|release date||April 10 1981|
|starring||Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone|
So you’re standing there looking at your massive movie collection. Years upon years went into putting this together, piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle lasting your whole life. Paycheck after paycheck slowly wind up in the accounts of giant corporations, who so generously supply you with the finest in DVD & Blu-ray entertainment. All the money and effort dedicated to this collection and how does it repay you? By making you stand in front of it for over 20 minutes, desperately trying to decide what to watch. Your eyes have scanned over every movie at least twice and still you have no damn clue as to which one will entertain you this evening. But wait. What’s this? Your eyes meet with a film that must not have registered the first two times you scanned it, but there it is. A film you haven’t viewed in over two years, but at one time dominated your collection. It comes off the shelf, out of it’s case and into your DVD player. You grab some leftover pizza, a beer and press play.
This is how my very educational viewing of The Howling began. There’s always going to be one big risk involved when viewing a film you adored so many years ago…was it really as good as you thought it was? Or were you just young and untouched by the criticisms you carry today? The Howling is an interesting film because it uses something very powerful to set us up for a ride that often seems very sloppy and cliched in its presentation.
Karen White is about to do the report of her life. There is a killer lurking about the city streets and she is the only one he’ll talk to. But when their meeting turns hairy (yeah, that’s the best I can do), Karen is advised to take a little recovery time in a small community outside of town. It doesn’t take long for you to realize that something is a bit off with the residents. Of course, for Karen realization sets in when she’s face to face with a snarling wolf. This is pretty much how the film works, intentional or not, it relies on the audience’s knowledge instead of the character’s. Don’t get me wrong, many great films are executed in this same fashion, but in The Howling it feels very awkward.
The initial set-up for the film is strong and introduces us to the concept of a serial killer who is exactly that. There are zero news reports of a wolf-like creature terrorizing the town. No talk of victims torn apart by an animal. Only a killer who is made to feel very human. On top of that, director Joe Dante (who has done some outstanding things in his career: Gremlins, Piranha, Twilight Zone: The Movie) does an incredible job of making the first twenty minutes feel down-right dirty. The city’s atmosphere is put together well, making you genuinely worried for Karen as she roams through the streets following clues to the killer’s location. When the meeting takes place, you get a heavy dose of fear as the killer plays a very horrendous smut film and discusses what makes Karen special. This combination works beautifully, you have no idea what this man’s intentions are or what he’s capable of. So often, it’s what we don’t know that terrifies us.
Unfortunately, what we don’t know becomes the movie’s downfall. Let me rephrase. It’s not the “what,” but rather the “how.” The film’s revelation is so horribly executed it’s nearly impossible to take it seriously. (I had myself some good laughs during the wolf-sex scene.) One of the key features to making a great film is the way its story is presented. The Howling has great structure, but a very messy follow-through. This is something that takes place a little too often in horror. There are some very random moments that have no place in the movie whatsoever and do not go unnoticed. Just when you’re getting comfortable with the storyline, something happens to pull you right out of the movie back into your living room. They are mistakes that were made for the sake of trying to be a “normal” horror movie, when clearly, it is not.
All is not lost. So far we’ve established that a movie can still be scary even with some story-telling issues. The special effects save this movie almost completely and how they came to be is a funny story. Rick Baker (The Exorcist, Batman Forever, The Ring) was hired as the effects artist for the film, but packed it up early to work on An American Werewolf in London. Who took over, you ask? None other than Rob Bottin. Who better to scare the living hell out of us than the effects genius behind The Thing. And that’s exactly what he does. The werewolves in this movie are terrifying and would have to be since most of the film is leading right up to their appearance. Bottin knew this and presented us with nothing short of pure brilliance (…once again).
In the end, The Howling turned out to be less of a masterpiece than my young mind once thought it was. As a child, it hit perfection on the head so hard I felt the blood spray. However, as will often happen, it could not withstand the test of time. The story’s presentation has a couple major issues and asking an adult to sit through it without laughing a bit is a hard task. That said, the effects are truly a sight to behold and become the film’s crutches. And strong crutches they are. If you’re looking for a good werewolf movie with it’s fair share of cheesy moments and effects that will have you avoiding the woods for a good while, The Howling will not disappoint.