Lacking Bite, “The Howling” Hasn’t Aged Well

1980s cult werewolf classic The Howling gets a new lease of life on Blu-ray courtesy of Studiocanal. Martin Carr, once terrified by Joe Dante’s film as a kid, dares to revisit it and finds it’s a far less frightening affair…

Back when this was released, The Howling might have been scary stuff, especially to a seven-year-old who definitely should not have been watching like me. Jump forward thirty seven years and the same scared child sat down to exorcise his childhood phobia at just after midnight. What soon became apparent however is just how dated The Howling now looks in comparison to anything from the modern era.

Featuring Dee Wallace before she appeared in Spielberg’s ET then vanished from film studios everywhere, The Howling feels low budget, trades on atmospherics over actual gore and suffers severely on Blu-ray. Directed by Joe Dante who went on to make Gremlins and The Burbs, there are few redeeming features which you could point to in this schlocky horror flick that are noteworthy. Bearing in mind this was around the time of video nasties the opening ten minutes certainly feeds into that specific preoccupation. Grainy handheld images combine with an overwhelming sense of dread and give everything a found footage feel, before such things existed. POV camera work also feeds into this as the audience are complicit, predatory and ultimately extremely culpable.

These opening moments are unfortunately the most inventive Dante’s Howling ever gets as the conclusion of this opening salvo ends in cliché. Isolated locations, strange locals and some shockingly wooden actors are only saved by landmark special effects. Most notably from maestro Rob Bottin who would famously go on to create Peter Weller’s Robocop make up amongst other things. However his contribution to The Howling in the form of a full transformation body, is only bettered by Rick Baker’s efforts for An American Werewolf In London also released in 1981.

For anyone interested in the workings behind practical effects these two men and particularly those two films represent key examples. Such is the skill on display that the stories themselves are almost surplus to requirement. In the case of The Howling these transformation sequences saved this movie from bargain bin obscurity and gained it cult status. In the cold light of 2017 however it feels like an episode of Columbo with cheap Seventies skin flick overtones, badly fitted werewolf dentures and obvious contact lenses. As for fear factor that is almost non-existent due to a made-for-television feel, which pervades everything beyond those opening ten minutes. A purchase for the aficionado only, The Howling has unfortunately aged badly making me wonder after an hour and half what in God’s name scared me to begin with.

the howling, two stars, film review, Top 10 Films

Written by Martin Carr

Directed by: Joe Dante
Written by: John Sayles, Terence H. Winkless
Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski
Released: 1981 / Genre: Horror
Country: USA / IMDB

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Top 10 Films reviewed The Howling on Blu-ray courtesy of Studiocanal. The film was released on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital on October 9.

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  1. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    Yes – one of the true delights in watching this as an adult is seeing Slim Pickens wandering around with his gut hanging over his sheriff’s belt. I think this review points towards something that I’ve always thought, even back in the first half of the eighties …. that Joe Dante was never that great. If anything, his trajectory is almost like that of Peter Bogdanovich’s a decade before during the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s (although, in defence of Bogdanovich, he was going okay up to Paper Moon – if one isn’t a fan of either The Howling or Gremlins, it’s difficult to see what the early fuss over Dante was really all about).

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    I’d fall into the camp that rated Dante’s early work highly. But you look at the IMDB ratings and you see a consistency in that middling 6.something area. I suppose that’s pretty good across a body of early work spanning 1978 to, say, 1990’s Gremlins 2. I watched Matinee (1993) in the last couple of years for the very first time. I wanted to like it but only found the odd bit of enjoyment. Here’s my review of Matinee.

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