A Howl for the Howling

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Marsha Quist, The Howling

It was another day of mild to moderate chaos at the local video store where I work.  Michael came in to procure movies that we would watch later that evening.  He held up a few options in front of me and prompted me to pick the one in which I was the most interested.  I immediately selected The Howling.  Having never seen the film, I’d only heard it alluded to briefly in Scream, and I knew only that it was a canonical werewolf movie.  I wasn’t really expecting to be scared, and to be honest, it didn’t scare me…that much.  The film was a lot more well-made and in general a lot creepier than I’d anticipated.  That aside, I kind of found myself wracking my brain for some sort of way to break the film apart or put it into perspective.  As I watched I scribbled down notes, but I wasn’t getting the insights I’d hoped for.  Despite my difficulties really analyzing this film, I think I’ll discuss in general why I like this movie, with an emphasis on the fact that it inverts the typical werewolf movie “rules” in a couple of ways and consistently highlights its own fixation on “the body” or “the flesh.”

The beginning of the film is mildly disorienting – rife with frenetic voices and television static.  Indeed, the rather creative apex of the film is flanked by an opening and a closing that feature the media’s role in influencing the public and sensationalizing grisly murders.  Karen White (played by Dee Wallace), the most famous (or, according to some characters, the second most famous) news reporter in town agrees to meet infamous killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) who has left a number of mutilated, violated bodies in his wake.  While Karen’s friends marvel at her bravery, part of me was thinking she was a little career-obsessed for agreeing to appear where Eddie would be – or, at least, where she could hear his voice on the phone.  Her decision bordered on the unrealistic.  Karen meanders into your friendly neighborhood porn shop, plops herself in a booth, and watches graphic images of naked women who are about to get ripped apart by Eddie’s hands – or, spoiler alert, by his claws, because we find out much later in the film that he does have them.  But to her chagrin, she has a brush with Eddie, who is situated behind her in the dark before the police locate Karen and shoot her would-be killer.  (Spoiler Alert #2: Since Eddie is a limb-regenerating werewolf, he’s not really dead, although Karen makes her first escape in this scene).

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Eddie, the movie’s primary serial killer

To make a 90-minute movie two paragraphs long, Karen experiences significant trauma from her encounter with Eddie – trauma that includes an inability to remember the few moments during which she actually encountered him.  Her psychologist suggests she visit “the colony,” a secluded forest area for people experiencing psychiatric difficulties.  Lo and behold, when Karen goes to the colony with her husband, a series of unusual events arise, including night-time howling (hence the name of the movie) and sporadic animal carcasses scattered across the forest floor.  We know that the colony is filled with human werewolves far before Karen does, and soon her beloved husband (Bill) is transformed.  Shortly after that, her investigating friend, an ambitious journalist, is ripped apart.  (Major spoiler alert #3):  By the end of the film, Karen’s back at her news desk, anxiously reading a script about her experience in the colony and warning viewers that werewolves are lurking around the outskirts of the city.  But we soon realize (and we saw Karen get scratched by this time, so we’re not surprised) that Karen is a werewolf, and she turns into one shortly after reading her script.  Thus, the most prominent way of information dissemination is foregrounded at the beginning and ending of the film, highlighting the television news media’s prominence in the early 80’s even as Karen turns into a werewolf on screen.  As a side note, most viewers marvel at the “special effects” and pay her broadcast no mind.  But we know, now, that werewolves are on the loose.

 

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Karen’s husband Bill transforms

What’s perhaps most interesting about the film, to me, is that it takes our (or at least my) assumptions about werewolves and upends them by giving many (but not all) of these human-wolves antisocial personalities and malicious propensities.  The typical arc in werewolf lore involves a “pure-hearted” individual (to quote the film) who turns into a murderous wolf at night despite his best efforts and awakes the next morning to find that he’s inadvertently and woefully left a trail of bodies.  But most of the individuals at the “colony” deem their werewolf abilities a “gift.”  And while a few of them believe in controlling their urges and eating animals, a good number of werewolves, including Eddie Quist, his brother, and his sister, Marsha, exhibit typical serial killer signs.  Twice, Karen’s journalist-friend breaks into a home – first Eddie’s, then his sister’s – only to find newspaper clippings on the wall showcasing the individual’s kills.  Much like a serial killer, at the beginning of the movie when Eddie meets with Karen, he espouses his philosophy that most human beings walk through life dead inside and thus can’t feel what he’s doing to them anyway – before he suggests that he and Karen are somehow different.  Instead of, then, being a “pure-hearted” individual who bears the weight of a werewolf malady, Eddie’s a sort of grandiose sociopath who uses his werewolf abilities to further his malevolent aims.  His sister and younger brother, though their characters aren’t developed as much, prove to be not much different than him.  We never find out how Eddie – or the others – came to be werewolves, and we never learn much about the difference between the werewolves who support killing human beings and the ones who don’t, but we do get some other interesting scenes and motifs.

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Eddie again – I’ve left out the most grotesque scenes in the movie.

The movie provides us with the somewhat familiar trope (I keep thinking of A Cure for Wellness) of leaving the city to head toward a secluded area that supposedly contains respite, healing, and even, on some more metaphysical level, a vaguely implied truth that the character must find to recover or progress.  Only, as is the case in A Cure for Wellness, the secluded area that purports to cure the individual is actually the area where the individual is the most hunted, the most in peril, and the “truth” that Karen finds is that there is no escape, that she will become one of the murderous human-wolves like her husband, like her psychologist, like the Quists, despite her best efforts – and that the “gift,” or the malady, will spread to others, no matter what she does.

Like I alluded to in the introduction, the movie is also incredibly interested in the flesh, although it conflates bodily flesh during sex with flesh in other, more grisly contexts.  Karen first encounters Eddie in a porn shop where she watches a naked woman who’s about to get killed by him. Eddie’s sister Marsha, one of the most gruesome werewolves in the bunch, is also an alleged nymphomaniac who is called, rather appropriately, a “man-eater” before we know she’ s a werewolf, and everything from juicy legs of chicken to hanging bones to animal pelts are scattered spuriously throughout the movie, in different places and contexts.  The first “transformation scene” we see – the first time we watch two people become werewolves – is in fact when we watch Karen’s husband have an affair with Marsha (who, by the way, is only revealed to be Eddie’s sister toward the end of the film).  And at the very end of the movie, Marsha is sitting at a bar, where she seductively states that she wants her hamburger rare.  The closing shot is one of burger meat cooking, including the lump of rare meat that Marsha requests.  And as strange as it is, that’s one thing that was sort of fun about the movie – its unabashed admittance of the fact that it’s just sort of a gross, disturbing horror movie that appropriates meat and flesh of all kinds in gag-worthy contexts to make the viewer uncomfortable.

Along those lines, perhaps one of the best things about the film was its quintessential, early 80’s “transformation” scenes.  I thought of a lot of films as I watched this movie.  First, as I mentioned, it shared a trope with A Cure for Wellness (and, undoubtedly, with other asylum-based movies I can’t think of right now).  Also, because of scenes that contained mutilated bodies, animal pelts, and hanging bones everywhere, it reminded me a lot of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) which also used a mixture of bones and flesh in different, even more nauseating contexts to make the viewer feel consistently grossed out and uncomfortable.  Finally, The Howling’s more grotesque transformation scenes, in which the human being lingers somewhat uncomfortably between the human and the werewolf, reminded me of similarly gruesome “transformation” movies like Carpenter’s The Thing and Cronenberg’s The Fly – films that just revel in unsightly transitions from one bodily state to another, or that absolutely delight in what theorist Julia Kristeva would call “the abject.”  Crackling, bending hand bones turn into sinewy claws.  Mouths jut open and leave transforming human-wolf miens partially mangled until the transition concludes.  This movie seemed absolutely infatuated (in a good way) with what it could do to gross out the audience in certain scenes, and I loved that element of the film.  In one scene, for example, a werewolf is attacking Karen’s friend.  She manages to chop off its arm, and the limp claw just sort of dangles and bounces on the bloody floor for a while, before it slowly morphs into a human hand.  It’s sickening – and fantastic.

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                To that end, the fact that CGI wasn’t a thing when this film was made is probably one of its greatest assets, because I have a feeling that CGI’d werewolves would have ruined everything that is best about The Howling.  As I stated in the introduction, the film wasn’t terrifying, but it was a lot creepier than I thought it would be, with a sort of macabre ambiance seeping through it, especially during the parts of the film that take place in the colony.  It’s a good break, in any case, from the showcasing of the “lone, repentant werewolf” – a trope that is appealing (for example, in Penny Dreadful) but not as enticing if employed constantly in werewolf movies.  And the film has fun with itself: it repeatedly shows werewolf movies, wolf cartoons, and even a copy of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl in the background scenery, along with inserting the occasional bit of humor.  Ultimately, if you’re in the mood for an early 1980’s gory, eerie sort of classic, this film’s an excellent one to check out.  And, bonus: the unanswered questions and undeveloped points that I mention earlier leave plenty of room for an equally unsettling sequel.  Here’s to hoping that The Howling II is as original, quirky, and downright grotesque as the original!   

 

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A Howl for the Howling

Strong Social Statements in “The First Purge”

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Nya leads an anti-purge protest

I went into The First Purge with moderate expectations.  The previews had revealed a significant amount about the film’s premise, and I’d seen the additional three Purge movies before.  I didn’t have much hope that a prequel would be uniquely terrifying, but I was expecting it—especially, given its name—to contextualize the bizarre process of “purging” that these Purge films have contrived, to explain how “the purge” came to be in a world where we’d like to assume that most people are fundamentally good and basically non-violent.  That expectation was definitely met, and I thought that in achieving this goal, The First Purge made some bold statements about problems in our country and where we could be headed.  I argued in an earlier piece that I saw some “problematic presumptions” embedded in the originally released purge, (simply titled The Purge).  Well, this film answered my qualms in a clever, incisive way.  I should also warn you at the outset that my analysis contains a lot of spoilers, so only read on if you’ve seen the film, don’t plan on seeing the film, or aren’t bothered by rather specific previews!

Continue reading “Strong Social Statements in “The First Purge””

Strong Social Statements in “The First Purge”

Watching “The Crucifixion”: Thoughts about Lacan, Divinity, and Cargo Pants

crucifixion 5What you won’t find in this essay: A really clever, insightful thought that combines the three parts of my above subtitle.  I wish I could do it, really.  I wish I were creative enough to analyze the divine, Lacan, and cargo pants in one seamless line of thinking and come up with a brilliant conclusion, but my mind hasn’t gone to those heights (or depths).  Rather, as Michael and I sat down to watch The Crucifixion, which is partially based off real events that happened in Romania in 2004, I had a hodgepodge of thoughts about the film.  My mind wandered from (novice) applications of Lacanian theory to the film, to my own faith, and how the film made me think of it, to early 21st century fashion, and how it deviates just slightly but perceptibly from what we wear almost 15 years later.  To be honest, then, the three things are only connected in the title; I doubt these subjects will connect in the essay.  But after finishing The Crucifixion, I had no idea where to begin writing, and these three elements of the movie came to mind.  That said, I’ll begin this semi-foreboding essay-journey. Continue reading “Watching “The Crucifixion”: Thoughts about Lacan, Divinity, and Cargo Pants”

Watching “The Crucifixion”: Thoughts about Lacan, Divinity, and Cargo Pants

Cruisin’ With Christine: Attack of the Monster Car

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Christine before the fix-up

A few nights ago, I decided to enjoy a little casual viewing of a horror classic.  Christine, the story of the monster car, is a horror staple that, with a well-written script and believable characters, delivers ample entertainment without ever really terrifying the viewer—at least, if the viewer is me.  Because Christine doesn’t situate itself in the realm of the typical horror movie, rife with ghouls and vampires and traditional monsters of all sorts.  Christine – if you don’t know this, and you probably do – is about a vicious, killer car with unusual superpowers.  I chose the film, as I’ve insinuated, because I think it’s a fun watch for a low-key night – nothing as scary, say, as watching Sinister.  And unsurprisingly, as I watched the film, a few thoughts came to mind that made me ponder. Continue reading “Cruisin’ With Christine: Attack of the Monster Car”

Cruisin’ With Christine: Attack of the Monster Car

 Questions of Progress: Scary Sci-Fi Hits and the Sacrificial Human Body

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The Doctor and Madame de Pompadour

Well, it happened.  I finally sat down to watch an episode of Doctor Who –an episode that Michael promised me was horrific enough to write about for my blog.  And he was correct about that. The episode under examination, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” was at least moderately unnerving—I’ve seen scarier, of course, but it was pretty unsettling—but what excited me the most about the episode was the connection to other science fiction classics it provoked.  I have become interested, to that end, in a prevalent motif that I see in contemporary/semi-contemporary science fiction: the fear of sacrificial embodiment.  So what exactly do I mean by that?  In a lot of contemporary science fiction, we’re afraid that our physical bodies will be sacrificed as vehicles to further technological progress.  Underlying that fear, I think, is a perceived incongruence between the so-called “natural” body and the man-made technology that runs off it.  But, to further explain my point, let me delve into three science fiction works that elucidate it: Doctor Who’s “The Girl in the Fire Place,” the popular classic The Matrix, and Black Mirror’s “Fifteen Million Merits.”

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 Questions of Progress: Scary Sci-Fi Hits and the Sacrificial Human Body

F.N.V. Reminiscences: Music of My Early 20’s

 

Houston Skyline during late afternoon looking east

On my blog, Just Dread-Full, I’m adamantly open and enthusiastic about my love for all things (or most things) horror.  Indeed, this passion is foregrounded so much that it often eclipses my other loves in life – a reason why I started another blog a few years ago, one I didn’t have time to follow through with and for which I ultimately stopped writing.  One of those passions that I don’t frequently share on the horror-centered Just Dread-full is my love for music – and my interest in what I would consider a wide variety of music.

Continue reading “F.N.V. Reminiscences: Music of My Early 20’s”

F.N.V. Reminiscences: Music of My Early 20’s

“Baby I was Born That Way”: Depicting Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong in “Evil Genius” as Bad-Since-Birth.

Diehl Armstrong 2Well, like I said in my last post, yesterday, Michael and I started watching Netflix’s “Evil Genius” series about the bizarre pizza bomber case in Erie, PA.  And, riveted as we were to the story, Michael and I finished the series already.  In my last post, I predicted that Marjorie-Diehl Armstrong would be humanized by the documentary during the second half.  And while the documentary interviews people who saw a human side of Marjorie in the courtroom of her trial, I would argue that the documentary, itself, didn’t do much to humanize her.  In fact, I think the interview clips that were pieced together did a lot to suggest that Diehl-Armstrong was innately bad, and that maybe she’d always had at least a strong proclivity to be that way.  This really interests me, because it flies in the face of what I think I know about human beings, and the existence of evil in the world.  It’s also just a dangerous road to travel down: what can we do to someone when we label them “evil from birth?”  These are some questions this post will consider. Continue reading ““Baby I was Born That Way”: Depicting Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong in “Evil Genius” as Bad-Since-Birth.”

“Baby I was Born That Way”: Depicting Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong in “Evil Genius” as Bad-Since-Birth.