Monday, 6 May 2013

Review: The Howling (1981) Spoilers...

The Howling (1981)
Dir: Joe Dante
Cert 18 / Running time 91 mins

1981 was a good year for some folks. Ronald Reagan became POTUS and Prince Charles married young Diana Spencer. OK, not so good for her I guess... That aside, it was also a good year for werewolf movies, the best in fact. Honestly, you wait for an iconic werewolf movie to come along and you get two at the same time!

The movies I'm referring to are of course John Landis' American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante's The Howling. The focus of this particular post is to honour the release of The Howling on Blu-Ray (albeit in USA and Canada) on June 18th.

The film is based on the book of the same name by Gary Bradner (which I finally read last year) and tells the story of a young couple who suffer a traumatic attack and are advised to duck out of the rat race for a while to enable them to get back on track. Unfortunately the location they hope will solve their problems ends up being somewhere that would test even Bear Grylls to his limit (I'd like to see his quick fix for fending off a pack of werewolves using only the blubber of a seal and some camel urine). As with many film adaptations, there are loads of differences between the book and the movie; in this instance Karen is a journalist instead of working in the hotel industry - if you want a truer reflection of the book, try the overlooked Howling IV

The movie wasn't that well received upon it's theatrical release. Much like John Carpenter's The Thing which was released shortly afterwards, The Howling was to simmer away for a few years before gaining a strong cult fanbase.

The two leads Christopher Stone and Dee Wallace, playing the aforementioned young couple, Karen and Bill were actually a real life couple; which may explain how they work so well in the movie. Wallace brings a vulnerability and sweetness to her performance which serves to enhance the tension as she tries to cope at her wits end and ultimately finds it in herself to deal with the unfolding horror. Stone is equally effective as the husband who gets led astray by Elisabeth Brooks, the local Jolie-esuqe nympho-lady-werewolf. The rest of the cast are well assembled and there's plenty of eye candy for geeks (Patrick Macnee of The Avengers, John Carridine of House of Dracula and much more similar fare, Kevin McCarthy of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers... it goes on). Macnee is spot on as the affable, paternal Dr. Waggner (another reference) the psychiatrist who is in charge of The Colony; the secluded retreat where he suggested Karen and Roy take their vacation. Waggner attempts to instill a new age philosophy amongst his "gifted" patients by bringing them to the Californian coast and subjecting them to group therapy sessions.

"Ah, theres the file I was looking for, couldn't lay my hands on it anywhere - cheers!"
Part of Karen's therapy involves regressing into the traumatic event she has tried to forget, while Bill hangs out with the menfolk, doing manly things. On the surface it all appears to be just what the couple needed but it's all underscored by the eponymous howling every night, which has the effect of freaking Karen out to the point where she suspects something's wrong. The howling itself is quite creepy and does a lot for the atmosphere of the film. Soon, Bill is bitten by a wolf (oh dear) prompting Karen's best pal Terry (Belinda Balaski) to rush to The Colony for moral support. Its a move Terry soon comes to regret as her investigative journalist instincts kick in; she discovers that Karen's original attacker lurks within the woods of the forest retreat. Her nosiness leads to one of the film's best / scariest scenes. The monster Terry is confronted with is formidable and would probably kick the ass of Naughton's American Werewolf. After that scene its strange to think that this is the same director who gave us kids movies like Gremlins, Explorers and Small Soldiers.

As with any werewolf movie the money shot is the transformation scene. The timing of the release of American Werewolf in London meant that everyone remembered Rick Baker's (still) stunning transformation scene - and rightly so. But a young Rob Bottin gave us a great scene, original, gross and still startling; the camera soaking up Eddie Quist's tortuous change.

The film's only real letdown is it's finale. After having escaped from The Colony (but not without being bitten by her newly lycanthropic husband), Karen decides to expose the hidden community of werewolves living among us by turning into one during a live news bulletin. Its a great idea and would've been fantastic - had she not actually turned into a care bear. She looks like one of Bungle's cousins. The whole house of cards would've fallen down right here had the rest of the film not been so good. Anyway...

Unlike it's counterpart, The Howling spawned many sequels, all steadily declining into obscurity - but its a testament to the idea which The Howling conceived; what if the werewolf isn't just one poor cursed soul looking for reprieve, but instead there was a pack out there, made up of those who looked at it not as a curse but a gift? That they imagined themselves the very top of the food chain and enjoyed the slaughter?

For better or worse, werewolves are enjoying a bit of a renaissance but it comes at a cost. In recent years, the image of the werewolf has been recast into a buff young teenager, while the monster itself is more akin to a force of nature to behold in awe instead of terror. Where's the horror? The wolfman needs rehab. Hooray for The Howling being released on Blu-Ray, as old as it is it feels refreshing these days.

Awesome new artwork - always helps

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