“A secret society exists, and is living among all of us. They are neither people nor animals, but something in-between.” – Karen White
A few days ago, I was asked what my favourite werewolf movie was, and I didn’t have any hesitation at all in answering “The Howling”.
Yes, I prefer The Howling to An American Werewolf in London, which was released the same year. I know, I know – An American Werewolf in London is the choice of most people, and I’m not denigrating it in any way – I love that film, and have seen it many times. I’ve often assumed that my preference of The Howling was due in part to the fact that I saw it first. (I also had the original cinema poster hanging up in my bedroom in the early eighties.) But watching it recently, I realised that chronology had nothing to do with my decision of “this” over “that”. And this came to the fore when I was asked why this was my favourite werewolf movie.
But I’m getting just a little bit ahead of myself. Let’s rewind back a couple of weeks.
As some of you might know, I appear on a monthly genre radio show called The Stone Tapes with my good friends Sam Stone and David Howe. (You can catch the podcasts right here, I’ve archived them.)
The idea for the October show was that we would record a Halloween special with werewolves as the theme. The last segment of the of the show is a round table discussion about a specific movie and in keeping with the theme, the movie of the month was The Howling.
Happily, this happened at around the same time that I was putting the finishing touches to the list of 13 films I was covering this year for Shocktober. I always leave a couple of slots for any last minute inspiration and I’m crediting David Howe for this lightbulb moment of adding The Howling to the list.
(For the record, it was David who asked the favourite werewolf movie question and the ensuing why. Click here to listen to this particular edition)
The Howling was at the time a film like nothing else I had ever seen. It was 1981, I was 21 years old, heavily into horror and sci-fi. I guess nothing changes much. It was before the notion of home cinema hit me like a bolt from the blue and pretty much changed the way I went about my hobby forever. There was no internet, so there were no spoilers. There was no CGI, all the special effects had to be achieved physically. All I knew about this new breed of werewolf movies was what I had read in the pages of Starburst, of which I was an avid and obsessive reader. (Jeez, I was right – NOTHING changes.)
The film not only covers the traditional werewolf tropes of death by silver bullet, contamination by the bite of an existing werewolf and so on, but it celebrates them. And these tropes aren’t even anywhere near as they might seem. In actual fact, they were made up by screen writer Curt Siodmak for Universal Pictures’ Wolf Man in 1941. Clips from The Wolf Man, pretty much THE seminal werewolf movie, are seen in the film, providing a clear link and a knowing wink.
I believe it was the first time I encountered a Joe Dante film as well – and he would very quickly become one of my favourite directors, particularly with Gremlins and Explorers.
Let’s take a look at the film itself.
Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a newscaster who has agreed to meet up with a notorious serial killer in pursuit of a hot news story for the evening broadcast. The trail leads to the back of a seedy sex shop, where the killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) waits for her – something traumatic and unseen to us happens, but the cops arrive just in time to fill the killer full of lead.
Karen seeks therapy from Dr Waggner a behavioural psychologist who is promoting a book about the animal in all of us and he recommends that she and her husband spend some time at his exclusive retreat – The Colony.
The Colony is filled with an assortment of weirdos, including an attention seeking old man named Earl played by classic horror and western star John Carradine and a nymphomaniac named Marcia Quist (sister of the serial killer) who seduces Karen’s husband after he’s attacked by a wild animal and bitten. They turn into werewolves during sex under a full moon.
The colony is populated by werewolves – and Waggner himself is also one of them. Even Eddie himself turns up, having been only temporarily put out if action, as the bullets the cops used weren’t made of silver. His transformation in the doctor’s office from man to wolf is still as stunning now as it was back when I saw it in the cinema back in 1981 – a gut wrenching, bone snapping, flesh tearing, muscle distorting physical transformation the likes of which had never been seen. Kudos to Rob Bottin, who would go on to even gristlier body horror the following year with John Carpenter’s The Thing. (Though he was supervised by Rick Baker who was responsible for the similar effects in An American Werewolf. )
The final upshot is that Karen herself is bitten by her husband and goes on live TV to warn everybody that the werewolves are among us and to prove her point, transforms into a ….. well, I wish I could say werewolf, but she really looks more like a Pekinese before being shot with a silver bullet by her colleague. The problem is that the viewers just think they’ve seen a special effects hoax.
Awesome film…. Just awesome. You can buy a copy from Amazon on this link.
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