The Howling
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Credit: Embassy Pictures

How Joe Dante's 'The Howling' helped revive the werewolf movie with endless Easter eggs and rule-breaking monsters

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Apr 13, 2021, 1:54 PM EDT (Updated)

Hollywood appeared to have been affected by a full moon in 1981. There was Wolfen, a supernatural police procedural about a Native American tribe possessed by a lycanthrope spirit. The forgotten comedy Full Moon High saw an ageless wereman try to relive his teenage years with inevitably goofy results. And John Landis continued his golden streak by transforming an unsuspecting backpacker into a murderous beast in An American Werewolf in London. But the first furry film that helped revive the genre that had long since fallen out of fashion was Joe Dante's highly underrated The Howling, which turned 30 last month.

The loose adaptation of Gary Brandner's same-named 1977 novel did decent business at the box office (pulling in nearly $18 million on a budget of just $1.5 million) and spawned no fewer than seven sequels of varying quality over the following three decades. Yet it was immediately eclipsed by Landis' creature feature, which not only grossed nearly twice as much but also won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Makeup.

An American Werewolf actually poached its Oscar-winning artist Rick Baker from The Howling. And although last-minute replacement Rob Bottin — then barely out of his teens — couldn't compete with David Naughton's ground-breaking metamorphosis, his prosthetic work still impresses and horrifies 30 years on. See the brilliantly disgusting moment when a severed wolf hand magically reverts back to human form. Or when serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) reveals his true self via the early use of air bladders in a lengthy sequence that's literally jaw-dropping.

Interestingly, Dante makes viewers wait a while to get their first glimpse of anything wolflike. In fact, The Howling's first third is more in keeping with the kind of grimy slashers that Brian De Palma was making at the time (Blow Out, Dressed to Kill). Only Patrick McNee's quietly deranged behavioral therapist — appearing on Los Angeles station KDHB TV to promote his new book — hints at the madness ahead ("We should never try to deny the beast — the animal — within us").

While Dr. Waggner is shamelessly trying to shift a few more copies, newscaster Karen White (scream queen Dee Wallace Stone) is bravely trying to ensnare the stalker who's already murdered several other women. Dante cranks up the tension to near-unbearable levels as Karen nervously paces the dark city streets en route to the sleazy theater where her life will be seriously threatened for the first, but certainly not the last, time.

Forced to watch the rape of a previous victim before the inept police finally come to the rescue and shoot Eddie dead (or so they think), Karen is understandably left traumatized by this porn booth encounter. Considering how outlandish it becomes, the film does a creditable job portraying her distressed state, from the amnesia she initially suffers to the disturbing visions that plague her dreams. Even before a single sideburn or stray claw has been spotted, Karen's tale is very much one of survival.

These early scenes suggest writer John Sayles intended to recapture the source material's relatively serious tone. However, things get much wilder when Karen is sent to recover at a remote retreat alongside husband Bill (Stone's then-real-life spouse Christopher Stone). The latter is immediately pounced on by a nymphomaniac, there's a disturbed old man who attempts to throw himself on a fire, and, as explicitly mentioned, the whole setting has a Jonestown, cult-like vibe.

The Howling mines plenty of humor from the couple's fish-out-of-water scenario. "Honey, you're from Los Angeles. The wildest thing you've ever heard is Wolfman Jack," Bill tells Karen after she insists the midnight howls she heard couldn't have come from a dog. Sayles peppers his script with similarly meta references: There's a well-timed clip from 1941's The Wolf Man shown on TV, nearly a dozen characters are named after werewolf movie directors, and Slim Pickens' sheriff is even seen tucking into a can of "Wolf Brand" Chili. When it comes to Easter eggs, The Howling can put Ready Player One to shame.

Sayles plays fast and loose with the werewolf rules, too. As scene-stealing occult bookshop owner Walter (Dante regular Dick Miller) explains to ill-fated reporter Belinda (Terri Fisher) and her colleague Chris (Dennis Dugan), full moons have no bearing on the creatures' ability to shapeshift. And their only kryptonite is fire and silver bullets ("They're worse than cockroaches," he grumbles).

Of course, the distinction between humans and wolves becomes even more blurred when Bill is attacked by one of the latter, eventually giving in to his primal urges during a sex scene with seductress Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) that bizarrely ends with an animated silhouette. His subsequent transformation from mild-mannered, loving partner to gaslighting domestic abuser is arguably just as shocking, and yet, crucially, it allows Karen to witness first-hand that once bitten, there's no going back.

You can therefore understand why she resorts to such drastic measures after fleeing the burned-down retreat with both Chris and a flesh wound in tow. For The Howling ends with the pair returning to the KDHB TV studios for an impromptu broadcast warning viewers about the true nature of the colony. And once Karen reveals her new wolflike alter-ego live on-air, Chris, as planned, shoots her with a silver bullet. It's a devastating moment that not only matches An American Werewolf's bleak denouement but draws parallels with the real-life, on-air suicide dramatized to heart-breaking effect in 2016's Christine. Probably not what most 1981 cinemagoers were expecting from the man who made his name with a Jaws parody.

It's to Dante's credit that he manages to veer from scuzzy thriller and satirical comedy to effects-driven horror and genuine tragedy without all the tones jarring. He can even get away with a cheeky epilogue that seems to set the scene for a Marsha-led sequel (she actually never graced the franchise again) before bizarrely cutting to a burger sizzling over the sound of some smooth jazz. Yes, that really is the final shot. The full moon theory suddenly holds more weight.