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.
The Food of the Gods (1976)
by Steve Habrat
Let’s just be honest here and admit that there are only a handful of notable horror films that deal with animals lashing out at humans. My personal favorites have to be 1954’s Them! and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Them! because the giant ants are so gloriously cheesy yet effective and The Birds because it is a prime example of Hitchcock building unbearable suspense. If you are looking for an animal-attack B-movie that should be the definition of schlocky, look no further than Bert I. Gordon’s 1976 film The Food of the Gods, which is loosely based off H.G. Well’s novel The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth. With absolutely horrendous special effects and some cringe worthy acting, The Food of the Gods is a gratuitously violent midnight movie with some great moments of unintended hilarity. Featuring gigantic attacking rodents, wasps, worms, and, most memorably, chickens, The Food of the Gods is the type of movie that requires you have downed at least a six pack of beer before deciding to subject yourself to it.
After a mysterious milky slime bumbles up from the ground on a secluded island in British Columbia, an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Skinner (Played by John McLiam and Ida Lupino), stumble upon it and see it as a gift from God. They decide to feed it to their chickens, causing them to grow to incredible sizes. A short while later, pro football player Morgan (Played by Marjoe Gortner) and two of his friends, Davis (Played by Chuck Courtney) and Brian (Played by Jon Cypher) take a hunting trip to the island where Davis is attacked and killed by giant wasps. Morgan and Brian leave the island but are lured back to seek out what really killed Davis. While exploring the island, they run in to a money hungry businessman, Jack Bensington (Played by Ralph Meeker), his assistant, Lorna (Played by Pamela Franklin), and a young couple, Rita (Played by Belinda Balaski) and Thomas (Played by Tom Stovall), who happen to be with child. After missing the ferry to get off the island, the small group finds themselves relentlessly attacked by giant rodents eager to rip them to bloody chunks. The group meets up with the God-fearing Mrs. Skinner and decides to barricade themselves in her home in an attempt to survive until the ferry returns.
Director Gordon was no stranger to giant critters attacking humans, as he made several films throughout the 50s and 60s that tackled the subject and gained himself the nickname “Mr. B.I.G”, which referred to his initials and the size of the antagonists in his films. The Food of the Gods seems like it a forgotten film from the atomic age just with more severed limbs and blood splashes. The film somehow ended up with a PG rating even though there is tons of gore to satisfy the entire family. The Food of the Gods is devoid of any real subtext or message outside of a warning to treat the environment with some respect because you never know when it may lash out at you (riveting stuff). The film also features some of the most hysterical actions from the cast that you will ever see. At one point, Lorna suggests that her and Morgan make love before the giant rats find a way into the boarded up home and eat them. I don’t know about you but stopping for a quick lay would be the LAST thing on my mind if I was trying to stay alive but I guess everyone is different!
If you aren’t giggling over the dated special effects, the overacting will have you in stitches. Gortner, who happened to be an ex-evangelist and spiritual healer (no joke) before he leapt to the big screen, is probably the best one in the entire film. He plays his role stone-faced and never once stops to laugh at all the absurdity he faces, even when he is asked to do battle with a giant chicken, which is the film’s highlight moment. The other notable player is Lupino as Mrs. Skinner, who hams it up begging God to save her from being devoured by giant rats. She gets a nasty bit that features her arm getting chewed off by giant mechanical worms. Everyone else is largely forgettable or just too ridiculous for words. Meeker is the typical jerk who lives too long but dies nice and gruesomely. Franklin is stuck with the worst dialogue in The Food of the Gods, her crowning moment coming when she suggests sex over trying to stay alive. Balaski is reduced to the cowering blob and Stovall spends too much time complaining about everything Morgan does to try to stay alive.
The Food of the Gods builds up to a violent last stand that features the destruction of a nearby dam that floods half the island, sending the giant rats to a watery grave (I’m being serious). Many of the special effects that we see are actually mini sets with rats scurrying over toy cars and plastic trees, all of which are extremely obvious. The one aspect of the film that actually impressed me were the scenes in which rats would be blown away by blasts from Morgan’s shotgun. These scenes feature live rats being thrown through the air as fake candle wax blood pours from their wounds. The climax of the film resembles the final stand in The Birds but without any apocalyptic chills running up and down your spine. Gordon opts to have the creamy ooze get in water which is drunk by cows on a nearby farm. The final scene is a child chugging a carton of tainted milk, hinting that there may be a sequel featuring a giant child (now THAT is scary). Overall, The Food of the Gods is a film that you could tolerate on a drunken double feature evening but just make sure that it is at the bottom of the bill so you have a nice buzz by the time you throw it on.
The Food of the Gods is available on DVD.