in front of his own eyes.
Another intriguing divergence is the text used to characterise the werewolves, we have scores of titles that install the subtext of puberty into the horror archetype, we even have Wolf (1994) doing the same with middle age – yet, all the same, Joe Dante has no such interest in anything of the sort. These werewolves are wonderful, refreshing and pure. Patrick MacNee’s character is trying to tame the insatiable carnality of these beasts, an endeavour which Dante takes great glee in pulling apart – and the fleshy viscera of a few characters too.
Like Tom Holland’s 1985 film, Fright Night, before it, the true majesty of the Howling truly came to fruition for me on a second viewing. Touches like the set design, the dirtiness and character motivations come into a much stronger focus on the second viewing, also knowing the full extent of how far this werewolf community stretches upgrades the stakes of the film way past the ’11’ mark. The true achievement of this second viewing, however, has been my appreciation of this film, no longer is the howling a lesser tonal experiment in Joe Dante’s filmography, no, it has become one of his greatest successes. Likewise, this isn’t merely a great werewolf film, this is THE werewolf film and if you still believe John Landis’s much higher budgeted film of the same year to hold that accolade, perhaps its time to give Dante another twirl.
THE HOWLING IS OUT ON STUDIO CANAL BLU-RAY FROM 9TH OCTOBER