The Howling ReviewJoe Shaffer
Nostalgia is a funny thing. I remember watching The Howling as a kid and being absolutely terrified by it, though I couldn't recall as an adult why it had scared me so. I also remember loving it dearly, which prompted me to seek out the DVD once I reached adulthood. While on my short hunt for this flick, I kept thinking to myself, "You haven't seen it in years. Are you sure it's still going to be as awesome as it is in your memories?" Another thought retorted, "It's got practical effects werewolves in it. What could possibly go wrong?"
I then remembered my grueling search for the practical effects monster movie Rawhead Rex, which ended in belly laughs due to its dated visual effects. As a kid, I was mortified by Rawhead because the monster looked so real to me. Nowadays I regard the film as an accidental comedy. The thought of a classic like The Howling devolving into a laugh-a-minute riot didn't reassure me much. It only told me that maybe, just maybe, I would have to concede that it's not the classic I imagined it to be.
Of course I rewatched the film recently, and I came to two conclusions:
1) The bad news is that the film hasn't aged entirely well, at least in terms of plot progression.
2) The good news is that many parts of the film have aged amazingly well, especially in terms of creature effects.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that the plot is by any stretch terrible. Mainly, I appreciate the fact that it's mostly populated by actual characters rather than one-dimensional nobodies who exist for no other reason than to die horrible, gruesome deaths. This film instead involves a news anchor named Karen White (Dee Wallace), who's been receiving calls from a sexual predator and serial killer who calls himself Eddie. The man invites her to an obvious trap in the middle of a red light district, where he corners her in a porn booth and reveals something grisly about himself. Karen screams, prompting nearby police to shoot Eddie (presumably) dead. The whole chaotic turn of events proves traumatic to Karen, such to the point that she can't remember anything about it. Any attempts to dredge up the memories only end in panic attacks and misery.
At the behest of her psychiatrist, Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) decide to take a retreat to an experimental psychiatric community called The Colony. All seems fine there until Karen meets some of the retreat's peculiar denizens, suspects her husband of carrying on an affair, and begins to hear ungodly howling in the middle of the night.
...and from there, the plot slows to a trickle.
It doesn't take an idiot to figure out that werewolves are on the prowl in The Colony (hell, the title gives it away). However, the characters don't know that, and we get to watch them slowly piece it together. Honestly, the first time watching this mystery play out is not so bad, and it's kind of neat to witness the characters forming connections. With repeated viewings, though, the slow progression towards knowledge can be tedious, especially when there are few frightening scenes before the end of the second act.
Part of me, though, appreciates this subtle change of pace. Mostly, I enjoy The Howling's score, which hearkens to classic horror films with its organ-based music. It plays during appropriate scenes and doesn't attempt to heavily insist that we should find certain events creepy. Rather, the soundtrack adds to the film's atmosphere and helps reinforce its psychological elements. I also like that movie doesn't assault your senses overmuch, preferring to keep its monsters lurking in the shadows for much of the film, where they bay at the moon in unison and add to the all around creepiness of the flick.
The other part of me, though, wishes the movie would have opted for a little less subtlety. Every time I've rewatched the film, I've found myself growing antsy. Mostly, it's because the movie plays out like a mystery, yet I already know what's coming. It's like listening to someone set up a joke when you already know the punchline. The end result is an unevenly paced horror flick, but one that's ultimately rewarding.
When The Howling picks back up, it does so graciously. There's a character named Terry, a coworker and close friend of Karen's, who decides to do a little sleuthing. She searches Eddie's old apartment and listens to Karen's experiences involving The Colony, then decides to travel there and investigate some more. Bit by bit, she makes connections and follows a trail of clues that eventually lead her to The Colony's office, where she engages in one of the film's most memorable scenes. While riffling through files, she finds the absolute answer to all of her questions, only to have it snatched away by a clawed hand. I won't spoil the details for those who haven't seen it, but the ensuing scene sticks with me even today. Let's just say it's of the "ohhhhhh shit" variety...
You might think up to this point in the film that the werewolves are veiled in darkness because they look stupid. The office scene shatters that assumption. The first detailed shot of the film's werewolves is phenomenal. The use of practical effects and makeup totally pays off, creating a wolf that's both awesome and terrifying to look upon. Moreover, its motions are realistic and horrifyingly deft rather than clunky or cheesy. Unlike previous adaptations of the species, this one stands well above human height, is covered in mangy hair, and bares elongated jaws full of throat-ripping fangs. Forget Team Jacob; I'm siding with Team Colony.
The only other scene I feel worth mentioning is an impressive CGI-free transformation sequence that truly makes lycanthropy look like a curse. Seriously, changing into an anthropomorphic wolf appears painful, even if it is supposedly empowering.
There are a few scenes that haven't aged particularly well, including a werewolf sex scene with some cheesy acting (on Christopher Stone's part) and an animated depiction of the werewolves transforming mid-coitus. Of course, it's possible that the scene was intended to appear a little silly, as director Joe Dante rewrote the script to include some subtle dark humor. Others contest that the film was never intended to be self-aware, but I beg to differ personally. In any case, The Howling is still a fine werewolf flick filled with breathtaking sets, taut suspense, amazing creature effects, and the wonderful Dee Wallace. If only the pacing weren't so off...
If you're looking for a werewolf flick that's far less subtle, there is a damn good one I would recommend...
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.