I had a theory that classic werewolf films were released every 20 years, starting in 1941 with Universal’s classic ‘The Wolfman’ with Lon Chaney jr. as the afflicted lycanthrope, through 1961 with Hammer’s ‘Curse of the Werewolf’ with Oliver Reed as the snarling lead. 1981 followed this trend with An American Werewolf in London, when David Naughton tore up London and the academy INVENTED an Oscar (Outstanding Achievement in Makeup) to reward Rick Baker for his work.
Admittedly my theory fell apart back in 2001, I really can’t think of a truly great werewolf film since 1981 (I might argue 2002’s Dog Soldiers… but given that stretch it still missed the 20 year cycle). That said, perhaps it was inevitable that the cycle was thrown off 1981 since we got not one, but two classic werewolf films. Predating the release of An American Werewolf by four months was Joe Dante’s The Howling, starring Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, Patrick Macnee and Dennis Dugan.
The film opens with Los Angeles TV news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace), walking alone on the mean streets of LA. She has been contacted by a serial killer, Eddie the Mangler (a very pre-Star Trek Voyager Robert Picardo), and is working with the police to catch him. Contacted by Eddie she arrives to meet him at a sleazy porno shop, and enters one of the film booths in the rear of the store. Eddie, silhouetted by the projector tells her that no one understands him and that he can make her feel alive like no one else. She turns, is struck by horror, screams and the police fire into the booth, killing Eddie, but the traumatic experience leaves Karen with no memory of the incident.
Treating Karen for her amnesia and frightening dreams, psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) recommends that she and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) spend some time at The Colony, his therapeutic living community in northern California. Once there, Karen begins to hear howling at night, and soon Bill is bitten by a wolf-like creature.
The Howling was directed by Joe Dante from a script by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless (loosely) based on the novel by Gary Brandner. It is darkly comic, taking swipes at TV news and self help culture (a big fad in the late 70s). The script is full of in-jokes (for example, almost all of the characters are named after famous werewolf film directors) which never disrupt the mood. The cast are generally very good, Dee Wallace is suitably frail as the traumatised victim, not sure if she is losing her mind, while Patrick Macnee is very plausible as a TV-personality doctor.
Joe Dante regular collaborator Dick Miller steals the film in two scenes as the owner of an occult bookstore, and makes the dumping of werewolf exposition simple and enjoyable (the film also cleverly uses clips from the 1941 The Wolfman to punctuate moments). There are other nice cameos from aging Universal horror films stalwart John Carradine and the ever-charismatic Slim Pickens. It’s also worth mentioning that the creepy score by Pino Donaggio is effective and unsettling.
The special effects in The Howling were spectacular and would probably been far better remembered had American Werewolf had not come out four months later and stolen it’s thunder. That said, perhaps that is fitting since the Howling benefitted from American Werewolf in the special effects department.
When pre-production on American Werewolf stalled, Makeup effects wizard Rick Baker took the research he had been doing for that film and started work on the Howling. Soon American Werewolf was back on track and Rick Baker went back to that production, leaving his protÃ©gÃ© Rob Bottin and some of his ideas for how to achieve the transformation. This is not to take anything away from Rob Bottin who creates a spectacular werewolf creature and a frightening transformation.
The Howling has maintained a cult following (look for a namecheck in Scream and a sly reference in Dogma) and spawned a whole raft of sequels (most recently The Howling Reborn (number 8 if you’re counting!) in 2011). These sequels range from laughable (Howling 2: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch) to my-secret-guilty-pleasure (Howling 5: The Rebirth) to awful (Howling 3: Marsupials) to Chirst-what-am-I-seeing?-My-eyes-hurt! (Howling 7: New Moon Rising).
Please do not let this parade of dross distract you from the original film, which is smartly written, tightly directed, well acted with great special effects, and rightly takes its place in the pantheon of great Werewolf films, in fact, it is quite possibly the greatest werewolf film of all time.