Any film directed by Joe Dante is a film for the fans and 'The Howling' is no exception. The director's 1981 horror flick about a news reporter trying to regain her memory at a mysterious resort after a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer is chock-full of classic horror references. Everything from the character's names (Dr. George Waggner – named after the director of 'The Wolf Man,' and so forth), as well as little in-joke references and cameos from genre gods like Roger Corman and Forrest J. Ackerman are part of the reasons why 'The Howling' has earned a place amongst horror's best werewolf movies.
Dee Wallace plays Karen White, an L.A. news anchor who has captured the attention and affection of serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). When Karen acts as the bait in a police sting to catch Eddie, she's severely traumatized by the event and develops amnesia. Her therapist recommends she seek solace at a woodsy locale known as The Colony, where Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) encounter a cast of strange characters. The countryside resort turns out to be anything but therapeutic as Karen and her friend Terri (Belinda Balaski) soon uncover.
Whenever someone mentions 'The Howling,' one thing that's always talked about is the werewolf transformation scene and how well it compares to another much-loved wolfie movie that came out later that year -- John Landis' 'An American Werewolf in London.' Both films feature state-of-the-art special effects for their time, courtesy of two groundbreaking artists -- Rob Bottin and Rick Baker (who actually left 'The Howling' to work on Landis' movie). The films also share the horror-comedy label, despite finding their footing in the subgenre in different ways. While the reasons why horror fans draw comparisons between the two films seems obvious, it always felt a tad illogical to me -- if only due to the vast budget differences ('Howling's' one million versus 'AWIL's' 10 million).
Both transformation scenes are enjoyable for different reasons and really suit the overall style of the film. 'The Howling's' grimy subtext -- thanks to moments like the porn booth scene and other sexual overtones -- along with the main baddie in the guise of a serial killer and wolves that can shapeshift at will, made it feel more rooted in something real-life and corporeal. While 'An American Werewolf in London' shares some of this gritty appeal, the overall film feels more entrenched in classic werewolf mythology.
Despite the film's smaller budget, Bottin's special effects need not apologize to anyone. 'The Howling's' transformation scene put the artist on the map, allowing him to work with other genre greats like John Carpenter. The man-to-wolf sequence relies heavily on the use of bladders, which are hidden under latex makeup and filled with air to create the look of skin stretching and tearing. Sure, it looks a little goofy by today's standards, but it's one of the great examples of practical effects that horror fans reminisce about in an age of CGI-laden horror.
Check out the scene below and feel free to chime in with your thoughts on what makes it great or how it compares to other werewolf classics.