Retrospective: The Howling (1981)

It’s that time again folks, to dive into another movie series to see how it has changed. And if you can read the text above you, you’ll know that our latest subject of examination is The Howling series! However, before I commence with the retrospective I just want to mention a couple things briefly. The first has to do with my Project X review. Yes, I am still hung up on that bloody movie. Anyway, at the end I threw in a little post-script defending my position on the movie regarding any questions of my objectivity in regards to giving the movie a 0.5/10. However, after giving it a little thought, I don’t think that that post-script was really warranted. A film review is simply one person’s analysis of a movie, and I found Project X morally indefensible. While I do try to temper my personal feelings somewhat (for example, Triumph of the Will is an expertly crafted movie, even if it is Nazi propaganda), if I have to excise my feelings entirely then it’s hardly my review of a movie then, is it? I expect my readers to engage with reviews from a critical perspective, so if you don’t agree with me then that’s fine – you’re entitled to your own opinion.

The second thing I need to mention is the passing of Roger Ebert. I’m sure that most of you have heard about this by now. While I myself did not follow him very closely, and found myself clashing with his reviews on occasion (most notably on his assessment of Kick-Ass), but for any film buff the news of his death is quite tragic. He was a very visible face of the profession, and his absence will most assuredly be missed.

This seriously made me tear up…

And now my final little thing before we get into The Howling. As soon as I published my last blog post (or perhaps the one before it), Metal Gear Solid V was announced. Suffice to say, as a fan of the series, I’m psyched. Sure, there has been a fair bit of fan backlash from David Hayter apparently not being involved (we’ll see…), but let’s be honest – that’s hardly going to break the game. In any case, the uncertainty about the game and the backlash about Hayter has me thinking towards the future: specifically, where will the series go from here? It’s looking like Ground Zeroes and Metal Gear Solid V will feed directly into the original Metal Gear, and so, aside from interquels, there’s no where really to go but into the future. I mean, sure, there’s the Rising series which is doing that, but they don’t have the same core gameplay which defines the Solid series. In any case, what direction do you go into the future? Do you have to bring back Solid Snake to avoid losing fans? And will doing so stretch narrative credibility (already convoluted narrative aside)? Well I think I have a great solution for these problems (if anyone who is reading this can pass this off to Konami or Kojima, PLEASE DO SO).

Make the next game star Meryl Silverburgh. Snake’s story was finished in Guns of the Patriots, and I sincerely hope that he will not come back and have that conclusion ruined. Rather, I think it’s time for Meryl to step up and earn the “Snake” codename. Part of the problem which Metal Gear Solid 2 had was that Raiden just came out of nowhere. He was a new character with no prior history for us to be introduced to him, and now suddenly he had to fill in Solid Snake’s shoes. However, Meryl gets around this problem – we’ve gotten to know her quite well over the course of 2 games, seeing her grow her skills and mature. Look at the above picture – she has even adopted Snake’s trademark headband. Kojima loves circularity in the Metal Gear story, and Snake/Meryl have a bit of a The Boss/Big Boss dynamic going on. Maybe FOXHOUND reforms and she gets to lead it or something along those lines. Furthermore, as Snake’s “apprentice”, she would fit in perfectly with Solid‘s stealth gameplay style. Another very key element is that she’d be a great female lead. Video gamers (and by extension, developers and producers) are often knocked for being sexist, and for not taking risks with female lead characters – I’ve read about production companies killing games on the basis that “no one wants to buy a game with a female character”. Making a Metal Gear game starring Meryl gets around some of these problems, putting a female face on a very high-profile game franchise (the only other one I can think of being Lara Croft). The fact that she is not an objectified and sexualized character also really helps give this a lot of credence (in contrast to, say, Mass Effect‘s Miranda, for whom the camera constantly focuses in on her ass). Sure, they may lose some douchebag fans in the process who can’t accept any form of change, but I think that this is where the Metal Gear series needs to go in the future in order to remain relevant.

Ok… wow I wrote way more than I intended to there. Well, let’s get into the meat of this post then: welcome to the first post in The Howling retrospective! In this entry we will be focusing on the first movie in the series, The Howling (1981)! For those who don’t know, I love werewolves as a monster. The idea for them is just so rock-solid: they represent our inner-beast, the Id, the overpowering impulse for violence, primal fear and so on. Also, a giant wolf that runs around and kills people is just plain cool. Unfortunately, werewolves have had a rough time translating to film in comparison to the other two classic movie monsters – zombies and vampires. Among the more notable examples of the genre are The Howling movies. Many werewolf aficionados will point to the original Howling movie as being one of (if not THE) best werewolf movies ever made. As for the sequels… well, we’ll get to those in the coming weeks. Anyway, is their assessment of The Howling spot-on? Is it really a must-see classic, if not in general, then for werewolf junkies? Well read on and find out…

Another great, iconic poster!

The Howling is based on a novel by Gary Bradner, and was directed by Joe Dante, a Roger Corman alumni (hey don’t knock that credit, Corman is practically responsible for modern cinema). At the time, Dante was fresh off of the well-received original Piranha and was approached to adapt The Howling to film. Aside from these two films, his other two major credits include the two Gremlins movies; clearly Dante was an accomplished creature-feature director, in addition to having an awesome name. The other major player in this movie was special makeup effects creator, Rob Bottin. Originally Rick Baker was hired, but he left to work on another werewolf movie, An American Werewolf in London instead. The Howling was really Bottin’s first major makeup effects job, but it was a key one – his very next movie was The Thing, and I think we all know how much his expertise propelled that movie into the territory of “classic”. I’m not particularly familiar with the cast unfortunately, but the one big name I see in it is Dee Wallace, a vertan of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, and who would later go on to appear in such movies as ET and Cujo. So all-in-all, the movie had assembled a decent director and cast and an amazing effects creator: certainly within the boundaries to create a horror classic.

The Howling was released in 1981 – a particularly notable year, as there were 3 other major werewolf-themed movies released which sparked a renewed interest in the creature (the other two movies were An American Werewolf in London and Wulfen, the latter of which is not technically a werewolf movie but rather a movie featuring extremely intelligent wolves… but it’s close enough to still count). In terms of its story, The Howling is quite unique. The film revolves around a news reporter, Karen White (Dee Wallace), who is traumatized by her encounter with a serial killer who she was luring for the police. She ends up being referred to a rehabilitation resort called “The Colony”. However, it soon becomes clear that The Colony is a secret place for werewolves to segregate themselves from humanity and that Karen and her companions are in danger as a result. Running through this narrative are themes of the tolls of psychological trauma (particularly in the scenes where Karen can’t have sex with her husband, Bill, and drives a rift into their relationship as a result). All-in-all, the movie takes itself and its subject matter quite seriously, an assessment which is somewhat at odds with some other peoples’ – the movie’s Wikipedia entry in particular claims that the movie is supposed to be self-aware and a satire, although I did not get this impression at all. The only way that it may be considered a satire is that The Colony seems to be based on Hippy Free Love communes… although, again, it doesn’t really seem to be commenting on them all that much. Of course, Wikipedia also says that the wolf allusions in the movie are “subtle” but they’re really not. Almost every single scene has someone watching a movie about wolves, reading a book about wolves or even eating freaking Wolf-brand chili. They’re so in your face that there’s no way you’d be surprised that it was a werewolf movie. In any case, The Howling feels like it was trying to be like Alien: B-movie subject matter trying to be taken as serious, A-level material.

That said, while the movie has A-level pretensions, it doesn’t live up to them. Instead, it really does feel like the B-movie it’s trying to emulate. There’s one sleazy character who basically only exists to be an “Elvira-esque” character, showing off her cleavage all the time and, in one scene, her… uh, pubes (it was the 80s). Another problem with the movie’s A-level aspirations is that the performances are very dull. Dee Wallace puts in a particularly flat performance, which is pretty crippling since she’s supposed to be carrying the narrative. Of all the characters, the only one I really sympathized with was Belinda Balaski’s Terry Fisher, and this is mostly due to her performance rather than any material she was given to work with. The story, while an interesting premise, actually is paced too slowly and really becomes rather boring at times. There’s also silly script conveniences, such as the guy I’d dub “Chekov’s Occult Book Seller”, who just so happens to know everything about werewolves, especially how to kill them, despite not even believing in them. Oh, and then there’s the fact that he says that the stuff about werewolves the characters know is “Hollywood bull crap”, but then proceeds to immediately spout out Hollywood bull crap about them himself (silver bullets do not appear in werewolf folklore, they were popularized by Hollywood horror films). Another complaint is that the music in the movie occasionally feels really out of place. I get the feeling that they just grabbed some stock horror music and just threw it into the movie and said “good enough”.

I’ve really been ragging on The Howling thus far and that’s because, quite frankly, I think that it’s massively overrated among werewolf fans. However, it does have a few very notable sequences which certainly make it worth a viewing. There’s a 10 minute section where we finally get some good werewolf action when Terry gets trapped inside of an office with one of the werewolves, and it’s awesome. We get some great looks at the makeup effects, and they’re quite good. My one complaint with the werewolf design would be that the ears are way too damn big, making them look more like were-jack rabbits, but other than that I quite like them. The other notable scene is the famous transformation. Check it out:

Pretty impressive… but you may have noticed a pretty major flaw with the whole sequence. For one thing, it’s WAY too drawn out (almost 3 minutes!), when normally the werewolves seem to take less than 5 seconds to transform. Also, more importantly, why the hell doesn’t Dee Wallace run away while he’s transforming? It’s just another plot convenience really, and literally as soon as he finishes transforming, she splashes his face with acid. So much for that. The only other really cool scene is the one where Karen and Chris escape The Colony while under attack from werewolves on all sides.

And then there’s the ending. Oh God, the ending. Even people who love this movie hate the ending. Karen gets bit by a werewolf and now she too becomes one. She decides that she has to reveal this to the world, and so goes on TV and transforms on the news. We are treated to this abomination:

That the f–k is that!?! Why did she transform into a cross between a wookie and a shih-tzu!!? And to make things even stranger, Chris then shoots her, on live TV. Oh, and to put a final nail in the ending, it is then revealed that the skank I mentioned earlier somehow avoided getting burnt to a cinder in the barn and is now on the loose. Then credits, superimposed over footage of a tasty-looking burger (cue Samuel L. Jackson). It’s just such an odd-ball ending, made worse by the terrible werewolf design that they decided to give to Dee Wallace.

All-in-all, I didn’t really care that much for The Howling. It has some cool sequences, but it hardly deserves its reputation as a classic werewolf movie. When doing a bit of research for this retrospective, I came across this post on IMDb and I think it sums up some of the big problems with the movie quite well:

“I feel like it’s more enjoyable if you lived through the 60s and 70s and dealt with the 80s, with all of the excess and fear those decades imparted. It deals with the umbridling of passions(freelove blah blah) and the backlash of that freedom from selfcontrol (AIDS yaddayadda). I think the Howling has lost a lot of its impact as the years have progressed. Most of us who grew up after the fact aren’t as affected by the shock value of these issues. We grew up in, or are growing in an environment where the 60s look ridiculous, the 70s look like a car crash, and the 80s were just a thin layer of make up trying to make American society look like it hadn’t just been beaten by an abusive partner.”

If you’re interested in werewolf movies, then I’d recommend seeing The Howling, but there are much better movies in the sub-genre. I would definitely recommend An American Werewolf in London, Dog Soldiers and Ginger Snaps – they’re all classics.


Be sure to come back soon for Part 2 of this retrospective: The Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf (AKA Stirba – Werewolf Bitch)!

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0 thoughts on “Retrospective: The Howling (1981)

  1. "I've really been ragging on The Howling thus far and that's because, quite frankly, I think that it's massively overrated among werewolf fans."

    But so many of us LOVE it, even younger fans…so do you think we're all just really stupid? Anyway, I adore this film and HATE Ginger Snaps. I love An American Werewolf in London and Dog Soldiers though. So we agree there But Ginger Snaps and its sequels bore the heck out of me.

  2. I don't think you're stupid by any means, I just don't understand all the love that The Howling gets. I think that, aside from the special effects, it's not that great – especially considering it came out the same year as An American Werewolf in London, which totally overshadows it IMHO. To each their own though of course.

    As for Ginger Snaps, I enjoy the first, the second is interesting but very flawed and the third was just plain dumb.

  3. The ending was basically forced on the studio by Dee Wallace who refused to sign on unless she had a less disturbing, more tragic transformation. Or so i've read. It makes sense when you watch it. other than that, i think it is the best serious werewolf film ever made (American werewolf is a different animal). Wallace is excellent. it is strong on atmosphere, performances and has good effects for the time. it is certainly a lot better than ginger snaps.

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