Some people simply don’t get the credit they deserve. Case in point: director Joe Dante has spent his career crafting some solidly entertaining films, and yet he isn’t anywhere near a household name. Sure, he achieved prominent success with Gremlins (1984), but most people paid attention to executive producer Steven Spielberg’s name above the title. Mainstream success aside, Dante has continually generated films with his own personal sensibilities, paying homage to the history of the silver screen and winking at the audience members in on the nods. The film which gained him the attention of Spielberg, eventually earning him the Gremlins gig, was The Howling (1981), a low-budget horror flick with a bit more on its mind than most. It represents one of those under-seen films, the kind that you feel pleasantly surprised to discover. Released the same year as An American Werewolf in London, The Howling swiftly fell off audience’s radars in favor of the similarly themed film. Fortunately, hindsight allows us a chance to consider this film and its place within that most hallowed of genres: the werewolf movie.
The film commences with a somewhat odd set-up, playing out more like a police procedural than a horror film. News anchor Karen White assists the police in capturing a serial killer who had been preying on the homeless. Her role in apprehending the killer proves quite traumatic, leading Karen to experience intense nightmares. Needing a rest, her psychiatrist suggests she head to The Colony, his own clinic away from the trappings of civilization. Once at the clinic, however, strange events lead her to believe that her life may be in danger. From there the film paces itself fairly deliberately, slowly revealing the scares and setting up a sense of atmosphere.
The Howling may contain its share of scares, but a streak of black humor also carries on throughout the proceedings. Aiming for more sly moments of amusement than laugh-out-loud jokes, the film will play better for those who know the genre best. For instance, Dante and company decide to mess with the typical rules associated with werewolves, leading to a humorous scene with an occult book store owner as he discusses his theories on dealing with the creatures (“They’re worse than cock-a-roaches,” he says). Also undermined is the archetypal portrayal of the werewolves as sympathetic, instead depicting them mostly as bloodthirsty beasts who have few qualms with luring unsuspecting people as prey. This switch leads to some sinister moments of humor as the werewolves discuss hunting habits and encourage others to join them. And those especially in-the-know will notice some werewolf-related visual puns as well as small references to werewolf films past, such as the fact that many character’s names are those of old horror film directors.
To fill out the cast of characters, Dante called upon old character-actors like John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Kevin McCarthy, and Dick Miller, further illustrating an appreciation of film history by the filmmaker. It’s a real pleasure to watch these actors go to work. They’re experienced pros who know the exact tone the film calls for. As for the leads, each one performs adequately for what is required of them. Dee Wallace portrays Karen with an equal amount of sympathy and paranoia, making her a character that we care about following. A special mention should go to Robert Picardo who plays the mysterious Eddie, a patient at The Colony who provides the film with some of its creepiest moments. As with anything else, the actor’s performances work to enhance the other filmic elements at play to create just the right tone.
The level of craft behind the film has gone undervalued. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the scenes of transformation in this film nearly rival the innovative effects in An American Werewolf in London. As in London, practical effects were utilized to portray the change from human into beast, resulting in a more visceral feel than past films supplied. The transformations exhibit a great level of pain for the creatures as bones bend and curve to their wolf forms. And, once again, I think this film represents another case in which a low budget forced the crew into becoming more creative. For a majority of the film you only receive glimpses of the monsters, a tactic which assists in building up the tension. That way, when the creatures do appear in full view, all the built-up tension delivers as the audience has already developed a fear of them.
Thematically, the film plays out the usual dilemma of a werewolf story: the struggle between being civilized and letting animal impulses take over. The Howling manages to convey this standard idea interestingly, modernizing it to include aspects of media, self-help groups, and marital fidelity. The opening of the film frames the central conflict effectively by focusing on the words of a psychiatrist as he speaks about repression as “the father of neurosis, of self-hatred” and how people should return to more base instincts. Though not at the forefront of the film, these facets remain in the margin for those who wish to explore them. Not many horror films can be enjoyed on multiple levels like this one and for that I’ll give credit.
The Howling may not represent groundbreaking cinema, but it offers solid entertainment. Those with a taste for the genre shouldn’t be disappointed as there’s plenty to pick up on and enjoy. With this film Joe Dante may not have gained the attention of the masses at the time, but some people (like Spielberg) took notice. Now maybe a few more will give it a shot.