October 17, 2011

Horror-A-Day: The Howling

October marches on and I am somewhat making an effort to increase the quality of the movies I have been watching. I am not sure it will work, I have been known for my poor decision making. Still, it certainly has been a lot of fun plowing through these horror movies this month. I should do it more often. For this particular viewing, I decided my roster needed some more representation from classically inspired monsters. Sure, I did watch the Frankenstein inspired Frankenstein Unbound, but I wanted to add some more to that little quadrant. For some reason, I became fixated on werewolves. Not sure why, as they seem to be notoriously difficult to bring respectably to the screen despite being interesting creatures.

To find the werewolf picture, I decided I did not want to go all the way back to the Universal Monster era, but I did travel to a bygone era. The Howling came out in 1981 and was promptly swallowed up by the release of the more popular An American Werewolf in London, which came out mere months before. Still, time has generally been kind towards the film as it holds a respectable level of esteem among genre fans.

As the movie opens we are introduced to news reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace). She has been contacted by a brutal serial killer, it appears he wants to talk. So, with a police tail in tow, she heads out to the meet. Of course, things do not go smoothly and the cops lose track of her. She ends up in a porn theater. In one of the booths a movie starts playing, a rather nasty piece that is sure to make anyone uneasy (Wallace was genuinely unnerved, her discomfort here is not an act). The door closes and the killer is behind her. He wants to show her something, she turns, sees something (obscured from the audience by projector light), she screams, and draws the attention of her returning tail who promptly shoot blindly and kill the bad guy.

The event leaves her so traumatized that whatever she saw has been blocked out of her mind. Her doctor suggests she go spend time in a retreat community called The Colony to recover. She and her husband head up to the remote and seemingly technology free retreat where she hopes to be able to retrieve those lost memories and put the ordeal behind her. Well, it seems to be going well until they discover The Colony is populated by werewolves! Not only that, they want to add Karen to their number.

The Howling is certainly a product of its time, with seedy nighttime city streets, scary characters on the street corners, not to mention the commentary on pop psychology. On top of that, it is filled with solid performances from pretty much everyone involved. It doesn't hurt to have a talented cast with Dee Wallace,  Christopher Stone, Patrick Macnee, Slim Pickens, Robert Picardo, Kevin McCarthy, and John Carradine. Some may only be cameos, but there is a  lot of horror history here.

The movie was directed by Joe Dante, who had been working with Roger Corman, having previously made Piranha. He does a nice job of giving this a scary, menacing edge and keeping the pace going. On top of that, there is the effects work of Rob Bottin (who would further distinguish himself with The Thing a yer later) and consultant Rick Baker. The transformation sequence is pretty amazing.

Overall, I have to say this is a movie that has earned its stripes and deserves to be remembered as a solid piece of werewolf cinema. It is not perfect, but it gets a lot right and has a lot of positive energy in doing it. It is amazing how much energy can help win you over.

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