The Howling (film)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Howling is a 1981 horror film directed by Joe Dante. Based on the novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, the screenplay is written by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless. The original music score is composed by Pino Donaggio.


Plot summary

Karen White (Dee Wallace-Stone) is a television news anchor who is being stalked by a serial murderer named Eddie Quist. In cooperation with the police, she takes part in a scheme to capture Eddie by agreeing to meet him in a sleazy porno theater. Eddie forces Karen to watch a video of a young woman being raped, and when Karen turns around to see Eddie she screams. The police enter and shoot Eddie, and although Karen is safe, she suffers amnesia. Her therapist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), decides to send her and her husband, Bill Neill (Christopher Stone), to "The colony", a secluded resort in the countryside where he sends patients for treatment.

The colony is filled with strange characters, and one, a nymphomaniac named Marsha Quist (Elisabeth Brooks), tries to seduce Bill. When he resists, he is attacked and bitten by a wolf-like creature while returning to his cabin. He later returns to find Marsha waiting and the two have sex by the campfire. During the encounter, both shapeshift into werewolves.

After Bill's wolf bite, Karen summons her friend Terri Fisher (Belinda Balaski) to The Colony, and Terri connects the resort to Eddie Quist through a sketch he left behind. But Karen begins to suspect that Bill is hiding a secret far more threatening than marital infidelity. While investigating, Terri is attacked by werewolves, and one corners her in Waggner's office. Before it can murder her, she places a phone call to her boyfriend, Chris (Dennis Dugan), who has been let in on the werewolf angle and sets off for the colony armed with silver bullets.

Karen is confronted by the resurrected Eddie Quist once again (the policemen who shot him were obviously not using silver bullets), and Eddie transforms himself into a werewolf while she watches. She escapes, and Eddie is later shot by Chris with a silver bullet. As it turns out, however, everyone in the colony is a werewolf. These werewolves can shapeshift at will; they do not require a full moon. Karen and Chris survive their attacks and burn the colony to the ground.

Karen resolves to warn the world about the existence of werewolves, and surprises her employers by launching into her warnings while on television. Then, to prove her story, she herself shapeshifts into a werewolf, having become one after being attacked at the colony. She is shot by Chris on live television, and the world is left to wonder whether the transformation and shooting really happened or was the work of special effects. It is also revealed that Marsha Quist escaped the colony alive and well.

Main cast


Though the film has been noted for its witty screenplay, it began life as a more straight forward 1977 novel by Gary Brandner. After drafts by Jack Conrad (the original director who left following difficulties with the studio) and Terence H. Winkless proved unsatisfactory, director Joe Dante hired John Sayles to completely rewrite the script. The two had collaborated before on Dante's 1978 film Piranha. Sayles rewrote the script with the same self-aware, satirical tone that he gave Piranha, and his finished draft bears very little resemblance to Brandner's book.

The tongue-in-cheek approach to the film was bolstered by a cast that featured a number of recognizable character actors like John Carradine and Slim Pickens, many of whom appeared in genre films themselves. Additionally, the film was full of in-joke references to other films, with many of the characters bearing the names of directors who made classic werewolf films (such as Freddie Francis, Terence Fisher, and George Waggner). Roger Corman makes a cameo appearance as a man standing outside a phone booth.

The Howling was also notable for its special effects, which were considered to be extremely convincing at the time. The transformation scenes were created by Rob Bottin, who had also worked with Dante on Piranha. Rick Baker was the original effects artist for the film, but left the production to work on the John Landis film An American Werewolf in London, handing over the effects work to Rob Bottin. Bottin's most celebrated effect was the on-screen transformation of Eddie Quist, which involved air bladders under latex facial applications to give the illusion of transformation. In fact, Variety notes that The Howling's biggest flaw is that the impact of this initial transformation is never topped during the climax of the film. The Howling also features stop-motion animation by notable stop-motion animator David W. Allen and puppetry intended to give the werewolves an even more non-human look to them. Despite most of the special effects at the time, it also features an obviously fake effect: the silhouette of Bill and Marsha having sex as werewolves is obviously a cartoon animation.

Due to their work in The Howling, Dante and producer Michael Finnell received the opportunity to make the film Gremlins (1984). That film references The Howling with a smiley face image on a refrigerator door. Eddie Quist leaves yellow smiley face stickers as his calling card in several places throughout The Howling.

Actors Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, Noble Willingham and Kenneth Tobey all later appeared in the Star Trek spin-offs.


Critical response to The Howling varied. Writing in 1981, Roger Ebert dismissed the film as the "Silliest film seen in some time..."<ref>Roger Ebert review[1]</ref> Conversely, Leonard Maltin wrote in his book 2002 Movie & Video Guide that The Howling is a "hip, well-made horror film" and noted the humorous references to classic werewolf cinema.<ref>Leonard Maltin's 2002 Movie & Video Guide, Signet Books, August 7, 2001 ISBN 0-451-20392-5</ref> Variety praised both the film's sense of humor and its traditional approach to horror.<ref> [2]</ref>

The film won the 1980 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film. This film was also #81 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.

Deviations from the novel

  • In the novel, the "Colony" is a village called Drago, not a psychiatric resort
  • Karen's rapist is named Max Quist, and he has no involvement with the Colony or its inhabitants
  • In the novel she is raped in her apartment. In the movie she is saved by police, before she can be raped
  • Bill Neil's name in the novel is Roy White
  • Marsha's surname in the novel is Lura, and she is no relation to Max Quist
  • In the novel, Karen and Roy bring a pet collie with them to the resort, which is killed later on
  • The werewolves in the novel transform when exposed to moonlight, rather than at will
  • Unlike the werewolves of the movie, which resemble anthropomorphic wolves, the werewolves of the novel are completely wolf-like
  • Karen escapes from Drago unscathed and survives


The Howling was followed by six sequels:

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