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'The Howling'? Hell Yeah!

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'Hell Yeah!' is an ongoing series in which horror filmmakers, critics and fans share their take on movies they love. This month: werewolves!

I’m a big fan of monsters and monster movies.  I usually prefer them over 'realistic horror' films that feature psycho killers.  That’s because a monster movie has a fantasy aspect that has to be introduced, explained and believed; it takes an extra dose of imagination and storytelling ability to scare an audience with a monster, versus let’s say…someone tied down to a table have being carved up by a sadistic but human murderer.  Yes, that can be scary, but unfortunately those people do exist in real life, and outside of the occasional piece of art like Hitchcock’s Psycho, movies about them are by definition more exploitation than imagination (even the enjoyable ones often leave a bad taste in my mouth).

However, the problem with many pure monster movies is that realizing a believable creature on screen can be tricky business, especially in the pre-CG cinema world when most monsters were portrayed either by actors wearing stage make up and rubber masks, or puppets romping around toy cities.  Let’s face it: if a monster is not believable (or worse, cheesy looking), it’s not scary.

That’s why The Howling (1981) is my favorite werewolf film.  Not only is it an extremely entertaining tale of terror, it showed me something I’d never seen before: a horrifying, eye-popping yet totally realistic transformation of man into mythical beast.  And by doing so, set the bar for all werewolf (and most monster) movies to come.

Before The Howling, werewolf transformations were handled one of two ways: either the transformation was hidden, as in 1935’s Werewolf of London (Universal’s first werewolf film), or done via time lapse photography with hair and fangs added frame by frame and then edited together through a series of on-screen dissolves.  This technique was first used in Universal’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man, and the process (as well as Jack Pierce’s legendary make-up) became the industry standard.  But what was once shocking soon became mundane (after all, the actor had to remain perfectly still until the transformation was complete).  By the time of 1957’s kitschy I Was A Teenage Werewolf that kind of transformation had become a total cliché.

Unfortunately, not much changed over the next 20 plus years…then came The Howling.

Almost a full year before the release of the other great modern werewolf classic An American Werewolf in London, The Howling arrived to show us how to make a werewolf transformation terrifyingly believable. 

Utilizing a combination of never before seen bladder make up techniques and prosthetics, special effects whiz Rob Bottin (who would later perform the same gooey magic on John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing) completely revolutionized the monster-making process.  The unblinking camera showed us everything: fingers elongating, skin bubbling, tendons stretching, fangs growing; these visuals combined with bone crunching sound effects gave us a transformation sequence that was startling, horrifying and completely convincing.  It didn’t hurt that the final creation was a new kind of werewolf, not just a man running around in torn clothes with fur pasted on his face, but a towering creature that was the stuff of nightmares.

There are so many elements that make The Howling the yardstick against which all other lycanthropic films must be judged:  the suspenseful and witty direction of Joe Dante, the pithy script by John Sayles (who also penned Piranha and Alligator), the terrific cast of genre vets (Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Kenneth Tobey) and the clever homage of naming most of the characters after werewolf movie directors.  Plus there’s that amazingly hot and steamy werewolf sex scene that gives the film its title.

But it’s the transformation scene, literally the centerpiece of the film that changed horror films forever, and allowed The Howling to claw its way into my heart as one of my all time favorite monster movies.

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