Tuesday, October 8, 2013

THE HOWLING (1981)

SYNOPSIS: A TV anchorwoman (Dee Wallace Stone) agrees to meet a serial killer in hopes of getting a great story, but things go terribly awry and she suffers apparent situational amnesia and PTSD.  A psychiatrist who serves as an expert on news programs (Patrick Macnee) treats her and recommends a stay at his private "colony".  She and her husband (Christopher Stone) discover an array of weirdos, who end up being even more weird and lupine than initially expected.

WHAT WORKED:
The acting is consistently solid and Dee Wallace is especially enjoyable.  She maintains this stunned, dreamy look after the whole serial killer/lycanthrope/porno booth affair and looks and sounds almost infantilized.  But, as the film goes on, she clearly gets stronger and the character has some dynamic change happening.  I dug a lot of the supporting cast, too, like Kevin McCarthy as news director Fred Francis (get it like Freddie Francis the famous director) and the always-reliable Dick Miller as an occult bookseller.


The effects are great.  People act like you can't like HOWLING and AMERICAN WEREWOLF or that you must choose sides in the FX civil war, but the world has room for both.  While nothing here breaks ground to the extent that Rick Baker's makeup for AWIL did, most of it looks superb, especially the fully transformed werewolves.

DON'T TOUCH THEM, I HAVE A SYSTEM

THE HOWLING has cameos and nods to other horror aplenty, and some of them really work well.  Comedy gets ginned into a lot of these scenes and, again, sometimes it really works.  The Forrest Ackerman cameo is well done, but nothing tops the inclusion of Grandma from TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  Let's believe that she was purchased at one of those police-evidence sales because Dick Miller's character couldn't afford to buy the car he really wanted.


Some of the film's major themes are still relevant, especially its concern with violence as an essential component of media.  If anything, spectacle has gone far beyond HOWLING's occasional reach for ratings to become the main ingredient in most of your mainstream/lamestream media.


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
On the other hand, THE HOWLING is very much a film of its era and a lot of the time it devotes to exploring/mocking the psychoanalysis mania of the 80s and its myriad of primitive-within/Apollonian/Dionysian drives is going to be wasted on younger viewers who weren't lucky enough to live through all that.  Modern pop-psych is dumber still, but more vapid and more about dressing up sentimental niceties in the language of bravery and choice.  I don't have any screenshots that go with this paragraph, so here's a werewolf having an orgasm.


This is the yin-yangiest film ever.  Since above we said that some of the cameos and nods were enjoyable and that they were played for laughs a lot of the time, we now must admit that the fucking unrelenting stream of werewolf visual jokes gets old as hell.  Three Little Pigs cartoons, Wolf brand chili, Alan Ginsberg's Howl, Old Man Werewolf brand whiskey that you can keep next to your open flask of hydrobromic acid.  I am a pretty tolerant viewer, but at times I wanted to shake director Joe Dante and say, "Enough!"  The surfeit of comedy in this doesn't really gel as well as it would in GREMLINS or his later work.  It's more obvious and jarring and kind of fucks up the film's mood at times.  And the film already has pacing issues in the first half, it doesn't really need additional handicaps.


YANG/COUNTERPOINT: the practical effects look great, mostly, but there are some pretty ughly animation shots that we could've lived without.


So yeah, THE HOWLING.  I'm pretty sure it's the first horror film I ever saw (I was four or so) and my critical appraisal of it has dropped a bit since then.  Lots of fun, but brimming with not-so-greatness.  I strongly suspect that this is the series that will make me question this whole project this go-round.

RATING: 7

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