The Howling

The Howling, 1981. Directed by Joe Dante. Written by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, based on the novel by Gary Brandner. Starring Dee Wallace Stone, Patrick Macnee, Kevin McCarthy, Belinda Balaski, Elisabeth Brooks, Slim Pickens, Robert Picardo.

The Howling is a lot of things, but from the first moments it puts sexuality, sexual violence, and trauma right in the forefront. The original novel involves an attempted rape in the home of the protagonist as its catalyst. This character is transitioned from house wife in the book to Karen (Dee Wallace Stone), the news anchor, in the film, who is helping the police track down a serial killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who has been calling her. This move puts Karen into a position of more authority, but the sexual violence is still very present, from the red light district that she is directed toward, the porn shop that she meets Eddie Quist in, and the violent porn that is playing as he starts to attack her.

The assault is stopped short by two police officers who arrive and shoot Eddie Quist; the trauma of what happened was so great that she can’t remember what happened in the booth. Her boss puts her in front of the camera right away and she freezes. The trauma is almost insurmountable, so the psychiatrist that has been consulting on the cast, advises that she go The Colony, a new age therapy retreat center to escape the violence of the city and all of the triggers. Of course, everything is far more connected than we thought.

Sexism is rampent, from every description of her as a “little lady”, and after she can’t report on camera, instead of recognizing the trauma, her misogynistic boss says, “Who knows, maybe she’s pregnant.”

Virility, regret, free love vs repression–they’re all explored and they’re all in conflict. Horror movies are great for layering on metaphors and also being an entertainment. Werewolves, like vampires, are perfect for the layering. There is a duality to these creatures, human and monster, as well as a competition of impulse. The additional component of therapy, taming versus indulging the animalistic side, adds a contemporary angle. The therapy also brings the idea of communication and listening to the front. No one listens to Karen (or women in general in horror films) and that only makes everything worse.

This film builds the unease well. The characters are properly isolated and the tension is ratcheted up by the parallel story of Karen’s coworkers continuing to investigate Eddie Quist and the disappearance of his body. As the stories progress, they intersect and we get to see some of the best werewolf transformations and special effects. With beautiful cinematography and sharp editing the humor and the horror are balanced and it imbeds a lot of pop culture references from werewolf film history into the movie.

We get a great cameo in this film from Forrest Ackerman (Famous Monsters of Filmland) in the bookstore. Also, Joe Dante regular Dick Miller appears as the bookstore owner.

More later …

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