The Howling

Release date: April 10, 1981

Director: Joe Dante

Cast: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine and Slim Pickens

The film’s setup is straight from your typical thriller: TV anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace, one year before E.T.) is taking part in a police sting. She’s been receiving messages from a man who claims to be the brutal serial killer currently loose in L.A., and as part of the sting, has agreed to meet him. After a cop mix-up and a terrifying encounter between Karen and the murderer in a peepshow booth, the killer is shot and "killed". After this karen starts to have weird dreams, prompting her psychologist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), to send her up the coast to convalesce at The Colony, a retreat where his teachings vague mumbo-jumbo about harmonizing the relationship between one’s animal and civilized selves and something called “The Gift” – are put into practice. Then she starts hearing all that howling in the woods around her cabin…

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the good doctor and his Colony are hiding something and that something has to do with werewolves. This becomes even clearer when a couple of Karen’s reporter friends back in L.A. start trying to put together the pieces around the "dead and gone" serial killer (whose body later disappears from the morgue), which necessitates a visit to an occult bookshop which thankfully has silver bullets for sale. But the who and the why are not too important here, as the focus is mostly on the humor, much of it satirizing the California self-help craze of the 1970s, along with the special effects. The werewolf transformations are quite effective (they’re done by Rob Bottin, who went on to do great work in The Thing and other horror classics), though obvious budgetary constraints often keep The Howling from delivering that many serious scares. Adding to the horror/humor marriage is director Joe Dante, whose later mini-classic Gremlins this movie most resembles, and co-scripter John Sayles, who knew how to knock out a great pulp story back before becoming America’s most socially-conscious moviemaker (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

As befits a true B-grade horror flick, the leads are all pretty replaceable, with most of the golden moments left to the main character actors, played by B-movie vets like Slim Pickens, John Carradine, and Dante regular Dick Miller (who gets the "awsome" role as the owner of the occult bookshop: “Silver bullets or fire, that’ s the only way to get rid of the damn things. They’re worse than cockroaches” best line of the movie).

My biggest, in fact only gripe for The Howling is the tacked on dumb joke at the very end of the movie, intended to lead into a possible sequel. It had its sequels, but none of them came close to the brilliance of The Howling.

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