One more unto the horror-series-that-won’t-die breach, and this time it’s the furry favourite of The Howling series. Eight movies over a 30-year time span (so far), all kicked off by the eponymously titled 1977 best seller which doesn’t actually get made into a movie till Part IV. Still, the first movie meant that director Joe Dante and producer Michael Finnell got to make Gremlins three years later, so it can’t all be bad.
The film starts as it means to go: looking pretty good for its age and saying way less than it thinks it does. We have ten minutes of the build-up to bold news reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) meeting serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) in a porn shop, blending on-air presentation in the newsroom with backstage business and the sexual violence of Eddie with violent pornography on the store’s screens. The rather too on-the-nose arty terror is then broken with the first of many impressive SFX sequences as Eddie starts to turn into a wolfman and gets shot by some cops.
As an intro, it works well, mostly be establishing Karen’s trauma and getting her and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) to head off to a quasi-hippie commune run by Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), who we first meet doing some foreboding talking-head moments on the TV news. It also sets the core tempo of the movie: tense build-up, terrifying moments, and then the film desperately trying to regain its pace. None of this is helped by the audience being given every clue possible as to what’s going on, so the who-done-it moments are replaced with when-will-the-dumb-bastards-work-it-out montages. No, Karen’s amnesia about the assault doesn’t help here: she’s lost her memory, but the viewer hasn’t, and signposting the revelations makes it worse.
What does help with the second act is that it’s got some genuinely spooky moments and some most excellent folk-horror to set up the final mayhem of act three. Other than the onscreen werewolf sex, that’s just unintentionally funny. It’s also got some nice touches of folk horror mystery, although once you get to the end you’ll look back at this section and be mystified as to what the colony residents were actually up to. Because, again, this film has way less to say than it tries to make out. The actors do try their best, but it’s more through luck and an amazing casting agent than writing that any of this bit is watchable.
Werewolves have been used as a metaphor for lots of things: mental illness, the duality of man as civilised and bestial, wanting to be really racist, the eternal conflict against nature, and fear of contagion. Quite what this movie puts wants to use it for is hard to know; “crazy people being able to turn into unkillable death-creatures is bad for your health” is one possible message, but “we have some really cool effects we’d like to show off” is certainly the main one. The wolf effects are, on the most part, incredible. However, they are also literally “show stoppers” and always break up the momentum of the movie as the script just doesn’t know what to do next.
Somehow though, the plot lurching from set-piece to set-piece doesn’t get as exasperating as it should as the tone is kept consistent throughout. Yes, at the end of it you will be scratching your head as to what all that was about, even as the credits’ role over the world’s smuggest shot of meat being cooked on a grill; wrecking the bookending newsroom motif the film so desperately tried to set-up. But you won’t be in any doubt as to what actually happened and you’ll probably remember its many good bits quite fondly.
The Howling was one of three big werewolf movies that came out in 1981; quite why there was a sudden spike in this often-overlooked genre is for smarter minds to consider. What I can say is that An American Werewolf In London is funnier and more accessible, so did better business, and Wolfen is scarier, better, and has Tom Waits in it, so was a box office flop. But The Howling had something to it, that bit more adventurous and wider in scope, that it sits with you longer.
Whilst it fails in its apparent ambitions of being meaningful, it does it in an open-ended cack-handed manner that lets you throw in your own ideas. It manages to be that bit more timeless, more by luck and getting the hell out of the city so as not to show off the age of its fashions too much, and have just enough themes that have carried over to be relevant today. And, most importantly, it’s got werewolf effects that still hold up to a modern audience. Okay; except the hand-animated werewolf shagging in the sex scene.
It was also cheaper, had an open ending, and got a better return on investment so was the one that got the sequels.