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EMPIRE ESSAY: The Howling Review

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Eye-popping special effects highlight an updated werewolf story. TV newswoman, Karen White, goes on a retreat after a traumatic incident with a serial killer. But is she really safe? And what should she fear more: regaining her memory or the creepy residents of "The Colony"? Followed by many unsatisfying and unconnected sequels. Helped launch shortlived werewolf craze in early eighties.

★★★★

Right. First off, let's settle a debate that has raged among aficionados for nearly 20 years. Yes, Rick Baker won the Oscar a year down the line for his American Werewolf In London FX. And, yes, they are staggering. But it is Rob Bottin's work here (with inflatable air bags under a latex "skin" and a pioneering "hydraulic snout") that is — and ever shall be — the pinnacle of mutation effects. Amen.

And while, in certain respects, the films bear comparison, in others they couldn't be more different. Dante and old buddy John Landis tread similar ground, but they do so at opposing extremes. There may be plenty of dark humour in The Howling (the epilogue's "burger shot", a character reading a book by Thomas Wolfe, clips of The Wolf Man (1941) and a Little Red Riding Hood cartoon playing in the background), but Dante scores
by playing it straight: gritty, bleak and haunting right up to a climax that delivers in provocative and quite spectacular fashion. Given a greenlight after the success of Universal's Dracula remake the year before, not only was this the first in the 80s wave of like-minded creature features — Wolfen (1981), The Company Of Wolves (1984) and Silver Bullet (1985)— but it did for the lycanthropy sub-genre what Fright Night did for vampires in 1985, cemented the ripple Dante caused with Piranha in 1978 and established itself as the finest, most terrifying film of its kind.

Opening with a credit sequence montage, in which wired-up television anchor woman Karen White (Wallace) visits a seedy porn joint to act as bait for cannibalistic serial killer Eddie The Mangier (Robert Picardo), Dante immediately sets out his stall. Crackly, distorted voice-over (which is actually snippets of dialogue from some of the film's later scenes) is played over TV static, the neon-lit city streets stand in stark contrast to the later desolate country setting, and the pair's taut confrontation — in a claustrophobic booth — is illuminated by the flicker of a projector, culminating in an eerie sense of disorientation. Thematically it's ingenious; stylistically it's awesome. But it is when we move into the country (when Karen visits The Colony in a bid to overcome the psychological aftereffects of her ordeal) that the atmosphere is calibrated up a notch or two. Repeated howls and rustlings resonate incessantly from deep within the woods, the camera becomes more frantic, more sinister and whispered tones suffuse the soundtrack: by comparison, Burkittsville seems quite the ideal spot for a picnic.

This, of course, is all foreplay. Dante probing and stimulating his audience into fevered anticipation, biding his time before unleashing
the full extent of the horror. Good job then that the climax is well worth the wait. And if the film's most iconic moment (a classic of the genre) is still the sex/mate scene between Bill (Stone) and Marsha (Elizabeth Brooks), as they make the beast with two backs by bonfire-light, the film maintains the perfect balance between horror and eroticism (the legendary "hot tub" sequence was cut from the final version to ensure it stayed that way). Trademark Dante, there is also, of course, a plethora of in-jokes to revel in. Dick Miller (as Walter Paisley, his character from Roger Gorman's A Bucket Of Blood in 1959) makes his standard cameo, as do Gorman himself (the man who gave Dante his big break: directing Hollywood Boulevard for his New World Pictures in 1975), Forrest J Ackerman (the editor of Famous Monsters Of Filmland) and screenwriter John Sayles (who was in the midst of writing Alligator at the time).

And ten of the principal characters' names are those of real-life werewolf movie directors, reflecting this one's enduring passion for the classics — see also Matinee (1992), his personal ode to bug movies in general and William Castle in particular. Ultimately, though, what elevates The Howling so far above its contemporaries is its uniform quality. The direction, effects, editing and script (by Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, who went on to direct the vastly underrated The Nest in 1988) are seamless. Likewise, the supporting cast (including trusty character players Slim Pickens, Kevin McCarthy and John Carradine) are outstanding in a field so often plagued by mediocrity.

Seminal 80s scream queen Wallace, too, whips up the perfect blend of vulnerability and sass, enlivening an already witty script and lending genuine pathos to the killer finale.

Even if its reputation has been slightly tarnished by no less than six, incrementally execrable, sequels, the original Howling stands alone. A low-key, lower-budget (and how wisely that paltry $2 million was spent) homage of the highest order.

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