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The Howling (1981)

I never fail to have a “howling” good time whenever I revisit this Joe Dante favorite featuring a secret society of werewolves living among us. I first saw the movie on a student exchange while in Costa Rica as a teenager at a local theater in San Jose. As a matter of fact I saw plenty of movies that month which were Rated R here in Canada including the now classic Porky’s. I would never have seen either of these back at home due to that hard R for Restricted until they’d hit home video if it weren’t for that one month spent in sunny Costa Rica.

Even then I was collecting film memorabilia and would you believe I returned to Canada with about 40 film posters? Many featuring alternate artwork and Spanish titles and slogans.

Now back to my love affair with Dante’s film and the jaw twisting F/X attributed to Rob Bottin and Rick Baker.

Long before Tarantino paid tribute to his many heroes of movies in an ongoing orgy of background images, character names and bringing aging stars back to the cameras, Joe Dante, did the same with this inspired werewolf tale that pays homage to the horror films of his youth. Specifically the Universal and Hammer cycles and by casting a number of familiar faces to genre fans.

If you’ve seen the film and are aware of the nods to Horror cinema’s past then you’ll probably just read thru this and say, “yup, I knew that.” but then I guess you’re not my intended audience. I’m hoping to convince those who maybe haven’t seen the film or are perhaps unaware of all the little tributes to either watch it for the first time or revisit it with these bits of trivia to perhaps enjoy the film even more than the first viewing.

Plot…. a newswoman is almost murdered by a supposed serial killer and can’t quite shake the image of what her mind has shut out. It’s haunting her and a well known psychiatrist suggests she visit a retreat with her husband to get back to nature and get well. It’s here they’ll meet a variety of people. Many of whom don’t seem quite right. I’ll leave the rest to you but let’s have a look at some of our cast, quotes, hidden meanings in character names and other pieces of trivia.

Dee Wallace as Karen White. “A secret society exists, and is living among all of us. They are neither people nor animals, but something in-between.”

Patrick Macnee as Dr. George Waggner. “We should never try to deny the beast – the animal within us.” Did you know 41’s Wolf Man was directed by a Mr. George Waggner? Say isn’t that a nice portrait of Lon Chaney/Lawrence Talbot in the good Doctor’s office?

Christopher Stone as R. William Neill. “Honey, you’re from Los Angeles. The wildest thing you’ve ever heard is Wolfman Jack. This is the country.” I believe there was a director named Roy William Neill who not only directed 11 of the Rathbone/Holmes films but also helmed the titanic clash of 1943, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.

Dennis Dugan and Belinda Balaski as Chris and Terry Fisher. Here’s a lovely couple of newshounds tracking the story who find themselves watching Lon, Claude and Maria on the late late show that only heightens their sense of werewolves and might they be real? “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” Oh and any respectable Hammer Fan knows that Terry Fisher is a reference to Terence Fisher who directed the studios most famous horrors including 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf.

Kevin McCarthy as Fred Francis. Genre favorite McCarthy was in a number of Dante films including Innerspace and also Looney Tunes with a nostalgic nod to his leading role in the Sci-Fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Fred Francis? Must be referring to director Freddie Francis who not only directed a number of Amicus and Hammer thrillers but also the Peter Cushing thriller Legend of the Werewolf for Tyburn Films.

And then there’s the legendary John Carradine brightening the screen as Erle Kenton. “You can’t tame what’s meant to be wild, doc. It just ain’t natural.” Real life director Erle C. Kenton directed the fan favorites The House of Frankenstein in 1944 and The House of Dracula in 1945. Both featured Lon Chaney as The Wolf Man and a much younger John Carradine himself as Count Dracula.

Good old boy and all around fan favorite, Slim Pickens, plays Sheriff Sam Newfield. Turns out there was a director back in the 40’s working the B circuit who helmed 1942’s cult favorite, The Monster Maker, that had Glenn Strange running amok in werewolf like make-up.

Also on hand are actors Noble Willingham (“Humans *are* our cattle.”) and James Murtaugh (“Silver bullets my ass!”). The pair are playing Charlie Barton and Jerry Warren. You guessed right if you said those two names were borrowed from old time directors. Charles Barton directed the granddaddy of horror-comedies, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein which of course had dear Lon as the Wolf Man while Jerry Warren unleashed the monstrosity, Face of the Screaming Werewolf, on the drive-in crowds of 1964.

A Joe Dante movie means a Dick Miller appearance. Here he guests as a cynical bookshop owner. “Silver bullets or fire, that’s the only way to get rid of the damn things. They’re worse than cock-a-roaches.”

A keen eye will spot the legendary Roger Corman making a brief appearance, John Sayles as a morgue attendant and Famous Monsters of Filmland legend, Forest J. Ackerman, shopping in Miller’s bookstore and probably others I’ve missed so please do tell.

Even Kenneth Tobey gets a cameo of sorts at the start of the film as an aging cop on the beat. You’ll probably remember him best for his appearance in 1951’s The Thing.

Now let’s put all our cards on the table. You can bet that when I saw this with a bunch of 14 year old’s, all eyes were squarely focused on Elisabeth Brooks as Marsha the sexy she wolf. Some things never change either….. She never says much but she’s a sexy temptress throughout and when asked how she prefers her hamburger she slyly answers, “Rare.”

It’s no secret that another werewolf movie came out the same year as this one did to greater applause (no not Wolfen) but if given the choice, the nostalgia of this one mixed with the cast and the story line make this my preferred werewolf movie of 1981. Time has been relatively kind to the F/X of this and I’ll still take them any day over the world of CGI (don’t even go there) though I do wish in hind sight they had opted not to use some brief animated bits.

BUT, one things for sure. There is no doubt of those three werewolf movies in release during the year of ’81, The Howling, had the best kick ass movie poster to accompany it. On the flip side, let’s no discuss that sequel that followed. Sorry, Sir Christopher.

7 Comments »

  1. YouTube’s Horror Film Community (and I’ve heard Horror fans in general feel this way) tend to be divided on this and An American Werewolf in London as the best modern Werewolf film ever made. The consensus seems to be that The Howling had some dang good special effects, but a key scene was a let down. Having only ever seen Lon Chaney Jr.’s Werewolf and seeing clips of Paul Naschy’s El Hombre Lobo, I can’t really give any type of opinion and comment.

    • The Howling has a couple of animated segments I wish did not exist and it went a bit soft for the finale but it’s one of those films I saw at just the right age to become a life long fan.

  2. Very thorough job of finding all the connections. I had been aware of some but not that many. It is a great film, one of Dante’s best and a fitting homage to the old Universal catalog.

    • It’s a fun one and I for one get so much more out of a film when catching all the nods and tributes to the past that a director has added in. Honestly that’s why I believe I get so much more out of a Tarantino film than a vast majority of those sitting around me in a darkened theater. But that’s partly my know it all arrogance. LOL.

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