31 Days of Fright: The Howling

T.C., very literally a wolf in sheep's clothing.

T.C.: very literally a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is the early ‘80s werewolf classic, The Howling, directed by modern B-movie great, Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace). The Howling was a request from donor, friend, and one of the National Magazine Awards organizers, Richard Johnson. Again, I rented the movie from the good people at Queen Video.

What happens:

In the year 1981, everyone was making werewolf films. Not only did Roger Corman acolyte Joe Dante direct The Howling, but two other werewolf classics – An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen – were released that same year. The film’s opening credits run over television static and a background cacophony of audio. The sequence is fitting, as much of The Howling concerns television station KDHB, its reporters, and producers. At the moment, pop-psychologist, Dr. George Waggner (The Avengers‘ Patrick Macnee!) is being interviewed about his book The Gift, in which he insists that humans should not completely repress their animal natures. As he discusses his book on camera, our protagonist, Karen White (Dee Wallace), news anchor for KDHB, is playing the part of bait in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with a local serial killer, “Eddie the Mangler.”

Karen and Eddie have had an ongoing series of telephone conversations. In conjunction with the local police, Karen and the gang at KDHB have orchestrated a sting operation, during which Karen will be monitored and rigged with an audio wire. At least two officers are following her, and the news team are listening in from a nearby truck. Karen’s husband, Bill Neill (Christopher Stone, looking not unlike John Holmes), a health-club entrepreneur, waits in the truck with the producers, becoming increasingly nervous with this dangerous stunt. In a neighbourhood populated only by porno theatres and massage parlours, Karen waits by a pay phone (remember those?) marked with a happy face sticker until the call from Eddie comes. She answers and receives instructions from Eddie (who the audience can’t really see, but can sense is very sweaty). Around this time, the audio feed goes spotty and cuts out in the news truck. Producer Chris Hallorhan (Dennis Dugan) says all the neon lights are affecting the audio. (Is that a thing that happens?)

Karen enters a sex shop, quickly clearing out the store of its few male patrons. She walks until she sees another happy face sticker, her indication to enter that private viewing room. The film that plays in the room (which we only see in flashes) depicts a violent gang rape. Eddie, standing in the shadows, creeps up behind Karen and instructors her to “just watch.” Once he’s talked further about their special connection, he asks Karen (in a voice becoming more animalistic) to turn to see him. She gasps as she faces Eddie, but before we in the audience can see what he looks like, Eddie is shot. One of the two police officers who were following Karen opens fire on the door from which they heard screaming and shoots Eddie to death. Karen has been traumatized by the assault, and her startled reactions to the ambulance lights and the police who interview her reflect her emotionally fragile state. However, she claims not to remember anything about what happened in that private room.

The effects of the assault on Karen linger, progressing to night terrors. She and Bill are unable to be intimate (if you know what I mean), given her level of trauma. Meanwhile, two of the news producers, Chris and Terri Fisher (Belinda Balaski), follow up on a tip from a teacher who claims to have taught a weird kid named Eddie once. They go to this Eddie’s building and let themselves into his filthy apartment, wallpapered with news clippings of murders and (presumably) his own drawings, including one of Karen. Bizarrely, he also seems to have an affinity for drawing wolf-men and -women. They take the drawings to Dr. Waggner, who notes the similarities of killers and artists, as they make use of similar regions of their brains. The producers wonder if there might be enough material for a special, “The Mind of Eddie Quist.” Karen, meanwhile, returns to work, but freezes like a deer in the headlights her first moment in front of the news camera.

Our hero, Karen White, a little worse for wear after her face-to-face with a serial killer.

Our hero, Karen White, a little worse for wear after her face-to-face with a serial killer.

Dr. Waggner, knowing a psychological issue when he sees one, books an appointment, during which they try to recover Karen’s memory of the event. The attempt fails, and Waggner recommends she attend The Colony, his psychiatric retreat in the country. Karen and Bill soon make their way to The Colony, set in an idyllic woodland. Their very first night, The Colonists (?) are hosting some sort of combination beach cookout / country hoedown, which gives Karen and Bill the opportunity to meet their fellow compatriots. The partygoers include the owner of a nearby cattle ranch, Charlie Barton (Noble Willingham); an old man who belongs in a David Lynch film, Erle Kenton (John Carradine); and a friendly couple, Donna (Margie Impert) and Jerry (James Murtaugh). Oh, and an alleged nymphomaniac who looks like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks). And her brother, T.C. (Don McLeod), who looks like an escapee from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre family. Minutes into the cookout, Erle attempts to kill himself. It’s a good group!

Karen has trouble sleeping in their bungalow – and it’s not just the night terrors! She hears howling from the misty forest outside, but Bill assures her they’re normal wilderness sounds: “You were raised in L.A. The wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack!” She’s sure there’s something outside the bungalow, so she goes to investigate, but fails to find T.C. hiding in the bushes. (Eep.) The next day, Sheriff Sam Newfield (Slim Pickens) introduces himself as the law in these parts to Karen and Donna after their tennis game.

Back in the city, plucky reporters Chris and Terri go to the morgue to take a closer look at Eddie’s body. Only one problem: his body is completely missing, and the inside of the morgue drawer’s been completely scratched up! At The Colony, Karen and Donna smoke on the deck, but are distracted by some very strange-sounding cows. With Jerry’s rifle, they head into the woods to investigate, only to find a mutilated cow. Sheriff Sam Newfield and a deputy find them in the woods and tell them they’ve found another cow just like it. Something dangerous is living in the outskirts of The Colony. The next day, Karen participates in a group therapy session while Bill decides to tag along with the other men as they go hunting – much like Elmer Fudd – for rabbits. Bill’s never hunted before, but – unusual for a vegetarian – he’s willing to learn. Turns out he’s a natural!

Chris and Terri expand their investigation, and it takes them to an occult bookshop where they seek information on – you guessed it – werewolves. While they decide on the best werewolf guides to purchase, the bookstore owner does some werewolf mythbusting, contending that real werewolves aren’t affected by the moon– they can shapeshift whenever they’d like. But he’s certain silver bullets do kill them. He even has a case of authentic silver bullets on display.

At the tail end of the their hunt, Bill asks the nearly feral T.C. what he should do with the rabbit. T.C., full of wisdom, declares, “You kill something you don’t eat, that’s a sin.” He suggests Bill visit his sister, Marsha, and she’ll cook it for him. But it’s not rabbit that’s Marsha is interested in eating, and she puts the moves on the strapping Bill Neill. Moves that Bill readily shuts down. Weirded out by the sexually aggressive Marsha, Bill heads back to his bungalow through the woods alone. And that’s when he’s attacked by a werewolf, who claws open his shoulder before fleeing. Bill, however, is unaware it was a werewolf attack: “It happened so fast, I didn’t see what it was.” As a matter of course, Dr. Waggner gives him a rabies shot in the stomach. Karen wants to leave The Colony right away, but the good doctor advises against it.

Marsha and Bill Neill, who embarrassing dressed for completely different movies.

Marsha and Bill Neill, who embarrassingly dressed for very different parties.

Reporters (and couple) Chris and Terri watch television in bed together – they’re a regular Maury Povich and Connie Chung! – when they get a late-night phone call from Karen, who informs them that Bill was bitten by a wolf. This information is relayed exactly the moment when the werewolf movie they’re watching explains how a person becomes a werewolf. Terri leaves for The Colony the next morning, bringing her friends a meal from the outside world. Unfortunately, she forgot that Bill was a vegetarian, but he doesn’t seem to mind, voraciously digging into the meat. That night, Karen starts feeling randy, but Bill is still groggy from the rabies shots. Or is he? Because late that night, while Karen is asleep, Bill walks into the woods in just his robe for a midnight tryst with Marsha in the forest. Karen awakes to find Bill gone, and Terri awakes to weird howling sounds, which she records with her audio equipment. What she’s recording, in fact, are Bill and Marsha doing the wolf nasty. They begin to drool and slowly transform into wolves during their lovemaking session, eventually turning into full-on cartoon wolves. (Not kidding.)

Terri walks the grounds of The Colony the next day and makes a startling discovery: the scene at the lake before her is identical to one of Eddie Quist’s landscape drawings. Eddie Quist has been to The Colony! Terri continues on her Colony walkabout, coming across a cabin in the woods with some interesting decor choices (animal skins, bone wind chimes). She lets herself in and finds a door marked with a happy face sticker (ulp!) that leads to a private study filled with illustrations. This must be Eddie Quist’s cabin! And unfortunately, Terri isn’t alone. The cabin begins to shake and a massive werewolf bursts through the wall. Terri leaps through the window and grabs a hatchet from the wood pile for protection. The werewolf corners her under the deck of the cabin and begins to maul her from behind. But the resourceful Terri chops off the werewolf’s hand in a gory effect – one that gets even better as the claw pulses and throbs and turns back into a human hand. Terri flees and finds refuge in Dr. Waggner’s office, where she uses the telephone to call Chris.

At the other side of The Colony, Karen awakes from yet another nightmare. She notices fresh scratches across her husband Bill’s back, and he denies they’re new. He claims they were from the animal attack. Karen accuses him of sleeping with Marsha and he responds by smacking her across the face. (We no longer like Bill.) Terri, in her phone call to Chris, claims Eddie Quist is alive and at The Colony. Chris suggests she look in Dr. Waggner’s files under “Quist.” Not only does Terri find a file for Eddie Quist, but files on Marsha and T.C. Quist, as well. (Uh oh.) That’s when a wolf hand grabs the file from her hands. Chris is helpless as he hears the werewolf attack his girlfriend on the other end of the telephone. He hangs up to call the sheriff’s office, but he’s too late. Though Terri temporarily blinds the werewolf with a bright light, the massive werewolf eventually chokes Terri and tears into her throat.

Chris, unwilling to leave this rescue in the hands of a bumbling local sheriff, runs to the occult bookstore and buys the entire case of silver bullets before hopping into his sports car. Back at The Colony, Karen drops in on Dr. Waggner’s office, where she finds Terri’s dead body, torn asunder. She tries to use the phone, but it’s been disconnected. That’s when a mostly-human Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) emerges from under a sheet, a bullet wound still in his head. He tells Karen he wants to give her a piece of his mind, then literally digs into a wound in his forehead (gross!) with his finger, and picks out the bullet. Then begins one of the longest wolf transformations in history, with Eddie’s skin pulsing and slowly becoming more vulpine in the time it takes to brew a fresh pot of coffee. All while Karen waits and watches in horror. (It’s inordinately long, but a very effective practical effects scene, nonetheless.)

Karen reaches behind her to find the jar of acid that Dr. Waggner, like most therapists, always keeps on his desk. Once Eddie is fully transformed, she tosses the acid at his face and races to her car. But she’s grabbed by Jerry and Charlie Barton, who forcibly bring her to a barn on The Colony grounds. The entire Colony is there, milling around Terri’s flayed body displayed on a table. Marsha seems to preside over the ceremony. Inexplicably, a head on a pike stands behind her. Meanwhile, we witness Chris driving like a madman to arrive at The Colony before he’s too late.

Terri realizes there's only so much reading about werewolves in theory will help.

Terri realizes there’s only so much reading about werewolves in theory will help.

Completely disoriented by the scene in the barn, Karen is relieved when she spots Dr. Waggner. But his face tells her she shouldn’t be. Everyone in The Colony is a werewolf, Dr. Waggner included. “The Gift” referenced in his book is lycanthropy. As Karen tries to figure out how to escape, the assembled werewolves argue over their future direction: should they start hunting people again or keep to their current course of eating cattle? (It’s like a werewolf strategic plan meeting.) Marsha eventually overrules the cattle-proponent doctor, and informs him (with a scratch across his face) that Karen is theirs now. The wolf-people advance on Karen, and T.C. demonstrates how Terri wounded him, showing her his bloody stump.

Chris arrives at The Colony and first heads to Waggner’s office, where he’s startled by Eddie, who easily wrests his rifle from him. Eddie is in his human form now, but the acid attack has left his face a bloody mess. Eddie, revelling in his power over the seemingly helpless Chris, tells the man what he did to Terri, and plays an audio recording of her final moments. The wolf man passes the gun back to Chris, confident it will have no effect on him. But Eddie wasn’t expecting the rifle to be filled with bullets with an atomic number of 47. Chris shoots Eddie in the neck as he begins to transform into a wolf, then moves on to the barn.

When he arrives at the barn, the Colonists are about to kill Karen. Chris lifts his rifle, warning them he’s loaded it with silver bullets. “Silver bullets, my ass,” scoffs Jerry, mere seconds before dropping like a sack of potatoes. In his career as a news producer, Chris has apparently become an expert marksman, and he handily picks off the angry Colonists one-by-one as they approach. With some fancy footwork, Chris and Karen lock the remaining Colonists, all transforming into wolves, in the barn and douse it with gasoline. The wolves frantically attempt to escape the burning barn, but are trapped. Karen tearfully informs Chris that Terri is dead, and Bill (absent from the barn meeting) has probably been killed, too. They go to Chris’s Mazda and drive away from The Colony.

But, as Taylor Swift might ask, are they out of the woods yet? They most certainly not. The sheriff (half-transformed into a wolf!) has set up a roadblock and opens fire on our heroes. (I should note that this wolf cop predates the movie of the same name by over three decades.) Chris quickly outguns the sheriff, but he and Karen must flee from his car, about to explode from all the gunplay. They get in the police cruiser, but it fails to start. In moments, the car is surrounded by werewolves who try to bash their way into the car. Just when things are becoming overly grim, the car starts and Karen and Chris drive off. But one werewolf remains attached to the car. It breaks through the back windshield and sinks its jaws into Karen’s shoulder just Chris shoots it. In death, the wolf transforms back into Karen’s missing husband, Bill.

The next day, Karen – who survived the ordeal – is back at the television studio, shooting the evening news. The program opens with a story about a forest fire near a psychiatric retreat called The Colony, where police have found evidence of a “Guyana-like spectacle.” When it’s Karen’s turn to read the news, she takes the station head by surprise with a sudden editorial. She tells the many people watching at home that there exists a secret society of werewolves, and she’s going to prove it. Karen begins to transform into a wolf on camera, in front of millions of home viewers. Chris then runs onto the set with a rifle – must be an open-carry state – and shoots Karen dead, right on the six o’clock news.

The final scenes of the movie show audience reaction to this werewolf transformation, with the majority of home viewers believing it to be a hoax done with impressive special effects. Certainly no one in the bar seen at the end was convinced by Karen and Chris’s stunt. And in that very same bar, a young woman orders a burger, rare. The camera pans up and we see the ground-beef enthusiast is none other than Marsha Quist, alive and well. The camera zooms in on a burger being cooked and the end credits begin.

The Howling asks viewers the important question: Would you trust John Steed as your therapist?

The Howling asks viewers the important question: Would you trust John Steed as your therapist?

Takeaway points:

  • What differentiates The Howling from some of its fellow werewolf movies is the focus on pop-psychology. The ostensible leader of a wolf pack is a TV therapist, advising people to get in touch with their animal nature. This premise serves as an excellent joke, of course, but also demonstrates the filmmakers’ doubt of psychology’s dubious claims. What else could a therapy retreat be but a haven for a murderous werewolf cult? At the same time, the filmmakers also present a very thoughtful, realistic portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder in the story arc of Karen White (see below) So, rather than dismissing therapy entirely, The Howling seems to suggest that psychological trauma is very real, but one must be careful of the self-described experts (like Dr. Waggner) who will promise to cure you of it.
  • For an over-the-top monster movie, The Howling gets a lot right about post-traumatic stress. I make no claims to be an expert on PTSD, but if you compare Karen White’s ordeal with similar horror-movie heroines, her assault really affects her in a realistic way. The events of The Howling leave their scars. Karen is a strong character, but that doesn’t mean her trauma isn’t always present. She is uncomfortable in intimate moments with Bill after the film’s opening assault. Nightmares plague her. And – though, as I say, I have no great knowledge of this experience – the scene with the police and EMTs that immediately follows Eddie’s shooting seemed one of the better visual representations of coping with trauma in film.
  • Perhaps moreso than even Quentin Tarantino, director Joe Dante is the king of film references. Not only is the movie populated by some of his favourite character actors, it’s also filled with visual wolf gags, from Chris reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Bill reading a novel by Thomas Wolfe to the Wolf-brand chili the sheriff eats. Additionally, nearly all the characters in The Howling are named after directors of other werewolf movies, such as George Waggner (who directed The Wolf Man), William Neill (director of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), and Terri Fisher (who directed The Curse of the Werewolf … or, rather, Terence Fisher did).
  • Another neat tidbit about The Howling is how it takes a very And Then There Were None, drawing-room mystery premise – multiple residents of a retreat, one of whom is probably a killer – and takes it to an over-the-top extreme. The werewolf murderer is not just one of The Colony patients, nor is it a dastardly duo (a la Scream). Instead, literally everyone except our protagonist is a murderer.
  • Somehow, The Howling has seven (!) sequels.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: More scary than terrible. It’s not terrible at all. The Howling is a well-made movie, and features some really impressive makeup work – the standout being the severed T.C.’s wolf hand transforming back into a human one. At the same time, it’s not a movie that will keep you up at night for a week. The Howling is a solid werewolf flick with some thought behind it.

Don't be surprised when you see more outfits like this at Wimbledon in a few years.

Don’t be surprised when you see more outfits like this at Wimbledon in a few years.

Best outfit: At a certain point, I stopped keeping track and just wrote in my notes, “All the outfits in this movie are amazing.” Shot in that heady transition period between 1970s and ’80s fashion, The Howling has no shortage of incredible wardrobe choices. I was about to award Bill’s white jacket the top spot until I saw Karen White’s tennis outfit.

Best line: “Not all of us have money for a Mazda. Some of us actually have to work for a living!” – a motorist to Chris (harkening back to when Mazda was synonymous with luxury)

Best kill: A gunshot through the neck is usually a strong contender, and when you pair it with a villain who has just spent the past three minutes transforming into a werewolf, it’s even better.

Unexpected cameo: This movie is overflowing with amazing cameos, from Joe Dante stalwart Dick Miller as the bookshop owner to a nearly unrecognizable Robert Picardo – the holographic doctor from Star Trek: Voyager – as Eddie Quist. Plus, Slim Pickens (the guy who rides the atomic bomb in Dr. Strangelove) and Kevin McCarthy (from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers) make appearances. But most unexpected was the recently deceased star of Designing Women and Dave’s World, Meshach Taylor (!), as a young detective.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: If The Howling is to be believed, werewolves never believe you when you warn them you’ve loaded your gun with silver bullets. They’ll never take your word for it. You actually have to shoot them. Additionally, there’s a very thin line between artist and uncontrollable murderer.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: The Colony

Next up: The Exorcist III (1990).