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Screw all this "channel your energies" crap!

The Howling

(SPOILERS) Much as I like The Howling, I can’t quite love The Howling. Strangely for a Joe Dante film, a director who usually really knows his intended tone, at times there is a mismatch between the stream of gags, asides and movie references and the earnest manner in with which the central character is portrayed. The Howling also suffers by inevitable comparison with the same year’s American Werewolf in London. Generally it is John Landis whose cinematic mood lurches wildly about with gleeful disregard, but Werewolf is his most wholly conceived movie. The key to this might be the self-awareness of his central characters; it never feels as if the humour has been forced upon them unbeknown.

A comparison might be made with Kate’s Santa Claus speech in Gremlins. It’s a scene the Warner execs wanted to cut, and Dante pressed to include it because he liked the queasiness of audiences not knowing whether to laugh or feel for Kate. I get that, although I’ve always found the scene a strange fit. Here, the question becomes whether we are supposed to empathise with Karen (Dee Wallace) or objectify her as soon as the director throws out a gag. I’m not sure Dante himself was clear on the matter, as the effect is to undermine her.

This may be partly due to the way the project came about. It was adapted from the novel by Gary Brandner, for a different director. Terence H. Winkless wrote the initial screenplay and he gets a credit, but when John Sayles came aboard he completed a top to bottom rewrite. Sayles came up with idea of a retreat for werewolves, the picture’s most deft and witty concoction. This is a launching point into a satire of the various self-help groups that had been “in” for much of the preceding decade, but were now trending out (one character even reels off a list of the ones that didn’t work for her, including Scientology and Primal Scream Therapy). Sayles also incorporates a Network parody, headed by the irrepressible Kevin McCarthy; this, in particular, makes for vintage Dante material. Indeed, 80% of The Howling is near spot-on. The scares, when they come, are scary. The movie looks wonderfully atmospheric courtesy of John Hora. The werewolves are marvels.

But the picture features (as part of its surviving premise) tread-carefully elements such as (suggestive) rape and spousal abuse. The first scene features Karen’s visit to a porn store where Eddie the Mangler (Robert Picardo) subjects her to a film in which a woman is tied down and raped (Dante shot the film-within-a-film). Eddie begins to transform, police finally arrive and he is shot. At which point the shop manager opines, “I knew I shouldn’t have let that broad back here”. It’s a funny line, but it follows a scene suggestive and poised towards sexual assault (in the novel, Karen moves to the country after being raped, experiencing a miscarriage and a nervous breakdown). Consequently there’s a feeling of insensitivity in Dante’s choice (here, and in several other scenes), as if he either has no appreciation of the emotional power of the moment or is slightly nervous of it and wants to break the tension. The shift in tone is made additionally troublesome because Wallace’s performance is so full on. Others, and she herself, have noted how completely engaged she was in the part, so when Dante mocks Karen it feels like a slap in the face.

To an extent, there is a similar issue with the climax. It isn’t that the cuts to reactions to Karen’s transformation aren’t funny (they are) but they seem to be further reinforcing the idea that “You’re silly to have any investment in this character’s fate. We don’t”. It puts me slightly in mind of how younger Sam Raimi gleefully included a tree rape in The Evil Dead but would think twice about it two decades later. The conclusion is mostly cited as not quite working because of the werewolf effects (they’re laughably cute), but I don’t think the joke of audience disbelief works as well it would had Dante not already been dismissive of Karen; instead of coming out of the blue, it’s “Oh, he’s doing that again”.

Curiously, Dante cites the truth about werewolves being out there as one of the reasons the sequels make no sense, yet he goes to pains to show that no one believes in them (except kids and drunks) even when shown the evidence. His hat trick of final gags has the news cut to a dog food advert, then to Marsha in a bar ordering a rare burger (which sizzles towards a well-done state over the end credits), and a final clip from The Wolf Man after the roll (“You go now and heaven help you”).

First Guy at Bar: The things they’ll do with effects these days.
Second Guy at Bar: It was real, She turned into a werewolf and they shot her.
First Guy at Bar: You’re plastered.
Second Guy at Bar: Doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.

How much the onscreen sight gags are pure Dante and how much they come from the script is debatable. After all, the writing is from Sayles, a smart and insightful guy. If his main object of mockery is of self-help groups, he also appears to have adverse things to say about the basest desires of men. Eddie is an example of letting loose the beast within (Dr. Waggner actually says as much, and Sayles’ script explicitly foregrounds the werewolf as a metaphor for repression and primal impulses). He is a murderer and a rapist, whose predatory behaviour is intentionally sexualised from the outset by his choice of meeting place. If the other werewolves’ behaviour is less extreme, it is also made clear that Eddie is the one who has gone furthest in rejecting Waggner’s teachings.

After her trauma, Karen withdraws sexually from hubby Bill (Christopher Stone). In response, he turns over and goes to sleep. Rather than show concern for her, he looks elsewhere to have his needs satisfied. Later, after he has been awakened to his “natural” state, and Karen accuses him of having sex with Marsha (she sees scratches on his shoulder), he hits her in a temper. Karen’s dreams reflect the idea that, without the civilising influence fostered by Waggner, men are monsters, as she sees Bill become Eddie. One might reasonably argue that hubby’s instincts are also present in the female werewolves, but we see the movie predominately from Karen’s point of view; she suffers abuse from men and is then further punished by men. Instead of helping Karen, Bill blames her for his desires (“You don’t know what it’s like”). The one good man is forced to kill her when she has been infected (although this plays out very differently to the debilitating infection of a Cronenberg film). Wallace’s refusal to have Karen transform into a rampaging werewolf, but instead a snuffly dog that retains her essential humanity, underpins this idea; the only other female werewolf woman depicted is Marsha (we don’t see Donna transform) and she’s a “nymphomaniac”. Perhaps significantly, her "liberated" character is seen to survive the movie.

Dr. Waggner: Repression is the father of neurosis.

However, these themes aren’t fully explored; they are secondary to the satire of the Colony. Taken to its logical conclusion, repression in The Howling is a positive thing; it protects us from the worst impulses and our darkest memories. Sayles arms us with the “normal” view of such groups (“I hope these people aren’t too weird” says Karen). We meet Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee), author of The Gift, early on when he is interviewed on TV. Waggner is a reluctant werewolf who exclaims “Thank God” when he is finally shot with a silver bullet. For the doctor, the acceptance of what one is requires the repression of the desire to act upon it; he calls it channelling, but the effect is clearly to produce a load of pissed-off, pent-up werewolves. He has set the Colony on a diet of cattle (“Times have changed and we haven’t”; the novels/TV series True Blood must have surely have been informed in part by The Howling, with vampires integrating into society and abstaining from human sustenance), and helped them to adjust to this new lifestyle. Sayles is poking fun at therapies (even psychotherapies) that may give a quick fix but don’t have lasting value; indeed, in Eddie’s case they may make him worse. Finally, Waggner is toppled from his position as their nominal guide and leader (“You can’t tame what’s meant to be wild, Doc. It ain’t natural”). The Colony reverts  (“We should have stuck to the old ways, Humans are our cattle”) and Sayles takes his most playful swipe at positive development (“Screw all this "channel your energies" crap!”)

Bill: I’m Bill.
Marsha: I know.
Bill: I’m looking for my wife.
Marsha: Why?

If Macnee’s elegant bedtime story presence is one extreme, the other is the Deliverance-esque depiction of some of the Colony members. Don McCleod’s T.C. is semi-ferral, clad in a sheepskin and sniffing out prey even when he isn’t covered in fur (“You kill something you don’t eat. Now that’s a sin”). John Carradine’s old-timer is distraught at being forced to live against his nature. And Marsha Quist (Elisabeth Brooks), Eddie’s sister, is a utterly carnal, for whom the animal instinct is expressed in its purest form sexually (Brooks' fireside disrobing is one of the movie’s more memorable moments). With her character, Sayles touches on another no longer so fashionable fad; open relationships unsuitable for squares (like Karen). In contrast, Donna (Margie Impert) is shown to be a fairly normal gal. The man-wolves recognise the way that men should be, so they initiate Bill in hunting and, once he is bitten, he quickly surrenders his vegetarian principles (attacking a rib with zeal). Dante and Sayles don’t spend much time on the detail, and the former is more preoccupied with having fun during a therapy session where he throws in a pull-back-zoom on Karen as she relives her experience with Eddie.

Eddie: I’m going to light up your whole body, Karen.

Picardo’s Eddie Quist, aside from the ad-lib that has become The Howling’s most celebrated line, is pretty much the straight psycho character. Eddie lacks the playfulness that will inform the actor’s later roles both with Dante and generally (Brannon Braga didn’t even realise Picardo had played Eddie until several seasons into Star Trek: Voyager, after which he gave the actor a chance to play darker on occasion). It’s notable that neither Karen nor Eddie are played for laughs. We never see him with any of the other Colony members and his only scenes are with women until he confronts Chris (Dennis Dugan). One might expect Dante to mock (Bruce Campbell-esque) his villain the way he pulls the rug from under our heroine, but he keeps him dark and menacing.

The whole of the opening sequence is a bit odd really anyway; why was Karen sent to meet a serial killer without police support close at hand? Eddie is in line with serial killers before and since (“They’re not real, they’re dead” he says of anyone but Karen), except that he’s also a werewolf. Was he crazy before he became a werewolf, or did the change unleash his inner depravity? The reference to him as “Just your average red-blooded American boy” may be a joke on Chris’ part, but it fits Sayles’ themes. Robert A. Burns’ art direction for Eddie’s apartment and house is suitably unsettling (Burns also worked on Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, and Dante noted there was something appropriately unwholesome about the results). However, there can be little doubt who stuck the “Death by Man-Eating Piranhas” newspaper clipping to Eddie’s wall. The Smiley faces can’t help but put today’s viewers in mind of Watchmen.

Maleva: Whosoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a wolf himself.

Dante would be hard-pressed to make a movie that doesn’t refer to itself and the meta-paraphernalia of movies and broader fiction, and The Howling is set in a world where werewolf lore is known by most. Indeed, he takes every opportunity to reference werewolf movies and anything wolf-like (in contrast, Landis’ major reference point would be the medium of song); Wolfman Jack is mentioned, The Big Bad Wolf Disney cartoon, a large dog leaps at a window (a werewolf substitute), and Chris and Terry (Belinda Balaski) watch The Wolf Man on TV to get the lowdown on what to expect (“It’s only a movie” Chris reassures Terry, as Karen calls to inform them “Bill was just bitten by a wolf”). Dante has his B-plot characters fully up to speed, while the A-ones (Karen, Bill) remain oblivious. Even, then, when Chris and Terry visit the morgue a line like “Well, he didn’t get up and walk out on his own” is thrown in because the audience knows that’s exactly what Eddie did.

Dante would have a lot of fun with monster rules in the later Gremlins movies, so he outright dispenses with the ones he can’t be bothered with here. As Dante tells it, most of the werewolf facts were a product of Hollywood anyway so there’s no blasphemy involved. Even then, it’s a little surprising to have wolves walking around in broad daylight.

In perhaps his best cameo in a Dante movie, Dick Miller plays Walter Paisley, the proprietor of “The Other Store” bookshop. Resolutely disbelieving, unless it means making a buck (his cynicism is only matched by Kevin McCarthy’s character), it’s only at the climax that the scales fall from his eyes. When Chris and Terry drop by (as do, amusingly, a couple of nuns; “We get them all; sun worshippers, moon worshippers, Satanists…”) Dante takes the opportunity to show off the woodcut that inspired the movie’s werewolf designs and has Miller hold forth in entertaining fashion on how most of what we think we know is wrong. Full moons are “A lot of Hollywood baloney”, although Dante later ensures we get to see one. Walter sets us straight that “Your classic werewolf transforms any time it wants to day or night”. But Dante and Sayles retain the silver bullet angle (Landis rejects silver bullets but keeps full moons). After all, “That’s the only way to get rid of the damn things. They’re worse than cock-a-roaches” (later paid off by Jerry's disbelieving "Silver bullets my ass!")

The director’s other major nod to werewolves is in his character names, based on werewolf movie directors; that’s one for the real aficionados (George Waggner directed The Wolf Man). In her review, Pauline Kael complained that this added nothing except to buffs, but surely the whole point is that if you aren’t aware of it makes no difference either way. A copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl can be glimpsed in one scene, while Bill is seen reading, “You Can’t go Home Again” by Thomas Wolfe. Wolf Chilli is in shot on several occasions. Dante, unlike Landis, resists populating his movies with director cameos, expect for Roger Corman who enters the phone box as Karen departs and looks for change. Unlike the most of the gags, which are blink and miss, Dante holds onto this too long; if you don’t know Corman you’d wonder why it’s there.

Dante would have more fun at the expense of TV broadcasting in Gremlins 2, and he revels in his depiction of station KDHB. We hear a ream of typically TV news-esque sound bites (“A rein of urban terror ended tonight”) and the unwholesome manner in which murder is packaged (a special “The Mind of Eddie Quist” is planned, while the moniker Eddie the Mangler has also been assigned to him). Lew Landers (Jim McKrell; he reprises the role in Gremlins) is the self-adoring anchorman who rehearses his presentation in the men’s toilets (Dante stages this as a sly reveal), but the ace is Kevin McCarthy’s Fred Fisher.

Fisher is the station manager, and McCarthy makes him a delightfully pompous, self-regarding tool. When Chris suggests that Karen looks a little shaky, Fisher dismisses it with “Looked fine to me”. And, when she is unable to host, his wonderfully inconsiderate response is “Who knows? Maybe she’s pregnant”. Quickly followed by catching himself in a pre-recorded editorial (“Now, there… is a pro”). Later, you can’t beat McCarthy’s reaction to Karen’s transformation (“Holy shit!”). As noted earlier, the reactions from startled viewers to her transformation are very funny, and incredulous (“What is this?”, “The newslady turned into a werewolf”).

Dante is classically modest about his directorial skills, but his flair is readily evident throughout The Howling. This was his first of seven collaborations with John Hora (including an episode of Eerie, Indiana), and the results are much more stylish than anything in Piranha. Hora’s lighting is frequently stunning, especially the dry ice-festooned woods (he was running a fever during these scenes and wonders that the results were useable). Indeed, the depiction of the woods was surely an influence on every wooded horror since, starting with Sam Raimi. Dante also co-edited the movie, and he is keenly aware of what to show and what not to show for maximum effect (with one exception that I’ll come onto). You’d never know that the full costume werewolves were all part of reshoots (Avco provided the funds to make suits when they saw a rough cut; before this all they had were arms and a head). As larky as Dante is known to be, the scary sequences are genuinely tense, and he makes a scene that might be laughable (a car surrounded by werewolves) look fantastic.

We don’t see a complete werewolf until an hour in, the mark of someone who knows the merits of holding back a reveal. Elsewhere, he indulges in a tricky little bit of arty work. We open on a close-up of the grey fuzz of a TV screen; six years later he would employ a similar trick with the ice cubes in Innerspace. The shattering glass of the title was actually designed for the trailer; Dante liked it so much he lifted it. Supporting all this is Pino Donaggio’s lush, melodramatic score; as with Wallace, it supports a straight reading of the movie rather than the gag fest side. In part it really works, but it’s also clear why the more opulently twisted humour of De Palma is a better fit for the composer and Jerry Goldsmith was so suited to Dante’s quirkiness.

Eddie: I want to give you a piece of my mind.

Rick Baker was initially asked to provide the werewolf effects but decamped to American Werewolf when John Landis kick-started his production. He’d promised his services to Landis beforehand, who only got his arse into gear when he realised a competing werewolf movie might reinvent the beast before him. Baker suggested Rob Bottin, and the plan was to show a werewolf transformation without cutting away (this concerned the completion bond agent, but Dante assured him that, if it were not possible, they would think of something else).

There are two main parts to the effects in The Howling. The first is the werewolves themselves; they’re utterly magnificent creations. Bipedal, towering, terrifying beasts; their design has never been bettered. When Terry is attacked, the scene plays out slowly enough that we see the entire fearsomeness of the creature, but Dante is also smart to keep it in partial shadow and highlight its profile and size. He’s also such a wit that in the first full shot Eddiewolf rather than swipe at her he seizes a report from Terry’s hand (the spindly fingers also look great).

Less fantastic is Eddie’s transformation, an undulating throb of facial prosthetics that goes on interminably. Dante admits he would cut it down if he were to do it again, but Avco wanted their money’s worth on display. It’s not just that the effects are fairly primitive (bits work well; the chest rip recalls Lou Feringo’s The Incredible Hulk, while the extending snout and fingers are marvellous). The time it takes Eddie to transform could have enabled Karen to make it all the way back to Los Angeles, which seriously stymies the dramatic tension of the scene. An earlier sequence, where Terry cuts off T.C. wolf’s arm and it continues to move, stands the test of time. 

But the budget-busting fur and fangs make-up for Bill and Marsha’s fireside tryst is fairly risible. Hairy cheese. The less said about Karen’s snuffly dog thing at the climax the better. It’s Wallace’s fault, but why they couldn’t ignore her and just have cut to a guy in wolf costume, I don’t know. Dante also furnishes werewolves in both animated (the long shot of Bill and Marsha by the fire) and stop motion (wolves howling at the moon at the climax) form. In both cases, the effect is cute rather than outright awful.

For the most part, Dante’s casting embodies the intended tone. Wallace’s intensity ultimately upsets the balance, but the fault there is as much the director’s for pussying out of honouring her character. Christopher Stone, who was Wallace’s husband (he died of a heart attack in 1995) is rather bland as Bill, and is under the influence of a rather unfortunate ‘70s porn ‘tache. Balaski previously worked with Dante on Piranha and would team with him again on numerous occasions. She’s great as the doomed Terry. Dennis Duggan, now Adam Sandler’s go-to director and most famous as an actor for marrying Maddie in Moonlighting, makes an unlikely hero, which is typically Dante (usually it would be rugged Burt Reynolds-type Bill who saves the day). The rest of the supporting cast includes memorable spots from Carradine, Macnee, Slim Pickens (as a werewolf sheriff) and Brooks (like Stone, she died young). John Sayles cameos as a morgue attendant while Forrest J Ackerman (Famous Monsters of Filmland’s editor) appears in the bookstore (another director, Jonathan Kaplan, plays a gas station attendant).

Shot for $1.5m, The Howling made nearly $18m (about $50m inflation-adjusted). It got the drop on An American Werewolf in London by about four months, although Landis’ film was the bigger hit. Avco’s advertising campaign was remarkably subtle, suggestive of a Slasher picture rather than showing off the creatures front-and-centre. Dante had experienced problems getting pictures off the ground before (Jaws 3, People O) and would do so subsequently (The Philadelphia Experiment) but The Howling caught Spielberg’s attention and eventually secured him the gig directing on Gremlins. From whence his most prolific period began.

Dante counts The Howling as his first good movie, and there’s much to be proud of here. He comes up with the best werewolves ever; no one has equalled them since (and while CGI is the first choice no one will). He and Sayles ensure the picture is chock full of laughs and commentary as well as scares. But his sensibility is still taking form. If he occasionally shows lapses in judgement with Karen, he can rest easy that he’s probably made the second best werewolf movie ever. And of course, the best came out during the same year.

The trailer handily gives away the climax to the movie:


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