The Tomb of Terror – The Howling (1981)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
I love werewolves. They are my favorite movie monsters, beating out the more popular faves, vampires and zombies. Maybe it’s because there haven’t been a ton of werewolf films. Vampires and zombies are easy for no-budget films to pull off, so we see A LOT of films about them. It’s a little harder to turn a person into a giant wolf, so we don’t have to worry about quite as many terrible werewolf films being out there. In 1981, we got no fewer than three big werewolf releases, all of them bringing something different to the subgenre and bringing the monsters into the modern day. The first out of the gate was Joe Dante’s The Howling. This low budget effort featured the first use of prosthetic effects to turn a man into a werewolf and show the beast with more than just gluing hair to an actor’s face. A short four months later, these effects would be outdone by the amazing work done by Rick Baker in An American Werewolf in London. That seems to be the fate of The Howling—always the werewolf bridesmaid, never the bride. In a world where American Werewolf is widely regarded as the best werewolf film, does The Howling earn its second place reputation, or is it the underrated king of the werewolf pile?
As the film opens, news reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) is involved in a sting operation to capture serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo, Gremlins 2: The New Batch). For the last few weeks, Eddie has been leaving a trail of mangled bodies throughout L.A. and contacting Karen. Now Karen finds herself walking along a sleazy strip, heading to a porn shop where she’s agreed to meet Eddie. Police patrol the area, keeping a lookout for the murderer. Karen ends up in a video booth at the back of the store. Eddie is already inside the booth, behind Karen. He puts a quarter in the machine and a rape video begins to play on the screen in front of them. As the disturbing scene plays out in front of her, Karen has to listen to Eddie tell her that she’s the only person who understands him and he has something to show her. Karen turns around and is so shocked by what she sees off camera that she screams. This signals the police, who have arrived in the porn shop, to open fire at the booth, killing Eddie.
Following this traumatic experience, Karen struggles to put her life back together. She’s plagued by nightmares of Eddie in the booth and can’t stand to be touched by her husband Bill (the late Christopher Stone, Wallace’s real life husband). A few days later she tries to go back on the air, but she freezes under the bright lights and cameras. Her station manager, Fred Francis (the late Kevin McCarthy, 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), doesn’t want her to go back on until her personal problems are figured out. Karen ends up talking with Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee, John Steed from TV’s The Avengers), a psychiatrist who is featured on her network.
Dr. Waggner recommends that Karen and Bill head out to his countryside resort called The Colony. There, they will interact with other patients who are looking to get their lives back together. The Colony ends up not being exactly what Karen and Bill were expecting. They are surrounded by bizarre individuals, including a suicidal old man (the late John Carradine, Dracula in many classic Universal horrors) and a nymphomaniac named Marsha (the late Elisabeth Brooks, 1988’s Deep Space) who starts to make moves on Bill. Karen tries to work out her problems with therapy sessions while Bill is forced to pal around with the locals on a hunting trip. But there is something else going in the woods surrounding The Colony. Cows in the surrounding farmland are found massacred, and late at night a strange howling fills the night air…
There is definitely more to The Howling than that. But the script, co-written by indie favorite John Sayles (who wrote director Joe Dante’s previous film, 1978’s Piranha) has enough twists and turns that I don’t want to spoil everything for those who haven’t seen it. Based on the cover art and the film’s legacy, we know that eventually werewolves show up. What sets this film apart from most of the werewolf subgenre is that the monsters featured here are not of the reluctant variety. They actually are happy to be werewolves and see humans as their cattle. Another interesting twist on the classic mythology is that in most werewolf films we only see the transformation happen under the full moon. As explained by the great Dick Miller (Night of the Creeps), these werewolves can change “anytime they get a notion to it, that’s why they’re called shapeshifters.” This gives us terrifying sequences where werewolves stalk our main characters throughout the woods in the middle of the day. It’s not something I want to see in every werewolf film (I’m a believer in sticking with the classic mythology for monsters), but a werewolf during the day is a scary idea and makes for the film’s biggest scares.