Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1981)

3. The Howling

In the early eighties, a convergence of events would lead to a short-lived but highly influential wave of werewolf movies. The blockbuster success of late seventies classics like “Halloween,” “Alien,” and “Dawn of the Dead' made the genre bigger than ever before, among both the indie producers and big studios. At the same time, advances in practical special effects made it possible to create wilder on-screen images. So, naturally, people would return to that classic archetype of the werewolf. It wasn't intentional that “The Howling” came out the same year as “An American Werewolf in London” or “Wolfen,” as an adaptation of Gary Brandner’s splatterpunk novel had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. While initial drafts where more faithful to the novel, as soon as Joe Dante and John Sayles came on-board, they completely rewrote the story. The resulting film would be a financial and critical success, raising Dante's profile considerably.

The film follows Karen White, news reporter. After a serial killer starts obsessing over her, she’s sent on a sting mission to find the man. The events that follow leave a dead body, the killer identified as Eddie Quist, and a traumatized Karen. While recovering and suffering from nightmares, her shrink sends her to the Colony, an experimental resort in the California countryside. Soon, it becomes clear that the residents of the Colony aren’t exactly what they appear to be. Karen’s husband is soon attracted to an alluring woman there, her nightmares continue, and she hears strange noises outside her room at night. As her newsroom friends continue to investigate the mystery of Eddie Quist, they uncover the answer of the Colony’s mystery. Could it be… Werewolves?

Perhaps to avoid competing with 1981's other werewolf movies, much of “The Howling's” marketing concealed the exact nature of its supernatural threat. You can see this tendency in the film as well. For a large portion of its first act, “The Howling” plays more like a crime thriller than a traditional horror movie. That opening scene of Karen meeting with Eddie in the porno shop is a super gritty short film, clarifying its threat as one with very human desires. Even after arriving at the Colony, it takes “The Howling” a while to reveal its werewolves, clear shots of which we don't get until the last act. This crime film atmosphere is maintained through a subplot of Karen's friends, Chris and Terri, investigating what happened exactly with Eddie Quist. This approach identifies “The Howling” as a more grounded approach to the werewolf genre.

Further elevating “The Howling” is how much this is Karen's story. Though her encounter with Eddie Quist is brief, it has deep ramifications upon her. She is almost completely unable to relax afterwards. She is constantly haunted by nightmares, even her dreams being taken over by thoughts of Quist. This behavior alienates the people closer to her. Her co-workers dismiss her fears and her husband grows increasingly intolerant. Even when she's seemingly calm, Karen can quickly be thrown into a panic attack by the smallest reminder of what happened. This is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of post-traumatic stress syndrome. A werewolf movie is not exactly the first place you'd expect to see such a thing.

Contributing to making Karen's mental state so believable is a brilliant performance from Dee Wallace. From the earliest scene, Wallace projects a lovable wholesomeness, seeming genuinely uncomfortable in the porno shop setting. You want to see her protected and happy. Wallace does a fantastic job of portraying Karen's fractured mental state. She can be all smiles one minute before degrading to shrieked cries of terror the next. Wallace shows incredible control as a performer, saying a lot with her body language, hinting at Karen's discomfort even whens she appears content. The performance establishes Wallace as, not merely a scream queen, but as an excellent actress who can bring an incredible depth to a role.

The film's surprisingly nuanced take on PTSD co-exists alongside the subtext you expect from the werewolf genre. See, in addition to being traumatized, Karen is also somewhat sexually repressed. She's often shown alongside flames, visually suggesting her low burning desires. The porn shop in the opening makes her viscerally uncomfortable. Her trauma prevents her from getting intimate with her husband. The werewolves, meanwhile, are linked with an uncontrolled and wild sexuality. While Eddie transforms behind Karen, he forces her to watch a violent, rape-themed stag reel. Later, her husband is entranced by Eddie's beautiful and scantily-clad sister. Eventually, they consummate their love under the moon... And begin to transform into wolves at the same time. Eventually, Karen has to confront these feelings she fears so much directly, turning into a werewolf at the end.

As heady as “The Howling” can get, this is still a monster movie that goes for the throat. Dante makes great use of enclosed spaces to ramp up intensity. The intimacy of that opening scare, Karen shoved into a tiny porno booth with an attacker, makes that scene even more unsettling. Later, Terri is attacked in a cramped cabin by an unseen wolf. The creature tears off the boards of the wall to get to her, a frenzied attack that only grows more intense as it goes on. Later, a very small doctor's office is an ideal setting for a more clearly seen werewolf attack, a moment that starts with a brilliant jump scare and builds towards a more uneasy type of thrills. Yet Dante also makes great use of the isolated, countryside setting. The woods, full of mysterious noises, makes an ideal setting for such sequences of terror.

Adding to the movie's successful horror sequences is its gorgeous visual design. This is, by far, the best looking film of Dante's career up to this point. There's an almost Argento-esque use of color at times. The early scenes set in the sleaziest corners of Los Angeles, the cramped alleys and porn shops filtered through searing reds and unearthly purples. Those colors reappear, usually whenever Karen is revisiting her trauma. Cool blues and warm oranges, seen during the werewolf transformation in the last act, recall the varying shades of fire that reoccur throughout the story. Yet Dante wanders at the natural, if deeply isolated, beauty of the Pacific Northwest. There are some amazing shots here of fog billowing over deeply wooded hills. To that, the director adds a number of Dutch angles, a fantastic reverse dolly shot, and stylized close-ups that similarly leave the audience uneasy and unsettled.

As scary as “The Howling” is, one can still spot Dante's trademark humor. John Sayles’ script is packed with in-jokes. “The Wolfman” appears on TV. Most of the characters are named after werewolf movie directors. Ginsberg’s “Howl” and a Thomas Wolfe book can be glimpsed in the background. Roger Corman and Forrest Ackerman get cutesy cameos. Dante’s impish sense of humor sneaks into the margins of the film. The killer’s trademark is a Smiley Face sticker, an upbeat symbol contrasting against the grim circumstances. A coroner nonchalantly lays a fast food burger next to excised organs. The newscaster, with the typical overblown newscaster voice, actually speaks with a hick accent. A side character assures someone is okay. The film then cuts to that character being fatally wounded by a werewolf. The conclusion features viewers reacting in various ways to a werewolf transforming on-screen, before a character speaks directly to the audience. It's funny stuff, complimenting but never distracting from the movie's horrific content.

Not only is “The Howling” linked to “An American Werewolf in London” by both being werewolf movies from 1981, both films feature then-cutting edge special effects during the transformation sequences. The werewolf design is classical but effective, bipedal wolves with long, pointed ears. Notably, when a wolf has its arms chopped off, the claw bubbles and morphs into a human arm. The big effects set piece is when Eddie Quist changes into a wolf in front of Karen’s eyes. Rob Bottin, just a year away from creating the greatest monster effects ever in “The Thing,” certainly does great work here. Under-the-skin bladders are used extensively, making a tiny person expand and morph in a shockingly believable way. However, Dante gets a little carried away, spending too much time focusing on the transformation scene. You can’t blame the guy for being impressed but it does slow things down just when the film should be getting most intense. Still, the make-up effects are excellent.

While Wallace is the center of the film's attention, it features an accomplished supporting cast. Dante fills small roles with some of his favorite character actors. Kevin McCarthy appears as a stern network executive. John Carradine and Slim Pickens appear as members of the Colony, each expanding what could've been nothing parts into memorable performances. Dick Miller, naturally, appears as an especially snarky variation of Walter Paisley, an occult book owner this time. Belinda Balaski makes a decent heroine in her scenes, the audience enjoying watching her investigate this mystery and fight back against her attackers. Robert Picardo brings the right level of sleaze to Eddie Quist, being memorably greasy as the werewolf serial killer. Elisabeth Brooks, whose career was sadly short-lived, is incredibly alluring as Quist's sexy sister.

Returning from “Piranha,” Pino Donaggio gifts the film with a gorgeous score. Donaggio's main title doesn't go for shrieking thrills. Instead, it's build around a graceful string section, a mourning harmonica, and solitary guitar sounds. This creates music that goes perfectly with Karen's isolated mental state and the forested setting. Other scenes are accompanied by eerie vocal noises and scattered synth, further creating an uneasy mood. During the more intense moment, Donaggio loads up on heavy percussion and blaring horns, classic monster movie music that suits what happens on screen very well. It captures just about every emotion you'd want and shows what an underrated, multi-talented composer Donaggio is.

“The Howling” runs a compact ninety minutes, compelling the viewer totally during its brief run time and hitting hard. Deeply satisfying and completely effective as a horror movie, it sits comfortably near the top of most people's favorite werewolf movies. The movie would impress Steven Spielberg so much, he'd pick Joe Dante up to direct “Gremlins.” The movie's box office performance meanwhile, grossing 17 million dollars against a one and a half million dollar budget, would spawn a bafflingly long-running series of sequels, most of questionable quality. Regardless of what came after, “The Howling” is still a damn good horror movie. [Grade: A-]

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