Fright Fest: The Howling (1981)
First things first, The Howling is my favorite werewolf movie. It’s creepy, it’s sometimes bizarre, it’s sexy, and it’s violent. From the tension-filled opening with Karen White and Eddie Quist to the burning –down-the-house attempt to destroy the fine people of The Colony, and the final change before a live televised audience, The Howling brings it. Released back in 1981, The Howling is based on the novel of the same name by Gary Brandner released in 1977 (the year I was born).
“We should never try to deny the best, the animal within us…”
While there are plenty of similarities between the novel and the film, the final screenplay turned in for the movie decided to take the film adaptation in its own direction. The book starts out with the main character getting raped in her apartment and features a similar “cabin in the woods” setting for her and her husband to go to recover and heal. The husband is also pursued and seduced by the local shopkeep/temptress. For the adaptation, screenwriter, John Sayles, a psychology major in college, decided to lean heavily on the psychological angle. In the book, the town, Drago, just so happens to be a town filled with werewolves, whereas the screenplay has it all set up by the doctor (Dr. Waggner). Sayles did something I believe all good writers do when treading familiar ground—borrow what you like and make up the rest! For werewolf folklore, he chose to go with silver bullets and fire to kill his beasts, as well as a bite to pass the curse along but threw out the full moon cycle of the werewolf. Instead, he chose to go shapeshifter with the creatures being able to shift at will, day or night.
“You can’t be afraid of dreams…Turn around, Karen…”
From the psychological standpoint, we get to see Dee Wallace deliver an excellent performance as Karen White. After being attacked by and catching a glimpse of Eddie in his werewolf form, she is sent to The Colony, a “place to recharge her batteries” and run by Dr. George Waggner. The Colony is a place where everyone is known to howl at the moon. It’s there that Karen and her husband, Bill, meet Marsha Quist and a number of others. Karen battles her nightmares of Eddie, reliving the moments with her stalker in her dreams and during her sessions with Dr. Waggner at The Colony.
Her husband, Bill, tries to wait for her to let him touch her again without reliving her attack. Marsha sees her opportunity and sets her sights on him. It doesn’t take long for her “animal magnetism” to lure Bill in. One bite and Bill is all hers. This leads to one hell of a sex scene in the woods between the two. I mentioned the sexy thing in my introduction, right? Well, that is definitely brought on by Elisabeth Brooks in her role as Marsha, aka Marsha the Man-Eater. Her wild mane, perfect body, and relentless sex appeal speak to the beast in us all.
“Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself.”
The true highlights of the film are the spectacular transformations. Watching the werewolves come to life without the help of today’s special effects crutch (CGI) is a fantastic thing to behold. After killing off Karen’s friend, Eddie comes face-to-face with the object of his desire and we bear witness to the change of all changes as Eddie goes from man to beast before the screen. Watching his eyes alone is amazing. Add that to the work and hours it must have taken to get the snout just right, that’s the good stuff. I can’t imagine how amazing this must have been to see for the first time in 1981. Those of us who were spoiled by the effects of the ‘90’s and the 2000’s have earned a new appreciation for moments in the film like Eddie’s transformation. I think of movies like John Carpenter’s The Thing, And John Landi’s American Werewolf in London (which was also released in 1981), and even Michael Jacksons’s “Thiller” video (also directed by Landis), or even Jeff Goldblum’s wicked evolution from man-to-fly in The Fly. It must have been a thousand times better for actors to stand in front of a tangible creation rather than whatever stand-ins they use today for the CGI monsters.
“You can’t tame what’s meant to be wild…”
The Howling, along with Silver Bullet, forged an unforgettable bond in my mind between me and the werewolf. For older folks, it was probably The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney, for younger kids maybe it’s something like Dog Soldiers (2002) or the Underworld films (hopefully not Twilight!). In the eighties, my older brother shared these films with me and it was for this reason I dedicated my werewolf novel, Blood, and Rain, to him.
It should also be mentioned that director, Joe Dante, was at the helm of a number of great films that followed, namely, The ‘Burbs (1989) with Tom Hanks, and Gremlins (1984). While both The ‘Burbs and Gremlins contain plenty of humor to go along with the horror, The Howling, for the most part, maintained its dark edge. Although, if you look close enough, you can find spots of Dante’s appreciation for humor between the lines of the film, as well. Next time you watch it, keep your eyes on the televisions in any given scene.
To this day, The Howling remains my favorite werewolf film. The dark, sleazy, psychological aspects in the opening remind me of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1971). It maintains that psychological thriller tone (presented magnificently by screenwriter Sayles) throughout which makes the horror that much deeper. You combine the writing with the special effects, the visual beasts, great direction, and a superb cast of actors and you get the equivalent to a great novel—a full, well-rounded story and presentation.
Final note: Gary Brandner’s novel, The Howling, is also terrific. In fact, film sequel, The Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988), is a more faithful adaptation of the original novel. It is easily my second favorite of the movies that followed in the series. For werewolf flicks that I also love, check out American Werewolf in London, Silver Bullet, Wolf (1994), The Wolfman (2010), and Wolfen (1981). You can go ahead and add Teen Wolf (1985), as well.
Whatever your horror flavor, I hope you’ll make some time for one or more of these excellent films this Halloween season.
Glenn Rolfe is an author, singer, songwriter and all around fun loving guy from the haunted woods of New England. He has studied Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University and continues his education in the world of horror by devouring the novels of Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Hunter Shea, Brian Moreland and many others. He and his wife, Meghan, have three children, Ruby, Ramona, and Axl. He is grateful to be loved despite his weirdness. He is the author of Blood and Rain, The Haunted Halls, Chasing Ghosts, Boom Town, Abram’s Bridge, Things We Fear, and the collections, Out if Range, Slush, and Where Nightmares Begin. You can get your paws on Glenn’s work on Amazon.
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October 26, 2016 | Categories: Horror, Reviews | Tags: 1981, Christopher Stone, dark, Dee Wallace, Dennis Dugan, Fantasy, film, Fright Fest, fright fest 2016, Glenn Rolfe, gritty, Guest author, Halloween, Halloween Movie Marathon, Horror, horror reviews, Joe Dante, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, movie reviews, Patrick Macnee, review, Reviews, Robert Picardo, Slim Pickens, The Howling, urban horror, werewolf, werewolves | 2 Comments