Screams From The Crypt: The Howling I & II
Welcome back to Screams from the Crypt, Talk Film Society’s home for horror! This week, Staff Writer Sean Beattie rips through one no-question classic werewolf movie, as well as its absolutely bonkers sequel.
Ever since 1941's The Wolf Man, horror fans have been flooded with tales of these moonlit beasts. The myth of the werewolf has gone through numerous additions and changes to its lore over the years but one theme has remained constant; someone is going to turn into a wolf and butcher some hapless victims. This week we're taking a look at the first two films in The Howling series, which was started by Joe Dante in 1981.
The Howling (1981) d. Joe Dante
Having proven his horror-comedy bona fides with 1979’s Piranha, and 1980’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (an uncredited gig for which he also pulled story duties), Joe Dante was hired to take over for departing director and original writer Jack Conrad on The Howling. An adaptation of a horror novel of the same name, going from page to screen proved tricky for the studio’s liking. Dante hired previous collaborator and no stranger to creature features, John Sayles, to dive into a page-one rewrite. While The Howling, the movie, bears just a passing resemblance to the source material, the result was a campy horror-comedy classic.
And this film is a stone-cold horror-comedy classic. Packed to the gills (or should it be hackles?) with cameos and casting choices to make any B-movie nut smile ear to ear. Roger Corman makes an early appearance as an impatient man waiting for a pay phone, for example. Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed of The Avengers himself (the swinging 60’s spy show, not the Iron Man/Captain America Avengers) plays a sizable role, as does John Carradine, mostly famous these days for being the star of so, just so damn many, episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Other notable genre staple actors include Slim Pickens (Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles) as a member of the werewolf Colony, Kenneth Tobey (The Thing from Another World), Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager, Gremlins 2: The New Batch) plays key werewolf Eddie Quist, and Dick f-ing Miller as the owner of an occult shop who delivers some world-weary exposition about how the rules of lycanthropy work in “the real world.”
Dante steeps the lycan threat in the psychological and sexual repression of the just-dawning Reagan era, with the first attack taking place in a porn shop’s video booth in one of Los Angeles’s sleazier neighborhoods. Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a reporter who seeks out suspected serial rapist and murderer Eddie Quist (Picardo) for an exclusive interview he’ll only provide to her in person. Upon meeting Karen, Eddie’s voice begins to deepen, chug and burp as his hidden face contorts in the flickering shadow of the booth.
The second act’s transformation scene, designed by Rick Baker and executed by Rob Bottin, both high masters of creature craft, is an outstanding example of progressive makeup effects. Its creative use of limited budgets, and terrifying perversion of common knowledge of human anatomy, all come together to unsettle and disgust while keeping your eye fixated on exactly what you don’t want to look at in the shot. The ultimate man-in-a-suit creature looks somewhere between wolf and fox in appearance, standing tall and proud after having shed its human form. In short, this film unleashes the beast on the audience, and makes them watch every horrible, unthinkable second of it.
Dante and Sayles pepper the film with small nods and jokey references to werewolf films past, and as is Dante’s signature style, ends the story on a joke that’s as eye-roll worthy as it is a chuckler. The end credits play in a manner similar to De Palma’s later approach to the end credits of Body Double: an uncomfortably-held but fairly straightforward shot of something people do everyday, but made somewhat unsettling by context. That De Palma focused on a woman showering, and Dante focuses here on a slab of meat cooking on a bar’s grill, well…you get the point.
Howling II: ...Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985) d. Philippe Mora
So naturally, a sequel was produced. This is that movie. More a sequel to the first film than an adaptation of the second novel (titled, creatively, The Howling II), the story picks up immediately after the end of the first film, with Karen White’s funeral (32-year old spoiler alert). Dee Wallace does not return to play a dead body, and we quickly dispose with any need to see that, so it’s no big loss to the narrative.
Howling II opens with a cosmic background and a double-exposed Christopher Lee superimposed to cryptically read from the Book of Revelation, and then we’re off to the funeral. Karen’s sister-in-law Jenny (Annie McEnroe) and brother Ben White (TV’s Captain America himself, Reb Brown) have come to pay their respects and inter Karen in an above-ground crypt. Stefan Crosscoe (Lee, in pinnacle form as exposition-dump professor and Van Helsing type, here) however, has come to stab Karen’s body with a silver spike, and seeks her brother’s permission. Ben is, to put it mildly, not receptive to the idea. Crosscoe insists Karen is a werewolf and will rise again, regenerated, as the silver bullet fired into her body (again, spoiler alert) was removed at autopsy.
Crosscoe enlists Ben to join his merry band of werewolf chow—I mean, werewolf hunters, in freaking Romania, like Transylvania is some hotbed of lycanthropic activity. This film mixes some metaphors, creature-wise, is what I’m saying. They have silver bullets, of course. Titanium for Stirba/Stilba, since she’s the Werewolf Bitch Who Dresses Like It’s Always a Beyonce concert (also, Werewolf Bitch is the overseas and original US title to Howling II, so…yeah). Everyone else has easily dodged melee weapons, but Crosscoe himself takes what I can only refer to as a Holy Hand Grenade, since it literally explodes a werewolf when he throws it at one. We know it hurts to be blown up because for some reason the explosion has a screaming were’s face double-exposed over it.
Speaking of weird editing choices, Your Sister Is a Werewolf employs the George Lucas School of Every Edit, Wipe and Dissolve Possible technique, as no joke, it employs the side wipe; swirl wipe(!) and smash cut liberally. Also, the band that plays the film’s theme song, which you will hear a lot when watching Howling II, is cut to early and often throughout the movie’s runtime, even though it’s very obviously the same performance we saw Stefan infiltrate in the first act. Once again, off with you logic! You have no home, here!
Howling II’s attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle doesn’t quite work as a direct sequel to the first Howling, but it’s schlocky fun nonetheless. The film also tries to keep your attention through the credits as the first Howling did, but they try to make a film-recap/music video for the song “The Howling” by Babel, the punk band from the opening act and keep your attention by cutting back to Stirba/Stilba’s top ripping off from the werewolf threeway scene during the chorus. And I mean that literally—every iteration of the synth’ed “howl” is accompanied by Sybil Danning’s breasts exploding out of a cloth top. It’s also maybe the best editing job in the entire film, and I am not exaggerating in noting that.
But this film is worth a look if you’re into schlocky cash-ins and enjoy seeing Christopher Lee add gravitas as only he can to scenes where he talks about metallurgy as it applies to werewolf hunting. Or seeing Sybil Danning in weird leather gear, because she’s fairly exposed for a good bit of the film. It’s not available for streaming because I think people might try to track down refund policies if they rented it. I might take the film to task for some logic issues (okay, several) but it’s a fun time for people who enjoy goofy follow ups to stone cold classics.