The Howling: A Classic Update of Golden Age Horror

From Twilight to True Blood, vampires enjoyed a brief renaissance several years ago. Zombies shuffled back into public consciousness in the early 2000’s and have refused to die. In spite of a long horror legacy, werewolves haven’t enjoyed the same career resurgence. But back in the early 1980’s, the werewolf was as big as it had been since Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolf Man. To date, An American Werewolf in London remains the best werewolf movie of all time. It’s closely followed by Joe Dante’s brilliant, The Howling. Released several months before An American Werewolf in London, The Howling is a smart mix of horror and satire.

The Howling Still a Visually Impressive Monster Movie

When Universal Pictures released The Wolf Man in 1941, it featured more of Jack Pierce’s visionary make-up effects. Of course, Pierce was responsible for the appearances of several classic Universal Monsters. Not surprisingly then, Pierce’s ‘wolf man’ design instantly became iconic, a lasting pop culture image. For 40 years, The Wolf Man was the standard-bearer for cinematic werewolves. Then in 1981, special effect artists Rick Baker and Rob Bottin revolutionized the werewolf design and transformation scene. Though An American Werewolf London often overshadows The Howling, Bottin’s contribution can’t be overstated.

…Bottin’s approach to the werewolf design and transformation marked a significant departure for audiences.

Like An American Werewolf in London, The Howling deftly balances humor and horror. But make no mistake about it, Joe Dante’s werewolf movie doesn’t compromise on the horror. Bottin’s approach to the werewolf design and transformation marked a significant departure for audiences. Less man, more wolf, Bottin’s werewolves were humanoid renderings more sophisticated than anything previously committed to the screen. For Eddie Quist’s full transformation, Bottin passed on the traditional use of lap dissolves. Instead, Bottin used a combination of prosthetics with inflatable air bladders, animatronics, and clever editing. Though some of the effects haven’t aged well since its release, the overall impact of the werewolf transformation is still mesmerizing.

The Howling Is a Love Letter to Classic Horror

Director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles clearly love classic cinema. Prior to The Howling, Dante and Sayles collaborated on B-movie creature classic, Piranha. Other Dante directorial efforts – Matinee, Innerspace, and Gremlins – have a certain drive-in flavour. Not surprisingly then, The Howling is littered with what we would now call ‘Easter eggs’ to golden age werewolf movies. For instance, several characters are named after directors of ‘golden age’ werewolf flicks.

But The Howling also joins An American Werewolf in London in distinguishing itself from past werewolf movies with its satirical approach to the material. Sayles’ self-referential humor anticipated the ‘meta’ take on horror that would later turn up in Wes Craven’s Scream. Additionally, The Howling works as a biting satire of the 1970’s cultural fixation on new age psychology and self-help movements. Patrick Macnee’s ‘Colony’ secretly serving as a commune for werewolves to learn to control their ‘inner beast’ and assimilate

The Howling Spawned One of Horror’s Strangest Franchises

Given the typically low budget nature of horror, it’s not surprising that studios would yearn for that brand recognition that comes with an ongoing series. It’s basically a license to print money. The 1980’s gave us the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, while the 90’s beget the Scream trilogy. In the first decade of the new millennium, we got the Saw and Paranormal Activity franchises. And then there’s the straight-to-video movie series that just won’t die. They’ve been making Hellraiser, Leprechaun, and Children of the Corn movies for years right under our noses.

The Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf is not just a terrible sequel, it may qualify as one of the worst movies made.

But The Howling franchise may be the strangest horror series. It’s not just the spotty quality of the sequels. By and large, horror sequels are content to recycle what previously worked until diminishing returns necessitate a reboot. None of The Howling sequels are good. The Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf is not just a terrible sequel, it may qualify as one of the worst movies made. And that’s with poor Christopher Lee in the cast. Aside from quality, most of the sequels are completely unrelated to the original. Tonally, the franchise is all over the map. The Howling III, for example, has marsupial werewolves in Australia. Later sequel, The Howling V: The Rebirth is basically an Agatha Christie “who-dunnit”. An then there’s The Howling VI: The Freaks,which finds werewolves and vampires battling it out in a carnival.

The Howling Remains Must-See Horror

In spite of its spotty franchise record, The Howling is a must-see horror classic. It marked yet another successful collaboration between Joe Dante and John Sayles. Along with An American Werewolf in London, The Howling also took horror special effects in a new, exciting direction. Fans of werewolf movies can’t go wrong with this vintage 80’s horror outing.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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