Ever since I caught Piranha, I’ve been meaning to catch director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles’ subsequent team-up, THE HOWLING (1981). I would have done it sooner but my DVD proved unwatchable so I had to order a Blu-Ray replacement.
Much as I remembered, it has the same running gag of making pop culture references to the monster (clips of The Wolf Man on TV) though some of them are more punning here (someone reading a Tom Wolfe book, for instance). The film opens with reporter Karen (Dee Wallace Stone) going to a meet with serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo — at that time known as a serious stage actor). In the moments between meeting him and the cops killing him, she sees something that traumatizes her so much she can’t even remember it. Psychiatrist Patrick Macnee convinces her to recuperate with her husband (Christopher Stone, her then husband — a fact she omitted when recommending him to Dante for the role) at Macnee’s back-to-nature therapy retreat, the Colony. Everyone besides the aggressively sexual Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) seems so nice and normal, just the place for Karen to get herself back to normality right?
It’s not at all obvious it’s a werewolf film at first (I can’t remember if I knew going in or not). When it finally comes, they’re memorable: rather than simply a man in heavy monster makeup, they’re towering brutes eight feet tall with hulking, massive jaws that can obviously rip you limb from limb. I think they’ve defined the movie werewolf look ever since, as well as the idea of werewolves in packs rather than isolated predators. The pre-CGI transformation on camera is impressive and was groundbreaking at the time — I don’t know if it would have the same impact on anyone seeing it for the first time now. But the film itself is really well done, with a solid cast that also includes Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Dick Miller as an occult bookstore owner (as Bell, Book and Camera says of such characters, he provides the same supernatural advice an old crone in the hills would have given 40 years earlier) and Forrest J. Ackerman and Roger Corman in cameos. The Blu-Ray is packed with special features about the making of the film, if you’re interested (I was). “Take it, bright boy — don’t you know anything?”
As the special features cited HOWLING IV: The Original Nightmare (1988) as the most faithful adaptation of Gary Brandner’s source novel, I rewatched it, even knowing that in a reverse of the Star Trek films, the even numbered Howlings suck. And yep, the story of best-selling Romy Windsor recovering from her stress-induced breakdown (we writers are prone to those, you see) in a quiet rural town, only to be haunted by visions of a ghostly nun and the sound of wolves in the distance is a complete failure: dull, with mediocre acting and uninteresting werewolves visually. From the online synopses of the novel, it’s not even that faithful. “She was screaming about the sound of bells — and the howling.”
I also watched HOWLING VI: The Freaks (1991) under the impression I hadn’t seen it before, but I believe I have (the only thing I remember is the final battle). A drifter in a Southern town makes the mistake of not tracking the lunar calender; after he turns wolf, a traveling carnie owner captures him as a sideshow exhibit. Which isn’t entirely bad news for the protagonist, as the carnie is a monstrous fiend (no explanation exactly what, though it looks like some sort of demon) who killed his family and cursed him with lycanthropy. Now for the reckoning! Like a number of other horror franchises, it’s not really tied to the earlier films, just a werewolf film borrowing the branding.
Howling VI suffers fatally from its low budget. As you can see above, the werewolf looks like a hairy guy with weird eye makeup; the freaks in the sideshow are likewise too mundane for a supernatural owner. A decent budget might have helped … but probably not enough to make it good. “I know the truth when I see it — what we saw was not God’s creation?”
While HOWLING VII seems impossible to find (operating at the lowest of low budgets, it recycled footage from the previous films to save cash), I should have the eighth film arriving from Netflix soon.
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