Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Film Appreciation - Imagine Your Worst Fear a Reality

Cody Hamman channels his energies into showing Film Appreciation for 1981's The Howling.

The Howling is best known today as a many-sequeled film franchise, but it all started with a novel written by Gary Brandner that was published in 1977. The novel begins with the rape of Karyn Beatty by a man named Max Quist, the handyman for the condominium community Karyn lives in with her husband Roy. After Max is arrested for his crimes, it is suggested that Karyn should leave her home in Los Angeles for a while and spend some time trying to recuperate in a rural town called Drago, two hours from L.A. Unfortunately, she encounters even more horror in Drago. The town is populated with werewolves.  

The movie rights were acquired, and the cinematic adaptation started off with Jack H. Conrad attached to write and direct a film that would stay rather faithful to Brandner's prose. Terence H. Winkless also tried his hand at working on the script, but when Conrad left the project over creative difficulties and Piranha director Joe Dante came on board to bring a different sort of man-eating creature to the screen, he brought Piranha screenwriter John Sayles along with him.

Dante and Sayles strayed from Brandner's original story in many ways, crafting a film that I believe actually improves upon the source material. The movie doesn't begin with an apartment invasion and rape; rather, it starts with L.A.-based news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace) experiencing a different sort of terrifying ordeal. A serial killer has been stalking the streets of L.A., and he has developed a fascination with Karen while watching the news. He started calling her on the phone, and now the decision has been made for Karen to act as bait so the killer can be apprehended. She has agreed to meet him in a location to be revealed to her on the night.

Karen is wearing a microphone and police are patrolling the neighborhood. They're supposed to be aware of her every move. But due to technical difficulties, the people watching over her lose track of her and she's on her own when she meets the killer, a man named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), in a booth at a sex shop. Eddie doesn't physically attack Karen. He shows her something. Something the audience doesn't see, but which horrifies Karen... before the police bust in and shoot Eddie down.

This is a rather masterfully crafted, twelve minute long opening sequence that is much more interesting and layered than what Brandner had on the page. The improvements have already begun as soon as the movie gets started. 

Karen is left traumatized. She has nightmares and troubles being intimate with her husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone), and when her boss Fred W. Francis (Kevin McCarthy) urges her to get back on TV to share her first-person account of her encounter with Eddie, she has a breakdown in front of the cameras.

Karen can't remember what she saw in that booth with Eddie, but therapist / author Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) suggests that regaining her memory of that moment will help her move on from it. He suggests that she spend some time in The Colony, the "experimental living community" that he runs, where she'll be benefit from seminars, therapy sessions, and the rural atmosphere. This is a bit more in-depth than the book's Karyn simply spending some time in the countryside; there was a major self-improvement movement in the '70s, and Dante and Sayles were poking fun at it a bit. One of Karen's fellow patients at The Colony will say that this is the latest and most helpful step in her self-improvement quest, following dalliances with assertiveness training, EST, transcendental meditation, Scientology, iridology, and primal screaming. 

Unfortunately, Karen's time at The Colony isn't as peaceful as advertised. Her sleep is disturbed by the sound of howling coming from the perpetually mist-shrouded woods surrounding the cabin she and Bill stay in, and her fear of what's out there is intensified when she stumbles across some mutilated cattle. The oddball locals don't ease her mind, either. Especially not that woman Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), who seems to take an instant disliking to Karen while Bill is clearly attracted to her. 

Things get worse when Bill is attacked by one of the wolves in the woods. As he recovers, his demeanor changes, and he fully gives in to his lust for Marsha. Marsha is a werewolf, and the wolf attack has turned Bill into a werewolf as well. This is confirmed when the pair take their wolfen form while having sex beside a fire - a scene that ends with the copulating werewolves being represented by cartoon drawings. The sort of thing that would only slide in a Joe Dante movie.

While Karen is realizing that she has a werewolf problem on her hands, fellow KDHB News employees Chris Halloran (Dennis Dugan) and Terri Fisher (Belinda Balaski) have been doing some research on Eddie Quist for a special and turn up some very strange things. Their investigation takes them from Eddie's apartment, where the walls are adorned with newspaper clippings of headlines reporting disturbing crimes as well as Eddie-drawn art of werewolves, to a consultation with Waggner about the mind of a killer, and even to the morgue, where Sayles makes a cameo as a coroner - and where Eddie's body has disappeared, and the only sign that he was ever there is the badly damaged door of the cold chamber he was being kept in. 

The mystery of the werewolf art and missing body also takes Chris and Terri to an occult bookstore run by a man played by Dick Miller and named Walter Paisley - the same name as Miller's character in the 1959 film A Bucket of Blood. This Paisley is an expert on the supernatural, including werewolves. Through him, we learn that werewolves don't have to rely on the full moon, they're shape-shifters that can change form at any time they want. They're very hard to kill; if you don't do it right they're rise from the dead. They can even regenerate lost limbs. The only way to put a werewolf down for good is to burn it or shoot it with a silver bullet. And Paisley just happens to have some silver bullets in stock. 

Eventually, a connection between Eddie Quist and The Colony is discovered: The Colony was Eddie's home. He has siblings there, including Marsha. And as you might have guessed, Eddie is a werewolf. He was transforming in front of Karen in the sex shop booth, this is the sight that she has blocked from her memory, and his lyncanthropy is how he was able to revive after being shot by the police and escape from the morgue. He returns home to The Colony, which Chris and Terri also end up going to in time for the climax of the film.

The fact that Eddie is from The Colony is another improvement made over the original novel, where Max Quist was just a random rapist and had no connection to the werewolf horror that follows. It's better to have the person who sets events in motion remain a part of the story throughout. 

Although there have been creature effects earlier in the film - the aforementioned sex scene, quick shots of the werewolf that attacks Bill - it isn't until just over an hour into the movie, when Terri comes face-to-face with the werewolf Eddie, that we get our first good, long look at the werewolf effects provided by Rob Bottin. Bottin did an incredible job; for me, the Eddie werewolf in The Howling is the best werewolf that has ever been put on the screen. This is exactly what I feel the beast should look like.

The Eddie wolf is the one we get the best shots of, and we also get a gross extended look at what happens when Eddie transforms into the wolf. His skin bubbles, his face elongates into a snout, claws and grow, he gets very hairy... It might not make you believe that werewolves are real, but it's a wonderful showcase of practical special effects. 

As the film nears its conclusion, we get to see several more werewolves that look similar to the Eddie wolf, as it's revealed that the residents of The Colony are werewolves. To the public, Waggner recommends that they "never deny the beast" within themselves, that they don't repress their natural instincts. However, as the leader of a werewolf community he has his followers doing just that, repressing their animalistic side so they won't be exposed to the public, raising cattle to feed on so they won't attack humans. Not all of his followers like the way Waggner has been leading them, and they let it be known in the climax.

The werewolf sub-genre can be tough to crack, and there are a lot of werewolf movies out there that aren't particularly good. Even when the story works, the werewolf effects are often a let-down. The werewolf is not an easy creature to bring to the screen. It's easy to imagine that Gary Brandner's The Howling novel could have been adapted into yet another sub-par genre film, but it's lucky that the property ended up in the hands of Joe Dante, who brought on all the right collaborators and made all the right decisions to turn The Howling into one of the best werewolf movies ever made. It's a film where the story works perfectly, and where the creature looks amazing.

Also amazing is the cast Dante assembled. Dee Wallace makes for a great vulnerable, troubled heroine, and really gets the emotions of her character across. Belinda Balaski also makes for a good secondary heroine. Christopher Stone and Dennis Dugan do good work as the male leads, Robert Picardo is very memorable as Eddie Quist (and has some awesome lines to deliver), and these actors are surrounded by some a terrific bunch of familiar faces: Patrick Macnee, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Noble Willingham, Kenneth Tobey, Dick Miller, Meshach Taylor.

If you know your horror directors, some of the character names might seem familiar to you as well. The Howling is a film that is quite aware of horror history - Dante and Sayles named many of the characters in reference to directors who had made previous werewolf movies. These references include R. William Neill, director of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man; Terence Fisher, director of The Curse of the Werewolf; George Waggner, director of The Wolf Man (and there are clips from The Wolf Man seen on TV in The Howling); Freddie Francis, director of Legend of the Werewolf; Erle Kenton, director of House of Dracula; Sam Newfield, director of The Mad Monster; Charles Barton, director of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; Lew Landers, director of The Return of the Vampire; and Jacinto Molina, director of Mark of the Wolfman.

Not only do you get those references, but there are also cameos by Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman, legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, and the corpse of the Grandmother from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Howling and Chainsaw shared the same art director, Robert A. Burns, and not only did Burns get to hang some TCM-esque animal skins and bones at some Colony locations, but he also stuck the Grandmother corpse into Walter Paisley's bookstore.

It's quite clear when watching The Howling that Dante was a student of the horror genre, and when he was given the chance to make his own werewolf movie he crafted one of the best entries in the sub-genre. A movie that is quite worthy of standing alongside the classics referenced with character names. The Howling is a classic itself.

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