in Shocktober

The Howling (1981)

In another world I’ve always imagined director Joe Dante could have just as easily been an animator. His creative use of violence with comedic undertones always gave me the impression of an absent-minded child with a great enthusiasm for movies. Dante’s work includes such films as; Gremlins, Piranha, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Explorers, Innerspace, The ‘Burbs, Matinee, and sigh…. Looney Tunes Back in Action to name more than a few. Though I’ve never seen a Joe Dante film that has been in the least bit boring. His films are the kind of movies that bounce off the walls with visuals, effects, scares, and a lovable collection of recurring character actors. The Howling is probably the closest Dante has ever got to making a dramatic horror movie, but even it has it’s quirky moments.

Loosely based off of the book by Gary Brandner, The Howling is about Karen White (Dee Wallace) an L.A. newswoman cooperating undercover with the police in an attempt to catch a serial killer named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). Once she finds him in a sleazy porno theater, Eddie starts to go through “changes” until he’s shot down by police and turns back to normal. Traumatized by the experience, Karen’s psychiatrist (Patrick Macnee) suggests Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) spend some time at “The Colony” a resort in the countryside. Of course there’s something off about the other attendees of the resort, leading Karen to believe that these are not only abnormal people, but that Eddie Quist may not be dead.

The film was adapted by the always clever John Sayles along with Terrence H. Winkless, features sharp cinematography by John Hora, and an unsettling score from Pino Donaggio. Dee Wallace leads the cast with an emotional performance alongside Dante regulars: Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Picardo. Other cast members include; Elisabeth Brooks as a nymphomaniac, Belinda Balaski, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, and Dennis Dugan before he became a director of terrible movies ilke Grown Ups and Jack and Jill.

I sat down and watched this for the first time in 11 or 12 years and was amazed by how much I enjoyed it. There’s nothing remarkably unique about The Howling, it’s just really well executed. The scares, the atmosphere, and the fantastic makeup effects by Rob Bottin. Dante had sought out makeup artist Rick Baker who was unavailable at the time, coincidentally he was working on An American Werewolf in London. So Baker sent his 22 year old protege Rob Bottin who would later make a name for himself with films like; The Thing, Total Recall, and Se7en. Fortunately, Rob Bottin stepped up to the challenge and delivered the best werewolf effects in a movie after An American Werewolf in London.

The Howling went on to spawn a string of unwatchable sequels, none of which had Dante’s involvement. Fortunately, the original is still remembered fondly and yet to be the victim of remake-itis. It’s one of Dante’s strongest achievements as a filmmaker and possibly his scariest movie… Though I can’t speak for Looney Tunes Back in Action.

Joe Dante directs this terrifying monster. Not to be confused with Brendan Fraser.