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.

Retro Review: Friday the 13th (1980)

By weird coincidence I decided to rewatch the original Friday the 13th this week, well before I realized that this week would actually have a Friday the 13th. I’ve been wanting to get to this for quite a while now, for complicated reasons. I’m fairly sure I saw it for the first time back in high school. (Though almost certainly not before. As a child I was absolutely terrified of Jason.) At any rate, on this viewing I’d forgotten so many details that it was like seeing it for the first time.

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Pictured: unrelenting horror.

One awful, awful thing serious fans may have already known about (I did not) is the snake scene. In a pointless bit of tepid mood-setting, a black snake slithers into one of the cabins, and the goofy teenagers freak out. One of them hacks it up with a machete, and as far as I can tell, the scene is real. I didn’t even remember this scene happening, but on this viewing, I thought it looked suspiciously realistic. It seems I was right. (That link is to another WordPress blog. With a cursory Google search I’m not able to turn up anything more authoritative than that, and I’m lazy, but it sure did look like they really killed that snake.) I don’t tolerate animal cruelty in any form, so after a few minutes of waffling I turned the movie off and resolved not to finish it. But several days later my resolve crumbled and I picked up where I’d left off. If they did murder that snake 37+ years ago, me not watching the movie now wasn’t going to bring it back.

I’m not certain why, but despite my avowed dislike of slashers and bloody horror in general, the Friday the 13th franchise has always held a weird fascination. I think it’s because it scared me so badly as a kid. I’ve probably already mentioned the sleepover when friends were watching one of the Friday films on TV and I was so scared that I had to leave the room. Another time, some years later, I had to go on some sort of “retreat” at a place called Summit Lake. I have virtually no memory of what we did there–I assume it was normal camp stuff like canoeing and weaving stupid things out of gimp–except that all the kids slept in a big cabin and one night some of the other children terrified me with stories of how Friday the 13th‘s Crystal Lake was actually Summit Lake, where the movie was filmed. (This, of course, was total hogwash–Crystal Lake is in New Jersey, not Maryland–but I didn’t know that at the time. I actually believed for years after that the movies were filmed there.) My most vivid memory of the whole trip is lying awake in my cot, convinced that Jason was going to appear and murder me.

Then there was the infamous NES game, with Jason decked out in his inexplicably purple jumpsuit. I played it with a friend and remember being scared by it too, not because the game itself was particularly scary, but just because it referenced the scariness of the movies. Jason really freaked me out, even in purple.

So it could be that I’ve wanted to address some childhood fears by actually watching some of the Friday films. (To this day the only ones I’ve seen all the way through are the first one, Jason Goes to Hell, and Freddy vs. Jason. And the trashy 2009 reboot, but that doesn’t count.) But my conscious reason for wanting to revisit the first film now was to confirm that Jason, the antagonist of the rest of the series, did in fact drown in Crystal Lake as a child. If Jason drowned, that means his eventual appearance in the series is as a revenant, an undead murder machine, rather than just a regular murder machine. (I know that by the later films this is established, but there seems to have been some doubt about it in earlier entries.) Regular murder machines are boring to me, but undead ones are neat. And while I still don’t care for extreme violence, something about the Friday series’ weird mythos appeals to me.

You probably know the story (such as it is). In the film’s present, Camp Crystal Lake is about to be reopened after some twenty years. It was closed following some mysterious murders. Now a group of teenagers, including Kevin Bacon, have been hired as counselors and are working to get the place back in shape, but one night a thunderstorm hits and an unknown assailant starts a-murdrin’.

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This is my murdrin’ sweater.

The killer, as we all know by now, is Pamela Voorhees, whose young son Jason was left to drown decades earlier by some irresponsible horny counselors. Now she exacts revenge on, I guess, anybody who comes to Crystal Lake? Only not really, because other people come and go and don’t get killed, like Crazy Ralph and the derpy police officer. Pamela mentions at one point that it’s Jason’s birthday, so I guess that’s why she’s killing people now? Also it’s Friday the 13th, so. Plot.

Yes, there’s really not a lot of narrative here. Despite this, Friday the 13th isn’t exactly a terrible movie. It’s got a coherent, if superficial and somewhat stupid story, and does manage to create an atmosphere of weirdness and, if not dread, then at least futility. Like later films in the series–and like the slasher genre as a whole–the plot is really nothing more than a series of flimsy excuses for people to be cut off from their friends and slaughtered one by one, but it’s at least plausible that a bunch of young people would be hired on an ad-hoc basis to serve as counselors at a junky local camp. Normally the “five or six young people do stupid things in isolated places and get murdered” formula feels less organic. The acting and writing are on the bad side of the spectrum, but not nearly as bad as other genre films. (I’m thinking especially of a later entry in the series, I don’t know which, and a line about “Tony the wonder llama.” Jesus.)

I am happy to say that, according to the story as laid out in the first film, Jason absolutely did drown. Apparently they retconned this later, because when Jason does show up it’s as an adult, but at the beginning he was definitively dead. He drowned in 1957, and in 1958 his mother Pamela Voorhees committed the franchise’s first revenge-murders against some of the counselors. There’s no ambiguity here: we hear it all right from Pamela’s mouth. So whatever else he is, Jason Voorhees the hockey mask-wearing butcher is and always was undead. The ambiguous scene at the end where Jason leaps out of the lake to pull final girl Alice in seems to confirm this: he’s all rotty and gross. Whether this scene is a dream or not (and I’d argue that the film heavily implies that it isn’t), we still know Jason was dead.

Except, I guess, when he wasn’t? But then he was again? Something. Whatever.

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