The Howling

The Howling (1981)
★★ / ★★★★

Karen (Dee Wallace), a television reporter, has been in contact with Eddie the Mangler (Robert Picardo), a serial killer that the police have been meaning to capture but he is so elusive, it is like trying to capture a small, fast-moving animal. Unaware that Karen is working for the police, Eddie agrees to meet with her.

When they are finally alone, the murderer transforms into a werewolf, leaving Karen in complete horror. Luckily, the police manage to locate them and shoot Eddie dead before he claims another life. Unable to function due to encounter’s trauma, Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee) suggests that Karen and her husband, Bill (Christopher Phone), visit a place in the country called The Colony so the reporter can recuperate.

“The Howling,” based on the screenplay by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, offers some genuinely scary scenes but whenever the horror is not front and center, the slow pacing becomes apparent, torturous, unbearable.

The best scenes take place in enclosed spaces. Karen and Eddie’s confrontation at the back of a video store is inspired because we are not yet sure of the kind of relationship they share. We are thrusted into the middle of an operation with little background information and it works because it piques our curiosities. Perhaps there is something about Eddie that excited Karen sexually, using her job and golden intentions as a facade to get close to such a dangerous person.

Another suspenseful scene that takes place in an enclosed space involves Terry (Belinda Balaski), Karen’s friend and co-worker who drives up to The Colony for moral support, ending up underneath a cabin. A werewolf catches her snooping inside and the knowledge she acquires is simply not to be shared. First impression points to the possibility that perhaps some of the residents of The Colony know about the werewolves and pretend not to hear the howling that Karen hears every night. But are all of them accomplices or are some of them genuinely not aware of what is really happening? It is all very curious and the picture provides clear answers as it goes on.

The transformation scenes from person to werewolf are impressive for its time. Although it has a campy quality now, some level of menace is preserved because the filmmakers take the time to show us every step of the change. There are times when I wondered whether what I was seeing is a mask or simply excellent make-up work.

There are two subplots that are not fully explored. The first is Christopher (Dennis Dugan) and Terry’s investigation about werewolves based on old legends versus werewolves based on pop culture. Whenever the two peruse books, newspapers, and magazines, the film embodies a sense of urgency. I enjoyed their partnership so much, I almost wished that the movie were about them.

The second involves Bill and his attraction to Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), the nymphomaniac in The Colony. It is very off-putting that once their sex scene is over—a sensual one at that, at least initially—the characters, as a couple, are unjustly ignored. The opportunity to really explore the animalism in terms of wanting really badly to be physically involved with someone is missed.

Based on a novel by Gary Brandner and directed by Joe Dante, the horror in “The Howling” is one-dimensional because it consistently relies on a creature trying to grab at someone to make us feel uncomfortable in our seats. With all the references to psychology, what the film fails to do is to put its audience into a mind of a monster.

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