This movie is weridly about werewolf sex, so heads up on a NSFW image part way through.
My very first thought about Joe Dante’s The Howling was: “Holy shit Slim Pickens is in this?” My, oh let’s say third to last, thought was: “Fuck yes werewolf Slim Pickens.” I’d kind of love to just end the review here, maybe enclose a photo of Slim Pickens, or better yet a YouTube montage, but that doesn’t quite seem proper. Don’t for a second mistake my strangely indifferent opening for dislike, because I did like The Howling, I’m just not sure anything other than Slim Pickens really grabbed me. I mean come on, werewolf Slim Pickens. That shit is magical.
So The Howling, as you probably know/could guess, is a werewolf movie. It’s one of the only big famous werewolf movies, werewolves having received the short end of the popularity stick. It’s one of three werewolf movies to come out in 1981, somehow, alongside American Werewolf in London and something called The Wolfen I’d never heard of before. That’s weirdly stiff competition in one year, especially given that American Werewolf in London is one of the all time great horror movies, and has some of the best werewolf effects ever put on film. Joe Dante or no that’s rough competition.
Not that I’m here to compare the two, that would be silly (and a little one-sided). The Howling starts in media res, which is actually kind of exciting. It follows a television anchorwoman who’s been contacted by a person the studio believes to be responsible for a series of murders. She’s meeting the mysterious contact when the film starts. It’s a captivating start. The woman meets the mysterious contact in a dark booth in a porno shop, and something starts to happen. It’s not clear what, but she screams and a nearby cop shoots wildly through the door of the booth and kills the assailant.
In the aftermath of the attack, the anchorwoman, Karen, is jumpy and traumatized. She keeps off the TV and struggles with her therapist to recall the memories of that night. She can remember going into the booth, and her assailant entering, but she can’t remember his face, or what he did to her. Her doctor recommends she visit The Colony, which is a bloody ominous name. He reveals that The Colony is an experimental group therapy exercise he runs that takes place in a remote countryside house. Karen agrees and heads out to The Colony with her husband.
There she meets the quirky other patients. Some old gnarly men, a slightly neurotic couple, a cattle farmer, a savage looking dude, and his nymphomaniacal sister. You can tell she’s a nymphomaniac because: A) one of the other patients says so, and B) because she somehow dresses in what appears to be one rather complicated leather vest/dress/thing. It’s a nice little spot, until some sort of threatening animal is heard moving around the edges of the camp. Meanwhile friends of Karen’s start investigating the man who attacked her for a TV special and discover he has a fascination with wolves – and his body is missing.
You can pretty much figure out the story from here I’m sure, but just in case I’ll spoil it for you – everyone at The Colony is a werewolf. It’s not so much group therapy as it is the doctor’s experimental werewolf home, designed to keep the werewolves from hurting humans. The nymphomaniac lady’s brother is the guy that attacked Karen. One of the wolves bites Karen’s husband pretty quickly, at which point he’s immediately seduced by leather vest lady. The two have wolfy sex on the forest floor.
Which is part of this whole parallel the movie wants to draw between lycanthropy and sex, that never quite lands for me. Maybe it’s an extension of the idea the movie plainly explains, which is werewolves as a metaphor for the inherent animalism inside a person. What’s weird is that the sex thing comes up so much more than any other kind of inherent animalism. I suppose horror movies do tend to think of sex as the ultimate evil, so maybe it’s not that weird; it just never quite feels like a fully fleshed theme to me, just the edges of one.
The werewolf effects are pretty good, which is a key concern. The transformation scenes are especially impressive, with this bubbling swelling quality that’s pretty gross. The firelight animated werewolf sex transformation is less good. Ditto the average werewolf in motion bits. These are the exceptions however, generally the make-up effects are really rather excellent, and the werewolves are pretty cool looking. Maybe a little standard, but they still have personality. They’re so weirdly shaggy and pointy. Although the last one we see looks like a little lap dog and it totally undercuts a deadly serious scene.
The whole movie is a little shaggy. It feels a shade too long, and a shade too rambling. It never quite settles into a tone either. Is it pulpy, psychological, gory, or visceral? Is it trying to scare or just aiming for melodrama? It just sort of stumbles around in a middle ground that’s a little underwhelming. The script is generally decent however, as is Joe Dante’s direction. It’s just not quite all there. This is present in the production history too, which started life as a serious book and poor screenplay, and then was rewritten to feature a little more humour and self awareness.
Ultimately The Howling didn’t make that strong an impact on me one way or another. It was pretty good. Not great, not terrible. Just a solid middle of the road werewolf movie. A few great special effects, and a few bad ones. A few fun scenes and a few uninteresting ones. Does make me want to watch more werewolf movies though, however I don’t think this binge will allow for it. That being said, if anyone has any suggestions for the remaining films I watch, leave them in the comments. I might very well consider them.