Originally intended as a straight-ahead werewolf film, it was changed significantly in tone by a late-arriving co-screenwriter, the ever-creative John Sayles. Sayles kept the scary bits, but added a pile of in jokes and satiric moments (including one with himself as a coroner). The result was unsatisfying to some viewers, but the movie returned its modest budget many times over as horror fans embraced it enthusiastically.
The story opens with earnest, All-American TV reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) putting herself in danger to help capture a serial killer who has developed an obsession with her. Despite police backup (actually, BECAUSE of police backup), things go horribly awry and she is psychologically traumatized. With the support of her ex-Stanford football star husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone) she seeks treatment from a pompous psychiatrist who emphasizes the need to release the beast within (Patrick Macnee). He sends Karen and Bill to “the colony” an Esalen-type retreat, for healing. What the innocent couple don’t know is that the colony is a den of werewolves, and before you can say “Aaahooooooooo” they are both being terrorized by a motley assortment of lycanthropes!
The budget apparently prevented the casting of any A-listers, but the performers do a serviceable job, especially MacNee, who gamely spouts 1970s psychobabble, and the sultry Elisabeth Brooks, who memorably redefines the term “maneater”. But the real stars are Sayles’ parade of little gags (everyone eats Wolf Chili and drinks Wolf’s Liquor; look fast also for a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl), and the astonishing person-to-wolf transformations of Rob Bottin. Bottin leaves the CGI-dependent special effects artists of today in the dust with his extraordinarily scary work here.
The film has some flaws. After a gripping opening 20 minutes, it shifts the pace to neutral for too long before revving up a thrilling final act (In fairness, the film is over 30 years old, so perhaps a little flab in the middle is forgivable). I can understand also that the smart-alecky script may elude some viewers or seem to precious to others. But for horror movie buffs, The Howling is a fun screamfest that will enliven your Halloween.
And, now A TRIVIA QUIZ, with answers after the jump, with all the questions deriving from Sayles’ script flourishes.
1. MacNee’s character is named George Waggner. The real Waggner directed what horror classic?
2. One member of the colony is named Erle Kenton, after the director of the spooky 1945 movie House of the Dracula. The actor playing Kenton in The Howling was actually IN that movie. Who is he?
3. Early in the film, when Karen White is in a phone booth waiting to meet serial killer Eddie Quist, a tall man stands just outside the door. Is he waiting to use the phone, or is he the killer, blocking her escape? Well, when he turns to face the camera he is revealed to be a famous horror movie director. Who? Hint: I recommended one of his films very recently.
4. Stone’s character is named after R. William Neill, who directed what great horror “team-up” movie?
5. Noble Willingham plays a character named Charlie Barton. Barton directed what famous comedy-horror mashup?