Retro Review: The Howling (1981)

I decided to watch The Howling in preparation for reviewing the new sequel comic over on HorrorTalk. (Unfortunately I’d confused it with Wolfen, a very different kind of werewolf movie.) Decades ago, Howling used to run on Saturday afternoons, along with its countless sequels, on the local Paramount network where I grew up–further proof that the ’80s were a crazy, crazy time.

Karen is a TV news reporter in LA who is contacted by a serial killer named Eddie. They arrange a meeting, with the LAPD planning to use the occasion to bust Eddie, and Karen’s station hoping to use it as a ratings coup. When Karen follows Eddie’s instructions to meet him in a booth at a peep show, something more than ordinarily serial-killery happens. Given the title of this movie you can probably imagine what.

As Karen and her colleagues get deeper into the story of Eddie the serial killer, they learn that he hailed from a place called “the Colony,” which, we eventually discover, is a den of werewolves who’ve been attempting to pass as human. Dr. Waggner, the psychiatrist employed by the station where Karen works, is conveniently one of the ringleaders of the wolves, and he’s the one who sends her up there after her traumatic encounter with Eddie. (He claims it will help her “recharge her batteries.”) Karen and her husband schlep up to the happy hippy Colony, where they eventually are pulled apart by the crazy werewolf-sex shenanigans that naturally happen in such situations, a single (human) person dies, and then comes the showdown with the werewolves.

Seriously, this is a 1980s horror film and only one person dies. Let that sink in.

There’s also only one sex scene! But at the end of that sex scene the people turn into cartoon werewolves. So… score?

Amazingly, The Howling is not horrible. There are plot holes galore, but the first in the franchise is far from the worst horror film I’ve seen. Some of the practical effects are actually pretty good, like the severed werewolf hand that slowly and bubblingly changes back to its human form. It’s not especially violent, as such things go, and the plot is coherent, if superficial and somewhat stupid. (And loaded with horror clichés.) Best of all are the numerous tongue-in-cheek moments, like the can of “Wolf Chili” visible in one scene, or the ending sequence with drunk patrons in a bar debating what they’ve just witnessed.

If you want to turn off your brain and forget about the awful, awful world we actually live in, you could do far worse than this.

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