The 1980s were a decade full of big hair, punk rock, New Wave, video games, political drama, and leg-warmers. It was also full of werewolves. In 1981 alone, there were four werewolf flicks in the theaters, those being Wolfen, An American Werewolf in London, Full Moon High, and, the subject of this very article, The Howling. The rest of the decade saw many more lycanthropes lighting up the silver screen, including The Beast Within, The Company of Wolves, Silver Bullet, The Monster Squad, Monster Dog, and a plethora of Howling sequels. With so many werewolf movies coming out in a stretch of just ten years, only the truly unique ones that could stand apart from the rest would be remembered as classics. One such classic that innovated upon the typical werewolf mythology is The Howling.
As previously mentioned, Joe Dante’s The Howling has had stiff competition since its release, with the film frequently being compared to the more popular and larger budget An American Werewolf in London, which came out the very same year and was directed by John Landis, a close friend of Dante. Though many laud An American Werewolf in London as the better of the two, The Howling is equally great, with both films featuring a similar blend of humor and horror that holds up brilliantly even today. It’s no wonder they are both almost always included together in lists of the best werewolf films ever made. We’re not here to discuss the famous rivalry between the two werewolf giants, however, for in this article we will explore the reasons why The Howling is the best werewolf flick of the ‘80s.
One thing that sets The Howling apart from any other werewolf film ever made is the incredibly unique story. The film follows TV journalist Karen White, played to perfection by the great Dee Wallace, who becomes traumatized while assisting the police in a serial killer’s arrest. The film opens with this event, and, though it has seemingly nothing to do with werewolves, it brilliantly sets the off-kilter and dread-filled tone of the movie. In an attempt to alleviate her shock, White’s doctor recommends that she go to an isolated psychiatric clinic known as the “Colony.” As it turns out, the Colony is home to a community of werewolves. The film was based on Gary Brandner’s 1977 novel of the same name, which, according to ScreenRant, Dante did not like and “felt the movie was better.” Nevertheless, building upon the bones that the novel provided, Dante and writer John Sayles molded the premise into a commentary on post-Vietnam War alternative religious movements – a very unique approach for a werewolf film indeed.
Another aspect that makes The Howling so iconic is the style that director Joe Dante imbues the material with. The film combines elements from all over the horror spectrum, including all the lovable tropes of slashers, the atmospheric tension of supernatural thrillers, and the monolithic stoicism of the classic Universal monster movies, all topped off with a pinch of splatter movie gore. This blend of seemingly disparate elements probably shouldn’t work together, but in the skilled hands of Dante, it all combines into a richly textured, darkly funny, and highly memorable lycanthropic stew. The Howling sees Dante perfecting his signature blend of tongue-in-cheek, self-referential humor and genuine terror that he introduced with 1978’s Piranha. Interestingly, though The Howling is one of Dante’s most serious horror films, Steven Spielberg was enamored by it and picked Dante to helm Gremlins – the ultimate showcase of Dante’s style – because of it.
The Howling is a creature effect lover’s dream; although it takes its time building up to the werewolf action, once it gets there it is jam-packed with stunning creature makeup and costumes, plus a boatload of grisly gore. The effects were originally going to be handled by legendary effects man Rick Baker, but he was also needed on An American Werewolf in London, and so left his apprentice in charge of The Howling’s effects. Who was that apprentice, you ask? None other than the great Rob Bottin, a brilliant monster-maker who, just one year after The Howling, would go on to create the effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing, which are heralded as some of the greatest practical effects in horror movie history. The Howling was Bottin’s first major gig as the chief special effects maker, and he knocked it out of the park. The werewolf transformation scene is a masterpiece of special effects in and of itself, and easily stands up to Rick Baker’s famous American Werewolf transformation. The fully-transformed werewolves of The Howling are both shockingly realistic and quite terrifying. Their perpetually-dripping fangs, long arms, and claw-tipped fingers are no doubt forever etched into the brains of anyone who watched the film at an impressionable age. In addition to Bottin’s incredible effects, prolific stop-motion animator David W. Allen contributed animated werewolf attack sequences that still look great today.
The Howling has a truly strange tone and structure that subverts typical monster movie expectations with its satirical and surreal outlook. The film is notable for kickstarting the trend of bringing classic monster movie concepts to the modern age, decking out the werewolf idea with all the excess of the ‘80s and exploring the thematic implications of the legendary creature in explicit detail. According to The Guardian, The Howling “would be followed that decade by films like An American Werewolf in London, Cat People, The Lost Boys, and Near Dark, which were all about unleashing the violence and lust that old Universal monster movies or Val Lewton productions could only suggest.” Part of updating the material for a new age meant injecting it with something to say about contemporary trends, beliefs, and opinions, hence why Dante chose to use his film to satirize alternative religious movements and comment on the distastefulness of TV news. A tall order for a werewolf film, perhaps, but Dante strikes just the right tone for the merging of werewolf legend and social commentary.
As Dread Central puts it, “The Howling has a deeply surrealist quality to it. That is a departure from the lighter feel of a lot of Dante’s work. But the approach works brilliantly here. So many of the film’s sequences have a dreamlike quality, making the viewer question if what they’re watching is really happening.” The seemingly-endless forest that most of the action takes place in is constantly dripping with dew and shrouded in a thick fog, creating an otherworldly setting that seems locked in a twilight limbo, a nightmare that you can’t wake up from.