From its opening frames, The Howling stiffens, stretches tightly, and even occasionally loosens the nerves, all without losing entirely its firm grip on your emotions. Director Joe Dante has a great love for movie lore, which informs the canvas on which he paints and makes repeat viewings essential, while never wavering in his drive to tell the story as quickly and efficiently as possible. That makes the running time fly by; it's only later that you realize how deep an impression the film carves into your subconscious.
Released in May 1981, The Howling was first out of the gate of the unofficial, unrelated "wolf meets man" trilogy that year, beating both Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London into theaters. Working with a budget reportedly ten times smaller than American Werewolf, The Howling made a killing at the box office in relation to its budget. It's fascinating to compare the films, but beyond the vague subject matter of "werewolves," they have little in common. Dante was a proud graduate of the Roger Corman school of low budget filmmaking. As a result, The Howling is a lean, mean tension machine that's much better than its straightforward approach might suggest.
Disembodied voices whisper under abstract video images as the credits roll and stringed instruments saw away in the background. The images resolve into a televised interview with Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) spouting a soothing brand of psycho-babble. Behind the scenes, the station's general manager (Kevin McCarthy) directs traffic as co-anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace) trawls through Hollywood, preparing to meet with Eddie (Robert Picardo), a suspect in a string of vicious murders.
What price salvation, though? Karen is badly shaken and starts suffering nightmares from her experience; she's hardly fit for her on-air assignment. She can't even remember what happened during those terrifying last moments in the peep show booth. The kindly Dr. Waggner recommends she come for a stay at his seaside resort, The Colony. Her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) tags along and is quickly targeted by the seductive Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks). Karen desperately wants to feel "normal" again, yet something is not quite right about The Colony. Back in Los Angeles, her friends and co-workers Chris (Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski) pick up the investigative trail. They dig into Eddie's past and are increasingly disquieted by what they learn.
Based on a novel by Gary Brandner, the script is credited to Terence H. Winkless and John Sayles. Without knowing exactly who wrote what, much of the sardonic humor sounds like Sayles, as do the lightly-sketched yet identifiable characters. Bill, for example, is defined in his very first scene. He enters the room at the television station where his wife's movements are being monitored and is introduced to two police detectives as Karen's husband. One greets him as "Mr. White," which Bill quickly corrects: "Neill. Bill Neill. My wife uses her maiden name." The other detective recognizes him as a star football player at Stanford University, and we immediately have an idea who this man is: a former well-known college athlete, never successful as a professional player, now living in the shadow of his famous wife, the television news anchor, who emasculates him by using her maiden name. No wonder he's ripe for seduction.
And so it goes: we don't realize Chris and Terry are a couple until they're seen relaxing in bed together; no specific comment need be made. We know Dr. Waggner is tolerant and wise when he calmly puts up with Marsha's verbal abuse and kind treatment of old Earle Kenton (John Carradine). The humor flows from character: we watch the dulcet-toned co-anchor rehearsing his canned spiel in the bathroom, and then hear him instantly switch to his Southern-fried "off air" voice.
For movie buffs, there's great pleasure in seeing veteran character actors populate the scenery: from the aforementioned McCarthy (who provides a nice tie-in for an Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff) and Carradine (the aging voice of doom) to Slim Pickens as Sheriff Sam Newfield and Kenneth Tobey as a cop. Dante also works in familiar players like Picardo (nearly unrecognizable as the evil Eddie) and Dick Miller (as a bookshop owner with perhaps my favorite line: "Werewolves ... they're like coch-a-roaches"), not to mention non-speaking cameos for Corman and Forest J. Ackerman. Oh, and Sayles does an uncredited bit as a mordant morgue attendant.
Make-up buffs can enjoy a field day debating the merits of Rob Bottin's work with multiple werewolves vs. Rick Baker's Academy Award-winning effects in American Werewolf. I've always thought that the transformation scene in The Howling was more effective -- scarier and with a clearly-defined point to its length, but after watching both again recently, I'd say it's a toss-up. Both scenes featured state of the art work, and both served the intent of the director.
And that's why I love The Howling. Dante freshened up the werewolf for the 1980s, but retained tried and true elements from the past that still worked: there's nothing like animals emerging from mist in a forest to give a jolt to the senses, and there's nothing like being trapped in a confined space with something ferocious trying to eat you.