Yeah, it's rated R. The first thirty minutes are almost trying to be offensively shocking. There's violence, gore, nudity used in the context of pornography, sexuality. It's a hard R. If the entire movie followed the tone of the first half hour, the movie might have even gotten an NC-17. The whole thing is pretty R-rated, but if you can make it through the first half hour, those edges get smoothed out. R.
DIRECTOR: Joe Dante
I have so much I want to say about this, but the most important thing that I have to communicate right now is that Robert Picardo plays the alpha werewolf. Full head of hair, ripped bod...Robert Picardo. I mean, good for him. That guy is amazing. It's just that I kept on looking for Robert Picardo when I saw his name in the credits. At a certain point in the movie, about 60% of the way through, you realize that you've met every character. It was in that moment where I was, like, wait...that's Robert Picardo? Some of you don't know who Robert Picardo is. That's okay. You have a wonderful journey ahead of you watching this legend. He's a Star Trek guy, if that helps. But also, that was a satisfying reveal. Good on you, Picardo. Good on you.
When I watch horror movies, I tend to stay away from werewolf movies. It's a dog / cat thing. You're either vampires or werewolves. I tend ot find vampires fascinating and find werewolves to be kinda meh. But then, I might be wrong on that one. I always thought that I just liked one werewolf movie, namely An American Werewolf in London. But this spooky season has been about seeing what all the hubbub is about when it comes to tried and true horror movies. As much as I've seen the classics, I haven't seen all of the cult classics. As part of that, I've never seen The Howling. I'll tell you, despite having a rough start, The Howling is kind of great. The twist got me. I think as a conceit, it works really well. I'm dancing around it, so I'll just get to it. I love that the entire Colony is a place for werewolves. I love that Doc was responsible for the whole thing and that he's somehow this noble werewolf who let morality slip through his fingers. I love the notion, also, that you can have a werewolf who enjoys being a werewolf so much that he perpetuates this serial killer narrative around himself. That's nifty.
I think the problem I always had with werewolves is the narrative that we keep coming back to the victim storyline. Yes, I'm thinking of An American Werewolf in London again, but I'm also thinking of The Wolf Man and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But I'm going to talk about what The Howling made me realize. Fundamentally, if we're talking about deeper meaning to werewolves, it's all about repression. Vampires tend to enjoy being vampires. I know, that's not an across the board read of the characters. It's just that maybe The Howling is doing what I like about vampire stoires. They tend to embrace the evil within themselves. But with werewolves, there's something daunting about the whole thing. When a vampire unleashes and embraces its dark side, their faces sometimes change, but they are still fundamentally themselves. When a werewolf embraces that evil inside of them, it's a full on different creature. There's no nuance or subtlety. If a werewolf is chasing someone, it's a tank going after them. Rooms get destroyed. Everything is in disarray. It's running away from a tornado. That makes for a fun movie.
It's odd, because The Howling --potentially accidentally --does something interesting. It seems like that the rules for lycanthropy in The Howling doesn't change your personality. It just becomes about saying "yes" instead of "no", with the exception of Karen White. Don't get me wrong. That ending is near perfect for The Howling. At first I think the movie goes on too long. But it is all worth it watching Karen go full wolf on network television, only to be executed before a live feed. But the rest of the wolves, including and especially Bill, still stay who they are but also go ham on being a wolf. Like, Bill oddly becomes unfaithful before being bitten by Marsha. He allows the kiss to happen and then gets insensed after, claiming the moral high ground. But when he's attacked by werewolf Marsha, infecting him, he almost is given a pass to his animal desires. Lycanthropy is a freedom from moral norms. It's why that constant reminder that Bill is a vegetarian is important. He avoids meat, implying a moral responsibility to save animals and whatnot. But when Bill eats meat, it doesn't raise too many red flags. His reasoning? If he's hungry enough, he'll eat anything. He doesn't change his personality. It's just that he'll turn right instead of left.
So why does Karen turn on the werewolves? I honestly think that it is all chalked up to the torment she went through. Bill has it pretty easy before he's turned into a werewolf. He's seduced and leaves sexually frustrated by the entire situation. When he's a werewolf, that burden is removed from him. But Karen's entire interaction with the wolves is so toxic that it makes sense that, even devoid of the responsibilities associated with marriage, profession, or even just humanity, she is willing to sacrifice herself on live television. Sure, I'm sure that Joe Dante just wanted a rad ending. But that ending honestly works. If Eddie hadn't tortured her and stalked her, giving her PTSD, I can see her potentially being a happy werewolf the way that Doc wanted her to be. Actually, this leads to one of the odd flaws of the movie. It's kind of the same intellectual question that I have with haunted house movies. Why would the wolves torture her first?
We get hauntings in stories because we're watching a movie. There needs to be a structure where the rising action, or escalation, leads to a crescendo where the protagonists have to fight an enemy head-on. But there's this party where Bill and Karen are welcomed to the Colony. Knowing what you know at the end of the movie, about how all of the members of the Colony are actually all werewolves, it almost doesn't make sense how they act. Again, this is for the sake of storytelling. But there are multiple interpretations for the purpose of this scene. I can see that some people might want to warm Karen up to the notion of lycanthropy. It's odd, because she was traumatized by Eddie, a member of the community. I don't know why she's even at the Colony if she wasn't bitten. But okay, forget that. We need a story. It's when Marsha starts becoming this toxic element in the meet-and-greet that I don't wonder why they don't just turn her then. Instead, there's this odd seduction of Bill that has to happen first. Bill is go-with-the-flow. He hunts with the werewolves, despite never having hunted before. It seems like there's odd motivations for having Karen there for so long before revealing themselves in the worst possible of ways.
But, remember, I'm a guy who likes this movie. That final sequence when everyone doesn't believe that Chris has silver bullets is perfect. I mean, add the Homelander quote right here because it is so satisfying seeing all of these wolves go ham on the protagonists at the same time. Also, I honestly thought that the end was going to be anticlimactic with the burning of the wolves in the barn. But then the final sequence kept going. Man, that ending just kept on surprising me with just another element that I was not ready for. Honestly, sometimes that would annoyed me. I normally say that more doesn't equal better. But with a movie like The Howling, Dante understood the promise that he kept making. Again, we're looking at Hitchcock's defintion of suspense. It's not the bullet being fired; it's the anticipation. For the entire movie, I thought that Dante was afraid to show werewolves. Like the shark in Jaws, the notion of keeping these werewolves off camera seemed like a practical thing that we were never going to see. But the effect is "I really want to see a werewolf." Then we see a werewolf and it seems really expensive. (It's not perfect, but it's 1981 good.)
But when they revealed that everyone but the main characters are werewolves, Dante completely delivers on this promise that we're going to see a bunch of werewolves go ham. It's great. And those characters take some damage. Even within the sequence, I thought that Dante was going to hold back, just exposing teeth and claws. Nope. Like, five werewolves attack the car at the same time and Karen gets a big ol' bite in her. It's a fantastic final act that is effectively scary and action packed at the same time. It works really well.
One thing that I don't understand about werewolf movies is the following: watching the transformation. I mean, since American Werewolf, we've felt the need to watch this thing slowly transform into a wolf. (Okay, The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, Jr. did that first. But in terms of making it a little gory and practical, that might have been American Werewolf.) But at one point, Eddie has Karen in a room and he really wants to scare her by going full wolf in front of her. He wants to give her the whole show and he does a willful transformation. But the cool thing about werewolf transformations is that they are really slow and really gory. Why does she just stand there? He seems like he's really uncomfortable and unable to move. She just watches him for what seems like three minutes. That's three-minute head start in my book. Or, you know, hurt him then while he still has soft human parts? I know why she doesn't run. She's the avatar. We see what she sees. We want to see the whole transformation, so Karen has to be there. But in reality? Nope. Get out of there. Don't just stand there looking horrified. It doesn't look like that's one of her fight/flight/or freeze responses. She waits for him to change before boning out of there.
Anyway, the movie works way better than I thought it would. I don't know if I would watch it again. But I can now preach that The Howling is one of those top tier werewolf movies and that maybe werewolf movies have a solid place in my horror canon.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.