Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Howling

Film: The Howling (1981)
Dir: Joe Dante
Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Between The Howling and John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, 1981 was a great year for lycanthrope fans. Both films were iconic pioneers of the subgenre, each loaded with black humor, great music, and groundbreaking makeup FX. In comparing the two, my heart still goes to London, but Dante's flick remains an influential and scary horror classic.

Television anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) is the target of a serial killer known simply as Eddie. In order to help police catch him, she agrees to meet Eddie in person, and consequently she is almost killed. Emotionally traumatized by the incident, Karen is ordered by her doctor to go on a country retreat. She and her husband Bill stay the week at a beautiful but remote colony of psychiatric patients. Howling sounds in the night and eviscerated cows are the first hints that something is not right with this place. Needless to say, the local residents are not what they seem.

Honestly, the werewolves in this aren't even as scary as Eddie is. The opening of the film, where Karen is trapped in a peep booth with the killer, is disturbing and horrifying on a level I did not expect from this movie. Beyond that, Dante keeps the mood a little lighter. Sure, it's all dark and bloody, but he slips in plentiful wolf puns and classic film references. Each time you watch the movie, you are bound to discover another in-joke you missed the last time.

Also worth mentioning is legendary composer Pino Donaggio's chilling score, which captures all the tension and eroticism of a good werewolf movie. You know it's a proper horror film when there is an Italian on musical accompaniment.

Based on Gary Brandner's novel The Howling, the screenplay is tense, witty, and packs an unforgettable ending. The story nails the standard lyncanthrope themes, like sexuality, change, and animal instincts. The script is supported by good performances, not the least of which being scream queen Dee Wallace, and amazing visual effects. The godly Rick Baker was originally hired to handle the film's special makeup effects, but he left to work on An American Werewolf in London. He left the job in the able hands of his assistant, Rob Bottin, who is one of my absolute favorite makeup effects artists (see also: The Thing, Total Recall).

Just like Landis' film, The Howling boasted a werewolf transformation on-camera. Bottin pioneered his own morphing technique, since Baker took his famous "change-o" mechanical head with him for London. Bottin utilized air bladders under latex and makeup to create the illusion of a human transforming into a werewolf. It may seem outdated today but it was groundbreaking at the time, and still impresses me to this day. Furthermore, the finalized werewolves look great - huge, frightening...and a tad adorable.

It is refreshing to know that both 1981 werewolf films did not steal from each other, but instead each film satisfied a niche within the subgenre. Both had amazing FX, great music, and campy humor, and yet they feel like completely different types of movies. Though it may seem a little outdated or silly by today's standards, The Howling nails the werewolf genre conventions while paying fantastic homage to its predecessors.