“Do you wanna see a man turn into a werewolf?” (spoilers ahead)
This was the question posed to me by my dad who’d woke me up one night when I was no more than 9 or 10. My dad has never been especially fond of horror films but in the early days of video rental (yes, we are going back a fair while) you had, primarily, two types of films to choose from. Kung fu and horror. I was allowed to watch two people kick seven shades out of each other but the horror movies were a no-go. So what changed?
What had prompted my dad to wake me from my sleep to show me something I was not normally allowed to see. Eagerly and bleary eyed, I followed him downstairs and was quickly mesmerized by what I saw unfold on the screen for the next 3 and a half minutes approximately. The film in question was The Howling.
Released in 1981 and loosely based on the 1977 novel by Gary Brandner the film follows Karen White (Dee Wallace who I recognized as Elliott’s mum from E.T which I’d not long since seen), a news anchor who finds herself the subject of a serial killers obsession.
Aiding the police, Karen agrees to meet up with “Eddie the Mangler” to enable his capture. Meeting in the back of a porno shop in a peepshow booth (Eddie’s nothing if not romantic!) Karen is terrified by seeing something begin to happen to Eddie and is saved in the nick of time by the police who shoot her assailant before the worst can happen.
Understandably traumatized, Karen is advised by her psychiatrist Dr George Waggner (Patrick Macnee, most famous for his turn in the classic sixties spy series “The Avengers“) to go to The Colony, a rural retreat for patients to take part in group therapy sessions away from the madness of city life in hope they’ll better learn to cope with their problems.
Along with her husband Bill (played by Dee Wallace’s real life husband Christopher Stone), Karen follows the advice and travels to the picturesque coastal location.
We quickly see that there’s something a little off at The Colony. Some of its residents seem reasonably normal though a couple are a little more, shall we say, strange including notable faces such as John Carradine and Slim Pickens.
For me, the most interesting character we meet at The Colony is Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks who sadly passed away from brain cancer at only 46) a vampish goth who exudes sexuality and is far from shy in coming on to Bill even in such a close-knit community but Bill, who loves his wife despite struggling to cope with her fragility and lack of interest in sex, turns her down.
Hearing howling in the woods one night, Karen is assured that it’s most likely the coyotes making the noise and killing the local wildlife. Then, after a visit to Marsha to aid in prepping a rabbit he successfully killed on his first hunting trip, a large something leaps from the trees and attacks and bites Bill.
Karen’s friends Chris and Terry (Dennis Dugan and Belinda Balaski respectively) who both work for the same network as Karen, have been investigating Eddie Quist (The Mangler) for a piece they plan to do on his “mind” focusing on the psychology of him and its correlation to the animal in all of us.
In Eddie’s old apartment they find drawings of what appear to be human/animal portraits as well as a scenic pencil sketch of what we will soon learn is the coastal area of The Colony.
They begin to investigate the lycanthropy angle. Was this a driving factor in Eddie’s mind? Did he actually believe he was a werewolf. Going to the morgue to see his body, the couple are surprised (probably a little less than us if we can see where this story is going) that it has vanished seemingly broken out of opposed into.
When Karen calls Terry to tell her that Bill has been bitten by a wolf and asks her to visit, Terry wastes little time and quickly heads to The Colony to check in on her friends.
It’s now that things really start to amp up. I did say that spoilers would be included here and I’m not lying to you. Even with knowing little about the film you will by now have probably guessed with all the information presented thus far that Eddie Quist is indeed a werewolf and that it was a werewolf that attacked and bit Bill.
If you didn’t know I would be surprised but when Bill meets up with Marsha one firelit night all doubts are erased. By the light of said fire they make love and transform into werewolves as they do so. Their howling wakes Terry who records the audio (we don’t need to be mind readers to guess where her train of thought is traveling to) and Karen who finds her husband gone from their bed (again we can guess who she thinks he’s gone to see).
We’re set for the final act as Terry, investigating the area, finds the location of the drawing she’d picked up in Eddie’s apartment Her next place of interest is a cabin where, despite it being daylight, she is attacked by a large animal and in an act of desperation she hacks off a limb with an axe.
Finally, her fears are realized fully as she sees the severed limb return to its original human appearance. Rushing to Dr Waggner’s office she makes a call to Chris back in the city to explain what she’s witnessed. Believing that there’s no way that the Doctor was unaware of what’s been going on she delves into a filing cabinet and finds a file on Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) as well as his brother T.C (Don McLeod) and his sister….Marsha.
That last revelation truly is the last for Terry who has the file taken from her hand by a large werewolf and Chris is forced to listen on the phone to the final moments of his girlfriend’s life. Karen argues with Bill over his nightly excursion and decides to leave The Colony. She heads over to the Doctors office to tell him and finds instead the body of her friend sans throat. Backing away in terror she backs into none other than the man who was the cause for bringing her here in the first place.
“I wanna give you a piece of my mind” he says (a line improvised by the actor) as he picks at the hole in his head to remove the bullet lodged within.
“Do you wanna see a man turn into a werewolf?”
I did, and it was Eddie’s transformation from man to beast that so impressed my dad that he woke me up to show me. I’d seen a lot of old monster movies but none that were considered suitable for mature audiences only and I’d began reading horror stories so there was some interest in the genre. Indeed, my favorite television show as a child featured a transformation scene every week as David Banner became the Incredible Hulk.
My jaw dropped in wonderment at what I saw on screen as skin rippled, claws extended from bloody fingertips, hair spread across his body which grew in height. I’d never seen anything like it! The clothes were flexed from the body as a snout elongated from the creatures face revealing razor sharp teeth and finally, where once stood a man, now stood, on its hind legs, a werewolf.
It was a while after before I got to see what preceded and followed that and transformation and I’ll leave the remainder of the film for you to rediscover for yourself there are still a few nice little twists and turns I’ve not mentioned (excluding what I drop in the next paragraph)
I’d read the book by then so knew that the entire colony were werewolves (told ya there’d be spoilers) and had seen the entirety of An American Werewolf in London which ties The Howling, in my meek opinion, as the best werewolf films of all time both also having the best man to wolf transformations ever committed to screen (I prefer The Howlings end creature as always liked to see my werewolves up on two legs).
There’s a lot to love about The Howling.
It was directed by Joe Dante who had previously directed Piranha and went on to direct another of my all time favourites; Gremlins. He’s also been responsible for Innerspace, The Burbs and The Hole and though he works a lot in TV now, he’s responsible for some of fondest childhood movie memories.
You’ll see faces from The Howling in more of Joe Dante’s projects from Belinda Balaski and Robert Picardo to the genre legend Dick Miller who pops up here as a bookshop owner with a knowledge of werewolves and a carton of silver bullets. (Millers character in this film is named Walter Paisley, the same name of the character he played in Roger Cormans 1959 horror-comedy A Bucket of Blood. Joe Dante used to work for Corman and the latter makes a brief cameo in The Howling.
There’s lots of little tongue in cheek moments in The Howling whether it be a cartoon wolf on the television, a brief glance at a book called “Howl” on a table or the fact that many characters are named after directors of films featuring werewolves.
Modern movies that have incorporated werewolves have relied a lot recently on CGI which work nowhere near as well as the practical effects employed here by Rob Bottin and in American Werewolf by Rick Baker. It’s amazing that this was achieved without computers and hasn’t aged badly at all which CGI can do. Should also give a shout-out to Pino Donaggio for his score which is simple but effective.
Overall, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome at 91 minutes and is a must see if you’re a fan of our lycanthropic friends. This is probably the film that cemented my interest in the horror genre. I want to thank all the cast and crew responsible for making a film that influenced so much of what I watch.
And a final massive thank you to my dad who couldn’t have foreseen how my love of horror would grow from those few minutes following him asking me quite simply.