Wild Werewolves: The Howling (1981)
by Steve Habrat
Just four short months before John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London came ripping into theaters, director Joe Dante released The Howling, a stylish little werewolf horror film with a sleazy side. Lacking the big budget studio backing that Landis enjoyed (An American Werewolf in London was released through Universal Studios), The Howling has earned a respectable cult following over the years. It doesn’t particularly enjoy the mainstream recognition that Landis’ film receives, prowling just under the radar and seeming to relish its cult status. Despite all of this, The Howling is still an immensely enjoyable horror film, and its one that deeply rewards with its semi-veiled winks carefully placed by Mr. Dante. The Howling also enjoys its fair share of blood, sex, and nudity, kicking things off in a sleazy porn theater and ending with a rip roaring showdown between a bunch of pointy-eared werewolves looking to tear sheets of flesh from bone. As if the blood, beasts, and boobs weren’t enough to have horror fans drooling, it’s worth tracking down The Howling for the numerous nods to other horror filmmakers that Dante places throughout his film. You’ll thrill at tips of the hat to two of Hammer’s most famous directors, a handful of Universal Studios directors, and you’ll chuckle at a cameo from the B-movie king himself, Roger Corman. Now how can you argue with all of that?!
The Howling introduces us to Karen White (played by Dee Wallace), a Los Angeles news reporter who has been receiving perverted messages from a serial killer named Eddie Quist (played by Robert Picardo). One evening, Karen agrees to meet Eddie in a sleazy porn theater, but what Eddie doesn’t know is that Karen is working with the police in an attempt to get him off the streets. Before the police can rush in to nab Eddie, Karen catches a glimpse of her stalker’s face, and what she sees seems to frighten her to death. In the midst of all the chaos, Eddie is gunned down by a trigger-happy police officer. Over the course of the next few days, Karen is plagued by horrible nightmares about the encounter, something that deeply concerns her husband, Bill (played by Christopher Stone). At the advice of her therapist, Dr. George Wagner (played by Patrick Macnee), Karen and Bill head off to a secluded town called The Colony. Upon their arrival, Karen and Bill are greeted by a number of locals that all seem to be a bit peculiar. Bill finds himself being seduced by a woman named Marsha (played by Elisabeth Brooks) and they observe the bizarre suicide attempt of an elderly man named Erle (played by John Carradine). Things get even stranger when Karen is awoken in the middle of the night by what sounds like wolves howling. After a wolf-like creature attacks Bill, Karen begins to notice that Bill’s behavior is growing more and more suspicious. To make things worse, Karen’s friends, Terri Fisher (played by Belinda Balaski) and Christopher Halloran (played by Dennis Dugan), discover that Eddie Quist may not be dead after all.
Early on, The Howling resembles a seedy murder mystery—something that would have seemed right at home on 42nd Street. We drift through a sleazy part of Los Angeles, where porn theaters line the street and almost everyone seems like they are up to no good. When the action finally shifts from gritty street fare to woodsy tension, The Howling gets really entertaining. It takes some time for the werewolf action to really kick in, but when it does, it brings some impressive and downright intimidating werewolves with it. These suckers look like they were created by the Devil himself, with their pointed ears, glistening fangs, and towering height. It’s nearly impossible not to find these guys creepy. As if the werewolves weren’t gruesome enough for you, Dante springs a transformation on us that features bubbling skin, bulging eyes, pulsing necks, and bleeding fingernails. It certainly rivals what we saw in An American Werewolf in London, but Dante uses more cuts to mask all the effects, something that Landis wasn’t guilty of. Either way, it is still unbelievably gross and leaves you wondering how the hell they managed to pull that off in 1981.
As far as the performances go, most of the players turn in memorable roles; however, scream queen Dee Wallace really disappoints. Wallace’s Karen is consistently faint, scripted, and almost a bit confused as she squirms over what she saw in the porno theater. When she heads up to The Colony, she gains a bit of strength, but when it comes to her life being threatened, she just backs up against the wall and slightly cringes as a werewolf closes in. She doesn’t even put up much of a fight when she is drug before a several locals just waiting to unleash their inner monsters. She just hangs there until she can be saved. Stone finds a groove as Bill, Karen’s frustrated husband that is slowly being pulled into the arms of another woman. Picardo is sweaty and perverted as Eddie, a serial killer with an even more dreadful secret. He will make your skin crawl as he proclaims to think that Karen has a sexy voice, all while she is screaming bloody murder. Elisabeth Brooks smolders as Marsha, a nymphomaniac that can get vicious in the blink of an eye. Dennis Dugan’s Christopher gets to be the hero of the film, arming himself with some silver bullets to put down the beasts of The Colony once and for all. The appearance of John Carradine as Erle is also a treat, a crazy old coot that is constantly trying to get the attention of those around him.
Considering that The Howling and An American Werewolf in London were released the same year, it’s almost impossible not to compare the two of them. While the films are evenly matched most of the way through, The Howling may come out ahead when it comes to the climax. Where An American Werewolf in London just abruptly ends on a highly emotional note, The Howling is alive with plenty of werewolf action that will have you jumping out of your seat. As if all the silver bullets, exploding cars, burning barns, and snarling werewolves weren’t enough, we are treated to one more surprise before the film can fade to black. When it comes to discussing the rest of The Howling, the film seems to know what horror fans are craving, We are treated to a sex scene that finds both individuals morphing into werewolves, one character digging out a piece of their head to give someone a “piece” of their mind, and there is also a melted face complete with bone and muscle visible (in this department, An American Werewolf in London had them beat). Overall, The Howling is an addictive little werewolf horror movie that tips its hat in inspired and subtle ways to the subgenre. It features some of the coolest look werewolves out there and the climax is a fiery hoot. This is frightfully good fun with a wink.
The Howling is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Wild Werewolves: An American Werewolf in London (1981)
by Steve Habrat
Before 1981, John Landis was far from a horror director. He hit it big with 1978’s Animal House, a college sex comedy that was all about chugging Jack Daniels and having a good time. He followed up Animal House with 1980’s The Blues Brothers, another comedy smash that seemed to suggest that Landis was sticking to the comedic track. However, in 1981, Landis revealed that he had a bit of range as a director with An American Werewolf in London, a horror film heavy with dark chuckles. As far as the horror side of An American Werewolf in London is concerned, the film isn’t nearly as scary as you’ve been led to believe. Over the years, there have been many lists ranking the scariest films of all time, most of which feature An American Werewolf in London, but the film seems to be a victim of its own hype. Despite not being overly spooky, the film still features several unsettling nightmares that surprise with the sledgehammer-to-the-head extremity and a transformation sequence that still manages to astonish first time viewers. The most charming aspect of An American Werewolf in London is undoubtedly the dark humor that Landis weaves together with his loving nods to Lon Chaney Jr.’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man.
An American Werewolf in London introduces us to David Kessler (played by David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (played by Griffin Dunne), two Americans backpacking through the English countryside. David and Jack decide to rest at a small pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, were they are met with an icy greeting from the locals. As they settle in for a drink, David and Jack notice a five-pointed star carved into the wall, which they immediately inquire about. The locals instantly ask them to leave, warning them to stay on the main road and to beware of the full moon. Confused, David and Jack leave, but they soon find themselves off the path they were warned to stay on. Things get worse for the two backpackers when they begin hearing faint growls and menacing howls circling around them. Suddenly, a wolf leaps at them from the darkness, killing Jack and severally wounding David. Three weeks later, David wakes up from the attack in a London hospital, where he learns about the death of his buddy. Over the course of a few days, David seems to be recovering nicely from the wounds that he received, but when he drifts off to sleep he suffers from horrible nightmares. Things get even more bizarre for David when the deceased Jack comes to visit him in the hospital and explains that a werewolf attacked them. Jack warns David that he must kill himself before the next full moon, or he will be responsible for more deaths. Soon, David is released from the hospital and begins shacking up with Alex (played by Jenny Agutter), a beautiful nurse that he struck up a romance with while bedridden. Things seems to be getting better for David, but the rotting Jack returns to warn him of the beast lurking inside.
An American Werewolf in London begins spooky enough, with a sudden attack that certainly gets the viewer’s heart pounding. As David and Jack wander around a darkened field, growling noises and anguished howls ring out all around them. The misty suspense erupts when a hairy blur comes shooting across the screen to leave our backpacking heroes a shredded mess. Landis manages to keep up the supernatural eeriness with David’s terrifying nightmares, which are all hilariously extreme in their own way. One dream finds a naked David sprinting through the forest when he suddenly leaps at a deer and rips its head from its body. Another dream finds David morphing into a demonic beast in his hospital bed as Alex cares for him. His final dream finds David at home with his family when several monstrous Nazi soldiers come bursting in to gun down everyone in the home. After these impressive little explosions of terror, Landis falls back on his skills as a comedic director, allowing us to find the humor in things like David waking up nude in a zoo after a night of werewolf mayhem. We get to chuckle at David’s attempts to get clothing, all of which are cleverly awkward. There is also some humor to be found in the gruesome visits from Jack, who picks up a Mickey Mouse action figure and makes it wave at David. I doubt Walt Disney would have found that one funny!
With its sense of humor finely tuned, Landis gives An American Werewolf in London even more personality through its make-up effects, which went on to nab an Academy Award. There is certainly no shortage of gore to be found, especially in the final moments when werewolf David causes chaos in Piccadilly Circus. There is a massive car pile-up, which results in bodies being thrown about like confetti over the finale. Buses run over people, heads go smashing through windshields, and a police officer’s head is ripped clean off by David’s fangs. Then there is Jack, who over the course of the film decomposes right in front of our eyes. Early on, his wounds are undeniably vicious as shards of skin dangle from his neck and blood covers about eighty percent of his body, but as the film continues, he begins to turns a greenish color and his eyeballs pop out of his skeletal head. All of this make up work doesn’t even compare to what Landis has planned for us about halfway through the film. As the full moon takes to the sky, we get to see David’s transformation up close and personal. Through Rick Baker’s amazing effects, we see thick sheets of hair poking through the skin, David’s hands and feet stretching into paws, fangs poking through the gums, and his face sprouting a snout. It’s all done through practical effects and only a handful of cuts. This sequence alone makes An American Werewolf in London essential viewing for cinema buffs or those who can appreciate the art of special effects.
As far as the performances go, everyone does a fine job with their respective roles. Naughton is spot on as the freaked-out David, who grapples with how to properly deal with his new curse. Does he end it all or does he find an alternative solution? He’s certainly gifted in the comedic sequences, especially the scene that finds him sprinting through a zoo in nothing but his birthday suit. Dunne hams it up as the talking corpse Jack, a “meatloaf” that drops by every now and then to remind David that something awful is waiting to emerge. Agutter is pleasant as the beautiful nurse Alex, a gal who finds herself quickly falling for the cursed David. John Woodvine is also on hand as David’s doctor, Hirsch, who gets to play detective after hearing David say that it was a wolf that attacked him. When it comes to An American Werewolf in London’s biggest flaw, it is difficult to ignore the abrupt ending, which cuts off on raw nerve emotion. You’d like to see what happens next, but Landis just slams the book shut on us and tells us to scram. Overall, while it favors laughs over screams, An American Werewolf in London is still a shrewd little werewolf horror film. It makes wicked use of music, the special effects will boggle the mind, and it features some marvelously set piece around London. It’s just a shame that the abrupt climax will leave you howling with disappointment.
An American Werewolf in London is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
TRAILER THURSDAY! Halloween Edition
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
by Steve Habrat
In 1979, a small little Austrian action thriller called Mad Max was given a limited release in the United States. The film made a measly $8 million in the U.S., but worldwide, the film took in over $100 million, which caught the eye of Warner Bros. The studio convinced director George Miller to come up with a sequel to his uneven and ultra-violent revenge tale and the rest is history. In 1981, American audiences were re-introduced to Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, a leather-clad follow-up that easily roars past the original film and leaves it choking on its dust. Released under the title The Road Warrior due to lack of audience familiarity with the first Mad Max film, Miller’s follow-up is just as high-octane and colorful as his first film, but The Road Warrior possesses a consistency that the first film didn’t quite enjoy. There is no abrupt revenge climax and the best action sequence doesn’t come blasting at the viewer in the first fifteen minutes. The Road Warrior saves the blistering best for last, a heart-in-the-throat chase executed with real death defying stunts and gnarled steel. And then there is Gibson, turning his vengeful Max into a silent legend who is only looking out for himself.
The Road Warrior begins with a flashback that explains that oil supplies have nearly run dry, and an apocalyptic war has wiped out all remaining law and order. The roaming gangs and surviving humans are locked in a constant battle over the remaining tanks of oil. Among the survivors is Max (played by Mel Gibson), a scowling loner who is still licking the wounds of his family’s brutal demise at the hands of ruthless motorcycle gang leader Toecutter. After narrowly surviving an attack by another motorcycle gang, Max stumbles upon a wandering Gyro-Captain (played by Bruce Spence), who attempts to ambush Max while he tries to steal fuel from his autogyro. Max disarms the Gyro-Captain, who quickly tells Max about a local oil refinery that has been taken over by a band of survivors. Max forces the Gyro-Captain to take him to the oil refinery, where he discovers that the same gang that attempted to attack him on the highway are also attacking the refinery. After the attack, Max finds a wounded refinery survivor, who tells Max that if he gets him back to safety, he can have all the fuel he wants. Max takes the man back to the refinery gates, but the leader of the group, Pappagallo (played by Michael Preston), refuses to make good on the deal. The refinery survivors take Max prisoner, but the gang that has been terrorizing them soon returns to their gates looking to strike a deal. The gang’s leader, The Humungus (played by Kjell Nilsson), explains that if the survivors will hand over their oil, then they can have safe passage from the gang’s territory. The survivors are about to agree when Max steps in and explains that there could be a way for the survivors to protect their precious fuel and escape the gang’s clutches.
After a slightly disturbing, stock-footage heavy stage setter, The Road Warrior jumps right into another high-speed pursuit across the barren wasteland. Miller smashes up more cars and sends more leathery punks careening right at Max’s armored Interceptor, which roars triumphantly along the highway in intimidating black. Motorcycles and supped up rides smash through highway wreckage and bodies go tumbling like dummies through the air. Barely a word is spoken as the carnage blasts the picture to smithereens. Unlike the first Mad Max, this car chase isn’t the highlight of the entire film. Further down the line, we are treated to wide shots of the gang relentlessly attacking the oil refinery, jumping their motorcycles at the walls like the crazed maniacs that they are. With the lack of computer effects (it was 1981, folks), these attacks are so white-knuckle because they are being executed with real flesh and real machine. There is not a phony stunt to be found within the action. Miller is just teasing us, as he works up to a car chase finale that involves a rusted tanker, a slew of armored dune buggies, the autogyro, and more high-speed destruction than you can handle. And believe me when I say it looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, better than anything we see in the CGI-heavy blockbusters of today.
Standing out amongst the twisted metal are the flesh and blood characters, especially Gibson’s animalistic Max. Stripped of his family man warmth, Max has let himself be overcome with his vengeance. He no longer fights for others and even if he wanted to, the Main Force Police is long gone. He looks out for only himself, scavenging to make it from day to day while chowing down on some dog food that he shares with his four-legged pooch. Near the end, when Max sits behind the wheel of the tanker, we catch a glimpse of the man he once was, a man fighting for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Preston’s Pappagallo is the figure the guides Max back onto the helping track. He pleas for Max to help them make their escape from the bloodthirsty gang that won’t let them go. Spence’s Gyro-Captain is more of a cartoonish sidekick to Max, but he turns out to be pretty useful with a Molotov cocktail. Nilsson’s homoerotic villain The Humungus conceals a mutated mug behind a futuristic hockey mask and enjoys keeping any gang member that displeases him on a leash as his personal pet for a day. Vernon Wells turns up as The Humungus’ crazed lieutenant, Wez, who leads the early highway attack on Max. Emil Minty is present in a small but significant role as the Feral Kid, a grunting little runt with a seriously deadly boomerang.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Road Warrior is how surprisingly violent the film actually is. While there were a few gruesome deaths and images in Mad Max, a good majority of the violence was kept off screen. The Road Warrior is a completely different story. People are thrown off motorcycles, strapped to the front of dune buggies and then tortured, rundown, or taking a boomerang right to the side of their head. This is a shocker considering that the original Mad Max was a foreign import made outside the studio system. In addition to the amped-up violence, there is a strong sexual and homoerotic feel to some of the characters, especially in The Humungus and Wez, but this touch is oddly fitting for the film. It also gives way to one of the film’s greatest sight gags, which involves two of The Humongous’ gang members having sex in a tent, only to find themselves out in the open after a car goes roaring past. Overall, with timeless effects, distinct characters, and skull-crushing action, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior has stood the test of time and become a highly influential action classic. It is a massive step up for the Mad Max series and it ranks near the top of the greatest action films ever made.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Anti-Film School Recommends This Film…
Evil Dead (2013)
It has been a slow few months in Blu-ray release land, but I’ve finally got one that I think is collection worthy, especially for you horror fiends out there. If you are any kind of a horror fan, you rushed right out in April to dry heave over all the nastiness in Fede Alvarez’s rusted Evil Dead reboot. While it wasn’t particularly scary, the film was a boomstick blast of brutality that had to be seen to be believed. Evil Dead also turned out to be one of the better horror remakes that I’ve ever seen, and trust me, they very rarely get my approval (to date, the only ones that I really like are Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Halloween (2007), and The Crazies (2010)). Visually striking and hugely entertaining, Evil Dead will most certainly look amazing on your 1080p television and makes for a wicked little alternative for when you’ve worn yourself out on Sam Raimi’s 1981 original. If you’ve got a Target nearby, make sure you head there to get your claws on the Target Exclusive Steelbook Edition, which has some killer box art. Some of the special features include a number of documentaries, a commentary with the cast, and even an interview with none other than Bruce Campbell.
So, if you wish to read Anti-Film School’s review of Evil Dead, click here. Otherwise, grab those credit cards and head over to Target so you can add this beast to your horror collection. It is one of the few remakes that deserves to be there.
-Theater Management (Steve)