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From the Vaults: 'The Howling' (1981)

November 15, 2010 |  2:46 am

Howlingposter Well, Joe Dante's horror classic "The Howling" was not at all what I expected! Every werewolf movie is necessarily idiosyncratic, of course -- it's not like "Dracula" or "Frankenstein," with an established storyline and characters to follow or riff on. With werewolves, you have people who turn into wolves, but from there you can go wherever you like. Dante's film (written by John Sayles, picking up from Terence Winkless) starts as a contemporary noir, then develops into a sort of backwoods psychodrama before finally revealing itself as a werewolf movie. It's a fascinating mix.

TV news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace, now Dee Wallace-Stone) rounds up her news crew and goes to confront an L.A. serial killer named Eddie, who's been stalking her. Eddie does something horrible off-camera before authorities dispatch him; utterly traumatized, Karen consults her psychiatrist, George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), who suggests she recuperate at his woodland retreat up north. Soon Karen's off to "The Colony" with her mustachioed husband, Bill Neill (Christopher Stone).

But things are weird up there, even beyond the residents' self-help blather about energies and assertiveness training and EST ("Another five years of real hard work, and maybe I'll be a real human being," quips one). Karen hears strange animal noises in the night. Nearby cattle are mutilated. An older resident, Erle Kenton (John Carradine), mutters angrily about his teeth and tries to hurl himself into a campfire. And a sexy thing called Marsha tries to put the moves on Bill! Karen calls her city friend Terry (Belinda Balaski), who figures out that Eddie may still be around -- and that this "Colony" thing may be a cover for something very hairy.

Howlingwoman It's one of the wittiest horror movies I've ever seen. Many of the characters are named after directors of vintage horror: George Waggner directed "The Wolf Man," featured here a few weeks ago; Roy William Neill directed "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943); Erle Kenton directed "House of Dracula" (1945), which starred Carradine. Budget horror god and Dante mentor Roger Corman makes a cameo as a man digging for coins in a phone booth. Clips from "The Wolf Man" with Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya are interwoven seamlessly with the dialogue.

And the cast is amazing. Wallace is heartbreakingly fragile as Karen, resolute even as she's falling apart. I've seen her in Rob Zombie's "Halloween" and Ti West's "House of the Devil," in which her casting is a tribute to the glory days of horror -- besides "The Howling," she reteamed in 1983 with real-life husband Stone for "Cujo," and she'd already starred in "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977) -- so it's really nice to see her in her element. She's a magnificent screamer. Slim Pickens stops by to play the lovable arm of the law. And Jim McKrell debuts his role as newscaster Lew Landers (named for the director of "Return of the Vampire." 1944), a character he'd resurrect in Dante's "Gremlins."

Oddly, the movie sort of comes to a halt for me when it actively becomes a werewolf movie. The  effects are very spiffy -- their creation is credited to Rob Bottin, with Rick Baker listed as a special consultant -- but the problem is that the movie stops while the wolf transformations occur. They're beautiful but they occur at a point late enough in the film that you really want the action to keep going, and it's frustrating to have to wait for the big makeup moment. I'm certainly not one to argue for less gore; I think it's just great when Eddie (Robert Picardo*) reaches into his own skull and hands Dee Wallace a chunk of brain matter. But the timing's a bit awkward.

But these are minor quibbles. "The Howling" is a deserved classic. Hooray for shapeshifting films from the 1980s with creepy bondage themes! I swear I'll do something nice and family-friendly next week. I can't help my animal instincts.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

*That's the Emergency Medical Hologram from "Star Trek: Voyager," kids, making his feature film debut! Very exciting.

Image: From top, the striking poster; and Elisabeth Brooks gets in touch with her animal side as seductive, atavistic Marsha.