Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Howling

The Howling (1981) isn't exactly an obscure, underrated, or underappreciated film, as it definitely has its fan base and supporters, and as such it doesn't exactly fall under the rough guidelines of what I'm trying to do with Squealing Tires On Dirt: The Blog.

But, truth be told, one of the things I wanted to do when I started this site was to eventually review the entire series of Howling films.  Why?  I'm not really sure.  Just something to do, I guess.

I've only seen two of the movies, and maybe parts of another, and to be up front and totally honest, I've never really been that big a fan of the original Howling.  I know, I know. . . I find this just as shocking as you do,
A)  Werewolves are one of my favorite monsters and I am always on the lookout for a good werewolf movie (and lord knows there aren't many)
B)  I like practical special effects, especially those that are unique and innovative, and The Howling has 'em!
C)  The movie is directed by Joe Dante, and I love Joe Dante!.  As a kid growing up I saw all of his movies, inadvertently of course, as back then I didn't pay attention to directors or names in the credits.  Something about his style just drew me in.  Kinda cartoonish, kinda scary, lots of fun to watch.

The Howling?  Not so much. . .

For whatever reason, from the first time I saw The Howling (early 90s, high school) through the last time I gave it a look (2004, college), I've been lukewarm at best towards the film.  I've given it multiple chances, and I thought the time was right for another go at it.  (Plus, Scream Factory released new Blu-Ray and DVD collector's editions of the film this month, so it seemed like a fitting time to start this project).

After this reassessment of The Howling I will start watching and reviewing the sequels as a research project (of sorts).  Not really sure how that is gonna go, as I'd originally thought I might review them all in a row, but at my current rate of output, that may take longer than anticipated.  I might just review a couple here, a couple there.  See how it goes.

So anyway, long introduction aside, welcome to the first installment of:
Let's cut right to the chase.  I still don't love The Howling.

Sue me, all right?

The Howling isn't a bad movie, not in the slightest.  There are things I like about it, consider to be "really good" even.  Still, and as with every time I've watched it, there was something about the film that kept me from loving it.  This time around, I've figured it out what that thing is, that thing that makes me not-love The Howling.  It's kind of boring.

The last 30 minutes of The Howling are solid, Rob Bottin's special effects are wonderful and once all the werewolf craziness goes down, the movie starts to get pretty fun.  The hour or so prior is fairly slow going though, with the movie starting amid confusion before downshifting and taking its sweet time setting up all of its players.  The movie seems to drag and take forever to get to the action.  I know how this complaint sounds, like I can't handle thoughtful character driven horror films, and while I assure you that is not the case, I still can't help it.  The Howling bores me until the werewolves show up.

The Howling opens and it drops you right into the middle of a police sting that feels more like an undercover news investigation (or maybe it's the other way around?).  News reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) is meeting with a deranged serial killer named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) down in the seedy red light district at this sleazy porno shop, with her news buddies listening in through microphones and the police....somewhere nearby, kinda.  They get lost actually and show up at the last minute to save Karen, pumping Eddie full of lead.  This happens right after Eddie shows Karen "something," something that freaks her out and causes her to have amnesia about the events of that night.

Unable to return to work, Karen's therapist Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee) suggests she and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) take a retreat to "The Colony," a remote community for those in various states of rehabilitation and recovery.  The Colony turns out to be populated by all sorts of weirdos (although honestly, they're not that weird), including the sultry and mysterious Marsha (Elizabeth Brooks), who instantly tries to seduce Bill.  While this is going on, Karen's reporter buddies Chris Halloran (Dennis Dugan) and Terry Fisher (Belinda Balaski) continue their investigation into the strange Eddie Quist, whose body, it just so happens, has disappeared from the morgue...

etc, etc, etc, etc.  Werewolves.

All of these early scenes in The Howling have a very dreamy and languid pace that I find to be more sleep inducing than mesmerizing or intriguing.  Scenes of Karen having hazy dream-memories and of Chris and Terry doing their investigation seem to drag on.  I do like the parts with Robert Picardo and the scene with Dick Miller is great (of course), but almost everything else doesn't hold my interest or set the mood the way it should.  The whole Colony setting and Dr. Waggner's methodology is approached by director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles as a criticism towards pop-psychology and hippie-style commune living, and while I understand and appreciate that, I can't say it makes for terribly compelling viewing.

Joe Dante's films are known for their comedic flair, but the humor in The Howling seems to be at odds with the serious tone the film is going for.  The Howling isn't a dour serious fest by any means, but it doesn't have the level of fun that is usually associated with Dante's other genre movies (PiranhaGremlinsExplorers).  Employed instead are a variety of subtle in-jokes and sight gags, all very tongue-in-cheek, like visual references to wolves (Wolf brand chili, a copy of Ginsberg's 'Howl'), and cameos by Roger Corman (Dante's former boss) and Forest J. Ackerman (holding copies of his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, naturally) that are strictly for the fans.  The most subtle of these "jokes" (or references, really) is that the names of most of the characters are also shared by the directors of various werewolf films (Fisher, Waggner, etc).  It's hard to get into the mood of the film when it is constantly nudging you in the ribs and winking at you.

The Howling does veer into areas of more blatant humor, like the end scene with its comedic zinger (the entire end credits roll over a burger on a grill) and the scenes with television station manager Fred Francis (Kevin McCarthy) and with bookshop owner Walter Paisley (Dick Miller).  The subtlety and irregularity of the humor causes me to look for and/or attribute it to places not intended, like in the ridiculous by-the-campfire werewolf sex scene (which is pretty damn goofy, in my opinion) and the fact that I couldn't help but think that Christopher Stone and his mustache looked like a low-rent Tom Atkins.

It's weird to be talking about wanting a more appropriate balance of humor in a horror film, as usually less humor is what fans call for, but in the case of The Howling I think it's apt because the same year An American Werewolf in London was released and while I'm not into comparative studies (as it can be unfair to both films), I have to say that AWIL manages to be both funnier and scarier than The Howling.  Both film were in theaters just a few months apart in 1981 and they both featured onscreen transformation special effects.  In fact, Rick Baker was originally going to do The Howling, but left the project to do John Landis' film instead.  Baker suggested his protégé Rob Bottin for his replacement and Bottin did a really good job (I like his wolf-monster design for the creatures), but Baker's Oscar winning special effects in AWIL are amazing and hold up to this day as some of the best practical special effects ever in a motion picture.

The transformation scene in The Howling is quite extended, and while this is a great showcase for Bottin's work, narratively I can't help but wonder why Karen stands there watching the whole time and doesn't, you know, run away.  Paralyzed with terror, I guess?  That aside, it is an amazing scene and the final result is fairly fantastic (even if the transformative makeup effects sometimes cause the werewolf to have a severe case of goofy face).

Rob Bottin would match (and in a lot of ways, surpass) his mentor with his next project, John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), which has some of my personal all-time favorite special effects work and is one of my favorite horror films.  Bottin would earn an Academy Award nomination with his makeup effects work on fantasy film Legend (1985) and would also design and create the title character in the sci-fi classic Robocop (1987), which is worthy of an award unto itself.

Bottin worked with Joe Dante on his first film Piranha (1978), as well as his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, that freaky-ass 3rd segment), Explorers (1985), and Innerspace (1987).  He also did effects work for The Fog (1980), Total Recall (1990), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), where he designed the lounge lizard monsters.  Bottin hasn't done any film work at all in over a decade and I'm not sure why, whether it's a question of being burned out or stressed out or maybe if he just said fuck it, I'm done, or what, but I wish like hell he'd make a comeback in some special effects extravaganza or something someday.  (You're awesome, Rob).

As I mentioned in the intro, I love Joe Dante.  At the time of The Howling he only had 2 film credits, Hollywood Boulevard (1976) and the great Jaws-knockoff Piranha.  Steven Spielberg reportedly really liked Piranha and after seeing and enjoying The Howling (and casting Dee Wallace in E.T. [1982] because of it) he would hire Dante to do one of the segments on Twilight Zone: The Movie and also to direct the Spielberg produced Gremlins (1984), which is one of my favorite films (it's one of the touchstones of my childhood and I revisit it every year at Christmas [because it's great]).

Some Dante films I haven't seen in years, like the aforementioned Explorers and Innerspace, but also The Burbs (1989), a Tom Hanks film that I remember weirding me out as a kid and might be due for a revisit.  Also in need of a rewatch is Dante's own sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), which I thought was only so-so when I first saw it but everyone (i.e.: the internet) seems to think it's pretty great, so I might check that one out this year at Christmas too.  Dante's latest film, The Hole (2009), is a decent kids fantasy movie, although it has plenty of freaky-ass shit in it.

(Check out one of Joe Dante's current projects, one of the best websites out there:  Trailers from Hell)
Dante on set with one of his actors.

Screenwriter John Sayles started his career writing cheap exploitation films (but really good cheap exploitation films) like Dante's Piranha, as well as Battle Beyond the Stars and Alligator (both 1980).  Sayles would fund his first few independent films from the checks he got from writing these movies and his first film Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) would garner positive critical reviews while his third film Baby It's You (1983) earned him a MacArthur Fellowship, which he used to partially fund Brother From Another Planet (1984).  Sayles also wrote and directed the labor union drama Matewan (1987), the great baseball movie Eight Men Out (1988), and the murder mystery Lone Star (1996).  John Sayles also does a little acting, showing up in his own films and a few of Joe Dante's, not only the one's he wrote (he's a morgue attendant in The Howling) but also Matinee (1993), in which Sayles shares scenes with Dick Miller.

The screenplay for The Howling was based on the 1977 horror novel by Gary Brandner of the same name, although the finished film bears little resemblance to its source.  In the book, Karen White is Karyn Beatty who, in the first chapter, is violently sexually assaulted in her home by a weirdo named Max Quist.  Her and her husband Bill decide to leave the city so Karyn can recuperate and they move to a small, isolated village named Drago, where people turn out to be. . . you know.  There's no television stuff or therapist scenes, Quist is not really a character at all, and the wolves are described as more wolf-like than they are in the film.  It's not a bad paperback novel kind of a read, the attack scenes are well written, but it is vastly different from the movie.  Brandner would also write two sequel novels, 'The Howling II' and 'The Howling III: Echoes' in 1979 and 1985, respectively, but neither were used as the basis for the film sequels (even the one Brandner worked on).
The other screenwriter, Terrance H. Winkless, would go on to direct The Nest (1988) and Bloodfist (1989).

Robert Picardo was a Broadway trained actor who took his first acting role in The Howling, which of course required him to wear layers and layers of makeup, obscuring his face.  Picardo would spend hours in Rob Bottin's makeup chair, but the finished effects were worth it and having a high quality actor in the role of Eddie Quist is a major bonus for the film.  Picardo brings some actorly abilities to role, which could of easily just of been another stock bad guy part, and he makes Quist quite the memorable villain.  Robert Picardo would do some more "heavy makeup" roles in Dante's Explorers and in Legend, where he played Meg Mucklebones, but was also getting the chance to show his face on TV roles and eventually in other Dante pictures (almost all of them, but most notably he's the guy who makes-out with the female gremlin in Gremlins 2).  Picardo was nominated for an Emmy for his role as Coach Cutlip on The Wonder Years and he also had notable roles on China Beach and Star Trek: Voyager.  Who needs Broadway?

Dee Wallace is about as vulnerable an actress as you'll find out there.  It's easy to see why Spielberg cast her as the mom in E.T..  She has an honest realness about her, a great laugh, and a pretty decent scream.  Wallace (later credited as Dee Wallace-Stone) also starred in The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Cujo (1983), Critters (1986), and a bunch of TV movies and shows where she wasn't getting terrorized by cannibals, large dogs, or little monsters.  One of her best roles was in Peter Jackson's ghost-fest The Frighteners (1996) and she has more recently popped up in a couple Rob Zombie movies, but I'm not going to hold that against her.  If you're looking for some inspiration, visit her website.

Christopher Stone was engaged to Dee Wallace at the time of shooting The Howling and they would marry soon after.  They were in many films and television shows together, including Cujo.  Sadly, Stone passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 1995 at the age of 53.  In the book, Bill is quite a bit of a dick to his wife, even before he starts cheating on her, but in the movie Christopher Stone plays Bill much more sympathetically.  He doesn't want to cheat on his wife, but he feels the attraction and pull to do so.  The book, however, has more focus on the Bill character, whereas in the movie he sort of gets lost in the shuffle towards the movie's end.

His mustache does however kinda make him look like a low-rent Tom Atkins...

Dr. Waggner talks a lot about "mind and body" and uses his kindly intelligence to build up a sense of trustworthiness about him, even though he is essentially the leader of a cult.  British actor Patrick Macnee is most widely known as John Steed from the hit BBC series The Avengers.  In interviews he's one of those guys who downtalks horror films and he even refers to The Howling as a "thiller," although he does admit to being amazed by the transformation scene (rightly so).  Other genre things Macnee appeared in include cult TV series Battlestar Galactica (as various characters, including the opening narrator), This is Spinal Tap (1984, as Sir Denis Eaton-Hogg), and Waxwork (1986) and it's sequel.

Dennis Dugan had a pretty low-key (but busy) acting career before starting to direct comedies with Problem Child (1990) and eventually falling in with the Adam Sandler crowd and directing Happy Gilmore (1996), Big Daddy (1999), that Chuck and Larry movie, that Zohan movie, Grown Ups (2010, and it's upcoming sequel), and Jack and Jill (2011).  Dennis Dugan has been nominated for the Golden Raspberry for worst director four times and he's won twice but I'm sure he doesn't give a fuck because his movies to date have grossed over $1 billion dollars, which is insane.  But hey, he's in The Howling so that's. . . . .something.

Belinda Balaski is a character actor who has worked with Joe Dante numerous times, maybe most notably as a camp counselor in Piranha and a concerned mother in Gremlins and its sequel.  She also starred alongside Marjoe Gortner in Food of the Gods (1976) and worked with Paul Bartel on Cannonball! (both 1976).  From what I've seen, her most expansive role is that of Terry Fisher in The Howling and once her investigation leads to The Colony, the movie starts to kick into gear.  Her showdown with the werewolf is great stuff, probably the best scene in the movie.

The very alluring Elizabeth Brooks had it going on with her green eyes and deep, sultry voice and it's easy to see why Bill would fall under Marsha's spell.  Mainly a TV actress, with a reoccurring role on Days of our Lives, her first major role in a movie was in The Howling and she would follow that up with the Alien-knockoff Deep Space (1988) and ghost film The Forgotten One (1989).  Brooks was a writer, singer, and a poet and she had a long relationship with actress Kristy McNichol, who was by her side when Brooks succumbed to brain cancer in 1997.

John Carradine (acting legend, patriarch of the Carradine clan) plays one of the Colony's community-men, an old rascal named Erle Kenton.  When you first see him, he's screeching to the sky having a good time at the beach welcoming party for Karen and Bill, but later on at the party he gets all depressed and tries to throw himself in the fire.  He's stopped by Dr. Waggner and told to sleep it off, but this is the first indication that something might not be right with The Colony or its inhabitants.  Carradine is great in the role, very sad and desperate, and later on when he shows up in the movie he's full of life and vigor again, like nothing had happened.

John Carradine has over 300 screen credits to his name, reaching all the way back to the early '30s.  The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Ten Commandments (1956), and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) are examples of the bigger movies he was in (and was quite good in, too), but as the 60s wore on, Carradine started taking jobs on seemingly any and all productions that came his way, with one of the most dreadful being Coleman Francis' Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966, aka: Red Zone Cuba, as MST3k fans know it) in which Carradine appears briefly and also sings the opening credits theme song.  Carradine would have notable appearances in non-dreadful stuff like The Sentinel and Shock Waves (both 1977), but with The Howling, you get a sense that he is actually acting and not just cashing a paycheck.  I'd venture to say it's John Carradine's best role from his later career.

Anybody who likes horror or genre films has got to know and love Dick Miller.  He's great.  Miller has been in almost every Joe Dante film, most notably as Mr. Futterman in Gremlins.  Miller got his start working in Roger Corman's repertoire of actors, playing small parts in things like It Conquered the World (1956) and The Undead (1957), before getting larger roles in Little Shop of Horrors and A Bucket of Blood (both 1959), the latter of which starred Miller as Walter Paisley.  As a sort of in-joke, Miller would star as characters with the Paisely name in 4 more unrelated films (three of them directed by Joe Dante, the other being Chopping Mall [1986]).  Miller has said that his personal favorite role of his was in The Howling, that he had a lot of fun with that character, and he wishes it amounted to more than two scenes and a days worth of work.  Dick Miller also pops up in Samuel Fuller's White Dog (1982), James Cameron's The Terminator (1984), and Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985).

Kevin McCarthy, star of the cold war sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), has a small role as the manager of the television station that Karen works at and he's full of pomp and spits out a few good one liners.  McCarthy had worked with Dante previously on Piranha and would also play Uncle Walt in Twilight Zone: The Movie.  McCarthy would play another television station manager (although a more villainous one) in Weird Al Yankovic's UHF (1989).

Slim Pickens, the country drawled actor who rode an atomic bomb to fame in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), plays the local sheriff in The Howling and at this point in his career he excelled at portraying this type of character.  Playing an assortment of cowboys during his career, Pickens also excelled at playing hayseeds, sheriffs, or hayseed sheriffs.  He would work with Sam Peckinpah a few times, star in comedies like Blazing Saddles (1974) and 1941 (1979), and also in genre movies like Poor Pretty Eddie (1975) and The Swarm (1978).

Robert A. Burns was the art director for The Howling and his ability to illicit a mood by scattering bones and weird brik-a-brak around is used effectively in the design of both Eddie's cabin and his apartment, and also in Walter Paisley's bookstore.  Look closely and you can see the chair with Grandma in it from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, the best example of Burns' work) decorating Paisley's shop.  Robert A. Burns would also work on The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Disco Godfather (1979), Tourist Trap (1979), Mausoleum (1983), and Re-Animator (1985).

The score to The Howling is pretty good, atmospheric and moody.  Italian composer Pino Donaggio's first film score was on the classic Don't Look Now (1973) before becoming Brian De Palma's go-to guy (Carrie [1976] and Blow Out [1981] are the two that stick out to me) and, yes, working on Joe Dante's Piranha.  Donaggio would also score the Klaus Kinski creepfest Crawlspace (1986) and work with Dario Argento on Two Evil Eyes (1990) and Trauma (1993).

Even though there are things about The Howling that I enjoy, like the special effects and some of the performances, it still feels like a film full of elements that don't quite come together.  The mystery of The Colony, the news investigation, the jabs of humor, the marital strife, the stuff with the TV station... the story has an unevenness to it and it doesn't start rolling along until the werewolves show up.

I have to say, over the years I've thought my non-love for The Howling was the result of a problem with me, like maybe I just didn't get it or was in a bad mood when I watched it (every single time) or whatever.  After giving the film multiple chances over the years, I think I have enough evidence to justifying my personal non-love for the movie.  And that's something I'm just going to have to be okay with.

Although, I might rewatch the movie is a few years and see if that still stands true.

The trailer is fairly spoiler heavy, including the ending.  You've been warned:

1 comment:

  1. Very thorough examination of The Howling, including lots of background on those involved with the production and thoughtful commentary on the film itself. I haven't seen this movie for some some time, but, from what I remember, I agree with the overall assessment. The film feels a little slow after the opening and through most of the middle, and not just in the "you aren't patient enough to appreciate it" kind of way. However, the final act and the ending were so awesome that I have always had a fond impression of the movie.