This Week in 1981: 'The Howling' Transforms Horror Movies

1981 was a good year for werewolves. Thirty summers ago, we saw 'Wolfen' and 'An American Werewolf in London,' but even before those, on April 10, 1981, there was 'The Howling,' the innovative and influential movie that kicked off a werewolf vogue that persists to this day.

The film, about a traumatized woman ('80s horror mainstay Dee Wallace) who takes refuge in a remote woodland resort that turns out to be populated by werewolves, was notable for its frightening makeup effects. Rob Bottin brought an unprecedented realism (if that's the right word) to the movie's werewolf transformation scenes, even before the more celebrated work by his mentor, Rick Baker, appeared in 'London' a few months later. The movie also updated the mythology a bit. Silver bullets are still key, but here, the wolves are shapeshifters who can transform at will (no waiting for the full moon). Also, 'The Howling' has what may be the first wolf-on-wolf sex scene.

Also key was the movie's tone, which, while it didn't sacrifice scares, still made room for plenty of in-jokes. Credit director Joe Dante and script doctor John Sayles (who had previously collaborated on the similarly tongue-in-cheek 'Piranha') for their winking homages to older horror flicks - casting cult horror icons like John Carradine and Roger Corman, or strewing the set with wolf-themed props (like a copy of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl') or naming most of the characters after directors of previous werewolf movies.

Besides spawning six sequels, 'The Howling' gave significant career boosts to Dante (who landed 'Gremlins' because of it), Sayles, Wallace (soon to be cast as the mom in 'E.T.') and Bottin. It also launched the werewolf wave that included Michael Jackson's 'Thriller,' 'The Company of Wolves,' 'Wolf,' various franchises (the 'Teen Wolf,' 'Ginger Snaps,' 'Underworld' and 'Twilight' movies), up through such recent movies as 'The Wolf Man' and 'Red Riding Hood' and Tim Burton's upcoming 'Dark Shadows.' The new breed of werewolves is obviously not going away any time soon, and we have Dante's bloodthirsty shapeshifters to thank for that.

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This Week in Movie History

1914 (April 12): The first movie palace, the 3,000-seat Mark Strand Theatre, opens on Broadway amid New York's theater district. The venue transforms movie-going from cheap arcade entertainment in storefront nickelodeons to a premium communal performing arts experience, as 21,000 more palaces open around the country over the next two years.

1964 (April 13): Sidney Poitier makes history as the first black performer to win an Oscar for a leading role, winning the Best Actor Academy Award for 'Lilies of the Field.' It'll be another 38 years before a black woman wins Best Actress, with Halle Berry taking the prize on the night Poitier gets an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 2002.

1969 (April 14): In a rare Oscar tie, Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand both win Best Actress statuettes. Hepburn (who isn't present at the ceremony) wins her third trophy for 'The Lion in Winter,' while Babs (who is there) wins for her film debut in 'Funny Girl.'

1990 (April 15): Greta Garbo dies in New York City at 84, her mystique and allure intact and undiminished after half a century of retirement from movies and from public life.

This Week in Celebrity Birthdays

Lots of birthdays for young Hollywood this week. Emma Watson turns 21 on April 15, five days after Alex Pettyfer does the same. April 10 was also cake day for Haley Joel Osment (23) and Mandy Moore (27), while the 15th also sees Seth Rogen turn 29.

April 14 marks Sarah Michelle Gellar's 34th birthday. It's also celebration time for Academy Award–winners Adrien Brody (38 on the 14th) and Emma Thompson (52 on the 15th). April 16 is a birthday for both Martin Lawrence (46) and Ellen Barkin (56).

'Doctor Zhivago' co-stars Omar Sharif and Julie Christie both have birthdays this week, Sharif on the 10th (he's 79) and Christie on the 14th (she's 70). Also turning 79 is 'Cabaret' Oscar-winner Joel Grey (on the 11th), while 'Exorcist' star Max von Sydow, who made four movies last year, turned 82 on the 10th.

Going Out? New and Noteworthy This Week

'Scream 4' - Trailer No. 2


'Scream 4' (R)

Starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere
Directed By: Wes Craven
What's It About? A decade after the third installment seemed to put Sydney's (Campbell) serial killer nightmares to bed, she's back in Woodsboro as a self-help author when a copycat killer in a familiar Ghostface mask begins picking off those closest to her. Newswoman Gale (Cox) and lawman Dewey (Arquette), now married, are drawn in as well, along with some new blood (including Roberts and Panettiere).
Why Should You See It? Director Craven and writer Williamson, who shepherded the first three movies are back, along with the three key original cast members, so at least the franchise is in good hands. You can expect the same blend of genre-tweaking in-jokes and terrifying shocks and jolts that marked the earlier installments.
You Might Like It If You Like: The first three 'Scream' movies, 'I Know What You Did Last Summer,' 'My Bloody Valentine 3D'

Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews
Is 'Scream 4' Actually Scary?
Framed: 'Scream' | The Lasting Legacy of the 'Scream' Franchise
Interviews: Courteney Cox | Emma Roberts

'Rio' (PG)

Starring: Anne Hathaway, George Lopez, Jesse Eisenberg, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx
Directed By: Carlos Saldanha
What's It About? When Blu ('The Social Network's' Eisenberg), a domesticated macaw from Minnesota, learns that he is not the only one of his kind, the flight-challenged fowl takes off for the Brazilian rain forest in search of the bird of his dreams. But the soaring, independent-minded Jewel (Hathaway) doesn't see the two of them as birds of a feather, at least not until adventures and high jinks offer him a chance to prove his mettle.
Why Should You See It? It's from the folks who made the 'Ice Age' movies, so they know from funny talking animals and quality 3-D animation. Plus, the chirpy Hathaway and the awkward Eisenberg can do no wrong these days.
You Might Like It If You Like: 'Ice Age,' 'Horton Hears a Who,' 'Madagascar'

Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips
Do Celebrity Voices Matter in Animated Movies?


In Limited Release


'The Conspirator' is Robert Redford's historical drama about the aftermath of the Abraham Lincoln assassination, starring a top-notch cast that includes Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood and Kevin Kline.
Showtimes & Tickets | Cinematical's Review | Trailers & Clips

'Atlas Shrugged: Part I,' the movie Ayn Rand fans have been awaiting for more than 50 years, tackles the first third of her epic-length philosophical novel about a near-future America, hobbled by creeping socialism, whose most productive citizens are mysteriously vanishing. If this low-budget, star-free, ultra-faithful adaptation is a hit, Parts II and III will presumably follow.
Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews

Still in Theaters, Still Awesome


Hanna'Hanna': Saoirse Ronan and Cate Blanchett offer killer performances in the spy thriller that's the best reviewed movie currently in wide release. Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips

Soul Surfer'Soul Surfer': Another unlikely blonde teen heroine, albeit more family-friendly and uplifting than Hanna, is Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), the surfing champ who climbs back on the board after losing her arm to a shark. Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips

Your Highness'Your Highness': This follow-up from the makers of 'Pineapple Express' has inspired love-it-or-hate-it reviews, but if you're in the target audience for a medieval stoner comedy (you know who you are), you probably won't have much longer to catch this one on the big screen. Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews | Trailers & Clips

Staying In This Weekend?


New on DVD: Sure, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1' is very good, a dark, reasonably grown-up summation of the Hogwarts saga that's full of drama, mystery and emotion. But it's also frustrating, since it's basically just a long build-up to the apocalyptic final showdown between Harry and Voldemort that fans of the film franchise have been awaiting for 10 years. The DVD does contain a sneak peek at the first scene of 'Part II,' due in theaters July 15. Buy or rent the DVD | More new DVD releases

On Our Netflix Queue: The death last week of Sidney Lumet has prompted many best-of lists, most focusing on the director's celebrated New York crime dramas like 'Serpico,' 'Dog Day Afternoon,' and 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.' All of which you should see, of course, but there's been less focus on Lumet's skill as an adapter of stage plays, including 'Equus,' 'Deathtrap,' and 'The Seagull.' The strongest of Lumet's play-to-movie adaptations is 1962's 'Long Day's Journey Into Night,' from Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical drama of a family struggling through drug addiction and alcoholism, disease and thwarted dreams. The cast is all you could ask for (Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell), and the drama is intense and claustrophobic. Clearly not a film to watch if you crave light entertainment (or don't have three hours to kill), but still, not to be missed. Buy or rent the DVD

On TV: Like robins, crocuses and income taxes, a sure sign of spring is the reappearance of 'The Wizard of Oz' on TV. Apparently, Dorothy's emergence from drab, dusty, black-and-white Kansas into the lush, fecund, brightly colored world of Oz is a metaphor of seasonal rebirth that resonates only at this time of year. (There's probably also some Easter connection between yellow bricks and yellow chicks, or between the Lollipop Guild and candy eggs, but we're too tired to figure it out right now. Poppies, poppies...) TBS is airing the perennial favorite with limited commercials on Sunday at 8PM. Check your local listings


Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.