Full Moon Features: The Howling series, Part One

Even if it had only brought us An American Werewolf in London, 1981 would have been a banner year for werewolf fans. After all, that year also saw the release of Larry Cohen’s jokey Full Moon High (featuring a football-playing subplot that was a clear antecedent of Teen Wolf) and Michael Wadleigh’s socially conscious Wolfen (based on the novel by Whitley Streiber). But the one that beat them all to theaters — and stole some of American Werewolf‘s thunder with its groundbreaking transformation effects, courtesy of Rick Baker protégé Rob Bottin — was Joe Dante’s screen adaptation of The Howling by Gary Brandner.

First published in 1977, Brandner’s paperback novel is about a couple that moves from Los Angeles to the quiet mountain town of Drago after the wife, Karyn, is brutally raped in their home. Of course, it isn’t entirely quiet because Karyn starts hearing the titular howling almost immediately after they move in, but it takes a while for anyone, least of all her husband, to tweak that there’s something unnatural going on. Also, it doesn’t help matters that he winds up leaving her alone for long stretches, but Karyn soon strikes up a friendship with an older woman from the neighboring town who has some interesting theories about Drago…

On its way to the screen, The Howling wound up in the hands of Joe Dante, who was just coming off a fruitful apprenticeship with Roger Corman that had seen him cutting countless trailers for New World Pictures and getting two directing credits, most recently on 1978’s Piranha, the best and by far the wittiest of the Jaws knock-offs. One of its screenwriters had been John Sayles, an unusually thoughtful writer when it came to genre fare, so when Dante inherited a script he wasn’t crazy about he gave Sayles a ring and had him rewrite it from the ground up. (Terence H. Winkless still receives a co-writing credit on the film, but precious little of his work remains in the final product.)

The first thing Sayles did was to throw out most of the novel’s plot and characters, changing emotionally damaged rape victim Karyn Beatty to Karen White, a fearless TV news anchor (played by Dee Wallace) who suffers a terrible shock while acting as bait for a notorious serial killer (who naturally turns out to be a werewolf). Sayles also pokes fun at various new-age fads when, at the suggestion of her therapist (Patrick Macnee), Karen and her husband (played by her real-life husband Christopher Stone) retreat to a secluded mountain resort called The Colony so she can recover from her post-traumatic stress. But wouldn’t you know it, she keeps hearing this howling every night and, well, I could go on, but chances are if you’re on this site, you’re already plenty familiar with the plot of The Howling. In fact, you may even know all about the in-jokes Dante and Sayles inserted into the script (like the fact that most of the supporting characters are named after the directors of earlier werewolf films — even the terrible ones). Before I close the book on it, though, I’d like to single out Robert Picardo’s Eddie Quist as the scariest werewolf ever put on film. Sure, his big transformation seems to go on forever while Karen just stands there screaming her lungs out, but he manages to be über-creepy even before he sprouts fangs and fur, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Just as Gary Brandner’s novel spawned two sequels, published in 1979 and 1985, Joe Dante’s film was successful enough to inspire its own progeny, which were made to cash in on The Howling name, but failed to recreate its style and intelligence. Of the eight films in the franchise, I’ve only seen the first four — and a couple of them grudgingly — because the law of diminishing returns kicked in almost immediately with 1985’s Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf. Directed by Phillipe Mora, who admitted on the commentary for Howling III that he wasn’t given the time or the money to make the kind of film he wanted to, and co-written by Brandner, who hadn’t liked the liberties the first film had taken with his story, Howling II unfortunately rolled back many of the advances that had been made in the art of the werewolf film, replacing Rob Bottin’s state-of-the-art makeup effects with quick cuts between the same half dozen or so effects shots (which get recycled from scene to scene) in an attempt to paper over its obvious budgetary limitations. And while The Howling and American Werewolf are often remembered for their humorous moments and touches, there was also an underlying seriousness that Howling II severely lacks. Mora may not have gone the total horror/comedy route (as he would with 1987’s Howling III: The Marsupials, which I can at least enjoy on the level of camp), but he was clearly already heading in that direction.

On the story front, Howling II is a disaster, even though it picks up right after the events of the first film at the funeral service for Karen White. There we meet her skeptical brother (Reb Brown) and a reporter friend (Annie McEnroe) looking into her mysterious death. (Because I guess no one is really buying the whole “turned into a werewolf on live television and was felled by a silver bullet” explanation.) Then occult investigator Christopher Lee (who had appeared in Mora’s superhero spoof/musical The Return of Captain Invincible a couple years earlier and clearly looks like he’d rather be anywhere else) shows up and tells Brown that his sister is a werewolf, at which point we’re off to the races!

From there, the film wastes no time in introducing its werewolf characters, who it must be said are a rather scruffy bunch. And when the action shifts to The Dark Country, a.k.a. Transylvania, we meet werewolf queen Stirba, an old crone who is transformed into Sybil Danning during a ludicrous rejuvenation ceremony, and witness her taking part in a hairy three-way because this film has to be remembered for something. It certainly won’t be for the werewolf attacks, which are poorly lit and chaotically edited, or the dialogue, which includes howlers like this exchange between Danning and Lee: “Finally, we meet again.” “For the last time.” Reminds me of the time some months back when I reluctantly sat down and watched Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf. I also swore it would be for the last time.

Next time: I take on a pack of marsupial werewolves and go back to the source to experience the original nightmare. Until then, happy howling!