Why The Howling Succeeds By Throwing Out the Book

[TW: This article discusses the general topic of sexual assault and how it is portrayed in The Howling.]

I didn’t like The Howling when I first saw it. Joe Dante’s 1981 horror film about an entire town full of werewolves is weird, occasionally corny, and quietly upsetting in a way my teenage self couldn’t quite put a finger on. It also features a much-lauded werewolf transformation scene supervised by effects guru Rob Bottin that didn’t initially impress me – a character essentially inflates like a balloon, his skin bubbling like melting plastic as his human bones reforge into wolf bones. It’s absolutely wild, and a completely unexpected way to portray a werewolf mutation, so of course I didn’t like it. I knew what I liked back then, and that was time-lapsed werewolf transformations and the band Collective Soul.

I’ve since come around on that sequence, which is conceptually horrifying and uniquely gruesome, and on the movie as a whole after reading Gary Brandner’s original novel. The novel is an incredibly dark story about human nature and the trauma experienced by survivors of sexual assault. The movie is also about those things, but is a much more subtle exploration, and therefore less potentially harmful for its audience. It’s also, to date, the only film in which you can see Slim Pickens transform into a werewolf. Considering Pickens has been dead since 1983, this particular superlative of The Howling’s is unlikely to change. After two decades of Harrys Potter and Games of Hunger and Thrones, an adaptation runs the risk of being seen as a failure if it deviates too much from its source material (or at all, in some cases). However, one of The Howling’s biggest strengths as a film is the fact that Dante essentially threw out Brandner’s novel and rebuilt the story from the ground up with his Piranha screenwriter John Sayles.

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Image via Embassy Pictures

First and foremost, The Howling is a gonzo horror tale that is ostensibly about werewolves but is closer to The Wicker Man than anything Lon Chaney Jr ever made. A Los Angeles reporter named Karen White (Dee Wallace) goes undercover to trap a brutal serial killer named Eddie (Robert Picardo) live on the air. Because Karen and her coworkers only have bad ideas, she agrees to meet Eddie in a stag film booth at a store in the red-light district. The problem is, Eddie is secretly a werewolf, and the plan goes exactly the way you would expect a plan to corner a shapeshifting demon in a pornography shop to go. Eddie is shot and apparently killed by the police, and Karen is left so traumatized by what she saw that she cannot remember exactly what happened. We eventually see Eddie (whom is not dead) transform later in the film, and honestly, I would’ve wiped that shit from my brain too.

Suffering from several layers of PTSD, Karen accepts the advice of the kindly Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee) and travels to “The Colony,” a seemingly peaceful commune on the Northern California coastline where Dr. Waggner treats some of his patients. Karen brings along her useless trophy husband Bill (Christopher Stone, Wallace’s real-life partner at the time), who immediately settles into country life with The Colony’s bizarre inhabitants. This is a gentle way of saying that Bill waits until roughly his second night in the commune before fucking around on his wife with the mysterious Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), a woman who looks like a biker gang’s court magician. Seriously, she’s dressed in a leather Elvira costume while everyone else in The Colony looks like a character from The Apple Dumpling Gang.

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Image via Embassy Pictures

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Anyway, we eventually discover that Eddie is actually Marsha’s brother, and he’s been a longtime patient of Dr. Waggner’s. Not only that, but The Colony is a haven for werewolves, and literally everyone living there is a lycanthrope except for Karen. She narrowly escapes with the help of her boss Chris (Dennis Dugan), seemingly killing all the werewolves and burning The Colony to the ground in their wake. But Karen gets bitten by Werewolf Bill in the commotion, and she and Chris decide to blow the lid off this conspiracy by having Karen transform live on the news. She delivers a deranged monologue about a secret society of shapeshifters that would land her an instant job as a Fox News contributor before mutating into a giant Pomeranian. Chris then shoots her in the face with a rifle he somehow managed to bring into a news station, and the movie ends with the very much still alive Marsha ordering a rare hamburger from a shitty saloon. The credits roll over an interminable shot of the burger sizzling on the grill while easy listening jazz music plays, a perfect juxtaposition of humanity’s intellectual and primitive sides. It’s also just an extremely funny way to end a movie.

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Image via Embassy Pictures

Dante rarely makes straightforward horror – The Howling, like his previous hit Piranha and his later blockbuster Gremlins, has a satirical bent to it. Specifically, The Howling is commenting on how humanity is distorted by the media. The film begins with Karen, a popular reporter and the only female anchor on her network, being put at extreme risk for the sake of ratings. She is dangled out in the open to try and lure Eddie into a televised confrontation, with her only means of protection being a radio hidden in her gigantic 1980s purse. Unbeknownst to Karen, the radio goes dead almost immediately, but her producers (whom are almost entirely men) decide to keep her out there in harm’s way to try and get the story. Even though her network is reporting on Eddie’s crimes with serious, somber faces, they’re sensationalizing his violent attacks to get people to tune in. They are playing the part of concerned crusaders, but in reality are shoving Karen into a shark tank and hoping to make money off of the result.

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Image via Embassy Pictures

In one of the first scenes, we see news anchor Lew Landers (Jim McKrell) practicing his elocution in the bathroom just before Karen’s exclusive broadcast is set to begin. When Bill walks in, Landers’ natural deep southern accent comes out. His “news voice” is a performative illusion, invented for being on-camera. So consequently, we know the words of pride and concern he delivers for Karen in that voice are equally false. Incidentally, Lew Landers also appears in Gremlins, which effectively means that The Howling and Gremlins take place in the same universe. I have no idea what to do with this information other than to imagine whether Gremlins’ hip DJ Rockin’ Ricky would be able to determine if a bunch of werewolves breaking into his recording studio were in fact Rockin’ Ricky fans.

The Howling is also about sexual repression and its relation to sexual violence, specifically how the latter is nurtured by our cultural fascination with bloody murder. Eddie’s walls are covered in grotesque sketches and chilling newspaper clippings with salacious headlines; when Karen enters the porn shop to meet with him, the titles we can see on the various magazines and video tapes are almost identical to the clippings in Eddie’s room. Eddie forces Karen to watch an adult film featuring a gang rape scene that is simulated but no less disturbing, while he transforms into a literal snarling predator beside her. Bill and Marsha’s sex scene is a similar collision of extremes, as they begin to morph into howling demons while clawing at each other’s flesh. (It ends with them turning into fully animated cartoon werewolves mid-thrust, which undermines the horror of the scene somewhat but should nonetheless be preserved for all time as one of the greatest achievements in human history.)

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Image via Embassy Pictures

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Dante’s film is a challenge of one of the core ideas of America’s hypocritical puritanism – the notion that sex and violence are our basest, most animalistic instincts, and should be resisted in order to facilitate a more enlightened existence. The problem is, we do not seem to believe that in practice. If you use what is deemed acceptable for television as a metric, violence is totally OK, even graphic torture and mutilation, as long as we don’t see bare genitalia or an exposed nipple. The way Karen and her producers behave as though the porn shop represents the worst parts of humanity while simultaneously making money off sensationalized coverage of Eddie’s murders is Dante pointing out how we want to have our cake and eat it too, pretending that a culture of media consumption that regularly feeds these conflicting ideas had nothing to do with Eddie’s obsession with sexual violence. The Howling isn’t arguing that media causes violence, but Dante is definitely pointing a finger at a monolithic American culture that scolds sexuality and glorifies violence while happily selling tickets to both.

It is in service of this theme that I argue Dante was smart to cast off Brandner’s book in favor of his and Sayles’ interpretation. The Howling the film is a darkly comic satire, but The Howling the novel is a deadly serious exploration of sexual trauma. In the book, Karen (here a housewife instead of a reporter) is assaulted in her home by a random stranger. The narrative also plays with the idea of civility as a tenuous mask disguising our animalistic urges towards sex and violence, and whether those urges are more closely entwined than we would like to admit. It’s… not the most pleasant read.

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Image via Embassy Pictures

Dante’s film wisely deletes the rape scene and still manages to craft a compelling, scary, and sometimes funny look at the way we repress sex and celebrate violence. It also manages to comment on the terror and trauma of sexual violence without exposing its audience to an unnecessarily exploitative and disturbing sequence. (I would argue that Karen being forced to watch brutal pornography while the doctor from Star Trek: Voyager explosively transforms into a werewolf is disturbing enough.) It would’ve been difficult for Dante to inject his trademark tongue-in-cheek deconstructionism if The Howling had opened with a sexual assault. You’re just not in the mood to laugh after that.

The Howling isn’t a perfect film, but it’s pretty darn close. It manages to stir up the same discomfort as something like Ridley Scott’s Alien without traumatizing its audience, thanks to abandoning the more severe elements of its source material. It’s also just a goofy, schlocky treat, a movie about a cult of werewolves played by a bunch of veteran character actors who all but wink into the camera and say, “We’re sexwolves, baby!” Seriously, Marsha has a giant painting of a wolf on her wall, and several of The Colony’s residents are seen eating Wolf brand chili. Dante might as well scamper on screen and put wolf ears on Patrick Macnee. Then it really would be a perfect film.

KEEP READING: Why ‘Wolf’ Is the Best Worst Werewolf Movie Ever

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