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).
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.
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.
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.
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!