Thursday, October 6, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: The Howling (Joe Dante)

The first line of dialogue uttered in The Howling is the word “repressed” as spoken by a television psychiatrist, an apt statement of the theme of the film: how the lycanthrope affected individuals reveal their inner sexual desires and deviancy burrowed deep inside when their flesh turns to fur. When we first meet investigative news journalist Karen White (Dee Wallace) she’s in a seedy stretch of Los Angeles full of strip joints and pornography shops (which in real life is a few blocks of Santa Monica I pass by everyday on my commute home) where she plans to interview and assist the police in capturing notorious murderer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). She’s successful in luring Eddie to being shot and (allegedly) killed by the police, but the affair has a lasting emotional impact that infects her dreams and renders her unable to perform her job or be intimate with her husband, Bill (future real-life husband of Wallace, Christopher Stone). At the urging of her psychiatrist (Patrick Macnee), the couple goes to “The Colony” an open space near the ocean, to relax and recuperate. Little do they know that they are being led smack dab in the middle of a clan of werewolves.

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.


le0pard13 said...

Wonderful review, Colonel. In any other year, this easily would have been my favorite werewolf movie of that period. AAWiL and THE HOWLING was treasure trove for '81 horror. Too bad there is a rivalry because of it -- some debates on which is best can get downright cantankerous online. I refuse to disparage one over the other. Though like you, my heart resides with the Landis masterpiece. Time to tee up this Joe Dante classic. Thanks for this.

Mummbles said...

I have yet to see The Howling but it is on my list of movies to try an see asap. With this glowing review I will try to make sure and see it!

Colonel Mortimer said...

leopard-Yes, it was an embarrassment of riches in 1981, I try not to get into death matches over movies, especially in this case, since both have such greatness in them, seems silly to me.

Mummbles--yes, you should check this out, it's a grower, I've seen it three times, and enjoy it a bit more each time.

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