31 (More) Days of Fright: Silver Bullet

Look out! It’s a cross-eyed werewolf!

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is the Corey Haim / Gary Busey werewolf joint, Silver Bullet (1985), directed by Daniel Attias, who worked almost entirely in TV after this film. This film was not selected by any donors; rather it was an attempt to throw the werewolf genre a bone (get it?).

What happens:

Trigger warnings: Suicide.

Stephen King’s Silver Bullet (as that’s how the movie is billed) opens on a full moon. Set in the small town of Tarker’s Mills in 1976, the story chronicles a period when our teen narrator, Janey Coslaw (Anne of Green Gables herself, Megan Follows), tells us the town lived in terror. After the opening scene, viewers quickly realize why. Train worker, Ernie works late (and seemingly drunk on Rheingold beer). As he activates a railway switch, something unseen stalks him, Michael-Myers-like, from the bushes. Ernie just has time to see a large, claw-like footprint in the ground before his head is cut clean off by a werewolf.

When townspeople find Ernie’s severed head the next morning, no one suspects foul play: Ernie was known as a chronic drunk, and where his head and body fell make it appear as if he passed out with his neck upon the train track. Janey, in her voice-over, introduces us to her idyllic small town, where bake sales happen almost every weekend, and everyone in town attends church. Pillars of the community, Sheriff Joe Haller (Terry O’Quinn) and Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill) make some speeches at a spring fair, while Janey goes in search of her pesky younger brother, Marty. But before she finds him, she finds a garter snake hanging from a tree branch (yikes!). The snake prank was orchestrated by local pest Brady Kincaid (Joe Wright) and his friend / Janey’s brother, Marty Coslaw (Corey Haim). Marty is paralyzed from the waist down, and uses a wheelchair dubbed “the silver bullet” to get around. Backing away from the snake, Jenny falls into a mud puddle and ruins her nice clothes.

Janey runs away from Marty and Brady crying, and accidentally stumbles upon a domestic dispute: Stella Randolph (Wendy Walker) is pleading with her boyfriend, who refuses to admit the unborn child she’s carrying is his. Janey scurries back to her family. On their ride back home, the Coslaw parents (Robin Groves and Leon Russom) try to get their kids to make up, but Janey isn’t having it; she feels her parents favour Marty: “You always take his side because he’s crippled!” To irritate Marty, Janey tells him his favourite relative, Uncle Red, is an alcoholic who just got divorced for the third time (!). That evening, Marty, feeling shame over his stupid serpent-based prank, wheels into Janey’s room and leaves a pile of money on her nightstand so that she can buy replacement pantyhose for her now-mud-stained ones. Janey, who appreciates the gesture, gives him most of the money back, saying she’ll just buy L’Eggs.

It’s Anne of Green Gables, not Anne of Tarker’s Mills!

Across town at Stella Randolph’s house, her mother is running scales on the electric organ. Stella herself is upstairs, about to swallow a plate full of sleeping pills. “Suicides go to hell,” she muses, “especially if pregnant.” However, Stella never has the opportunity if that Catholic superstition is true, as a werewolf smashes through her bedroom window and begins to shred her up like pulled pork. (Gross!) Mother, hearing the commotion, grabs a pistol and moves to the bedroom, but she’s too late: Stella has been murdered and the killer has absconded before she arrives.

At the local watering hole, the townsfolk are riled up about Stella’s murder. Andy Fairton (Bill Smitrovich) thinks Sheriff Haller is incompetent, and many of the bar patrons agree. (Considering Stella was killed earlier that night, it’s unclear (a) how the entire bar knows about it, and (b) what they think the Sheriff should have accomplished by now.) The next day, Marty accompanies his (maybe) girlfriend Tammy Sturmfuller (Heather Simmons) home and they pass the crime scene at the Randolph’s. Once they arrive at the Sturmfuller residence, Tammy mentions she heard weird growling noises from their back shed the other night. Her prize of a dad, Milt (James A. Baffico), already drunk mid-afternoon, shouts at Tammy to come inside, just before grumbling to himself that people in wheelchairs should all be electrocuted (!).

That night, the Coslaws get a visit from Uncle Red (Gary Busey), who plays poker with Marty and tells him ribald jokes. Mrs. Coslaw is exhausted by her brother, who she feels shows up (like most uncles) to tell jokes and have fun, but is never there to do the heavy lifting. When Marty goes to bed, she warns Red she doesn’t want him drinking around Marty. She worries that Marty will turn to drinking later in life, given the difficulties of his paralysis, but Red argues Marty doesn’t have any limitations.

The World Series of Poker looked very different in 1985.

Back at the Sturmfullers’, Milt’s night of watching professional wrestling is interrupted by a ruckus in his shed. He takes his shotgun and goes to investigate who’s messing with his ceramic pots. The pots have all been smashed to bits, but there’s no sign of an intruder otherwise. That’s because the werewolf has hidden under the shed’s floorboards. He pops up, dragging Milt down below the shed and impaling him on a splintered 2×4 as he does.

Dread stalks the town. The Mayor demands results from Sheriff Haller. Shotgun sales are up. Andy continues to trash talk the Sheriff around town. Brady and Marty spend a very wholesome afternoon flying kites. Marty uses his massive upper-body strength to climb a tree that’s snagged his kite. Janey arrives in the park to inform him he’s late for dinner, so he hops down from the tree and the two leave Brady to continue flying his kite, though Marty seems concerned to leave his friend alone. He was right to be concerned: that night, Herb Kincaid (Kent Broadhurst) walks into the bar looking for his missing son, Brady.

Sheriff Haller finds a bloody kite and – in a nearby gazebo – the body of Brady Kincaid. Herb arrives at the park and the police aren’t able to restrain him before he gets a close look at his son and lets out an anguished cry. A funeral for the boy follows, with Reverend Lowe offering comforting words to the entire town. Uncle Red drives Marty home from the funeral. Marty wonders aloud if the killer isn’t a person; what if it’s a monster, like a werewolf? Red just laughs and assures his nephew he’s just a run-of-the-mill serial killer.

Not so much a werewolf bar mitzvah as a werewolf baptism.

Andy, however, is not content to laugh. Instead, he rustles up a camo-styled militia at the local bar. Sheriff Haller gets wind of this and tries to break up the posse, not being too keen on the notion of “private justice.” But then Herb Kincaid arrives and raves about how his son was torn to pieces. He likes the idea of “private justice.” So, it’s on: the men and women race to their pick-up trucks. The Reverend arrives at the bar and tries to prevent them from doing something foolish, but his protests go unheeded. They dive headlong into the local forest, with guns, flash lights, hounds, and – in the case of one overly confident soul – a baseball bat.

One man is soon painfully caught by a bear trap. Andy takes a small squad and forms a “skirmish line” (whatever that is) to enter an area of dense fog. But they find out too late that the werewolf has been hiding under the fog. The monster drags one man under, tears off half of another’s face. Mr. Knopfler attacks with his baseball bat, but the werewolf soon turns it against him. The next day, the funeral hosts three funerals in one.

Reverend Lowe again tries to provide some solace to his scared and angry flock. But the town residents are especially agitated. They begin to snarl and slowly transform into werewolves – all of them! Even his organ player! Lightning crashes outside the church and the Reverend awakes with a start: it was just a nightmare.

The killings are affecting social activities in Tarker’s Mills. The fireworks display has been cancelled, much to Marty’s chagrin, but at least Uncle Red is visiting for a family barbecue. He shows Marty something he’s been working on: the Silver Bullet, a souped-up wheelchair scooter that looks like a Rascal crossed with a Rat Fink illustration. “It’s an ass-kicker, ain’t it?” he asks, rhetorically, I assume. Marty gives the new chair a spin on the country road and it really rips, passing even cars. When he returns, Red warns him not to tell his mother how fast it goes.

Easy Rider for Kids!

Following a very pleasant barbecue, Uncle Red secretly passes Marty one additional gift: a bag full of contraband fireworks. He asks Marty to promise to only use them close to the house, but literally that night, Marty breaks his promise, driving the Silver Bullet to a wooden bridge somewhere in the woods to light the fireworks far from the prying eyes of his parents. Of course, all these Roman candles and the like attract the werewolf, who finds Marty blissfully being a pyro in the middle of nowhere.

The werewolf approaches and Marty frantically lights a large bottle rocket, managing to fire it directly into the monster’s eye. The werewolf howls in pain at the gory injury. While it recovers, Marty races back and arrives safely at home, though extremely scared. Uncle Red is woken early the next morning by a phone call. Marty tells him all about his werewolf encounter, and Uncle Red doesn’t believe a word. Luckily, his sister Janey has a more open mind. Seeing Marty withdrawn, she asks what’s the matter and hears his werewolf anecdote. She realizes how strongly her brother believes it, and constructs a plan.

Janey regularly collects bottles and cans to generate money for the church. So she goes door-to-door, asking for bottles and paying close attention to how many eyes everyone has. (If the werewolf was shot in the eye, the human version should, theoretically, have some sort of eye injury.) Janey goes above and beyond the call of duty, even pulling hot towels off men’s faces at the barber shop. But no one in town seems to be a missing eye. She brings the bottles and cans to the church garage for storage, which is when she spies Mr. Knopfler’s bat (“The Peace Maker”) among the cans. When she turns to leave, the Reverend – who has a fresh bandage over his left eye – asks if everything is all right. Trembling, Janey leaves as soon as possible. (Her poker face could really use some work.)

Oh, my eye? Just a sty. They come about from stress.

Marty and Janey begin to mail ransom-like letters to the Reverend, saying they know who he is, which – from the looks of the Reverend’s face – doesn’t make him overly happy. When Uncle Red learns about their letter campaign, he insists they stop. Red agrees to stake out the church with the kids, but they don’t see anything untoward. But the Reverend later stalks Marty at a baseball game, and follows the Silver Bullet in his powder-blue Malibu. When the two hit a stretch of vacant country road, the Reverend revs his car and sideswipes Marty, nearly knocking him off the bridge. This begins an intense chase between muscle wheelchair and car. Marty, running low on gas, hides out in a condemned covered bridge, but the Reverend pursues on foot and confronts him in the dark, spooky structure.

Reverend Lowe tells Marty he should have left him alone, and that he was actually doing his victims a favour. For instance, Stella’s soul would have gone to hell if she committed suicide. He actually saved her from eternal damnation. He’s just about to kill Marty (with his very human hands) when a farmer on a tractor drives by and Marty screams for help. The Reverend scurries away, as it wouldn’t be good to be seen throttling eleven-year-olds.

Marty updates Uncle Red and Janey, and now that a human (rather than a werewolf) is threatening Marty, Red is more comfortable going to the police. Especially once he asks Janey the colour of the Reverend’s car: powder blue. The same blue that stains the scratches on Marty’s wheelchair. Red talks to Sheriff Haller, who agrees to check out the Reverend. For reasons unknown, he waits until dark to visit the church. No one answers, so the Sheriff takes a look-see in the garage and finds an almost-smoking gun: namely, Lowe’s car is damaged in the very spot that Marty and Red’s story said it would be. Reverend Lowe emerges from the shadows, spooking the Sheriff. The Sheriff draws on the preacher-man, but Lowe uses the baseball bat to knock the gun from his hand. “It’s not my fault!” Lowe screams as he begins to turn into a wolf. He smashes the Sheriff in the head with a bat, and continues to bash his head, as he turns werewolf.

Uncle Red meets Marty in a park and they talk about the Sheriff’s disappearance. Red counters that if the Reverend is a werewolf, there hasn’t been a full moon in a while. Marty and Janey reason that it might not be like the legends – maybe he’s always that way, becoming more animalistic with the full moon. Marty is convinced that the Reverend will come for him next. He gives Red his silver necklace (as does Janey) and asks him to get a silver bullet made.

A bullet the gunsmith claims is the best thing he’s ever made. Clearly he doesn’t know about festive taco wreaths.

At the local gunsmith, Uncle Red feeds the shopkeep a story about his nephew being into the Lone Ranger. He asks him to make a silver bullet out of the necklaces, and luckily, the gunsmith just happens to be “an old world craftsman.” After a cool bullet creation scene, Red has a single silver bullet. (Here’s hoping he’s a good shot.)

On Halloween, Uncle Red pretends he’s won a contest for a romantic couple’s getaway and sends the Coslaw parents on a weekend vacation, leaving him to babysit Janey and Marty. They try to stay up all night with the gun at the ready to await the werewolf. Janey sees a wolf at the window, but when Red investigates, he sees nothing. Uncle Red begins to think he’s being taken for a fool, and – for some reason – takes out the silver bullet from the chamber and starts complaining about the kids playing jokes on him.

Then the power is cut. Within seconds the werewolf smashes in the wall of the room and the silver bullet goes flying through the air and down a vent in the floor. The werewolf begins to throw Uncle Red around the room – into a picture frame, over the couch. Marty dives out of his chair and desperately tries to grab the bullet from within the vent. While Red and the werewolf are locked in an epic battle, Marty retrieves the bullet and Janey hands him the pistol. The werewolf turns to attack Marty and is shot right in his other eye!

The wolf collapses in the corner and slowly begins to turn back into human form: the now eyeless Reverend Lowe. He leaps up in a final death howl, but then collapses, completely dead. Uncle Red recovers and everything is great (except there’s a dead preacher in their living room that will prove difficult to explain). That issue is glossed over as the voice-over Janey notes she loves Marty and wishes him “goodnight” (?).

Not 100% sure this is a film still or just footage from Gary Busey’s daily life.

Takeaway points:

  • I am not the person to make this analysis, but I’d love a critique of Silver Bullet regarding disability. I assume there’s a whole genre of disability criticism of horror, given the many times use of wheelchairs, blindness, and deafness play into horror plots. Marty uses a wheelchair, but the film doesn’t really use it – as many other films do – as an added element of danger. Marty never laments his paralysis to friends or family. He even jokes about it at the very end of the film. There is nothing holding Marty back, as his Uncle Red insists. Marty can retrieve his kite from a tree, sneak out at night to light fireworks. In fact, he proves more capable than nearly everyone else in town: he first injures the werewolf, and ultimately kills it. His motorized wheelchair is, in fact, instrumental in his escape from danger. Of course there are unfortunate asides – Tammy’s dad advocating for the death of all paraplegics, a weird scene in which Marty longingly watches the legs of baseball players – and they seem out of step with the rest of the film. Obviously, it would have been preferable to feature an actor who requires a wheelchair in the role, but, as I say, I’d be more interested in hearing what someone like the very smart disability in literature critic (and horror enthusiast), Angelo Muredda thinks of Silver Bullet.
  • Silver Bullet is also of note because the werewolf doesn’t seem tormented by his transformation: the Reverend is fully aware he turns into a werewolf at night, and is just as dangerous as a human being. He claims he can’t kill himself (suicide is a sin), but surely there are other forms of werewolf restraint. (Also, I think God would smile more kindly on suicide than the murder of dozens of people.) During his bizarre monologue in the condemned bridge, the Reverend claims to be doing God’s work. He prevented Stella from killing herself. Who knows what sins Ernie or the various posse folk or the Sheriff committed, but I guess he was saving their souls, as well. Though over-the-top, Silver Bullet is a film about how often the church is not your deliverance from evil. It’s where the evil lives. The film depicts the idyllic Americana of good neighbours and decent people crumbling into alcoholic fathers, deadbeat dads, angry mobs, and duplicitous preachers. (Interestingly the film Spotlight begins with the cover-up of a priesthood molestation … in 1976.)
  • The film is also an indictment of mob justice (or “private justice,” as its called here). Andy’s posse goes out half-cocked and several of them wind up dead or murdered in their wild thirst for vengeance. As the Sheriff grimly puts it to the Reverend, “This is that community spirit you’ve been talking about.” None of the mob are half as effective as two kids and their drunk uncle. And, tellingly, our heroes first go to the police. Only when the Sheriff is killed do they take matters into their own hands, which the film seems to suggest is the “correct” order of things. (Apparently the filmmakers have a lot more faith in the institution of law then they do the church.)
  • I have to imagine that the eye patch-wearing Reverend Lowe was a visual influence on Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s popular comic character, Preacher. (Even if the comic preacher never turned into a werewolf.)

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Silver Bullet treads that line: it’s mostly terrible, but also too entertaining to truly dislike. The film isn’t scary – the embarrassing werewolf suit doesn’t help – though it’s surprisingly gory, given the otherwise kid-friendly story (kind of like Monster Squad, but moreso).

Corey Haim, wearing a sweet werewolf-killing sweater vest.

Best outfit: The argyle sweater vest that Marty wears when he confesses to Janey about the werewolf.

Best line: “You gonna’ make lemonade in your pants?” – one of the vigilantes, to her husband, during a scare moment

Best kill: The opening scene where a man’s head is torn clean off by one powerful swipe of a werewolf’s paw is really hard to top. (Luckily, the werewolf was pulling his punches when he fought with Red.)

Unexpected cameo: Reverend Lowe is Everett McGill, who I only knew as Big Ed (from Twin Peaks) prior. It was also nice seeing the dad from Life Goes On, Bill Smitrovich kicking around.

Unexpected lesson learned: While it may be tempting to store your ceramic pots in an outdoor shed, it does leave them susceptible to werewolf damage.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Since there’s already a Silver Bullet Band, let’s go with Skirmish Line.

Next up: The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).

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).