The Howling (1981)

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*. A movie that holds an awkward place in horror film history. Along with An American Werewolf in London, which came out just after, it pretty much revived the werewolf genre from a long recession, largely thanks to some remarkable special effects. And it did so on a very modest budget of just a little over a million dollars.
*. That both this film and American Werewolf were horror-comedies should also tell you something about where the genre was at. Even with the startling new effects on display it was hard to take werewolves seriously. Enter a pair of jokers (Joe Dante and John Landis).
*. The effects are good, but the subversive humour seems tame by today’s standards. It was a funnier movie at the time, and hasn’t aged that well.

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*. James Whale thought of his Universal horrors as a lark too, but they’ve stood up better.
*. Of course there’s no shame in being upstaged by the effects in a movie like this. You expect it. The real problem here is that the leads (Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Dennis Dugan) are so much less interesting than the supporting cast (Patrick Macnee, Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller). It’s hard to care about such bland main characters. They don’t command our attention or evoke much sympathy.

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*. Will Rob Bottin be remembered as the last of the great in-camera horror effects men? Perhaps. I like his work here, and the distinctive new werewolf “look.” Even the bunny ears seem a bit sinister.
*. I wonder if the extending snout of the werewolf was inspired by the similar effect of the projecting mouth-within-a-mouth of the Alien creature. I’ve always thought there was something sexual about these slimy, dripping erections, sticking in your face like a threatening penis dentata.
*. Bob Burns’s set design for the cabin just seem like a retread of his Texas Chain Saw Massacre house. I think he mailed this one in.
*. Pauline Kael: “The director, Joe Dante, seems a mixture – in just about equal parts – of talent, amateurishness, style, and flake.” Style? Dante’s a film buff and that leads to a certain wry sensibility (not to mention lots of in-jokes). But that’s not really a style.
*. Was Dr. Waggner a werewolf? I don’t think the movie ever says.

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