Friday, May 6, 2016

The Howling (1981)

"Tell your parents you saw a movie with Slim Pickens in it!"

That is the foundation of my memory of the first time I saw Joe Dante's The Howling, while at a sleepover at my aunt and uncle's house.  As I've stated before, a lot of my interest in all things Horror stems from influences from my older cousin and, frankly, this particular movie is no different!

How can it be that I haven't yet done a piece about this classic?!?  Just yesterday, I read Kirk Hammett's write-up about some of his favorite werewolf films -- check it out over at his blog here -- which got me thinking about what I'd say is arguably my all-time favorite werewolf picture.

During that first viewing as a kid, I was absolutely terrified . . . just the title alone creeped me out man!  Even hearing that howl sound effect as the opening title graphic literally rips onto the screen gave me goosebumps (and still kinda does).  In fact, I'd easily wager that that particular howling sound and the one used in John Landis' An American Werewolf In London are tied for my two favorites -- just like the films themselves. 

The film follows Karen White (played by Dee Wallace Stone), a young TV news reporter, who is hot on the trail of "Eddie The Mangler", a serial killer who's been cutting up women on the Sunset Strip.  Along with her husband Bill Neil (played by Wallace's real-life husband Christopher Stone), Karen soon finds herself knee-deep in a lycanthrope nightmare!

Released four months before Landis' "monster movie", The Howling got the jump on terrifying moviegoers with some of the most impressive transformation special effects yet seen!  The man behind the fantastic work is, of course, Rob Bottin (himself, a protégé of Rick Baker, whose work in American Werewolf won him his first Academy Award).  Late in the film, Eddie Quist (played by Robert Picardo) transforms in front of Karen in, what is arguably the film's centerpiece!  For my money, this particular sequence shows a man who gets off on his ability to freely change into a ravenous beast; maybe he's not necessarily "evil", but he's definitely not changing into a werewolf for anyone's benefit other than his own!  In fact, to this day, whenever I see the dying rays of a sunset peeking through a set of window blinds, I can't NOT think of this film or this sequence! 

This leads to one of THE coolest elements of the whole film for me:  the fact that these werewolves can change whenever they damn well feel like it!  They don't need to wait until the next full moon; they see someone snooping around, trying to gather clues?  They'll turn into a werewolf and bite their damn throat out!  Simple as that.

One of the most fun aspects to the film which, ultimately, took a while to grab me is its wicked sense of humor spotted throughout.  From almost the beginning and straight through the end credits, The Howling is loaded with various winks and nods to either previous werewolf lore in film/TV/culture, pop culture, or the "self-help" craze of the 70s/80s.  Off the top of my head, there's a cameo from Famous Monsters of Filmland's own Forrest J. Ackerman, a cameo from Grandma's corpse in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, at least once reference to Wolf Chili, an appearance of Disney's The Big Bad Wolf, clips from The Wolf Man, and even dog food commercials! 

Another standout creepy piece for me has always been the ending . . . after escaping The Colony and an unfortunate encounter with backseat driver werewolf, Karen and her co-worker hero Chris (played by Dennis Dugan) decide that it's time to tell the world about the werewolf society.  Of course, this is all done during a live broadcast as Karen is supposed to be recounting the events of the out of control wildfire started at The Colony.  The film even shows the range of reactions from TV viewers as this all unfolds, ranging from youthful astonishment, confusion that the nightly news has been replaced with a late-night monster movie, to even skeptics dismissing it as cheap special effects!   

I know I've talked about before how, with pretty much every single one of these older films, there's a vibe and look to them that sets them apart from more modern fare.  In The Howling, it's 1981 with a sort of Urban Cowboy meets Hee-Haw vibe to the proceedings.  Early in the film, when Karen and Bill first arrive at The Colony, they are welcomed by a beachfront pig roast, complete with a Charlie Daniels Band tribute act!   This particular sequence, while not entirely terrifying, has always hit me pretty hard; as a kid, some of our family friends used to throw massive shindigs similar to this pig roast!  There was even a bandstand, complete with a Country Western (or, both kinds:  County and Western) band playing the hits of the day!  For this reason alone, The Howling has always seemed way more real to me than any other modern werewolf movie!

Real quick, before I forget . . . let's talk about that poster art for a second.  Man alive!  There's a reason why I had this poster in my bedroom and a second one (in much better condition mind you) hangs in our basement's guest room; just look at it.  Horrifying. Shocking.  Nightmarish.  Plus, that logo is the shit!  

And that ending?  As silly as it may sound, it's one of those shocker moments that, for me at least, has stood the test of time.  There was something about characters in Horror movies breaking the 4th wall and either addressing the audience directly or looking at the viewer that has ALWAYS creeped me out . . . Marsha Quist, last survivor of The Colony, looking right into the camera after she's asked how she wants her burger:  "rare".  And then Pino Donaggio's end credits theme starts up after another quick howling sound effect.  Damn!! 

The bottom line?  If you're a already know what I'm talking about.  If you're haven't seen it, give The Howling a shot!  You might want to check out the sequels with a sense of caution though, as they get progressively worse and worse...though Howling II:  Your Sister's A Werewolf has some kind of batshit crazy charm (and Christopher Lee)!