Updating the age-old werewolf myth to 1980s California, The Howling traces a chilling journey through the seedy streets of Hollywood to the backwoods of a secluded health retreat, where Los Angeles television anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace) is sent following a traumatizing brush with a serial killer. As Karen and her husband attempt to settle into the insular and secluded community of the “Colony," they discover a dark secret sheltered deep within the forest and its misfit inhabitants.
Tense and increasingly foreboding as Karen’s nightmare becomes more and more rooted in reality, The Howling arrives at a horrific apex with the visual reveal of the film’s central monster. Standing upright with spindly limbs and elongated, rabbit-like ears, there is something not quite human or wolf to the preternatural werewolves of Dante’s movie. Produced by special effects wizard Rob Bottin, the pre-CGI human-to-werewolf transformations are gruesomely fascinating stand-out moments that utilize a complex series of body and feature modulations. Captured in real time by an attentive and unwavering camera, these include elongating teeth and appendages, pulsating skin (achieved through the use of air pockets), and an accompanying soundtrack of stretching bone-and-sinew special effects for maximum stomach-turning impact. Originally an assistant to The Howling’s first special effects artist Rick Baker, Bottin assumed full control of the film’s effects duties when Baker left to work on 1981’s other werewolf hit An American Werewolf in London. Joe Dante recalled his experience with Bottin and the painstaking process of the werewolf transformations, recalling,
“Rob is one of the few geniuses that I’ve worked with in this business - maybe Jerry Goldsmith might be the other one - and he wasn’t just innovative, he was a perfectionist. And the first day that Rob Piccardo had to put on his makeup and do his transformation, Rob started at five o’clock in the morning. five o’clock in the afternoon he still wasn’t done. Eight o’clock at night he still wasn’t done. Rob Riccardo had to stay there that night in the makeup, and came back the next morning and we shot, because it just wasn’t ready. And he was right, because he wanted it to be great. He told me that he felt that this was his big break.”
Despite the impressive results of Bottin’s work, some of the film’s special effects are less successful onscreen, as in the case of a late night werewolf intercourse scene where a longshot reveals the two silhouettes to be quite clearly animated. Another more subtle example of this somewhat jarring discrepancy between close-up and full figure representation occurs in a multi-werewolf fade out toward the end of the film. Dante addressed this notable issue in the movie, contributed to the production by stop-motion animator Dave Allen:
“We ran the rough cut for people and they would say ‘Wow, that’s really interesting, what movie did that come from?’ And it was apparent that what Dave had done was not working in terms of the reality of the rest of the stuff we had shot. And so there’s only - I think - two little pieces of what he did and I think one of them is like in the middle of the dissolve. And it's because, basically, we didn’t have a werewolf suit from top to bottom that we could show, and so one of the few times in the movie that you see an entire werewolf is in this dissolve at the end of the movie where we see that there are three werewolves together, which is another thing we couldn’t afford because we only had one werewolf suit. When you look at that scene in the car where they’re being attacked it looks like there’s a lot of werewolves - one werewolf suit, that’s all we had. And it’s all about editing.”
Ever essential to a great horror movie is a great horror soundtrack, and The Howling features one that is spectacularly and effectively in step with the tone of the film. Scored by the great Pino Donaggio, the film's music strikes a measured balance between lightness and weighted tension in a movie that combines traditional horror and knowing humor. As Dante elaborated,
“[Donaggio] had access to this church organ from some church somewhere in Italy, and he based the score around that. And also, it’s kind of an unusual score in The Howling because it’s got sort of a country feel to it and it’s not the sort of portentious kind of scoring this kind of movie usually has.”
Dante and Donaggio had met several years earlier during production on Dante’s 1978 film Piranha. The director was surprised to find the reputed Donaggio, who had previously worked on the Nicholas Roeg helmed horror film Don’t Look Now, willing to work on the feature. Although neither director nor composer was able to speak the other’s language, the former found an Italian-speaking friend willing to work as an intermediary. Dante described a process in which he would "run the movie for Pino and they would talk to each other and translate into Italian…and so Pino would go away and he would send the stuff, and it would be all numbered to put it into the film.”
Although after The Howling Dante formed a long-term professional relationship with composer Jerry Goldsmith (the two would work together on the Gremlins films as well as The ‘Burbs and Small Soldiers), the director made it clear that a future collaboration with Donaggio is both likely and welcome:
“I never had occasion to go back to Pino, but now that I’m doing movies that are probably largely financed from overseas, I’m sure I’m gonna ask him to work for me again.”
Peppered generously with in-jokes and star cameos from the likes of Roger Corman and John Sayles, it’s easy to see why The Howling has achieved a healthy cult status and a trail of sequels to prove it. Suspenseful, dark, and horrifying in a visceral, stomach-knotting way unique to the best of horror cinema, The Howling also has moments of surprising humor and self-awareness. Tonally, the film spends much of its running time swinging between horror thriller and satire, a combination that strikes a uniquely seamless balance. Commenting on the potential marketability concerns of this mixed message filmmaking, Dante states:
“Bob Rainey, who was running the company who I knew since he used to work for Roger Corman, was the head of Avco Embassy and he was a nice guy. The great thing about him was he had a very short attention span, and he’d come in and say ‘How are things going?’ and you’d start to tell him, he’d say ‘Great’ and he’d go away. My kind of executive. And so on the first day of the dailies it was the bookstore, and we’re sitting in the room watching the dailies and he says ‘Is this a horror picture or a comedy?’ And I said ‘Well, that’s the point Bob, it could be one, could be the other,’ but I think each one supports the other, it’s like you know, audiences go to these movies because it’s a thrill ride and they want to have fun, and if you give them fun in the place where their supposed to have fun, then they won’t laugh at the really silly absurd things that their expected to buy in order to enjoy a horror film. And as it turned out, it worked out fine.”
As legions of horror fans would likely agree, The Howling is a film that ranks significantly better than fine. Rather it places among the most chilling, technically cunning, and flat-out enjoyable cinema released during that strange and utterly memorable decade for terror flicks - the Eighties.