The Howling is a movie in love with movies. Watching it, one comes away with the purest of joy, a celebration of past horror movies to come without ever talking down on the past, unlike post-modern teardowns like Scream. In a werewolf packed year that also gave us the seminal An American Werewolf in London and the near-forgotten Wolfen, it still stands out as something unique and different while whore heartedly embracing the past.
In Los Angeles, KDHB news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace, The Hills Have Eyes, E.T., Cujo, Critters, Popcorn, The House of the Devil) has become the story, as she’s being stalked by Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo, Legend, The ‘Burbs, Innerspace), a serial killer who leaves behind a smiley face as his calling card. Cooperating with the police, she agrees to be part of a sting operation to catch him inside a scummy, scuzzy, 70s porn theater. He forces her to watch a video of him raping and killing a girl, then makes her turn to face him. Whatever she sees freaks her out so badly, she blocks it out of her memory, PTSD-style. Just before Quist can kill her, the police open fire, killing him.
Karen’s therapist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee, John Steed from The Avengers) has a private resort named The Colony where he sends his patients. She and Bill, her husband, schedule a visit and meet all manner of interesting folks, like Erle Kenton (John Carradine, star of more movies than this article will ever be able to catalog), an old man who keeps yelling that he wants to die, and Marsha Quist, a sex maniac who tries to seduce Karen’s husband. When he tries to run away from her feminine wiles, a wolf attacks him.
Karen’s had enough, so she calls in her friend Terri (Belinda Balaski, who has appeared in nearly every one of director Joe Dante’s movies), who connects Eddie Quist to The Colony. This isn’t the best detective work. After all, his sister is there.
Later that night, Bill returns to meet Marsha in the woods and fully transforms into a werewolf. She does too and they make hot, hot, hot werewolf love next to a fire. For budgetary reasons, this scene is animated and looks fake as fuck when compared to the fine effects work that Rob Bottin did on the film.
The next morning, a snooping Terri is attacked by a werewolf, but she chops its hand (paw?) off with an axe. She calls her boyfriend, Chris (Dennis Dugan, who would later direct almost every Adam Sandler movie), but before he can save her, she’s attacked and killed by a full werewolf version of Eddie Quist. Her boyfriend hears all of this and heads to The Colony, armed with silver bullets, arriving just in time to save Karen, who has, in turn, throw acid into the face of werewolf Eddie.
Just as they kill off Eddie, everyone else in The Colony transforms into wolves. Karen and Chris respond by burning it down. She resolves to tell the world about the werewolves during a live news broadcast. How does she do it? By transforming on live TV before Chris shoots her. I always wondered about this — why exactly does he kill her? She seems perfectly in control of her wolf powers. Maybe he just can’t deal. Maybe after his girlfriend got bitten in the throat by Eddie, he hates all werewolves. It just always makes me question this part of the film.
After all that, the public doesn’t believe any of it. It had to be special effects. Even worse, the bad guys kind of win, as Marsha escapes the fire to do more evil.
Based on Gary Brandner’s novel, John Sayles worked with Dante to provide a script that is as self-aware as their previous film Piranha. It starts like a grimy 70s cop drama and then transforms, mid-film, into a monster movie, then takes you back into the sensational world of local news before its tragic ending.
The film is also packed chock full of great character actors of the past, like Carradine, Slim Pickens and Kevin McCarthy (the human hero of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Plus, there are some awesome cameos, like Roger Corman and Forrest J. Ackerman.
As I mentioned before, this is a film that adores the horror films of the past. From the photo of Lon Chaney Jr. on Dr. Waggner’s wall to the fact that almost every character is named for a director of a werewolf movie, this film is filled with trivia.
Seriously, here are the character names, what director they reference and the films they are famous for:
George Waggner: Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man
Roy William Neill: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
Terence Fisher: Nearly every major Hammer movie, including Curse of the Werewolf
Freddie Francis: I could go on and on and list Freddie’s finest work, like Tales from the Crypt, Tales that Witness Madness and Trog, but for this movie’s sake, his name references 1975’s Legend of the Werewolf. PS — Francis would go on to be the noted cinematographer of Glory and The Elephant Man.
Erle C. Kenton: 1945’s House of Dracula, which mixes all the Universal monsters, including John Carradine as Dracula, Chaney as Lawrence Talbot, Lionel Atwill as Police Inspector Holtz and — thanks to footage cut from different films — four actors playing Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Eddie Parker).
Sam Newfield: The Mad Monster is his werewolf movie, but he also directed some insane films like I Accuse My Parents, Queen of Burlesque and 273 other films — the dude was so prolific that he used two other names so audiences wouldn’t notice how many movies he made in one year!
Charles Barton: The silly part of me would consider The Shaggy Dog as the reason Dante selected his name. The realist knows that its for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which features Chaney again as Lawrence Talbot.
Jerry Warren: Face of the Screaming Werewolf, which features Chaney as “The Mummified Werewolf.”
Lew Landers: The Return of the Vampire and Cry of the Werewolf would both qualify him.
Jacinto Molina: Who we all know and love much better by his real name, Paul Naschy. Naschy played werewolves — who were often named Waldemar Daninsky — in Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror, Assignment Terror, La Furia del Hombre Lobo, The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman, Doctor Jekyll y el Hombre Lobo, Curse of the Devil, Night of the Howling Beast, Night of the Werewolf, The Beast and the Magic Sword, Licántropo: El Asesino de la Luna Llena, El Aullido del Diablo, A Werewolf in the Amazon and Tomb of the Werewolf.
The coroner also tells about the case of Stuart Walker, which is the same name as the director of the first American werewolf movie, Werewolf of London.
Much like Famous Monsters, this film is in love with puns. from Ginsberg’s book Howl at the phone booth, Slim Pickens eating a can of Wolf chili, Bill reading a Thomas Wolfe book and the Big Bad Wolf chasing Porky Pig in a Looney Tunes cartoon. There’s even a clip from The Wolf Man during the closing credits!
All of this detail doesn’t get in the way of a great story and awesome effects. Bottin does a great job here with the transformation sequences, even though some of the final ones had to be done inside Dante’s office in super close up, as they had totally exhausted their budget. Rick Baker was originally assigned to the film, but left to do An American Werewolf in London. I wonder if there were any bad feelings as a result.
Of course, there are around 90 sequels to this movie. And I’m certain I’ll cover at least two of them — at least one with Sybil Danning — soon. But if you haven’t seen this film…you should. Like now.