The Howling (1981)

The curse of the werewolf movie

For as good a werewolf movie as Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981) is, it can’t escape that it’s a werewolf movie.

There’s a one in six or seven chance that The Howling (1981) is your favorite werewolf movie. It’s written well, directed well, and acted well enough by some names with a pedigree. The star, Dee Wallace, has been a fixture of horror films ever since Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). She also played Mary, Elliott’s mom, in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Which she followed up with Cujo (1983).

The Howling (1981)

The creature effects are as good as they can be, and if they look a little rubbery by contemporary standards, they’ve aged better, or less worse, than many others of their vintage. The werewolf transformation scenes are among the finest of the pre-digital era.

It’s even been recognized in its time, or near enough its time, as a classic of the genre. Whenever the subject of werewolf movies comes up, there’s no shortage of horror fans to put its name forward and laud the brilliant casting choices and lavish praise on every detail of the production and screen it for friends who haven’t seen it and tell them that they can thank us later. And while it isn’t the greatest werewolf movie ever made—that would be An American Werewolf in London (1981)—it easily places in the all-time top five. A case can be made for the all-time top three.

But there’s a one in zero chance that it’s your favorite horror movie, even if it’s your favorite werewolf movie. It’s good—it’s even very good. But is it The Exorcist (1973) good? The Shining (1980) good? Is it as good as 28 Days Later (2002)? The monster is a werewolf, for the love of the old gods. An all-time top-five werewolf movie shouldn’t have trouble keeping up with Halloween (1978). Yet even the greatest werewolf movie ever made can’t keep up with Halloween. If you want to know why, I might have some ideas, but first let me tell you about The Howling.

The story centers on Wallace’s Karen White—Karyn Beatty in the original Gary Brandner novel, which screenwriters John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless borrowed next to nothing from, probably to everyone’s advantage. The movie-version Karen anchors the five-o’clock news, and apparently also the eleven-o’clock news, for KDHB Channel 6 Los Angeles television. She’s on a first-name basis with a serial killer (and likely sex offender as played by Robert Picardo) that the press has taken to calling the Mangler, but he would rather that she know him as Eddie. He’s something of a fan of hers.

Karen White (Dee Wallace)
Karen White (Dee Wallace)
Hail to the Queen, Baby

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Eddie had called her at the TV station to express his admiration for her and tell her all sorts of disgusting things, and she, smelling a story, or at least the ratings, had stroked his ego and kept him calling her back. She’d received the full support of her producers in the newsroom and even the encouragement of the Los Angeles police. Everyone was hoping that he’d agree to a meet.

That meet is underway as the movie opens. Karen arrives at a designated payphone somewhere in the red-light district. She’s visibly nervous but undeterred. The phone rings. It’s Eddie. He’s in a porn shop nearby, in one of the movie booths, waiting for her. She tells him that she’ll be there soon. She’s wearing a wire; her producers are listening, and the police, but the neon lighting garbles the transmission, and they never hear the end of the call.

They find her in time, but only just in time. She’s screaming in the booth like she’s being murdered. Rattled, a rookie cop (Steve Nevil) shoots blindly through the door, misses Karen by some sort of miracle, hits Eddie in a vital organ or two, and drops him in a widening pool of blood. So much for the Mangler. Karen walks away with minor injuries, and Update News gets an exclusive eye witness on a story that they’re able to sell with both violence and sex. General station manager Fred W. Francis (Kevin McCarthy) is as happy as he’s ever been.

But even though Karen is physically fine, she begins showing symptoms of emotional trauma. She freezes on her first day back on set. She recoils from her husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone) in bed. And she can’t remember what happened with Eddie. She thinks that he wanted to show her something. What big eyes he had? What sharp teeth he had? All she knows is that she’s terrified.

Occult knowledge The real-life George Waggner directed The Wolf Man (1941).

It gets so bad that she makes an appointment with celebrity psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), best-selling author and fixture on KDHB news programming. Dr. Waggner recommends an extended stay for her and Bill at his place up the coast, which he calls the Colony. It’s a back-to-nature self-help retreat for well-to-do neurotic white people to help them reconnect with their inner selves. An emphasis on communal living is to be expected. “I hope these people aren’t too weird,” Karen says.

Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee)
Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee)

Fortunately for us, they probably are. We have Jerry (James Murtaugh) and his wife Donna (Margie Impert), who are a tinge overeager to befriend Bill and Karen; the rancher Charlie (Noble Willingham), who grazes cattle nearby; Sam (Slim Pickens), the local sheriff; aging manic-depressive Erle (John Carradine), for whom the Colony doesn’t appear to be working; and the near-feral T. C. (Don McLoed) and his older sister Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), a nymphomaniac who likes to bite. If the Colony is an asylum, then these are the inmates running it with the full faith and confidence of Dr. Waggner, who acts more like a friendly uncle than your average charismatic cult leader. Karen doesn’t know what to make of the place, but she seems to be willing to give it a try.

Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks)
Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks)

Back in the city, the news business grinds on, and Update News producers Christopher Halloran (Dennis Dugan) and Terry Fisher (Belinda Balaski) are running down leads on the Eddie case for a new half-hour special about “the beast in all of us.” It turns out that Eddie’s last name was Quist and that he’d been a fan of Weird Vampire Tales—he’d pinned the cover of volume 4, issue 3, to his wall—and that, apart from mangling his victims, he liked to sketch portraits, mostly of werewolves, as if he’d been putting together a Sunday supplement to pitch the editor at Weird Vampire Tales. It also turns out that he’s missing from the morgue. There’s some damage to his body box—some interior damage. Chris and Terry hit up their local occult bookstore for titles like Warlocks, Werewolves, and Demons. And books about grave robbers. Just in case.

They aren’t the only ones having problems with spooks. Karen can’t sleep because of howling in the night, which Bill shrugs off, and which the sheriff calls coyotes. But then one of Charlie’s bulls gets its throat torn out. And then something takes a bite out of Bill when he lingers too long in the moonlit forest. And then something starts to eat at him, something on the inside, like it wants to chew free. Its restlessness begins to change him into something. He’s usually a vegetarian, but he’s wolfing down meat. He’s a loving husband, but he’s making hungry eyes at Marsha. Maybe he’s getting back to nature? And if Eddie isn’t in the morgue, where is he?

The pleasures of The Howling don’t end there. I said before that it’s written well, but I’m sure I haven’t adequately conveyed just how sharp the writing is, and biting at times, with a playful intelligence. There are fake product placements for Wolf Chili (twice), Wolfe’s Ulcer Acidosis Treatment, and Howl by Allen Ginsberg. There are also moments of unusual tenderness. A bittersweet waltz that plays to shadows on rockface rips out your heart in a figurative sense like the werewolves would do in a literal one. The subtle shifts in tone and style between the Los Angeles scenes and the Colony scenes put me in mind of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978). Roger Corman appears in a cameo. And have I mentioned the creature effects? Halloween has none of this.

The Howling (1981)
The Howling (1981)

What Halloween does have is a certain purity of purpose that comes when your monster is Michael Myers and you’re John Carpenter and you know what you’re doing. An escaped mental patient in a Halloween mask who’s slaughtering babysitters with a kitchen knife isn’t an especially interesting character, but he doesn’t need to be, and he’s not supposed to be. Because every little detail to round him out would simultaneously also humanize him, and the degree to which he’s humanized is the degree to which he stops being terrifying—not in the abstract, but in a visceral way. He’s not designed to engage the intellect. If we’re discussing him at dinner parties, we’re doing it wrong. He’s designed to bypass our cognitive function and make us afraid of him like we’re afraid of the dark.

Horror movies have forgotten, if they ever knew, that the werewolf is supposed to be Michael Myers, only louder, more ferocious, and less deliberate. It’s the outward representation of our animal side, our capacity for voracious, remorseless violence. It’s therefore also our link to the natural world, to the kill-or-be-killed indifference of nature, which has never been a comfortable fit for a species that named itself sapiens, as in possessing the necessary powers of reason to think its way out of the nasty and brutish. And because of the werewolf’s connection to nature, to the cycle of life of which death is a part, it reminds us that we’re meat with an expiration date—there’s the reference to short, if you were waiting for it. The werewolf isn’t the only monster to do this, but it’s up there with the most willing agents of the butcher, and its pagan ritual isn’t the forbidden sex of mannerly drawing-room Victorian vampires but the ancient Dionysian orgiastic rites, the feast of raw flesh, the rending of the body to bloody entrails. So when the werewolf comes out, it ought to be a berserker: savage, insatiable, relentless, and unstoppable, except by dismemberment, and maybe not even then.

What we receive with the werewolves in The Howling is an order of magnitude tamer than this. They’re in open dialogue with their inner selves, which is the same as to say their animal selves, which makes them the ultimate self-actualized beings. They’re not so much wild as they are uninhibited, the recipients of the wisdom of the Dionysian Mysteries—the gift, as Dr. Waggner calls it—but without the ecstasis that takes you there. Because this mangling that we hear about? We never witness any. In fact, the only explicit mutilation comes from a human fighting back (and simultaneously giving us the best reverse transformation of a dissevered hand that we’re ever going to get). We have werewolves growling and turning over furniture and acting as enforcers of the patriarchy, but we’re noticeably short on mauling, maiming, swipes, rakes, scratches, and bites. Evisceration? Forget about it. The bloodiest that we see any claws in this movie is when they push through the werewolf’s own fingertips during the transformation sequence.

It all comes down to the transformation sequence. Since we can’t rely on the feast of raw flesh, all that’s left to hope for is a decent wolf-out, and The Howling, like the Buddha, provides. We get a good, long look at every nuance of the change in a tour de force of technical filmmaking that takes nearly three minutes of screen time to complete. That by itself earns this movie its praise. It’s the part that we all remember at least. But it reduces the werewolf to a special effect.

Then again, so does The Wolf Man (1941), a far more influential film. Maybe the curse of the werewolf doesn’t have anything to do with the brightness of the autumn moon. Maybe it’s to be in werewolf movies.