The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)

Though a classic of the horror genre, I think The Howling is fundamentally flawed. The build-up is strong; it is rooted in urban anxieties, and the effects of trauma on the individual. Karen White is a reporter who has a close encounter with a serial killer that leaves her unable to carry on with her personal and professional life. Her psychiatrist recommends she spend the weekend at his “colony” an isolated community up in the mountains, so that she can overcome her fears.

As soon as Karen goes to the colony and other reporters seem to reveal that something less than human may be involved, the plot begins to crumble. The supporting characters are largely uninteresting, and this really drags the film down. Unlike many great horrors where the atmosphere of the film is largely defined by the cast of characters that surround the protagonist, this one is cheapened by how absurd and uninteresting they are.

Another fatal horror error is that the film betrays the idea of “less is more”. As impressive as some of the effects happen to be, on a whole, the focus on monster design drags the film down. The film could have done well to take a page out of other anamorphic horror films like Cat People, where nothing is really revealed. The long and medium shots of the werewolves, especially in motion, are laughably bad. Even technically successful shots, like the transformations, inevitably drag down the plot. They are overdrawn, and simply eliminate any sense of tension or suspense. The latter half of the film is destroyed by these interruptions that ruin the pace of the film.

The film’s final act, as Karen confronts the werewolves head on, should be a veiled metaphor for her emotional and psychological struggle. Though the story is somewhat overblown, the scarring event is reminiscent of very real sexual attacks and abuse. Not only in the setting, the mood but the effects it has on Karen. The film’s final act is simply not emotionally charged enough, and neither does it deal with the right kind of imagery or intensity. The film just seems afraid to really commit itself to the psychology of its horror, and its apparent commercial aspirations inevitably neuter any potential it may have had. This is simply a bland film.

20 responses to “The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)

  1. Well Rouge, I agree and disagree with you.
    The movie is flawed, no doubt, and in most of the ways you describe.
    Unquestionably, it loses focus in the second half of the film, and suffers, as you have suggested from a lack of character development in the peripherals.
    The movie had the potential to be absolutely riveting and a classic, but just seems to come unwound, which makes the rebounding final scene almost seem like it’s from a different movie. Which brings me to the point of “who’s idea was it to turn Dee Wallace into a Lhasa Apso?” A bit anticlimactic. For her to become what she feared and propagate that terror would have, obviously, been more effective than a transformation into a creature as likely to be adopted as a family pet.
    However, the transformation scenes and particularly the scene done with shadows in the cabin, will remain among the classics and truly best of the Werewolf subgenre forever, IMO, and will always keep this movie recirculating through my Halloween viewing every few years.

  2. In terms of appreciating films on a purely formal or artistic level, I have to admit, that special effects even ones as good as they are here just don’t interest me enough to allow me to rewatch a film. As mentioned, I find them so completely overdrawn in the first place, that even my appreciation for them technically is diminished by the fact that contextually I think they are detrimental to the film’s story and pacing.

  3. I haven’t seen this in a *long* time, and when I last did (the only time I’ve seen it as an adult) I was self-consciously thinking, ‘wow, it’s been a *long* time since I’ve seen this’ because I had seen (parts of?) it as a kid– maybe once on broadcast television, and then on video or cable but not, I think, the whole from start to finish.

    I admit to having very pleasing memories of that last viewing; the opening sequence was sort of DePalmaesque (I’m not saying Dante was up to DePalma’s game frame-for-frame, but you’ll know what I mean). Then the woodlands retreat seemed exciting and moody– isn’t there a very protracted chase with a ‘maiden’ fleeing through the glens or something?; and the swipes at group therapy, or am I starting to dream up a non-existent movie? And of course the “call it a gift” scene– what a snarky werewolf! And that badwolf porno chick, and flash forward to the frantic broadcast, and “Rare”– what a strange shiftless collage of memories!

    So at first I was skeptical about your disappointment, but now I’m not so sure of myself . . . but now my hairy skin is crawling with the itch to see it again?

    But I’m sure you’re right about the overzealous transformation scenes of 80s Hollywood horror; like American Werewolf in London or Fright Night, they were hogwild to make bodies sprout hair and fangs and whatnot . . . rather a deadend, we’ll agree!

  4. I was actually thinking De Palma when I was watching it last night, so yes, I understand exactly what you’re saying.

    No, that’s the same movie, but I don’t think I’d describe them as exciting or moody. I think all the interesting visual touches from the opening are gone though… well mostly, I liked the excessive use of smoke.

    They take so long 😦 Impressive, but they go on forever. I haven’t seen Fright Night and haven’t seen American Werewolf in it’s entirety since I was like five.

  5. American Werewolf holds up startlingly well. We watched it as a group, after TCM, this Halloween and everyone agreed it was probably the best werewolf movie ever made, including Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolfman (soon to be deflowered by yet another Hollywood remake).
    The transformation and werewolf scenes are simply transcendent, and do nothing but enhance the film. They are the best special effects possibly ever laid to film, and make modern CGI seem not only soulless, but actually technically inferior.
    Anyone who doesn’t like Fright Night is lost, as far as I’m concerned. It is a gem.

  6. I don’t like The Wolfman. I don’t think I like were-wolve films, except Ginger Snaps, which has a very progressive transformation, and no real transformation scene. The monster design is pretty terrible frankly.

  7. When I was little a cousin “told” me the story of AAWiL; and, years later, I would enact some of the buddy dialogue for the entertainment of said cousin’s little brother. Yelling “DA–VID!!!” became a bit of a running “in-joke.”

    Technically it is one of Landis’ most impressive efforts, and some of the banter is very amusing; but I do think it falls apart towards the end.

    It’s another template for the 80s horror-comedy trend, which seems ubiquitous in the Hollywood horror efforts of that decade and makes them (sorry to say) rather limited when competing against the sublime efforts of Argento, or “The Shining”.

    But it has its moody moments, and Fright Night is very entertaining (and Chris Sarandon smarmily awesome). I can’t remember much of the vamping of the hero’s girlfriend, but it might have some “sexy” flourishes. In any event, “Din-ner’s in the oven!!!”

    [that last quote is not some kind of sexual reference, lest it leave any troubling notions!]

  8. Yeah, you just don’t like werewolf movies.
    I think the monster design works very well in Ginger Snaps. There is something kind of grotesque about it, which is synergistic thematically with the transformation Ginger undergoes as a human being. As she loses her moral center and becomes more and more self-possessed, as well as down right cruel, we see more of the monster she has become and finally in the end when we see her in most of her glory, she is hideous and kind of pitiful in a dangerous way.
    I thought it was a pretty good touch, especially on the budget they must have had.

    The problem with werewolf movies, of course, is that very, VERY few good ones have ever been made.

  9. Absolutely, Wooley! If the sparagmos of the opening killings in Suspiria– or penetrating the flooded ballroom in Inferno– or even sleepwalking the bluedescent groves of the Richard Wagner School for Girls– if these are not instances of the Sublime, what in cinema could be?

  10. Hmmm.
    I’ll grant you that a lot of Argento’s imagery and lighting is pretty powerful stuff, but the man has never made a coherent movie in his life. The closest he’s come is probably Suspiria (even The Bird With The Crystal Plumage kind of falls on its face), but even that cannot make up for Inferno (which is pretty to look at, but actually a pretty bad film) and Mother of Tears (which is literally at the “after-school-special with tits” level of quality.
    A good filmmaker, Argento is not.

  11. Argento is possibly the greatest horror director. Why should filmmaking, especially horror, be coherent? His films channel the logic of dreams and nightmares. What about films like the Big Sleep? They make even less narrative sense than Argento’s, and they are even working within the classic Hollywood framework. Not all cinema is dominated by coherency and narrative, mood, spirituality and atmosphere is simply another means of conveying ideas and suggestion and few filmmakers succeed as brilliantly as Argento within and beyond the horror genre.

  12. I will not even argue this with you.
    I don’t discount your opinion in any way, but we are so far apart on this subject, we could not possibly ever find common ground, and I don’t believe in argument for argument sake. Let me merely express my opinion, I will not try to convince you of anything, and then I will mosey on.
    Argento probably should never have moved beyond cinematographer. He has absolutely no ability whatsoever to bring a film together in any way. He shoots well, and has some great ideas for stories, but the things that are necessary to combine the two into something that someone should watch for anything other than an exercise in setting mood seem to completely and utterly elude him. He is completely devoid of the ability to make a film.
    And this is from a former fan who simply ran out of patience, wondering, “when, oh when, am I going to see an actual film from this man, rather than a pastiche of beautiful shot moments strung together until he ran out of ideas.
    He is not in the top 20, possibly even 50 of horror directors, IMO, because part of being a director is not merely to pait pretty pictures, but to actually produce a complete film at some point in your career.

  13. Well, I won’t persuade you either Wooley, but let me “testify”, as an Argento evangelist, and second what PhilosopheR/mapeel says above, and add a few comments.

    Lest I seem devoid of Apollonian or Classicist instincts, I can assure you that, as a devout fan of Pope, Haydn, Mozart, David, Jane Austen et. al. I perfectly understand the aesthetic drive towards balance, coherence, and logically harmonious construction in a work of art.

    Nor in fact, despite my earlier reference to the Sublime, do I necessarily adhere to Burke’s distinction between the Sublime and the Beautiful, which has always struck me as a bit *too* facile for comfort. Surely these antipodes can coexist perfectly, as say in Raphael’s Tranfiguration, Brahms’ First (or other) Symphonies or, for that matter, Haydn’s Trauer, Mozart’s G minor, Paradise Lost– you get the point.

    Of course you’re free to simply not *like* Argento at all but: I can’t help but think you’re falling under the spell of the old “a film director dies and becomes a photographer” formula, which has been used to sock many a filmmaker from Von Sternberg to Kubrick.

    I dismiss this formula, as I think it does little but try to confine film to the role of a kind of Cliffnotes reduced version of novel-writing, instead of allowing them to blossom as ‘moving pictures’. To me, works like The Scarlet Empress, Death in Venice, Barry Lyndon, Vertigo are not simply great cinema, but cinema at the purest expression of itself.

    And I fully endorse Justine’s emphasis on dream-coherence in Argento. I think Suspiria is propelled by a ruthless forward-moving logic, as is Tenebre. Inferno and Phenomena are clearly more “diffuse” in a certain sense, yet I find in them, again, perfect aesthetic coherency.

    And I really do think Inferno is a peak achievement. I’m always raving about it, yet I’m not sure I’ve ever paid it perfect justice. It has been, quite simply, one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received as a film viewer–as if it were pulled intact from some deeper, dreamier, better recess of my own mind that I could never access on my own.

    As to rival horror directors: I grant you, Romero or Hitchcock or DePalma might less overtly traffic in pure dream-logic, but I think you’d have to start scraping the barrel to propose dozens of ‘better’ horror-makers than Argento. It’s not like Fulci makes a lot of ‘sense’ either! Would you *really* rather watch Lewis Teague than submit yourself to Suspiria again?

  14. Hee hee.
    Perhaps I should have chosen my word my carefully, in that, apparently incoherent can be interpreted in a positive way.
    I should have used the phrase “completely without the ABILITY (as opposed to the INTENT) to compose a third act that does not make the audience laugh at the writer, who just happens to also be the director.”
    Yes, I think that is better.
    Some of the films to which you compare Argento’s work are favorites of mine as well, and Kubrick, the director you particularly name, is likely among the 10 greatest in my mind. Another would be Federico Fellini, whose time spent in dream-logic as well as pure and simple fantasy is well-documented. The difference is that if Kubrick or Fellini chose not to present a “clear” narrative, it was a choice. Argento is simply incapable.
    Inferno, in particular, tested my patience with a filmmaker I once thought would be among my favorites. Mother of Tears of course, killed it, burned it, buried the ashes, and pissed on the grave-site. Not even a die-hard Argento fan could possibly excuse that embarrassment.
    But Inferno is an attractive, alluring, and even exciting film for most of its running time, and then genuinely appears to have run out of script before a climax occurred. The “climax”, if you will, is a rushed few minutes of nonsense followed by an hilarious, and extraordinarily brief and anticlimactic, encounter with the Mother of Shadows in which she shows herself and then apparently dies for no reason without so much as kicking the hero in the nuts. And then the movie is simply over.
    Compare this to the powerful ways in which Kubrick has ended films like 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut, and we cannot seriously be talking about filmmakers who coexist in the same dimension.
    And Brahms would not have approved.

  15. Mahler would approve, I’m sure.

    I only meant Kubrick as an(other) instance of ‘pure cinema’. To be sure, Kubrick labored over his narrative arcs intensively; though the climaxes of 2001 or The Shining might defy rational analysis, they have been clearly *led to*, in a meaningful sense.

    Granted, Wooley,you do not share mine or Justine’s sensibility on this subject. Still,I cannot quite get clear about what it is you want Argento to give you by way of a final act, esp. since you confess some admiration for at least a stretch of Inferno’s running time. A lot depends, I suppose, upon where you really start to fray your nerves–[SPOILER ALERT!: Justine, if you haven’t seen Inferno yet, please don’t look!] —

    with Irene Miracle’s departure, or the cats, or the rats, or once Mark has finally penetrated the witch’s lair (which you express keen displeasure with!). If you endured the film past any of those earlier markers, then I’m afraid I must say I really can’t make hide nor hair [hare??] of your stance. Inferno doesn’t spare the viewer from what Reason must label ‘nonsense’ for very long!!

    Well, when a witch’s house burns perhaps she loses all interest (or power?) to do anything but mope dramatically and make a sort of theatrical presentation on the nature of death. It’s gloriously irrational, theatrical, stylized, ‘cheap’ and, I think, quite wonderful. The final show of the house’s endless corridors, between-the-floors trap spaces, et al. are to me perfectly rapturous.

    I really can’t see that the final 20 mins. of Suspiria or Inferno make any less sense than their first 20 mins. A witch is trying to kill you, you go and try to kill the witch, Q.E.D. What could be more sensible?

    As for Mother of Tears: though an entirely *lesser* order of achievement, I might as well confirm that I’m already on the record as rather liking it!

  16. Well, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to come off as attacking your personal taste with my bashing of MoT. I think they lost me at the spirit of her dead mother floating around in a haze of light leading her away from danger when every other possible way for her to escape was gone.
    The problem in his movies is not that they have a dream-like quality that defies narrative, it’s actually that they have a straight-forawrd narrative (in the four films I’ve seen), surrounded by dream-like lighting and photography, that always seems to simply fall apart before it ends. His stories are pretty linear, really, it’s just that the lines tend to be smudged before they abruptly end.
    Look, I think Argento is someone who has a certain artistry and I think the 3 sisters trilogy has a fantastic concept. I just think it needed better scripts (although I’m not sure Argento knows what those are… Sorry, I’m trying to behave, but I struggle when I talk about him), and a director with some narrative sense to convey it.
    He is someone I would love to have as a CO-writer, cinematographer, and designer, but if I were a producer, I couldn’t let him make movies independently.
    That’s just my .02.

  17. It didn’t come across that way at all, Wooley! Mother of Tears is not a film I claim as any touchstone of my (let alone “good”) taste; your mockery of it is perfectly acceptable, and kind of wholesome really. I did enjoy the film, but it’s a very different sort of thing than its predecessors.

    I don’t want to flog this beyond anyone’s endurance, though I’ve enjoyed this exchange exceedingly. We seem to meet on the ground that there is, at least, some sort of narrative component to be found– but I for one would insist upon the dream-like attributes being essential to those narratives (bloody fairytales that they are– or else blood-soaked fables in the giallo genre) and not only trappings. Inferno would be less placeable, even for a moment of its running time, in our lived-in world than, say, “Lost Highway”.

    I suppose I would urge Tenebrae, if you haven’t seen it, as an Argento that I would be optimistic could surmount your quibbles about the failed 3rd acts (assuming they can be broken in 3s?: but I’ll use the ‘3rd act’ proverbially) in his ouevre. “When you have eliminated the impossible . . .” –for me, that deathtrap of a movie is like a jigsaw puzzle that eats itself alive like a galaxy passing beyond the event horizon of a black hole. But perhaps you have seen it already! in which case I will only politely urge that perhaps, on some future screening, these works might please you better.

  18. I had sworn off Argento forever after MoT, but after this healthy discussion, I think I will take your advice and give Tenebre a try.
    Is it horror or giallo, because I am technically sworn off horror until September 25th (although I did make the mistake one night of watching MIRRORS on cable. Ugghhhh… it is to shudder.)?

  19. Glad to hear it, Wooley! . . . as to genre, one could certainly pitch Tenebre as giallo, but then I would greatly hesitate to *deny* that it’s a horror film.

    You’ll know best how to honor your committments (and I do find sometimes that swearing off some class of things, though painful, can facilitate the absorption of others). Perhaps a period of anticipation will work better in the film’s favor, and heaven knows I often feel like hitting the pause button on everything till autumn re-rears its fleeting head (how does one do *anything* when it’s not September?). Anyway, I hope it can prove interesting for you.

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