The Howling (1981)
Directed by Joe Dante

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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After a traumatic encounter with a serial killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), in a pornographic movie theater, Karen White (Dee Wallace), a Los Angeles television news reporter, is advised by Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), a fashionable psychiatrist, to take a break at a country retreat he owns. Having travelled there with her husband Bill (Christopher Stone), Karen becomes increasingly aware of a number of strange events occurring in the vicinity. Meanwhile, two of Karen's colleagues, Chris (Dennis Dugan) and his girlfriend Terry (Belinda Balaski), continue their investigation into Eddie's doings, which eventually leads them to believe that he might have been a werewolf.

Joe Dante's The Howling is hardly an impressive film, but it is enlivened by its peculiar narrative structure and its usually appealing special effects.

Much of The Howling is relatively leisurely paced and incorporates a number of different narrative threads, each of which is dominated by distinct themes and emotions. The beginning of the film, which presents Karen's efforts to make contact with Eddie, is imbued with feelings of suspense. After the killer has cornered her in a pornographic theater and has been shot there by the police, however, the movie turns to exposing the trauma suffered by its heroine as a consequence of the unrevealed events which transpired during this encounter. Much of the subsequent portion of the movie, that relating Karen's journey to Dr. Waggner's retreat and her ever growing suspicion that something sinister is happening there, is suffused with a sense of potential danger, which is heightened by the director's intermingling with it depictions of Bill's seduction by a voluptuous but possibly deadly local, Marsha Quist (Elisabeth Brooks), and of Chris and Terry's continuing investigation into Eddie's life, which unearths peculiar and apparently inexplicable facts or hints about the murderer. Finally, towards its conclusion, The Howling becomes overtly horrific and conjures up feelings of fear with several often grisly presentations of the werewolves' attacks on different persons or of their weird transformations.

Admittedly, none of these various parts of the movie's story are likely to awe the viewer, but the director has shown some skill in integrating such diverse elements into a coherent whole. In fact, the terrifying elements with which the movie culminates are effectively emphasized by the mysteries and tragedies which precede them, which consistently remind the moviegoer of the presence of some fearsome and otherworldly power.

What is more, the werewolves themselves are well realized. When they are seen, these monsters are shown to be much like ordinary wolves standing upon their hind legs. The director has, however, wisely decided to limit their time on screen and unveils them to the viewer only in a few scenes, thereby allowing them to retain a mysterious dangerousness, which might have been lost had they been exposed as men in furry suits.

Despite such virtues, The Howling is by no means inspired. For instance, the sequences in which one or another human character is shown metamorphosing into a werewolf are not entirely successful. While individual shots do emphasize the generally effective make-up employed, these scenes rarely actually depict the changes a given character is undergoing. Instead, the viewer is merely presented with a series of snap shots of that transformation.

Moreover, while the movie is punctuated by a number of nicely filmed moments, especially those showing the ominous, misty forests surrounding the retreat at which Karen is staying, it is, for most of its duration, visually pedestrian. By so failing to give his film a distinctive appearance, which could have so captivated the viewer as to immerse him in its narrative, Dante, unfortunately, often allows the moviegoer's attention to waver.

Even the action sequences the director has included are inconsistent. Several are thrilling, violent, and horrific, but others are composed of such quick, tight shots that the moviegoer is not permitted to see what is happening. What is more, some of the sequences either play out in hackneyed ways or test the viewer's credulity.

Finally, I should note that none of the film's characters are especially memorable. Karen, though the protagonist, is a virtual non-entity. In fact, she is rarely even given the chance to take center stage. Many of the movie's most interesting scenes revolve around other characters, and those that do focus on Karen frequently present her as so incapacitated by her own overpowering emotions or so innately helpless that she is utterly dependent upon others, to whom she clings in meek terror. Sadly, these other individuals are rarely particularly fascinating. Bill, Chris, and Terry all exist largely to further the plot and are entirely disposable. Eddie is a creepy psychopath and nothing more, and Marsha is just a vaguely sinister siren. Of all the characters, only Dr. Waggner is somewhat intriguing. He is a stereotypically smarmy apostle of pop-psychology and is sometimes amusing as such. Moreover, his ultimate relation to the film's werewolves is, at once, surprisingly inventive and accords with what the viewer has elsewhere been shown of his personality. He is not, however, engaging or important enough to compensate for the other characters' lack of appeal.

While it is unlikely that The Howling will make a profound impression on many viewers, it is reasonably involving and generally entertaining.

Review by Keith Allen

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