The Test of Time: The Howling (1981)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they continue to be must see? So…the point of this here column is how a film stands against the Test of Time, if the thing holds up for a modern horror audience.

Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Dee Wallace, Kevin McCarthy, and John Carradine

For as long as Creature Features have been around, you’d think a stupidly long list of classic films about werewolves would exist. No one can deny their place among cinema classics characters, but there’s very few gold standards. There’s 1941’s The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. and  then…other good movies. For whatever reason the hairiest of the Creature Features usually hasn’t equaled box office gold or cinematic perfection. 

However, that doesn’t mean quality shit isn’t out there. In fact, the best year for the wolf came in 1981 when two excellent directors released two dandy flicks. John Landis gave us AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (but that’s for another day) and B-movie legend Roger Corman protégé and future GREMLINS director Joe Dante brought us the other. But does it stand the Test of Time?

Under the examination: THE HOWLING.

He has nice teeth.

THE STORY: Popular TV newslady Karen White (Kansas’s own Dee Wallace) went a little too deep undercover on the story of a serial killer named Eddie Quist (Trek’s Richard Picardo). Things went really, really bad and left her all kinds of f*cked up so her doctor, the good George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), suggests she take a breather out of town to a place called The Colony. Of course, it would be a lame movie if the place was perfect, so it’s crawling with weirdos and creeps like movie legends John Carradine and Slim Pickens among others. Things get weird quickly as Karen soon discovers that The Colony is full of…werewolves (that’s pretty obvious, right?).  

Nothing to see here.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: I’ll have to admit up front that I didn’t love THE HOWLING. I wanted to, but…well, I didn’t hate it, but it’s probably been 10 years since I’ve seen it and I’m quite sure that “sober” wouldn’t define my mindset the first time around. And since it’s one of the few werewolf franchises out there, it has to be at least in consideration for the "classic" label. 

The best part about THE HOWLING comes in the last 30 or so minutes because that’s not only when the movie finally gets moving, but the wolves actually come out to play. When that happens, the special effects (Rick Baker has a special makeup effects consultant credit as he was also working on AMERICAN WEREWOLF, while Rob Bottin, famous from THE THING, THE FOG, ROBOCOP, carried the load) really shine as we don’t just see some folks with a lot of hair glued to them, but the money shot of full transformation. It’s pretty damn rad especially if you keep reminding yourself, “This is 81, 81, 81.” No computers, no CGI. I think that’s something we all take for granted now, and it’s cool to remember how inventive filmmakers can be. Because this still looks awesome.

THE HOWLING's story finally picks up steam in the final act, entering that real screwed-up territory as silver bullets start to fly, people get burned, and we have the best live TV broadcast ever. 

Slim maybe needed a new name towards the end.

The cast here is great all around (as we fall in love with Dee Wallace), but I liked the old folks most. It’s great seeing DR. STRANGELOVE (and ex-rodeo star) Slim Pickens again. He’s older and rounder, but he does have a good screen presence with his Southern drawl (even though he’s from California). And while most folks might not know John Carradine, they should. The man was a legend, and while he doesn’t have a lot to do here beyond act…old, it’s nice to see him. Same can be said for INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHER’S Keven McCarthy, although he plays the same power hungry asshole in almost every movie he's in.

While I don’t think anyone could have predicted Dante would go on to make freakin’ GREMLINS, there are moments here and there that remind of it by adding a bit of tongue and cheek humor into the horror concoction. Many other filmmakers have obviously combined horror and comedy, but Dante’s stuff is a cross between 1950s and modern sensibilities. 

This could be one of the strangest uses of stop motion in movies. Just weird. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I was surprised on how slow and dull THE HOWLING is. On the surface, it seems like it should be nonstop badassness: werewolves, serial killers, TV news anchors, witchcraft, naked crazy ladies. There are a lot of characters and storylines, but after the initial shootout in the first ten minutes, it takes about an hour for anything that can be considered “horror” to really happen. Oh sure, we have that hot lady in black leather (Elisabeth Brooks) and the creepy townsfolk, but that's not quite enough.

And while the acting is solid all around, I really didn’t give a shit about any of the characters. We never spend enough time with Karen White before the trauma to know if we should like her or not. Dante relied on the sympathy we'd feel for her since she went undercover to find a serial killer of women. Sorry, that’s called occupational hazard. The rest of the characters are mostly flat, never gathering our full attention with their dull personalities. That’s too bad, too. The one guy I would have liked more from was the serial killer himself, played by Robert Picardo. When he returns from the grave (and digs a bullet out of his skull), he shows some real character. 

She digs the stash.

THE VERDICT: So…does THE HOWLING belong right up there with Chaney’s THE WOLF MAN? No. In fact, I can’t call it a classic. It’s memorable. It’s a good horror movie that’s worth revisiting today, but does it represent the best of the man/wolf? I don’t think so. 



That's just a cool frreakin' photo.



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