Out of the original classic monsters’ line-up (vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s creature, and mummies), the vampires have ruled cinema, only to be overshadow in the past few decade by those newfangled zombies from the sixties. Werewolves trail the vampires and zombies when it comes to quantity of films about them.
The legend of the werewolf has been around since forever in European folklore, and the creatures have appeared on celluloid since the 1910s. First was the short The Werewolf (1913)—which is forever lost to time—followed by a silent film, Wolf Blood (1925), and then Universal produced Werewolf of London (1935) (yes, like the song) and the Universal Horror classic The Wolf Man (1941).
Not too many great films about poor souls afflicted by lycanthropy have been made since, but there are exceptions. Two of those exceptions, both masterfully crafted horror comedies, were released in 1981: An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Howling (1981). *
Thanks to the mind-bendingly amazing practical makeup effect in An American Werewolf (Rick Baker would become the first make-up artist to win an Oscar for that category), The Howling fell in its shadow. There is also a remarkable transition scene here, although not full body like Baker’s. Rob Bottin did the effects here, known for films like The Thing (1982) and RoboCop (1987), and they are fantastic. Ironically, Rick Baker was originally working on The Howling, but left to do American Werewolf in London.
The Howling is about a news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace), who goes to a weird resting camp with her husband after surviving an encounter with a serial killer. There is the doctor who seems nice, but he is British, so we know he has something to hide. A sexy vixen who seduced Karen’s husband. Some the Hills Have Eyes rejects and, of course, old man John Carradine who just wants to commit suicide in peace. Karen quickly finds out that the cult members are even weirder than they seem (they are werewolves).
Joe Dante directed the film, and he did such a fantastic job in mixing terrifying horror with subtle comedy (and that whole ‘are humans the real animals and too comfortable with watching violence?’ themes) that Spielberg gave him the directing chair for Gremlins (1984). You always know when you are watching a Dante flick. He has a unique quirky style and does his best work when his focus is on the banality of normality (see The ‘Burbs (1989)).
Along with great directing, The Howling has an amazing cast of actors. Dee Wallace is the queen of the relatable-80s-woman-who-is-dealing-with-weird-shit—she was the mom in The Hills Have Eyes (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Cujo (1983) and Critters (1986). Kevin McCarthy from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and my favorite comedy, UHF (1989). John Carradine is an apex classic horror legend; the man was in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). ** And no Joe Dante film is complete without an appearance by Dick Miller. Dante’s old mentor Roger Corman also makes a cameo.
The Howling is a fantastic off-beat horror flick with a dash of comedy that still holds up great 40 years later. The effects are fantastic, the script, acting and directing are superb and it’s just an all-around fun movie. It might not have gotten as much critical acclaim as An American Werewolf in London, but one thing it did get was… seven sequels.
* Wolfen (1981) also came out in 1981, but it isn’t on the level with the other two. ** His role was uncredited.