"Honey, you were raised in LA. The wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack."
Joe Dante got his start, like many other directors, working for Roger Corman. He even gives his old mentor a cameo in his first non-Corman financed film, 1981's The Howling. Seeing as how I was only two at the time, I don't quite remember why everyone had such a hard-on for werewolf movies in 1981. An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen & this film were all released in that calendar year. And at least these were all movies that featured good old-fashioned killer werewolves, not the shirtless emo douchebag variety currently littering movie screens.
Much like An American Werewolf in London, The Howling is a nice mixture of cutting edge makeup effects (for the time), genuine scary moments and both have tongue firmly planted in cheek. Joe Dante is a pretty big horror/sci-fi film geek. He works with legends of the B-movie genre like Kevin McCarthy & Dick Miller, and he's smart enough to know that there's an exhilaration to horror films like this when they're done correctly, and balancing them with comedy is the absolute right thing to do. While ultimately I think this film is not quite as good as American Werewolf, there's a lot to admire about it.
Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a television news anchor who has been receiving mysterious phone calls from a man that police suspect is a serial murderer. Using her as bait, they send her to meet with the mysterious Eddie (Robert Picardo), and a police officer shoots Eddie moments before he is about to attack Karen. Traumatized by the whole experience, and on the recommendation of famous psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee, again Dante casts his movies well), Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone, Wallace's real-life husband) travel to a remote campground called "The Colony" to relax and drop out of society for a while.
Things are not what they seem however, as the people living at The Colony are not like normal human beings. And of course they aren't, it wouldn't be much a horror movie if she went out to the woods and got over the whole ordeal. Some members of The Colony include the great character actors Noble Willingham & Slim Pickens. Anytime Slim Pickens shows up in a movie, you know you're in for a treat. I only wish Harvey Korman was around to play off him, as I still find them to be one of the most sublime pairings in cinema history.
It's not long before, back in the city, Eddie's body turns up missing and something begins to smell fishy to the detectives working on the case, played by Belinda Balaski, another Dante fixture, and Dennis Dugan, who would go on to have a lucrative career directing shitty Adam Sandler movies like Jack and Jill. Back at The Colony, Karen's husband is acting strange, and as she soon finds out, he has been turned into a werewolf, which most, if not all, members of The Colony are. All hell breaks loose and the special makeup effects start coming out in full force.
Overall it's a pretty good flick. It's not great, and like I said, considering it came out in the same year as American Werewolf, the similarities are striking, but its ultimately not as good. For starters, Rob Bottin did the special effects, and while he's good, he's no Rick Baker, so the transformation sequences, while cool, pale in comparison to the ones Baker did for John Landis. The ending is a sharp commentary on television news culture, but again, Network pretty much covered that ground five years earlier, so what else is there to say, really?
Of course now, having had at least five sequels made, it's easy to forget how good the original was, and all things considered, it's pretty good. It's not Dante's best work (that would be Explorers) or even my personal favorite (that would be Innerspace), but it's a solid movie from a solid director, and it helped to kick start the werewolf craze of the 80s, so there's that. If you're looking for something that's not too scary, but also sharp enough to know how ridiculous the entire premise of werewolves can be, you could do a lot worse than The Howling. If you have a choice though, I would recommend An American Werewolf in London.