Man at bar: Hey, Ernie? Put that pepper steak on for me, would ya? And a hamburger for the lady.
Ernie: How do ya want that?
Man at bar: How do you want it, honey?
Marsha Quist: Rare.
Are you kidding me? It’s been over 30 years since Joe Dante gave us The Howling? It’s really been more than three decades since the release of this perfectly epic werewolf tale. In the years that have passed since the release of this film, Presidents have come and gone, wars have been fought, and the Red Sox even won the World Series… twice. But no one has made a better werewolf film than The Howling.
Others may have their favorites, but for my money the greatest werewolf film ever created is The Howling. And for that reason this Tip of the Scalpel goes to the best of the best of the films featuring the hairy lycanthropic beasties…The Howling.
Centered around horror movie hall of fame actress Dee Wallace, The Howling delivers everything you could want in an 80’s horror film: blood, sex (even werewolf sex, does it get any better? Watch the toenails, please. Yikes!), tongue-in-cheek humor and F/X done the old-fashioned way, with latex and a paint brush. No CGI here. Not even close. Just artist and canvas. In this case the artist happened to be special effects expert Rob Bottin, and his canvas was a blood-soaked colony of werewolves. Not your traditional blank slate, but the results speak for themselves.
And on the topic of the F/X, let me emphasize the piece de resistance of this film. Anyone who saw The Howling knows exactly what I’m referring to. It is, of course, the transformation scene of Eddie “The Mangler” Quist (Robert Picardo) as he changes from his human form (which is certainly creepy enough in its own right) into the werewolf. Well, almost into the werewolf; some timely acid in the face slowed the transformation right down. But that scene really drove this movie home for me. It began with Eddie pulling a bullet out of his forehead (you may remember it was put there by police officers thwarting his initial attack on Ms. Karen White) and continued with all the expected jaw elongating, fingernail growing, chest heaving and hair sprouting that you’ve come to expect from a werewolf transformation. And it was perfect.
We seem to have forgotten the power of a werewolf transformation scene. That IS the movie. Yes, werewolves are scary when transformed, stomping around all fangy and clawy and slobbery, but nothing beats the gut-wrenching scene as the poor cursed individual changes (the slower, the better) into the drooling beast. We need to see everything up close. The current trend seems to have werewolf transformations happening instantaneously. Twilight (although far from horror) is one of the few films using werewolves these days, and the change is instant. One second they are bare-chested man-boys running around; then, bang-o, they are wolves. And not even werewolve. Come on, how scary is a wolf? We need big seven-foot, hind-leg-walking, giant-eared WEREWOLVES! Even “True Blood” fails when it comes to werewolf transformation scenes, also going with the instant shapeshift.
Of course American Werewolf in London is well known for an excellent transformation scene with perhaps only The Howling being its superior. The Wolfman with Benicio Del Toro had the right idea about the transformation scene, but by the time they got around to doing it, most of the audience was asleep. Kudos for the effort, though. And you may remember Jack Nicholson in Wolf; again, the right idea, but even that was over 17 years ago. We can mention Ginger Snaps or Dog Soldiers, but these films are also over a decade old. Nothing recently has come close to capturing the werewolfy awesomeness of The Howling. This may be the calm before the storm, however. It wasn’t long ago that vampires were the toast of the horror community. And right now zombies are the…ahem…flavor of the week. It’s very possible that werewolves are next.
Yes, The Howling did spawn an unending slew of pointless sequels, never coming near replicating the quality of the original (although still appreciated by some). But what great horror film hasn’t been guilty of this? A Nightmare on Elm Street? Yes. Friday the 13th? Hello? Can anyone say Jason Takes Manhattan? H20, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. And don’t even make me break out Leprechaun in the Hood. The point is you rarely hear The Howling mentioned in discussions of the greatest horror films ever made, and it has every right being in that conversation. At least in the werewolf sub-genre of the conversation. Everything from the crazy peep show scene right up to that perfect final line just works magnificently.
So you take it from here. Go watch, or rewatch, The Howling in all its hairy goodness and get a little refresher on what horror movie-making was all about before the magic could be made with the wonders of CGI. Are some scenes in The Howling a little cheesy looking? I suppose by today’s high standards, yes, I’d have to say they are. But put yourself at the theater 30 years ago. John Hinckley had just tried to knock off President Reagan, the Space Shuttle Columbia is preparing for takeoff and there you are in your theater seat ready to experience The Howling. And with that we give a slobbery Tip of the Scalpel to the best of the best of the werewolf films, Joe Dante’s The Howling. Awwwooooooo!
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