Take it as no slag when I say The Howling is the second best werewolf film in 1981, which is not indicative of any lack of quality, but the misfortune of sharing a release calendar with An American Werewolf in London. Like Landis’ masterpiece, Joe Dante is able to meld humor and winking references to past werewolf and horror cinema, such as an appearance by a Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine carrying Forrest Ackerman, without distracting from the tension of the suspense and excitement. One of the darker toned films in Dante’s oeuvre, that sensibility is reflected in the cinematography that uses darkness as a key stylistic choice and making the color that does leak through that much more abrasive and effective; like American Werewolf there’s a tinge of tragedy to the proceedings. The script by John Sayles (who also cameos as a disgusting food eating mortician) has no unnecessary exposition and nary a wasted moment, and takes subtle but smart digs at cult mind think pervasive at the time such as Jonestown and EST.
Dee Wallace gives a great performance as the fragile newswoman as she headlines an exceptional, and large, cast that all imbue their characters with personality no matter how much or little screen time they’re given, including Stone, MacNee, future hack Adam Sandler film director Dennis Dugan, Belinda Balaski, and the sexy leather adorned Elisabeth Brooks. Dante regulars Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller get their moments to shine, and Picardo gives an especially creepy performance as the demented masochistic Eddie. Also appearing in small roles are Hollywood legends Slim Pickens, John Carradine and in a self-effacing role, Roger Corman. The work of make-up artist Rob Bottin, which includes a very long drawn out transformation, is certainly good enough to inspire debates to this day of which scene is more effective, the Howling’s or the Academy Award winning work of Rick Baker for American Werewolf in London.