Joe Dante specializes in sly entertainment that has always veered more toward comedy than any particular genre. His pictures are informed either by a constant flow of references to old movies, or purposely meant to revive the flavor of old Looney Tunes cartoons, especially those of Chuck Jones. A science-fiction and horror buff who was writing serious criticism of genre films for Castle of Frankenstein magazine way before it became a fan pasttime, Dante understood fantastic films from the inside out. This talent made his early New World pictures special, even when they lacked production values beyond a skewed point of view. Hollywood Boulevard may have had a Wet T Shirt scene, but it captured perfectly the peculiar crassness of 70s exploitation. Piranha couldn't afford special effects, but made up for it with a witty script that understood the dynamics of monster movies.
The Howling updates the werewolf genre to the 80s, hiding its coven of communal shape-shifters (a new but credible idea - don't wolves hunt in packs?) in a trendy mental health retreat that resembles an Est-style self-realization fad. Dee Wallace is excellent as the traumatized heroine, just before her memorable role in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Bamboozled by the cunning Dr. Waggner, Wallace is confused just enough to allow herself and her husband to accept the weird goings-on at Waggner's werewolf-retreat-in-the-redwoods.
The main monster character here is Eddie Quist, played as a slathering maniac by the talented chameleon Robert Picardo, who went on to appear in almost every subsequent Joe Dante movie. Even before the great special effects kick in, Picardo makes Quist a convincingly scary serial killer. Although part of the effect is done with a false head model, the moment when Quist plays with Karen White before digging a bullet out of his own forehead, is a horror highlight.
The makeup effects are a sensation. Rob Bottin came into his own here. Quist's werewolf changes shape before our eyes, with his hands stretching into claws and his mouth growing into a fanged muzzle. The beautifully directed scene spends more than a minute watching the transformation, yet is still scary; unlike earlier 'hairy dog' werewolves, this critter is a seven-foot, broad-shouldered bruiser with slashing claws. It doesn't bite, it rips victims to bits.
Some cel animation and even a bit of stop-motion from Dave Allen augment the live-action makeup effects, but they don't work nearly as well. Several elaborate stop-motion shots were made, but not used, a recurring event with genre films around this time. 1
The Howling gets an added boost from budding screenwriter John Sayles, who had written Piranha and had also just begun his own filmmaking career. One of the prerequisites of a good scare picture is to establish a tone that works; too many horror films take themselves too seriously to be enjoyable. Dante and Sayles worked for a fairly serious tone that allowed a steady flow of satirical inside jokes. In The Howling they function as the 'comedy relief', allowing the core monster and mayhem content to retain its nervous, dangerous edge.
The film has Joe Dante's bloodiest violence by far, opening with a jarring scene in a Western Avenue peep show. He'd soon veer away from this into lighter fantasy, but it's notable that one reason Dante outclassed the often more marketable John Carpenter, was by virtue of having something more to sell than violence and an attitude.
Dante shares with Carpenter a tendency to allude to past movie culture. New film-school directors of the 70s were always being put down for making movies based on movies instead of any association to real life, but Dante's ability to blend this material with comedy made it a functioning part of his style.
The in-jokes come fast and furious, starting with many of the characters being named after directors who made werewolf movies (hey, where's Fred F. Sears?). 2 Dante, Sayles and co-writer Terence Winkless pepper the story with wolf references from cartoons, songs, book titles, anything. A trip to the bookstore finds us in the company of Forrest J. Ackerman and Dante actor-mascot Dick Miller. Actress Elisabeth Brooks is a Barbara Steele surrogate, dark and sinister, with a 'hungry like the wolf' look around her eyes. Besides a general round-up of his favorite character actors (Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Kenneth Tobey), Dante borrows the entire William Castle telephone gag from Rosemary's Baby, this time with his career-launcher Roger Corman loitering outside the booth.
Horror films had gone completely gore-crazy by 1980, and although he didn't stay in the genre very long, Joe Dante made a commercial hit that succeeded as a shocker while being acceptable for general audiences. Horror fans loved the clever genre ribbing - a closet werewolf smilingly ordering her meat 'very rare' at a lunch counter, for instance. And Dante captures one classic chill worthy of inclusion in any compendium of great horror moments, when Belinda Belaski is rifling through a file cabinet. Without her seeing it, a giant hairy claw reaches calmly in to help her hold a file folder. The Zing that went through theater audiences at that moment is a genuine classic frisson.
MGM's Special Edition DVD of The Howling has been given a Class-A transfer and audio makeover, and never looked better on video. The enhanced image has greatly reduced grain in night scenes, and the misty California woods are free of digital smearing, etc.
Everyone will be pleased to know that the second side of the flipper disc duplicates most of the goodies from the ten-year-old special edition laser disc, with the added bonus of a thorough docu produced by Jeffrey Schwarz that's waited over a year to see the light of DVD. It's a great hour-long show that had to be divided into 5 parts, with most of the principal talents enjoying themselves remembering the film. Schwarz even got the cooperation of Dick Miller for this one. Robert Picardo has fun mimicking Joe Dante's voice, too.
Joe Dante's commentaries are always pleasant experiences. This one is a laser disc repeat that gathers Dante, Dee Wallace, Robert Picardo and the late Christopher Stone for a delightfully funny get-together. The laser disc had featured a special section devoted to the unused stop-motion. The late animator Dave Allen spoke at length rather bitterly about the experience. The footage and a shot of Allen have been excerpted for the new docu, a good idea. I knew the talented Allen tangentially, and the old interview did not represent him well.
Also included is an original featurette by Mick Garris which gives us the opportunity of comparing how Dante and his co-workers look then and now. The deleted scenes are numerous and demonstrate Dante's film-smarts in eliminating unnecessary material, and the outtakes are a very funny collection of moments that Dante probably cut together for a wrap party.
The only big 'huh?' with this disc is the packaging. We have to slide off a very tight (but nicely embossed) outer sleeve, only to discover that the Keep Case inside has the exact same content printed on it. As the sleeve isn't cheap, MGM marketers must think it will distinguish the disc on store shelves.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Howling rates:
1. John Carpenter's
The Thing also commissioned complicated stop-motion effects, only to excise them at the last
minute. The young
film-fan directors were all Harryhausen fans, but found that stop-motion is its own aesthetic and
didn't always blend well with other styles. Dave Allen's unused werewolves looked better
than the bad cel-animation of two wolves making love by a campfire, however.
2. Aha, the answer to where Sears' name shows up, is in the deleted scenes!