Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Joe Dante, part IV: Altered beast


THE HOWLING

Hey, one out of three ain't bad!

1981
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Jack Conrad, Terence H. Winkless, and John Sayles (based on the novel by Gary Brandner)
With Dee Wallace (Karen White), Christopher Stone (Bill Neill), Terry Fisher (Belinda Balaski), Chris Halloran (Dennis Dugan), Dick Miller (Walter Paisley), Patrick Macnee (Dr. George Wagner), Elizabeth Brooks (Marsha Quist), and Robert Picardo (Eddie Quist)

Spoiler alert: moderate


1981 was the year the wolf came back: that summer witnessed no fewer than three successive resurrections of the lycanthrope, and to this day each one of them persists in being hailed as a classic of the genre, whether that genre be films about werewolves, in particular, or just horror films, in general.

And, if you're me, that's enough to make you wonder if people judge these things on some kind of awful damn curve, given that the other two movies in 1981's werewolf cycle were Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen, released in July, and John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, released in August, neither one of which should be mentioned anywhere near the word "classic."

That's the bad news, then: because if the latter picture is a tonally-suspect horror-comedy that still kind of looks like a good movie, if you squint, then the former serves up one of the 80s' most bizarre high concepts, involving an ancient race of lupine demigods loose in the Bronx, then promptly asphyxiates it right to death, with some nauseatingly-misjudged point-of-view formalism, a heap of anti-Indian racism masquerading as pro-Indian sentiment, and one awful mess of sloggy storytelling—especially when it comes to the film's primary arc, which turns out to be an antique grizzled cop drama so monumentally unacceptable that it frankly plays more like a laugh-free parody of grizzled cop dramas than anything else.

However, the good news is that we're here to talk about the first, the best, and (crucially) the most honorable of 1981's wolf-centric offerings, namely The Howling—the first project Joe Dante managed to get himself attached to after finally escaping the clutches of Corman.

Now, let's not get wild: The Howling isn't so great, either.  (And here's where I point out that if they have made a great werewolf movie in the past 103 years of werewolf movies, then I personally haven't seen it yet.)  Nonetheless, it's the one that most cleverly updates the folkloric monster for the modern age, and also the one that most completely and competently engages with the real terrors lurking beneath the myth in the first place.  (Incidentally, the very first thing Dante did was have his Corman-era associate John Sayles rewrite the script.  Sayles tightened Gary Brandner's source novel, replacing Brandner's thematic links with solid, mechanical ones instead; and, being Sayles, he slathered on an extra layer or two of social commentary, to boot.)

Uniquely enough, this particular werewolf film makes its central figure a woman, as opposed to the gormless everymale whom 1941's seminal Wolf Man had made this subgenre's archetypal protagonist.  So let's meet Karen White, a television journalist who's lately taken to being stalked by a man police suspect to be the notorious serial killer, the Mangler.  Well, partly because serial killers mean ratings, and partly to get this creep off the streets, Karen agrees to take part in a patently-dangerous sting operation, agreeing to meet her stalker, and meet him she does—at a seedy porno theater in the bad part of Los Angeles—and there Karen is trapped in a movie booth and forced to stare at the ugly things happening on the screen, while a voice in the darkness behind her threatens and cajoles.  She comes within a hair's breadth of becoming this Mangler's next victim, saved only by the trigger-happy cops of the LAPD.  The body of her would-be killer is identified as one Eddie Quist—a real piece of work, it turns out—and Karen, badly traumatized by the debacle, finds herself afflicted with nightmarish flashbacks of the man behind her.  But while she cannot see Quist in her memories, she knows she must have seen something there in the dark.

Karen seeks psychiatric help, and places herself under the care of Dr. Waggner—whom we've already met as a talking head on TV, yammering endlessly about the subconscious, and the animal within, and so on, in what only technically counts as "foreshadowing"—and the good doctor sends Karen, along with her marginally-supportive (and barely-awake) husband, Bill, to the so-called "Colony," a therapeutrical retreat that, unsurprisingly, is otherwise populated entirely by werewolves.  So, whether the plan was to turn Karen, or to simply kill her—for it also turns out that Quist was a member of this Colony, too—one thing's for sure: our harried newswoman won't be leaving this rural idyll unscathed.

This brings us most of the way through The Howling, although we have not yet mentioned the sleuthing undertaken by Karen's coworkers, Terry and Chris.  However, it does get us to just about the point where the wheels start spinning a bit, while we wait for the characters to catch up to where we were when we read the title.  Unfortunately, when they finally do, it's slightly arbitrary and even a little bit slapped-together.

The Howling's strongest scene, in fact, is its very first: a garish De Palmian freakout of rape porn, women in peril, subjective terror, and a monstrous predator, concealed within the sharp-as-knives chiaroscuro of a theater projector flickering behind him.  Beginning on its most upsetting note—close to the most upsetting note it possibly could, short of Karen being ripped to pieces in a sexualized murder frenzy—the giddy panic of The Howling's prologue has definite stamina.  Interspersed with Dr. Waggner's blithe explications of the underside of the human psyche, and driven by the brutalized, catatonic nature of Dee Wallace's performance—the sole good trick she (or, frankly, almost any actor) demonstrates in the whole movie—we get a visceral sense of this film's thesis: in a world where violence is everywhere (and that goes double if you're a woman) there is a movement afoot to excuse rape and murder by calling it "natural"—and maybe even healthy.

For the person undertaking the rape and murder, anyhow.

That's how it comes to be a pretty inspired choice to focus the bulk of our attention upon Karen, rather than the bewildered Larry Talbot we'd usually get.  After all, practically every werewolf worth their salt is, at bottom, just a sex murderer, cursed to act out their deepest, most primitive impulses in the body of a literalized beast.  (See also: all vampires; all giant gorillas; all gill-men; and all phantoms of all operas.)  The Howling strips away the pretense, along with the easy excuses.  These werewolves aren't cursed, after all—only a minority of them even perceive it that way—and they never lose their control so much as willfully, gleefully abandon it.  And so The Howling twists the old Wolf Man mythology out of recognition.  (If you want to be a jerk, they're vampires with slightly different D&D stat sheets.)  But if it's going to do that, it behooves the film to twist its narrative sympathies the same way, by turning our attention from predator to prey—to the woman who, in another movie, would just as likely be one more incidental corpse that our wolfman might cry about the next morning.

To its credit, The Howling mostly lets you pull this out of it on your own; it's not subtle, but its only real bludgeon is Waggner, who is so glib that you tend to dislike him based on his bullshit philosophizing alone.  It's a great idea on paper, and for at least one third of this hour and a half film, it turns out pretty great in the execution, too.

The problem with it, of course, is that we're soon left with one singularly inactive protagonist, who winds up inactive in ways that her psychology and situation don't even quite demand.  That's how the protagonist's duties keep perceptibly shifting to her friends in the outside world, until they too wind up heading out to the Colony in their respective Mystery Machines, in order to Scooby up the place, or die trying.  (And you can probably figure out which of our two new heroes does die trying.  Hint: it's not the putatively-manly Chris, whom the screenplay somewhat neglects to elevate to the status of "actual character," as opposed to a silver-bullet-dispensing prop.)  Karen's story is thus left to idle while her husband fools around with a wolfwoman, and her friends hang out with Dick Miller, who peddles somewhat enjoyable shtick at them as the agnostic operator of the occult bookstore that they've decided to visit, once their trip to the morgue has put them onto the curious case of Quist's missing corpse.

Lucky for them, since they don't stock silver bullets in the sporting goods section of your local Wal-Mart.

(That means we ought to turn, briefly, to the downright odd consensus that The Howling is an especially ironic kind of movie, with a lot of jokes.  The thing is, it really isn't—set decoration jokes that nobody really draws your attention to simply do not count—and when American Werewolf can't go twenty minutes without indulging in some awkward farce or another cloying soundtrack choice, The Howling is more than just one cut above.)

But, yes, I know: spending this much time on narrative criticism is to overlook the most enduring thing about The Howling—the thing that those who call it the best werewolf movie of all time point to, in order to justify their opinion.  And that thing, obviously, is what the nascent special effects maestro Rob Bottin did with just a few pounds of latex and rubber and corn syrup.  It's the thing that the reputation of every werewolf movie lives and dies upon: the transformation.

So we're obliged to report that Quist's transformation is extraordinary, deeply invested with what was becoming Bottin's personal style as a wizard of gore—for there is a wetness to Quist, and a suggestion of heat; of a mighty, grotesque struggle at the cellular level itself.  (It fiercely prefigures The Thing.)  It captures the essence of what it must mean to see a shapeshifting monster become something else—it would be roiling away as its flesh rapidly mutated, changing noticeably with every skipped heartbeat.  The transformation even comes at the right moment, for this is where Sayles has decided that it's finally time for Karen to do something.  The thing is, it's well-known that Rick Baker was the man originally attached to do the werewolf makeup for Dante here, only he left for the richer pastures of Landis' competitor.

...And maybe that's why you feel just a little guilty, when you have to confess that, even though you like what this one does more, American Werewolf's transformation is very obviously the better of the two, with its longer takes and greater emphasis on the body as a whole, rather than Bottin's disaggregated collection of prosthetic parts, which were easier to build, and simply not quite as cool to watch individually pulsate.

Or maybe it's just that this transformation goes on too long—something drains away as Robert Picardo spends two full minutes turning into a bipedal dog.  (Indeed, this is something like narrative fact, given that it goes on not just long enough for Karen to fight back—when you consider Wallace's reaction shots, it apparently goes on long enough for Karen to stop wetting her pants entirely, and start pondering how such shapeshifting rape monsters can be integrated, cohesively, into her new worldview.)

Even then, as far as Tex Avery wolves reconfigured as horror icons go, it's all still really damned cool.  And no matter what you do, don't ever blame Picardo, who was no doubt lonely on the set of The Howling, since he actually came here to act.

So it's very, very good, our famous transformation—and The Howling's werewolf-based ultraviolence ain't too shabby either, at least when Dante puts it on the screen.  But then, that's probably why you don't feel bad admitting that you start getting fidgety once The Howling reaches its final confrontation.  Obviously, it would be one thing if they'd tried to top the spectacle of Quist's transformation, and merely failed.  That would be understandable.  Dante and Bottin, however, don't so much as bother to try; and thus the impression you get is a sadly accurate one, of an utterly cheap creature-feature that hit its budgetary wall, and bounced.

But even then, everything The Howling lacks in its climax, it almost compensates for, in its cynical, sour stinger of an ending—and if this film had invested in its characters even slightly more, I'd be happy to call it a great, even mildly heartbreaking ending.  Of course, since it hasn't done that since the first act ended, I won't embarrass myself by saying anything of the sort.  It's nevertheless one terribly clever ending—and maybe the most memorable one a werewolf movie ever accomplished, simply by dint of being the last thing you'd ever expect.

The thing is this: it's very easy to ask for a lot more out of The Howling.  It leaves so much of its potential completely untrapped.  But what it does do well, it does very well.  Dante wasn't any kind of star just yet; but there was no doubt about it now.  He was going to be, and soon.

Score: 7/10

3 comments:

  1. You're alive! It's good to see you back ~

    Although, considering that I 100% disagree with you about werewolf movies of 1981, maybe it's not so good. I found The Howling a really dull watch, though I likewise adore that gonzo opening scene. Dee Wallace is such a dishrag and the jokes are so obvious (Wolf Chili, ha ha), it just didn't grab me.

    Mind you, I agree that there's probably no such thing as a truly GREAT werewolf flick, I think American Werewolf's porno theater scene in particular is a truly classic moment in horror-comedy.

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    1. You know, Wolfen doesn't have a porno theater scene, possibly explaining why it's the worst of the bunch.

      I probably come off as slightly too harsh on American Werewolf: there's honestly a lot of decent stuff in that movie, but between a deeply unconvincing lead actor (how they avoided casting Griffin Dunne as the werewolf is beyond me), a deeply unconvincing central relationship (you point this one out yourself!), a really, really messy tone (murder spree! naked slapstick! BUT NOW OUR HERO IS SADS!), and a final moment that appears to be staged by way of non-euclidean geometry, I'm afraid I can only kind of enjoy it. Plus it's barely about anything--not even itself.

      I'll grant it's a slightly technically more proficient motion picture, but considering it cost eight times as much, it ought to be. Also on the plus side, some mild congratulations are in order, since Landis somehow managed to make it without manslaughtering children.

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    2. P.S. In the interests of disclosure, I have to date seen neither Ginger Snaps nor Teen Wolf. So there could still be a great one out there, and I just don't know it.

      (Michael J. is a werewolf who plays basketball. How have I *not* seen that movie yet?)

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