At the dawn of the 1980’s, no sub­gen­re of clas­sic hor­ror was as mori­bund as the were­wolf movie.  Only Paul Naschy car­ried the torch for this screen ter­ror dur­ing the ‘70s; oth­er­wise, the con­cept had been reduced to a punch­line in movies like The Boy Who Cried Werewolf and The Werewolf Of Washington.  However, the begin­ning of the new decade saw the release of a film that revived the were­wolf sub­gen­re and also pro­vid­ed an ear­ly indi­ca­tion for ‘80s film­mak­ers would deal with clas­sic hor­ror tropes.  It was called The Howling — and it remains one of the defin­i­tive hor­ror films of its decade.

The Howling fore­goes the usu­al goth­ic trap­pings of the tra­di­tion­al were­wolf movie for a unique route into this arche­type: T.V. news­wom­an Karen White (Dee Wallace) suf­fers from psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma after being attacked by seri­al killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo).  Her hub­by Bill (Christopher Stone) takes her to under­go group ther­a­py with pop psy­chol­o­gist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) at a spe­cial rural retreat he has cre­at­ed — but her trau­ma is not over.  Eddie Quist is not dead — and her t.v. news cowork­ers Terry (Belinda Belaski) and Chris (Dennis Dugan) dis­cov­er some sin­is­ter con­nec­tions between Quist and Dr. Waggner’s retreat.  Karen and her friends soon find them­selves fac­ing a lycan­throp­ic threat that not only endan­gers them but the rest of the world…

More than three decades after its orig­i­nal release, The Howling remains effec­tive because it tack­les the were­wolf film with a mix­ture of imag­i­na­tion, art­ful craft and sly wit.  The script by Terence Winkless and John Sayles throws out much of Gary Brandner’s source nov­el to cre­ate a sto­ry­line that shows affec­tion to some were­wolf cin­e­ma con­ven­tions while updat­ing the mythos to fit the mood and atti­tudes of its era.  It also weaves in some humor in a pio­neer­ing way, tak­ing on satir­i­cal tar­gets — pop psy­chol­o­gy, the mer­ce­nary nature of mod­ern news — that remain deserv­ing of scorn today.  It also makes the char­ac­ters intel­li­gent and like­able in a way that today’s hor­ror movies often for­get to do.  Most impor­tant­ly, it ful­ly deliv­ers on the hor­ror front: the open­ing sequence is sus­pense­ful, the were­wolf sce­nes are clev­er­ly staged and the film builds to a tense finale fol­lowed by an unex­pect­ed­ly mov­ing coda.

The deft blend­ing of hor­ror and humor at play in The Howling gives it a know­ing qual­i­ty that many sub­se­quent ‘80s hor­ror films would emu­late, often poor­ly.  The blend works here thanks to the savvy direc­tion of Joe Dante, who han­dles both extremes of this mate­ri­al with the con­fi­dence.  He lit­ters the film with visu­al in-jokes relat­ed to were­wolves and also names sev­er­al major char­ac­ters after direc­tors of were­wolf movies — but he also gives the film a deliri­ous, pop-goth­ic sense of style, using John Hora’s glossy, col­or­ful cin­e­matog­ra­phy and Pino Donaggio’s lush yet dynam­ic score that evokes both E.C. Comics and Hammer hor­ror films.  It cre­ates a per­fect set­ting for the story’s play­ful but intel­li­gent approach to the gen­re.  The edit­ing, han­dled by Dante with Mark Goldblatt, care­ful­ly bal­ances the film’s humor and hor­ror beats as well as sell­ing us on the spe­cial effects in the film’s lat­ter half.

Dante also enrich­es the sto­ry with strong per­for­mances from a tru­ly excel­lent cast.  Wallace grounds the film, giv­ing an emo­tion­al­ly rich turn as the belea­guered hero­ine that keeps the film from drift­ing off into total fan­boy fan­tasia.  Stone, Dugan and Belaski all add strong sup­port, cre­at­ing sup­port­ing char­ac­ters who are gen­uine­ly like­able and easy to care about.  Modern hor­ror film­mak­ers would do well to study how well the­se char­ac­ters are writ­ten and act­ed, as sup­port­ing char­ac­ters are all too often treat­ed as can­non fod­der in mod­ern hor­ror fare.

Dante allows his hor­ror kid side to run wild in cast­ing for the small­er roles, includ­ing Kevin McCarthy in a hilar­i­ous turn as a cranky t.v. sta­tion own­er and the great Dick Miller as an occult book­shop own­er with a smart mouth.  That’s not all, there are also scene-steal­ing turns from Slim Pickens as a sher­iff and John Carradine as an old­er patient at the retreat — and keep an eye peeled for quick in-joke cameos from Roger Corman and Forrest Ackerman.  It’s worth not­ing that Dante was pack­ing his cast in a gen­re-savvy way long before Fred Olen Ray or Rob Zombie picked up on this trick — but Dante remains the best at his strat­e­gy because, unlike his com­peti­tors, he always gives his gen­re reg­u­lar cast mem­bers inter­est­ing and oft-wit­ty things to do rather than mere­ly rely­ing on their pres­ence to gin up good will with fan­boys.

Finally, Dante com­pletes his revival of the cin­e­mat­ic were­wolf by deploy­ing make­up effects in a mind-blow­ing yet art­ful man­ner.  His part­ner in this task is FX wiz Rob Bottin, who built his ear­ly rep on his cre­ative work here.  The film holds back the on-screen appear­ance of the wolves until the final third of the film, giv­ing the fan­boys what they came for with one of the great make­up-FX trans­for­ma­tion sce­nes in hor­ror film his­to­ry.

Bottin’s designs wise­ly make the crea­tures look like giant bipedal wolves instead of humans with hair past­ed on their bod­ies — and the meta­mor­pho­sis from human to wolf is pro­tract­ed and painful­ly phys­i­cal, with blad­der effects and elab­o­rate dum­my heads used to dis­tort the human form before our eyes.  There’s the com­plaint in some quar­ters that this sequence slows the film down but the artistry is so effec­tive here — not only Bottin’s work but also styl­ish­ly shad­owy light­ing from Hora, effec­tive edit­ing from Dante/Goldblatt and killer bone-crunch sound effects — that you can’t help but admire it.  This scene made human-to-crea­ture trans­for­ma­tion sce­nes a major fad in gen­re cin­e­ma and it remains one of the text­book exam­ples of how it’s done.  It’s a show­stop­per in the best sense of that expres­sion — and it total­ly sells the audi­ence on the were­wolves.

Simply put, The Howling full deserves its cult rep­u­ta­tion as one of the great hor­ror films of the ‘80s.  Not only did it suc­cess­ful­ly retool the were­wolf movie for a new audi­ence, it intro­duced the horror/humor blend and the self-ref­er­en­tial sen­si­bil­i­ty that would inform a lot of hor­ror film­mak­ing dur­ing that decade.  Better yet, it proved that Dante had the chops to be a major gen­re film­mak­er in the ‘80s and he made good on his promise with films like Gremlins and Innerspace, not to men­tion his excel­lent seg­ment in Twilight Zone: The Movie.  If you’re a fan of gen­re fare from this decade, The Howling is required view­ing.