THE HOWLING (1981)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Howling poster

Directed by: Joe Dante

Written by: John Sayles, Terence H. Winkless

(based on the novel THE HOWLING by Gary Brandner)

Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy

By the time the 70’s had ended, it seemed like the reign of classic movie monsters was at an end. There was a lack of vampire films, no Frankenstein movies to be found, and next to no werewolf movies. 1981 brought two great features about the beast that transforms by the light of the full moon. The more well-known film was AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. THE HOWLING was the other film and though it has received significantly less attention than the horror-comedy take on the monster, it was extremely successful at the box office and has gone on to be considered one of the best werewolf movies of all-time. Incorporating classic sensibilities of the Universal horror movies from the 1940’s with a new concept of the well-known monster, THE HOWLING is a very cool 80’s horror film that holds up amazingly well.

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Karen White, a LA news anchor, is being used as bait to catch a serial killer. After the cops lose connection with her, Karen goes through a traumatizing experience in which she almost dies at the hands of the killer who appeared to be a little more than….human. In order to recuperate, Karen and her husband, Bill, travel to a resort where psychiatric patients gather to receive professional help. It’s a place called The Colony. After hearing some rather alarming howls in the woods at night, Bill is attacked and bitten by a large animal. As Bill begins to go through more than just a personality change, Karen, along with two of her friends, investigate the hairy secret that The Colony hides.

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Many critics say that the incredible transformation scene in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is the best werewolf scene of all time. I’d say that THE HOWLING has a scene that is just as great as that well-known moment in AMERICAN WEREWOLF. Rick Baker was actually on the make-up crew for THE HOWLING and left to work on the Landis production. They gave each other some stiff competition with well-constructed effects and memorable moments. As far as gore goes, I found THE HOWLING to be more graphic than AMERICAN WEREWOLF too. It’s a dark film that also has moments of humor, but isn’t a complete blend of horror and comedy. There are also plenty of little references thrown in the background for horror buffs.

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The music sounds like it’s from a black-and-white monster movie for the most part, but that also feels completely appropriate for the story being presented. For the most part, the monsters are left to the darkness for the first half of the film. We get little hints at what’s going on, but nothing is really shown front and center, save for one scene. When the werewolves are on-screen, it’s quite a sight to behold. Even little things like a shadow passing by the window can be nothing short of scary.

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One characteristic about these werewolves that is unique involves the idea that they’re simply shape-shifters. It doesn’t have to be a full moon for them to transform, instead they can turn anytime they please or that is convenient for them. This adds a new level of danger for the characters, especially Karen living with a man who could potentially change and rip her to pieces at any moment. The final third also introduces a really cool plot twist that makes sense with the logic that has been set up early on.

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As far as weak moments go, the only real pet peeve I had with this film is Dee Wallace’s acting. She’s good for the most part, but at times, she comes off as a bit over-the-top. Everything else about the film is stellar and makes for a hell of a great werewolf film. It might even place a little higher for me than AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which is blasphemy for a lot of people. THE HOWLING is an essential viewing for anybody who enjoys scary movies, especially ones about werewolves.

Grade: A-

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