The Howling Reviews
It is clear that The Howling is done on a very low budget. Although it is a Werewolf-themed horror movie, it keeps the horror limited mostly to the implications until about halfway through the movie where is picks up a visual flare and progresses from there. In this manner it is familiar to Joe Dante's previous film, Piranha. The difference however is that Piranha was more about exploitation and how many deaths it could achieve while The Howling is a bit more creative in terms of story, characters and its general horror themes.
There Werewolf themes are implied for most of the film and the characters don't actually transform into them until about 47 minutes into the movie which constitutes more than half of the film. Up until then there is not that much horror, just some kind of surreal drama. After that, the atmosphere remains constant. The great thing about The Howling is that it benefits from having Joe Dante as director. As Joe Dante proved on Piranha, he knows how to keep atmosphere in a horror film effective. It's done by maintaining the atmosphere consistently once it begins and never letting it drop, and that is exactly what he does to the film. When the werewolves come into The Howling, they are there to stay and so is the tense mood and creepy thrills of the film. The second half of the film really makes The Howling a good film and renders it memorable viewing. The rest of the film is just a bit of waiting around, but the second half of The Howling truly maintains what is required to make a good horror film.
With low-budget 1980's horror films, there are three key components which define whether the film is successful or not: a tense atmosphere, good death scenes and plenty of nudity. Elisabeth Brooks supplies the nudity with a memorable sex scene in the film where the participant begin to transition into Werewolves, so The Howling has enough nudity in one brief scene. When it comes to the quantity of kills, there could possibly have been more and a little more blood and gore as well, but the ones that are present in the film are executed extremely well. The kills stand up fairly well on both sides in the film with plenty of Werewolves dying and humans being victimized in intense scenes of slaughter. There could have been a touch more blood and gore in the film, but as a whole The Howling succeeds in the three most central areas. It does so strictly during the second half of the film, but it is all done so consistently well for the latter half of the feature that it is able to transcend the first half of the film. The Howling really ends up being predicated all on how well the second half of the feature turns out because the starting 47 minutes is nothing but pointless plotting and shallow attempts at character building. The fact is that The Howling is not a film with complex plotting or character development, it is simply a low budget horror film and nothing more. It benefits seriously well from having Joe Dante as the director because his ability to exercise strong visuals gives the film a strong second act. It is just a matter of sitting through the first to reach the second. Yet unlike countless other films where one half is poor and another half is strong, the other half in The Howling is so strong that it gives a good name to the entire film. It may not be the smartest exercise in Werewolf mythology, but after a slow start it certainly becomes an entertaining one.
I didn't really find as much of the dark comedy in the film as others seemed to have been able to. There were mild deadpan comedy moments in the film, but they were too little to initiate much laughter. What is more important is the horror atmosphere, and it works because The Howling is able to spark up some thrills. It mainly does that through its visual elements.
The makeup effects for the film are very good. The costumes and prosthetics used to create the Werewolves look really creepy in a manner which is eerie and frightening in a legitimate manner, and despite its low budget there is nothing stopping The Howling from maintaining state-of-the-art effects. The designs of the makeup in The Howling is brilliant because it evokes a truly great appearance for its mythological creatures who all have strong movements and thoroughly creepy appearances. They pose a genuine threat to the characters in the film which makes the horror themes of the film effective on several different levels. All these elements play out against the backdrop of scenery and production design which really evokes a feeling of isolation and distance from civilization. Plus, the musical score is a certain kind of hauntingly intense which reinforces the horror mood and the eerie nature of the feature as well as bringing a strong sense of dramatization to the atmosphere. The Howling is surprisingly effective in its atmosphere, and it ends up reminiscent of the first Evil Dead movie without as much comedy, consistency or general overall qualities. The visual grace of The Howling is excellent because it has a sense of exploitation to it without hitting viewers over the head with that notion, and it ends up being a story that can genuinely be taken seriously due to the story not going ridiculously over the top in any way.
So The Howling has a generic and dull first half which is built on characterizing a generic and familiar plot as well as thin characters. Once it gets passed that, the full extent of Joe Dante's directorial work is felt which fills the film with visual magnificence, a tense atmosphere and a genuine sense of horror.
After reporter Karen White has a near-death experience with a serial killer during a botched police operation, she is left with emotional trauma where she can't sleep, can't perform her job duties, and is always having emotional breakdowns.
At the behest of her therapist, she and her husband travel to the therapist's recovery retreat known as "The Colony," while her co-workers investigate who the serial killer named Eddie was.
Things seem to go okay for the couple at first, although they other members of the retreat can be rather strange, until her husband is attacked by a mysterious creature in the wilderness. Though, he lives, he begins to act strangely after the attack which worries Karen.
Meanwhile, during their time at the retreat, Karen's co-workers are also having a series of strange events happening around them as they investigate Eddie, like how his body has suddenly disappeared from the morgue, or all the strange drawings in his apartment, and several other things.
As Karen and her co-workers investigate, they unravel a deeper, more complex mystery not only surrounding Eddie, but also the members of "The Colony," in ways that could threaten their very lives.
The Howling is a very atmospheric and creepy horror film that takes its time to unfold, which is crucial because of the core mystery. While its reveal is nothing new, it is nonetheless very effective and menacing. The creepy and menacing nature of the film is also bolstered by the fantastic effects (At least for the time, depending on how much you like putting on the rose-colored lenses) . While the effects aren't as polished as say, An American Werewolf In London, they are still very good and werewolves are truly scary creatures.
The acting is also pretty good, though it does have its cheesy moments. Still, considering this is not only a monster flick, but also a monster flick from the 80's, the acting is far better than what it should be. The actors certainly made their mysterious characters fascinating to follow, especially as their mysterious sides were revealed.
With a scary atmosphere, terrific storytelling, good acting, funny dark humor, gore, terrific special effects, and more, The Howling is an excellent cult classic horror film that still holds up really well, even without the rose-colored lenses that a lot of these types of films require to view them in this day and age. If you want a werewolf flick with some real bite, this is a very good one.
[originally posted 19Jul2001]
Joe Dante has done some amazing work in his time. He's also done some godawful things for which he should be ashamed. The Howling falls dead in the center of those two. It's creepy, atmospheric, and effective, due in no small part to the incredible talent assembled behind the scenes (John Sayles adapted Gary Brandner's novel; Bottin produced; Dante directed). Unfortunately, it also shows exactly why Dee Wallace never made it past B movies, with the arguable exception of E.T., and disease-of-the-week TV flicks. I mean, she's just bad. The rest of the cast makes it work, though, including "holographic doctor" Robert Picardo in his big-screen debut as the serial killer obsessed with Dee. His line "I'm going to give you a piece of my mind," and the action that follows it, are some of the finest moments in horror film.
As a sidelight, this was also the only major film in which the late Elisabeth Brooks appeared (as Marsha, the seductress who goes after Dee Wallace's husband). Brooks is worth seeking out in just about anything, but this is the only flick you're likely to find on rental-house shelves. (She actually made four; the other three were all late-eighties products that have unfortunately faded into obscurity.)
If you didn't see this when it came out, you'll probably find it somewhat on the cheesy side. Well, okay, it is, but remember that in 1980 this was groundbreaking stuff by anyone's standards. For those of us who did catch this one back in the day, it makes for a great nostalgia trip. Makes a great double bill with its contemporary Wolfen (1981). ***