The Tomb of Terror – The Howling (1981)
There may be some changes to the typical werewolf mythology, but the film has a great respect for the history of the monster on film. Joe Dante’s films are usually full of winks to his favorite classics, and this is no exception. Nearly every character is named for a director of a classic werewolf film, and scenes from The Wolf Man (1941) are watched by characters to better understand the werewolf mythology. By making this take place in the “real world” where movies the audience has seen exist for the characters, Dante and Sayles successfully brought the werewolf into the modern day for the first time. There are no old gypsies or scientists to explain what a werewolf is. As Karen’s friends Terry Fisher (Belinda Balaski, Gremlins) and Chris (Dennis Dugan, now Adam Sandler’s go-to director since Happy Gilmore) investigate the history of occult murders, they find themselves in Dick Miller’s occult bookstore reading up on werewolves. Here Miller, throws out the film’s best line when talking about how to kill werewolves: “Silver bullets or fire, that’s the only way to get rid of the damn things. They’re worse than cock-a-roaches.”
The acting in the film is sort of a mixed bag. The supporting parts filled by legendary actors like Miller, Carradine, McCarthy, and the late Slim Pickens (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) are all very entertaining and fun. Robert Picardo brings a real sense of menace playing against type as the serial killer. It’s too bad he never went to this dark place again; he spent the rest of his career in more comedic parts, such as the holographic doctor in Star Trek: Voyager. Elisabeth Brooks is very memorable as the villainess of the film. She takes part in a classic sex scene where mid-coitus the participants turn into scratching, slobbering werewolves. The bad thing about the performances is that the main characters aren’t nearly as interesting. Only Dante favorite Balaski shines, while everyone else fails to make a big impression. Unfortunately, the worst performance comes from the usually very good Dee Wallace in the lead role. Wallace overacts through her admittedly challenging role as the scarred reporter and rarely feels natural.
When most people think of The Howling, they remember the impressive transformation sequence. For the first time, audiences got to see fingernails grow out of hands and faces elongate into snouts. Gone were the days of lap dissolves to turn Lon Chaney Jr. into The Wolf Man. While the effects are no doubt very cool, time hasn’t been very kind to them. The celebrated transformation from An American Werewolf in London is a better constructed sequence and feels more realistic. In that film, we see and hear bones breaking and elongating to turn a man into a wolf. Here we get a lot of bladder effects that at times appear very rubbery. It’s still impressive, especially when you realize that makeup FX artist Rob Botton (1982’s The Thing) was only 21 when this film was made, but it has to settle for being the second best werewolf transformation on film. Faring far better are the monsters themselves. In American Werewolf we got an amazing transformation, but the beast looked like a monstrous dog. Being a fan of bipedal werewolves, I prefer the monsters of The Howling. To this day they are still the most impressive two-legged wolves on screen.
I have seen The Howling many times. I always held it in high regard as one of Joe Dante’s best films and the second best werewolf movie of all time. Rewatching it for the first time in years, I have to say that it doesn’t quite live up to my memories. The film is still very good, but with this viewing Dee Wallace’s weak performance and the better-in-hindsight effects really stood out. Many have complained about the pace of the film, finding it to be too slow to be truly horrifying. To this day I don’t understand this criticism; the story is interesting and continually reveals new twists. The visual style by Dante and cinematographer John Hora (Explorers) has a very interesting EC Comics-like pallet, and the haunting score by Brian De Palma favorite Pino Donaggio will be stuck in your head long after the film is over. I like most of Dante’s filmography; his playful style with fantastic stories really speaks to me. The Howling still has a tongue in its cheek, but is easily Dante’s scariest film. And although I ended up a little disappointed with my most recent viewing of the film, it’s only because I had remembered it as being nearly perfect. Flaws and all, The Howling is still one of the top five werewolf films ever made. Just make sure to avoid the six (and counting) sequels. They are some of the worst things you’ll ever see.
Final Grade: B+
The Howling is owned by MGM. Anyone who collects DVDs knows that MGM likes to re-release their popular titles over and over again. A few years ago, MGM was bought by Fox, another company that re-releases films ad nauseum. This makes it so that the history of The Howling on DVD is very bizarre.