From the DVD case:
Severely shaken after a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, TV newscaster Karen White (Dee Wallace) takes some much-needed time off. Hoping to conquer her inner demons, she heads for “the Colony,” a secluded retreat where her new neighbors are just a tad too eager to make her feel at home. Also, there seems to be a bizarre link between her would-be attacker and this supposedly safe haven. And, when, after nights of being tormented by savage shrieks and unearthly cries, Karen ventures into the forest to find answers, she makes a terrifying discovery. Now she must fight not only for her life, but her very soul! (1981, color)
1981 was a stellar year for werewolf movies. Lycanthropes were featured in such ground-breaking films as Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London. But first out of the gate was The Howling, based on the novel by Gary Brandner and directed by Joe Dante.
The Howling is a living tribute to everything that came before it. Not only are roles given to classic horror/sci-fi stars like John Carradine (Invisible Invaders, House of Frankenstein), Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Kenneth Tobey (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Thing from Another World), and Dick Miller (It Conquered the World, A Bucket of Blood), but there are enough cameos here to endlessly entertain film buffs. My favorite cameo is by famed horror producer/director Roger Corman, featured, in a reference to his miserly approach to film producing, checking a pay phone’s coin slot for spare change. Also look for Forrest J Ackerman (creator/editor of “Famous Monsters of Filmland”) as a bookstore customer.
As a further salute to werewolf filmography, scenes from The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr., are interspersed throughout the film. And if you pay close attention, you’ll recognize some of the character names (e.g. George Waggner, Terry Fisher, Fred Francis) as the names of directors of past werewolf films (The Wolf Man, The Curse of the Werewolf, and Legend Of The Werewolf, respectively).
But more than great fun for horror film enthusiasts, The Howling is a fantastic story. Led by psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), a colony of werewolves attempt to blend in with modern society to escape detection. This means raising and feeding on their own cattle rather than feasting on human flesh and blood. This is not an easy transition for the lycanthropes, and there are obvious tensions among the pack. Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) is a particularly disturbed werewolf, who has gained notoriety in human society as a serial killer dubbed “the Mangler.”
Newscaster Karen White, played by Dee Wallace (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Cujo), becomes involved when she, in an attempt to get a story, agrees to meet Eddie at a sex shop. Karen catches a glimpse of Eddie as he transforms into a werewolf, and as she screams, policemen gun down and “kill” him. Karen is so traumatized by the event that she represses what she saw and, upon the advice of Dr. Waggner, drives up to “the colony” with her husband to recuperate. Unwittingly, she has placed herself in the midst of danger.
The Howling is told with a great deal of suspense and a touch of dark humor. Mystery is also a significant element (the most fun is guessing who is and who isn’t a werewolf). However, it is probably the transformation scenes that will stick with you.
The make-up was designed and created by Rob Bottin (The Fog, The Thing). Though werewolf enthusiasts often note that the special effects are not the same caliber as those of An American Werewolf in London, I have to interject that they are still very creepy. The pulsating transformations not only look disgusting, but painful.
Unfortunately, the stages of werewolfism are portrayed more impressively than the final result. The finished transformation always reminds me of the less-than-believable beast from Curse of the Demon. There’s also an oddly humorous scene where two werewolves having sex turn into conspicuously animated cartoon characters.
The acting is more than adequate, with impressive performances by Elisabeth Brooks as Marsha Quist, Slim Pickens (Dr. Strangelove) as Sheriff Sam Newfield, and Belinda Balaski (The Food of the Gods, The Werewolf of Woodstock) as Terry Fisher. Dee Wallace in the lead role of Karen White is also completely convincing.
I would contend that the movie’s conclusion is a little too glib for an otherwise distinguished film. But this is easily debated, and nothing to discuss in detail here.
The Howling is one of my favorite werewolf flicks, and unlike many werewolf films that came before it, it may actually scare you.
Scene to watch for: Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) gives Karen (Dee Wallace) a piece of his mind.
Line to listen for: “We should have stuck with the old ways. Raising cattle for our feed. Where’s the life in that?”
Trivia: Dee Wallace, who starred as Karen, was actually married to her onscreen husband, Bill (Christopher Stone).
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.