It’s impossible to consider Joe Dante’s follow-up to Piranha without comparing it to An American Werewolf in London, the lycanthropic tragi-comedy that overshadowed The Howling on its 1981 release. Both include huge set pieces taking place against porn backdrops, and each involves an isolated and superstitious community thematically contrasted with the metropolitan sophistication of the protagonists’ home territory. There is also, this being the early 1980s, a fetishisation of the metamorphosis and its achievement via prosthetics.
Whereas John Landis’ film concentrates on the personal and medical effects of the transformation, Dante is more interested in the Freudian cod-psychology of the shapeshifters, throwing in a vast amount of metatextuality for good measure. So here we have cameos from the likes of Kenneth Tobey, Roger Corman and John Carradine, along with characters named for the directors of earlier werewolf movies. The Howling is a horror aficionado’s wet dream.
It’s not an entirely successful one, though, and it’s never enjoyed the pre-eminence of American Werewolf. Landis’ film wore its influences with an air of self-deprecation, often immersing itself in its cinematicality, but Dante occasionally struggles to bring together the tonal dissonances of his disparate themes. The material in Los Angeles has the look and feel of a 1970s TV policier, whereas the relocation to the Colony attempts to integrate this with symbolic compositions, occasionally jarringly so but sometimes to great effect; it’s a disjunct brought into sharp relief in the restored Blu-ray transfer, which copes admirably with most of the soft focus but betrays some of the effects as extremely questionable. The Blu-ray also includes a nice enough selection of extras, but one that nevertheless feels inconsequential due to the non-participation of many of the major players.
Like Gary Brandner’s book this is the story of a marriage breakdown set against the carnality of nature reasserting itself, and Dante’s additional media focus provides a distance between the spectator and the material, allowing the observation to be separated from the consequences. Karen White (E.T.’s mom) is a news anchor being stalked by and on the trail of an apparent serial killer who refuses to abide by the distinction between his primal urges and civilisation’s sanitising effect, and a conspiracy is hatched that unfolds at a neat pace across the second half of the film. There’s also a killer twist in this tail, although one that’s so absurdly achieved it almost upsets the entire enterprise. The acting choices are equally inconsistent, albeit unsettlingly so for the viewer. This is in many ways a difficult film; an easy enough watch, but hard to immerse oneself in.
The Howling is Network meets The Island of Dr Moreau, a treatise on nature versus nurture that isn’t afraid to poke fun at its practitioners, and while it’s not as entertaining as American Werewolf, in the final reckoning it is in many ways the superior movie.
Special Features: Howlings Eternal / Cut to Shreds, Terence Winkless interview / Horror’s Hallowed Grounds / David Allen interview / Gary Brandner commentary
THE HOWLING / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: JOE DANTE / SCREENPLAY: JOHN SAYLES, TERENCE H. WINKLESS / STARRING: DEE WALLACE, PATRICK MACNEE, DENNIS DUGAN, BELINDA BALASKI / RELEASE DATE: 9TH OCTOBER