“Joe Dante’s The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film” & “The Complete History of the Howling”, reviewed
by Lew Viergacht
Jan. 18, 2019
Horror fans rightly consider The Howling one of the defining films of the werewolf genre. The practical transformation sequences put the most up to date CGI to shame – they’re visceral, organic and intense, and originated tropes that filmmakers still slavishly imitate. In fact, the design of the werewolves almost single-handedly redefined the look of the creature for the modern audience. Whereas the default werewolf used to be Jack Pierce’s Wolf Man, nowadays ask anyone what a werewolf looks like and you’ll get a description of Rob Bottin and his crew’s creation: a shaggy grey beast towering upright on doglike legs, with a muscular humanoid torso, clawed hands, and a demonically snarling lupine head. But The Howling was more than just an FX spectacular, with solid performances, stylish direction, a distinct and unforgettable score, and quirky, memorable characters populating an unusually smart script. It also boasts the dubious honor of having spawned seven sequels that, while distinctly less competently made, often have their own offbeat charms.
“Joe Dante’s The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film” by Lee Gambin (Centipede Press) focuses entirely on the original movie. Each chapter takes a scene and recaps it, with relevant snippets of interviews with the cast and crew, and explores the deeper thematic elements. Compared the shallow hack ‘n slash plots of most lower tier werewolf movies, The Howling’s clever, complex script truly deserves this in-depth treatment. Some of the insider stories – like the fate of the “rocket wolf” effects and the stop motion version of the fully transformed beasts – are known via DVD extras, but much of it is new and interesting even to hardcore fans.
At a chunky 351 pages in a 6×9 format, it’s packed with tons of behind the scenes photographs and illustrations. The drawings by Richard Hescox that flash by almost too quick to see as Eddie Quist’s art in the film are a special treat, especially considering their powerful impact on the popular concept of werewolves. It’s also amusing to spot details such as the sketches of skulls in mid-shift labeled “Larry Talbot syndrome”. The only thing lacking is a table of contents, and perhaps an index to the interviews, which would make navigating the book a bit easier for those who haven’t memorized the plot.
“The Complete History of the Howling” by Bryn Curt James Hammond (Miami Fox Publishing), by contrast, covers every single movie in the franchise. It runs 128 pages in 9×12 format, is also richly illustrated by stills and behind the scenes photos including full-page illustrations, and has text arranged in a two-column format that recalls magazines like Fangoria.
Currently film series are Serious Business, with studios competing to create merchandise-ready “universes” composed of interlocking high budget offerings, with varying degrees of success (compare the money-making juggernaut of the Marvel comics films to Universal’s stillborn “Dark Universe”). The Howling sequels were . . . not that. Right out of the gate, the second movie, Phillipe Mora’s “The Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf” aka “Stirba: Werewolf Bitch” utterly fails as a horror movie but succeeds as a bizarro comedy. The third movie, by the same director, was even stranger, featuring were-thylacines complete with a marsupial birth scene. It’s easy to sneer at Mora’s attempt, but “The Complete History” describes working conditions that would tax any director, such as shooting with Czech film crews that didn’t speak English, being assigned an Assistant Director who was a KGB spy, and having to make do with secondhand monkey suits to serve for werewolves! In fact, the stories behind the sequels are far more entertaining than the movies themselves.
The rest of the series are a mangy collection of mutts including a low-budget reboot shot in South Africa, a murder mystery in which the actual werewolf appeared for about 5 seconds on screen, a romance set in a freak show which introduced vampires into the mythology, a whole-movie clip show padded with endless country music and line dancing scenes, and the most recent, another reboot that disappointingly attempted to appeal to the Twilight crowd. Werewolf fans, well aware that Sturgeon’s Law applies heavily to our favorite genre, have the choice to either turn their noses up at them or turn off their critical facilities, pop some popcorn and enjoy them for what they are. Hammond gives all The Howling sequels the same fair, detailed, lavishly-illustrated coverage, reminding us that even the most hilariously inept flick had at least a few passionate artists behind it.
Both books are perfect complements to each other’s strengths and must-haves for the library of werewolf enthusiasts. Gambin’s is an informative, meticulous exploration of the crafting of an enduring classic. Hammond’s book is an entertaining, open-minded and fascinating perspective on the low-budget shenanigans behind the wonderful weirdness of the obscure sequels. Hopefully we’ll see similar books in the future showcasing An American Werewolf in London, Ginger Snaps, and other outstanding lycanthro-pics!