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

Invasion of the Body Snatchers Invades my Spring Break

body snatchers 4So, a brief glance at my blog informs me that I haven’t written in almost two months.  Since I like to post a weekly post, that should be some indicator about how well I’m juggling my time this semester (translation: not well at all.)  However, Spring Break has (happily) descended upon me, and with Spring Break comes at least a little time to breath, and some horror-movie filled nights.  Now, I’ll credit Michael: Invasion of the Body Snatchers was actually his idea.  We were strolling the video store, when he mentioned the title.  However, this turned out to be a fortuitous idea.  More than some of the other films we’ve watched over break, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a fairly rich film that yields a lot of fun, exciting stuff to write about.  In fact, I have many pages of notes, so I’m not sure where I’ll start.  We shall find out! Continue reading “Invasion of the Body Snatchers Invades my Spring Break”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers Invades my Spring Break

Evil is as Evil Does: Five of Horror’s Vilest Villains

Deadpool Freddy TwoIn a rare turn of events, I got off work early today (woo-hoo!) and had to decide how to occupy my time.  I was thinking about a post I could write without re-reading anything, or re-watching anything – so I could just start writing for the sake of writing, and get a post up today before my plans tonight.  And it occurred to me that while I’ve talked about evil a lot on this blog, there is a rich pantheon of evil horror characters I’ve never discussed.

One thing is for certain: not all villains are made alike, and not all behave similarly.  I thought about this when considering the difference, in Star Wars, between a Vader and a Palpatine.  Vader becomes pure evil, but he becomes evil because he falls; the prequels tell us that he was once the promising Jedi, Annakin Skywalker.  And ultimately, Vader is redeemed.  Palpatine, on the other hand, is more or less bad to the bone, as the cliché song goes.  So I started thinking about all the evil horror characters who are insane, who are sympathetic, who have at least strands of humanity that sometimes surmount the darkness and show themselves a bit.  And then, I thought of the horror characters that don’t have any of that – no really human tendencies, no back story, few redeeming qualities.  For the purposes of this post, these are the characters I’ll label “truly evil,” and I’ve chosen five of them.  I couldn’t put these five characters in order, because they’re all pretty damn malicious, but here’s the list, nonetheless, with my explanation: My five favorite truly evil horror characters: Continue reading “Evil is as Evil Does: Five of Horror’s Vilest Villains”

Evil is as Evil Does: Five of Horror’s Vilest Villains

(No(?)) Sympathy for the Devil: Responding to the So-Called Monster

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Temptation, visually depicted – The Devil’s Advocate

I was driving from Indiana PA to Erie one night not a few weeks ago, my mind enmeshed in rapid succession of thoughts.  It was dark outside, and I noticed little except for fleeting, flickering glimpses of surreal roadside images, ambiguous shadow outlines in the night, as my car coasted across 422, and then across 1-79, headed north.  My CD player has been broken for months, so I was flipping through the channels, trying to settle on a song even vaguely satisfying, a melody that didn’t wink out into a barrage of static thirty seconds after I found it.  Reliable radio stations are difficult to come by in some parts of Western Pennsylvania.

Continue reading “(No(?)) Sympathy for the Devil: Responding to the So-Called Monster”

(No(?)) Sympathy for the Devil: Responding to the So-Called Monster

It Comes at Night – And You’ll See None of This Coming

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Photo Credit – It Comes at Night

I’ve always enjoyed titling pieces on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever come up with a more appropriate title for a movie.  And I say that because when you walk into the theater to see It Comes at Night, I’d highly advise you to surrender all expectations.  At a glance, this suggestion may come across as a criticism, which is not my intent.  I actually really invested my attention and energy into this film as I watched it, and I commend its originality, especially in a sometimes murky sea of similarly constructed modern horror films.  I have nothing scathing to say about it, but I think someone sitting in front of me and to my left said out loud as the credits were rolling, “What the fuck was that?”  To be sure, the type of story you’re expecting from the fairly elusive trailer is not the story you’re likely to receive.  Even the title of the movie seems crafted to intentionally deceive.  At the end of the day, because I always like to define horror broadly, I’ll say that yes, I’d situate It Comes At Night in the horror genre, but in many ways I found it highly unlike the horror I’m used to.  Bearing that in mind, I can’t help but talk about the film without giving away more than the trailer intends to reveal.  I also have a tricky habit of just saying whatever I want about a film on this blog, which often entails including spoilers (sorry).  So I’m not sure how much of the plot this post will ultimately reveal as I sit down to write, but know that by reading it you’re going to have information that the trailers don’t give you.  I will give you more warning about major spoilers.  With that in mind, continue if you dare. Continue reading “It Comes at Night – And You’ll See None of This Coming”

It Comes at Night – And You’ll See None of This Coming

What Makes Sinister So Scary?

Sinister 7With the mass-produced barrage of horror movies available to us – sometimes formulaic, sometimes cheaply made – it can be tempting for the jaded horror-goer to presume that nothing is truly scary anymore.  I offer no new argument, after all, when I contend that in our increasingly sensationalized visual culture, we become (or at least risk becoming) desensitized to so many horrible things, immune to so much tragedy.  It takes far more, at least from a visual standpoint, to scare us than it did sixty years ago (a fact that will be evident to anyone who compares The Haunting to an Eli Roth film).  This may not be the case universally, but it’s a general rule.  And still, scary movies are manufactured, and the passionate horror fan does encounter, every now and then, a film that is particularly, unexpectedly scary.  Such was my experience with the film Sinister, released about two weeks before Halloween in 2012 (although I saw it much later ).  Granted, Sinister is not as artistically scintillating as my two favorite horror movies of reference – The Shining and It Follows – but it’s still a well-made, incredibly unsettling film.  When I told Michael I wanted to write a piece about it, he reassured me that he wouldn’t be upset if I re-watched it without him; one time was enough for him.  So I sat down tonight, in my little Indiana apartment, with a focusing question in mind: What makes this film so scary?  While I may discuss other things in the post below, I am particularly interested in exploring possible answers to this question. Continue reading “What Makes Sinister So Scary?”

What Makes Sinister So Scary?

It Takes a Village (to Lambast a Filmmaker)

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Photo Credit The Village

While much of the world sits in judgement, furrowing its eyebrows at M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, it’s a film that’s near and dear to my heart.  Significantly, I didn’t even realize that was the case until I embarked on a Shyamal-a-thon this week and revisited many of his films after years of separation.  The Village, released in 2004, came out when I was a wayward sophomore in college.  In stark contrast to popular opinion, I liked the film so much I bought a copy of the DVD (which I didn’t watch much after that).  Despite my love of film and literature, my memory can be shoddy and I don’t always remember movies after I’ve seen them.  The Village, however, lingered in my mind long after the initial viewing.  As Michael and I watched it yesterday, I found myself able to predict almost every plot turn despite the time that’s lapsed since I last saw it.  A film has to be good, at least in my eyes, for me to remember it that well.  So I guess this piece is an attempt to defend the film – or to share why I like it – by pointing out the questions it raises, the tensions it explores, and why I think it’s so damn clever.  As per usual with M. Night, his tricky surprise ending will be revealed to give me full range of discussion and analysis, so brace yourself for spoilers. Continue reading “It Takes a Village (to Lambast a Filmmaker)”

It Takes a Village (to Lambast a Filmmaker)