1981 was a great year for werewolf movies. In fact, you could say that it was the best year for werewolf movies. An American Werewolf In London is one of my favourite movies of all time, and my favourite werewolf movie, but The Howling gives it a good run for its money, thanks to a witty script, the usual solid direction from Joe Dante, and some fantastic special effects.
The story concerns a newswoman named Karen White (Dee Wallace) who has been contacted by a serial killer. The police want Karen to make contact with the killer, which she does, but nobody could envision just how things would turn out, and how badly shaken Karen would be. In need of some rest and relaxation, Karen and her husband (played by Christopher Stone) are encouraged to visit a colony run by Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee). Meanwhile, Terry (Belinda Balaski) and Chris (Dennis Dugan), two of Karen’s colleagues at the TV station, are looking to find out more about the serial killer. They start to find more and more little details that point towards something very dark and disturbing indeed. It’s not too long until they also start to wonder about a form of lycanthropy.
Based on the novel by Gary Brandner, The Howling has a cracking script, by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, that allows the characters to uncover the full situation in a way that isn’t entirely unbelievable. It also has a solid cast and, as it’s from director Joe Dante, a couple of great cameos. Keep your eyes peeled for Roger Corman and Forrest J. Ackerman. Rob Bottin is responsible for the brilliant special effects, although he did get some hints and tips from Rick Baker (who was originally signed on to do the work until he left for, yep, An American Werewolf In London).
Wallace is very good in the lead role, easy to like and believably shaken by an ordeal that affects her throughout the entire movie. Stone is given a role that’s a bit more difficult, but his onscreen work is also very good, and Macnee, Balaski and Dugan all get to have at least one or two great moments. The cast also includes Robert Picardo, in a small but very memorable role, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine and Slim Pickens, among others. Oh, and then there is Elisabeth Brooks, who is quite the scene-stealer in the role of Marsha, thanks to her earthy and unabashed sexual confidence.
Every horror fan has to have an outright favourite from the 1981 werewolf movies, it’s like having to decide whether you’re a Beatles or Stones guy. I’ll never waver in my adoration for An American Werewolf In London, but this is a movie that I consider equally essential viewing for horror, and especially werewolf, fans. Who knows, you might even think that it’s the better film of the two. Many people do.
DIRECTOR: JOE DANTE
WRITER: JOHN SAYLES, TERENCE H. WINKLESS (BASED ON THE NOVEL BY GARY BRANDNER)
STARS: DEE WALLACE, PATRICK MACNEE, DENNIS DUGAN, CHRISTOPHER STONE, BELINDA BALASKI, ROBERT PICARDO, KEVIN MCCARTHY, JOHN CARRADINE, SLIM PICKENS, ELISABETH BROOKS
RUNTIME: 91 MINS APPROX