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Wild Werewolves: The Howling (1981)

The Howling #1

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.

The Howling #2

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.

Grade: B+

The Howling is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Piranha (2010)

by Steve Habrat

I really don’t know why I didn’t go see Alexandre Aja’s 3D remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha back in the summer of 2010 but I do kick myself now for never taking the time to go check it out. What a hearty dose of gruesome fun in the sun this Piranha out to be! Aja, who is responsible for the wickedly clever 2003 French horror film High Tension and the hair-raising 2006 redo of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, doesn’t shy away from giving us exactly what we would want to see in a film called Piranha. Yes, we see one of the hungry terrors actually burp out a penis, a girl get her blonde locks tangled in a boat engine propeller, and tons more assorted carnage for any horror fan to go bonkers over. Piranha also happens to be a mighty fine tribute to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, even giving us one hell of a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, donning the same wardrobe that he did while battling that iconic great white shark. While Joe Dante’s original film was basically Roger Corman’s quick cash in on the popularity of Jaws, Piranha fully gets that and it plays with it quite a bit. It also seems like Aja has it out for obnoxious spring break college kids who say “bro” too much, enjoy showing off their tribal tattoos, and hate anyone wearing a Pixies t-shirt. Oh boy, does Aja get them good.

Piranha begins with fisherman Matt Boyd (Played by Dreyfuss) fishing and enjoying a couple cold brews out in the middle of Lake Victoria, Arizona, one sunny afternoon. After accidentally causing a small earthquake that cracks the lake floor, Boyd’s boat is pulled into a whirlpool that unleashes thousands of hungry piranhas that proceed to rip him to shreds. Meanwhile, Lake Victoria is crawling with scantily clad tourists who are ready for spring break shenanigans. Among them is local seventeen-year-old Jake Forester (Played by Steven R. McQueen), who is eager to join the party. Jake’s mother, Sheriff Julie Forester (Played by Elizabeth Shue), is consumed with keeping an eye on the drunken college kids and has barely any time for him or his two younger siblings. Jake ends up meeting porn filmmaker Derrick Jones (Played by Jerry O’Connell), who offers him some money to take him around to local hot spots so he can shoot some steamy footage. Jake agrees and takes off on a boat trip around Lake Victoria, bringing his crush Kelly (Played by Jessica Szohr) with him for the ride. As word gets to Julie about the disappearance of Matt Boyd, she teams up with her tough-as-nails Deputy, Fallon (Played by Ving Rhames), to find him. Soon, more bodies pile up and Julie is forced to investigate what is causing these deaths or close the lake. She ends up taking a group of seismologist divers to the crack in the lake floor where they make a terrifying discovery.

Once Piranha gets moving, the film really bares its teeth and chews you up, right down to the bone. Things get NASTY. The death scenes here are seriously grizzly with a heavy sprinkling of camp. The final half of the film is a never-ending bloodbath that features one memorable death scene after another. Drunken college kids are chewed in half by the scurrying school of death lurking just below their inner tubes. One naked girl after another is chewed up to the point where they are floating skeletons while one gets the top half of her chest chopped off. You can’t help but laugh when splat pack director Eli Roth shows up as the judge of a wet t-shirt judge who meets his maker by getting a speed boat to the face, spraying his gooey brains all over the tanned mug of a horrified hottie who is looking to show off her double D’s to thousands of chanting beefcakes. It practically leaves you exhausted even at its brief eighty-nine minute runtime. If you have ever found yourself annoyed to no extent by abrasive sex-starved teenage idiots, this is the movie for you. Aja apparently can’t stand them either and he makes you know it.

While it lures you in with its excesses, Piranha has a surprisingly clever cast keeping this pleasure cruise on course. I just couldn’t stop laughing over the sweet cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, who seems to be having a grand old time at this B-movie soirée. Shue and Rhames as the heroes here are exactly what you would expect. They don’t really blow your mind but I never expected them to. Rhames does get a nifty sequences where he rips the engine off a dingy and uses it to hack up a school of charging piranha. McQueen and Szohr get the typical teen roles of looking good for the camera while Jerry O’Connell dances around them in a cocaine fury. O’Connell’s Derrick is just as unpleasant as he should be and you will be counting the seconds until he comes to face to fangs with the chomping menace.  Also on board is Parks and Recreation cast member Adam Scott as the hilarious Novak, the head of the team of seismologist divers. Scott happens to be a welcome presence in anything he is in and he adds some more welcome humor to an already hysterical experience. The other awesome cameo is Christopher Lloyd (Yes, THAT Christopher Lloyd) as a pet shop owner who identifies the piranha as an extremely violent species that went extinct two million years ago.

Using almost the same plotline as Jaws, Piranha 2010 is more of a loving tribute than sloppy rip-off. It affectionately winks at the Spielberg classic, which I think is why I liked it as much as I did. Judging by some of the shots found here, I can assume that this had some truly awesome 3D to hold the audience’s attention and would have been fun in a big theater. The guys get an extended sequence of two nude women swimming around like dancing mermaids while the girls will scream over a piranha belching out a chewed up penis right at them. In addition to those two moments, the engine wielded by Rhames looked like it would have been pretty neat in 3D as does the darting school of piranha, who leap at the screen like aquatic demons. The film luckily doesn’t go on for very long, making it even more likable than it already is. Aja doesn’t hesitate to show the audience that he is capable of really creating a suspenseful mood and really freaking us out. He really is a talented guy who should be given more horror projects. Piranha may not make you a better person and it may not challenge you intellectually, but you just won’t be able to resist its B-movie allure, even if that allure is dripping with blood, guts, and tons of nudity.

Grade: B

Piranha is available on Blu-ray and DVD.