Halloween month wouldn’t be complete without watching a few bona fide horror classics, and with that in mind I decided to give Joe Dante’s 1981 werewolf cult favorite The Howling a re-viewing for the first time in — oh, about forever a few nights back. This is another one that scared the pants off me as cable-viewing kid, and I know it still maintains a pretty soild reputation to this day, but as we’ve recently seen around these parts when I checked out Visiting Hours for the first time as a jaded adult, sometimes the movies that left an indelible impression on us in our youth really aren’t all we remember them to be. Would The Howling hold up?
The short answer is yes — I needn’t have worried, this is one film that’s earned its “classic” reputation and can hold its head high to this very day.
For those (few) of you who are unfamiliar with the basic premise, a gutsy TV reporter named Karen White (Dee Wallace, who met her husband, Christopher Stone , while working on this flick, where he plays — go figure — her husband) sets herself up as human bait for a serial killer and very narrowly survives an encounter with him in a seedy porno joint. Fatigued and fucked-up-in-the-head from her ordeal, she and hubby take off for a private northern California retreat known as “The Colony” that’s run by one Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee of The Avengers fame), a therapist who urges his patients to get in touch with their more “primal” side as a way of working out their problems and freeing themselves from the shackles and stresses society imposes on us all.
In short order, though, Karen and hubby Bill find that all is not as it seems at this isolated, self-contained community, as the “primal urges” the folks there indulge in really are much more primal than they could have ever imagined, and Karen may be closer to tracking down her elusive serial killer than she realizes.
Look. it’s not giving anything away — the title does that already — to let the uninitiated know that this is a werewolf movie. Furthermore, it’s a very good werewolf movie. Hollywood hadn’t given werewolves much of a shot in the modern era, but between this and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, the early 80s saw our furry friends experience something of a brief resurgence. The Howling is primarily remembered for its startling special effects, particularly the graphic transformation sequence of Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) into the bad-ass “leading wolf,” if you will, of the feature, and while that legendary scene looks a little less impressive than it did at the time, the fact is that it’s not by much. The effects team, lead by the legendary Rick Baker, did a bang-up job not only on this iconic moment in horror history, but throughout the production. I’ll certainly take their work, warts and all, over the CGI fests we get today, like last year’s thoroughly uninspiring The Wolfman.
There’s no doubt that The Howling is every bit a product of its time, but its sharp and incisive critique of est- and Primal Scream-style pop psychology fads and cults still rings extremely true even if those movements have dies down a bit. Biting (no pun intended) social commentary always stands the test of time, even if the object of said commentary has largely fallen by the wayside.
Dante draws some great performances out of his cast, as well, which isn’t too tough considering what a first-rate cast it is. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Stone and a truly chilling turn from Macnee we’ve got great performances from Elisabeth Brooks as seductive priestess-chick Marsha Quist (Eddie’s sister), Slim Pickens as befuddled local sheriff Sam Newfield, and the legendary John Carradine as local yokel Erle Kenton. Be on the lookout for cameos from John Sayles (who co-wrote the screenplay), Forrest J. Ackerman, and Roger Corman, among others, as well. Keeping a sharp eye out for quick guest appearances from cult Hollywood icons is part of the fun to be had here.
The outdoor filming locations at the Mendocino Woodlands Camp (in, as you might have guess, Mendocino) are lush and atmospheric and Dante captures them magnificently, but a good chunk of this movie was shot in a good old fashioned Hollywood studio, as well, and while the “outdoor” studio scenes are pretty noticeable to the modern eye, it’s really nothing too terribly jarring and you’ll appreciate the great care that Dante went to in order to make his indoor forest shots look like the real thing.
All in all, I’m damn pleased that I decided to give The Howling another look. I checked out the “Special Edition” DVD from MGM, which features both an anamorphic widescreen presentation as well as a full-frame option (both look damn good and have been cleaned up very nicely), a remastered 5.1 audio track (the original mono track is also included) that sounds great without being too terribly overpowering, and has a theatrical trailer and a pretty damn absorbing commentary track with Dante at the forefront and contributions from Dee Wallace Stone, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo included among a nice selection of extras, as well as a great and highly detailed “making-of” documentary feature called “Unleashing the Beast” that’s well worth a look, as well.
It had been a long time since Hollywood did werewolves as well as The Howling did them, and frankly they haven’t been done nearly as well since. It’s a tried-and-true genre clasicc for a reason, folks, and if you haven’t senn it in awhile I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well it has stood the test of time. It’s certainly well worth a look this Halloween season — or any other time of year, for that matter.