Just four short months before John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London came ripping into theaters, director Joe Dante released The Howling, a stylish little werewolf horror film with a sleazy side. Lacking the big budget studio backing that Landis enjoyed (An American Werewolf in London was released through Universal Studios), The Howling has earned a respectable cult following over the years. It doesn’t particularly enjoy the mainstream recognition that Landis’ film receives, prowling just under the radar and seeming to relish its cult status. Despite all of this, The Howling is still an immensely enjoyable horror film, and its one that deeply rewards with its semi-veiled winks carefully placed by Mr. Dante. The Howling also enjoys its fair share of blood, sex, and nudity, kicking things off in a sleazy porn theater and ending with a rip roaring showdown between a bunch of pointy-eared werewolves looking to tear sheets of flesh from bone. As if the blood, beasts, and boobs weren’t enough to have horror fans drooling, it’s worth tracking down The Howling for the numerous nods to other horror filmmakers that Dante places throughout his film. You’ll thrill at tips of the hat to two of Hammer’s most famous directors, a handful of Universal Studios directors, and you’ll chuckle at a cameo from the B-movie king himself, Roger Corman. Now how can you argue with all of that?!
The Howling introduces us to Karen White (played by Dee Wallace), a Los Angeles news reporter who has been receiving perverted messages from a serial killer named Eddie Quist (played by Robert Picardo). One evening, Karen agrees to meet Eddie in a sleazy porn theater, but what Eddie doesn’t know is that Karen is working with the police in an attempt to get him off the streets. Before the police can rush in to nab Eddie, Karen catches a glimpse of her stalker’s face, and what she sees seems to frighten her to death. In the midst of all the chaos, Eddie is gunned down by a trigger-happy police officer. Over the course of the next few days, Karen is plagued by horrible nightmares about the encounter, something that deeply concerns her husband, Bill (played by Christopher Stone). At the advice of her therapist, Dr. George Wagner (played by Patrick Macnee), Karen and Bill head off to a secluded town called The Colony. Upon their arrival, Karen and Bill are greeted by a number of locals that all seem to be a bit peculiar. Bill finds himself being seduced by a woman named Marsha (played by Elisabeth Brooks) and they observe the bizarre suicide attempt of an elderly man named Erle (played by John Carradine). Things get even stranger when Karen is awoken in the middle of the night by what sounds like wolves howling. After a wolf-like creature attacks Bill, Karen begins to notice that Bill’s behavior is growing more and more suspicious. To make things worse, Karen’s friends, Terri Fisher (played by Belinda Balaski) and Christopher Halloran (played by Dennis Dugan), discover that Eddie Quist may not be dead after all.
Early on, The Howling resembles a seedy murder mystery—something that would have seemed right at home on 42nd Street. We drift through a sleazy part of Los Angeles, where porn theaters line the street and almost everyone seems like they are up to no good. When the action finally shifts from gritty street fare to woodsy tension, The Howling gets really entertaining. It takes some time for the werewolf action to really kick in, but when it does, it brings some impressive and downright intimidating werewolves with it. These suckers look like they were created by the Devil himself, with their pointed ears, glistening fangs, and towering height. It’s nearly impossible not to find these guys creepy. As if the werewolves weren’t gruesome enough for you, Dante springs a transformation on us that features bubbling skin, bulging eyes, pulsing necks, and bleeding fingernails. It certainly rivals what we saw in An American Werewolf in London, but Dante uses more cuts to mask all the effects, something that Landis wasn’t guilty of. Either way, it is still unbelievably gross and leaves you wondering how the hell they managed to pull that off in 1981.
As far as the performances go, most of the players turn in memorable roles; however, scream queen Dee Wallace really disappoints. Wallace’s Karen is consistently faint, scripted, and almost a bit confused as she squirms over what she saw in the porno theater. When she heads up to The Colony, she gains a bit of strength, but when it comes to her life being threatened, she just backs up against the wall and slightly cringes as a werewolf closes in. She doesn’t even put up much of a fight when she is drug before a several locals just waiting to unleash their inner monsters. She just hangs there until she can be saved. Stone finds a groove as Bill, Karen’s frustrated husband that is slowly being pulled into the arms of another woman. Picardo is sweaty and perverted as Eddie, a serial killer with an even more dreadful secret. He will make your skin crawl as he proclaims to think that Karen has a sexy voice, all while she is screaming bloody murder. Elisabeth Brooks smolders as Marsha, a nymphomaniac that can get vicious in the blink of an eye. Dennis Dugan’s Christopher gets to be the hero of the film, arming himself with some silver bullets to put down the beasts of The Colony once and for all. The appearance of John Carradine as Erle is also a treat, a crazy old coot that is constantly trying to get the attention of those around him.
Considering that The Howling and An American Werewolf in London were released the same year, it’s almost impossible not to compare the two of them. While the films are evenly matched most of the way through, The Howling may come out ahead when it comes to the climax. Where An American Werewolf in London just abruptly ends on a highly emotional note, The Howling is alive with plenty of werewolf action that will have you jumping out of your seat. As if all the silver bullets, exploding cars, burning barns, and snarling werewolves weren’t enough, we are treated to one more surprise before the film can fade to black. When it comes to discussing the rest of The Howling, the film seems to know what horror fans are craving, We are treated to a sex scene that finds both individuals morphing into werewolves, one character digging out a piece of their head to give someone a “piece” of their mind, and there is also a melted face complete with bone and muscle visible (in this department, An American Werewolf in London had them beat). Overall, The Howling is an addictive little werewolf horror movie that tips its hat in inspired and subtle ways to the subgenre. It features some of the coolest looking werewolves out there and the climax is a fiery hoot. This is frightfully good fun with a wink.