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The Howling (1981)
The Howling is one of the formative films of my own horror experience, important to me as The Wolf Man, Pit and the Pendulum, and The Evil Dead. True, it is a trifle of a film, a werewolf romp with not other desire but simple thrills. On the other hand, it's a werewolf romp that succeeds at providing simple thrills with flair.
Television anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace-Stone) suffers a traumatic experience at the hands of twisted serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). Plagued by nightmares of Quist turning into... something, Karen heads to The Colony, a back-to-nature commune run by psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee). The locals seem a little strange to say the least, and sleep is difficult because of all the howling at night. Needless to say, things get hairy.
Director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles play fast and loose with lycanthropy standards. Their werewolves can change whenever they want, no full moon required. They regenerate, and they can only be killed by fire or silver bullets ("They're worse than cockroaches," says a bookstore owner played by Dick Miller). These clever alterations to legend allowed less expensive daylight shooting and, more importantly, a compact time frame. Since there's no need to wait for a full moon, the bulk of the story takes place over less than a week rather than a couple of months.
The Howling also changes the politics of being a werewolf. The bite is no longer a curse or a hidden shame. Now it's a gift that allows a select few to know primal power of which normal humans could not dream. The lycanthropes form their own community, though they have different purposes in mind. Some wait for the day they can integrate with society, while others look forward to dominating and hunting mankind. All of them live in secret, secluded from the world, never to be truly of it (and happy that way, for the most part).
Sex is explicitly linked to werewolfism. Of the two main female werewolves in the movie, the more openly animal one is also the most sexual. Karen's husband, unable to connect with his wife physically, finds his release (so to speak) after he is bitten. The first clear transformation sequence takes place mid-coitus, and becomes more savagely passionate as the participants are overcome by the changes.
It's unclear how much of the subtext is conscious. Dante's first and most important priority is to thrill, and there are several sequences that do just that. The most effective comes when a friend of Karen's becomes werewolf prey. It's the longest time spent focused on a single character, and the segment benefits from that distinction. However, its placement at the middle of the film is unfortunate, as it is never really topped.
The Howling often seems like it was made for horror fans alone. The volume of references to past horror films is impressive. Most of the characters are named after directors of werewolf movies, for instance, and half the fun of watching is figuring out which character "directed" which films. Additionally, the cast is loaded with familiar faces like John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, and Kenneth Tobey. A portrait of a young Lon Chaney, Jr. is casually dropped into frame at one point. This is a cornucopia of delights for the observant viewer.
Unfortunately, The Howling is nearly undone by its weakest element - Dee Wallace-Stone. She's still early in her acting career, and her emoting is both stiff and overwrought. There's constantly some horrified emotion swimming around her blank gaze, as if she's trying really hard to be in the moment, but just keeps missing it. The performance is difficult to watch and would sink the film if Dante didn't bring everything around her up a notch.
The MGM special edition DVD features an excellent Dolby 5.1 Surround soundtrack that really envelopes you in the experience. The commentary is light-hearted and filled with humorous anecdotes by Dante and various cast members. Two documentaries - one new and one vintage - rely mainly on interviews to relay the story behind making the film (the modern doc is the superior one). Rounding out the disc are a series of deleted scenes, outtakes, and a photo gallery.
If you're a horror fan, The Howling loves you. You may as well love it back. It's an unassuming werewolf thriller with a little sex on the side for spice. Grab a bite to eat and settle down with the pack. This film is a beautiful gift and it'd be a shame not to accept it.