Director: Joe Dante
Writer: Gary Brandner
Screenplay: John Sayles, Terence H Winkles
Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan
Run Time: 91 minutes
‘Tis the season for spooks and things that go bump in the night. Studiocanal are celebrating this event with a new release of the 1981 werewolf classic, The Howling. With a screenplay written by one of the best of his generation, John Sayles and directed by the man who is perhaps most synonymous with 80s monster movies, Joe Dante, I was excited to jump for a first-time watch.
The film starts by following Karen (played by Dee Wallace), a news anchor on the local TV station, as she aims to entrap a person of interest in a spate of recent murders and attacks. A traumatic experience ensues, and Karen is left traumatised by the whole event. Unable to work and function without being interrupted by flashbacks and visions, it is recommended that she take a vacation to a commune in the countryside to recuperate, just in time for a full moon.
There have been numerous takes on the werewolf story throughout film history, from comedic to dramatic and incorporating many a thrill and spill along the way. The Howling concentrates its focus squarely on the psychological. The script centres on the emotions that accompany the legend of the werewolf, including the link to the sexual urges of the beast. While initially centred around Karen’s own experiences, as more characters and events come into her view, the more confused her mind becomes.
Around halfway through the film, the initial setup is laid bare and the thrust of the film changes to a more traditional thriller with a side of horror. It uses the orchestral score’s swell and fall to build and accompanying the tension and horror on screen. The story splits between the investigation of what is really going on, while exploring life on the colony with the tension ratcheting up on both ends.
Special mention should be given to the practical effects in the film. This aspect of the horror film genre is the item that most closely dates the time of the film. The eighties were alive with similar expressions of horror and much like The Thing a year later, (the Special Effects guru Rob Bottin is responsible for both) using practical effects to demonstrate transformation is as horrific to watch as it is uncomfortable to consider. It is effective throughout and a facet of the film that makes it so memorable, even 40 years later.
The film transfer looks great (I reviewed the blu ray version) and sits alongside an excellent audio mix which combines a heavy use of orchestral score, audio effects without ever losing any clarity in the speech.
Inside the Career of Joe Dante Brand new featurette that celebrates the incredible career of Joe Dante
Welcome to Werewolfland A lookback into the special effects of The Howling
The documentary into the special effects is a 50-minute deep dive into the making of the werewolf extravaganza. It features Joe Dante amongst others extolling the history of the werewolf movie genre before expanding into a scene-by-scene walkthrough of the film. The documentary features a mix of archived and recent interviews to talk about the disagreements and difficulties of making a film of this genre. It was really enlightening and a must for any fans of practical effects in cult film.
The Joe Dante doc is a fun look at the career of a director whose legacy leaves multiple big cult films in his wake. It runs for twenty minutes and includes nods to his influences (a la Roger Corman) as well as his films themselves. Hearing Dante talk about his own career like this feels like a real treat.
Memorable practical effects, a lavishly orchestrated score and a plot that plays like a fever dream make The Howling a memorable take on the werewolf genre. It is one of the more fully realised explorations of the ideas that have lived in lore for much of the length of motion picture history. While the thrills and spills are (to me) the weakest part of the film, you should be left with a strong sense of fun and playfulness in the horror genre. The film is released on Blu ray, DVD and 4K from Monday 25th October 2021.