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Thursday, October 13, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 8: The Howling (1981)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Screenplay by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, based on the novel by Gary Brandner
Directed by Joe Dante

Dee Wallace:  Karen White
Christopher Stone:  Bill Neill
Patrick Macnee:  Dr. George Waggner
Dennis Dugan:  Chris Halloran
Kevin McCarthy:  Fred Francis
John Carradine:  Erle Kenton
Robert Picardo:  Eddie Quist
Elisabeth Brooks:  Marsha Quist

And most importantly,
DICK MILLER:  Walter Paisley - Bookstore Owner

Regular readers of this blog know that I view 1974 as The Year Everything Changed for horror movies, thanks to The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre pushing the boundaries for what was acceptable as far as content is concerned. The reason they were able to do that is, of course, that both films made an absolute shit ton of money at the box office. You can't call a movie influential unless a bunch of other movies try to ride on its coat tails (in the horror genre, I'm not sure if Dawn of the Dead or Friday the 13th is the single horror film that has been Xerox(TM) brand image reproduced the most by other filmmakers, and without a handy video store to walk down the aisle so I can take a census of slasher films and zombie movies, I don't even have a ballpark guess as to which one has been ripped off the most. But there's other films that serve as landmarks in the sacred Hollywood territory of "Holy shit, look at how much money you can make if you do that!"; Gremlins begat the Ghoulies, Munchies, and the various pint-sized menaces from Full Moon entertainment (the Puppet Master's crew, Dollman, the Demonic Toys, etc.) while there are other films that appreciated their own sincerest form of flattery in theaters, on cable, and on VHS shelves from the Eighties and Nineties. Today's movie is one of them, of course--otherwise I wouldn't have written the preceding paragraph. Look. I know I like to waste my readers' time with thousands of words' worth of academic takes on cultural garbage but not that much.

Well, there were two movies that hit in 1981 that led to directors calling in makeup and animatronics specialists to perform feats of alchemical prowess on the set whenever a human body needed to warp and change from one shape to another. One was the dark-comedy An American Werewolf in London, and the other is my contribution for the letter H for the fourth HubrisWeen marathon. In both cases a series of special effects puppets were built so that a particular sequence of changes could be recorded on film and edited together to show a human being turning into an animalistic monster. And since practical effects were the only ways to show that happening (computer-generated effects wouldn't be cost-effective for lower-budget movies for at least another decade and a half) the director and the makeup specialists had to work together with the cameramen, cinematographers and actors to make the transformation shots fit together properly in the final product. My favorite example of this technique involves one of the puppets in An American Werewolf in London--the head was built with two different sections, split down the middle like a lupine Harvey Dent so that the camera could pan around it and show more animalistic features forming and changing in the second half of the shot without cutting away. That doesn't happen without caring; everyone involved in the movie has to really want to work together for the final result to work as well as it does in these films. 

Which is why Joe Dante was necessary for this film. He's a big old nerd for monsters and horror films (you don't put Dick Miller in every single thing you've directed if you aren't a big fan of creature features of the Fifties and Sixties). But he's also got a super-dark sense of humor and a sense of playfulness about the archetypes he's using--in a very real way he's making movies that have the same storyline that a kid mixing and matching action figures from two or three different toy lines could come up with, so that Cobra uses the Creature from the Black Lagoon as an underwater saboteur and only Obi-Wan Kenobi stands a chance of saving the day. I don't have any proof of this, but I expect Dante can tell you what the cover of every single issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland looked like from memory. He's probably got a shelf full of decades' worth of Mad Magazine at home, and his cheerfully jaundiced view of American culture would fit right in with the Usual Gang of Idiots. Which is great--if you're going to make a movie about people getting savaged by monsters, it's nice for the audience if you can put some thought into it and have something on your mind other than just a list of horrible things to happen to people's torsos. Speaking of "cheerfully jaundiced", today's screenplay is another one from the early part of John Sayles' career, which means you can expect wit and cleverness rather than ham-fisted dialogue and clunky references to better movies.

Before I continue, I should say this is another movie that I haven't seen before this year's HubrisWeen. It came out when I was six and, like a lot of other R-rated films, I wasn't allowed to see it in its original release. As I recall, one of the video stores in my home town had it available but not the others, and it just sorta fell by the wayside with one thing and another, so it took me another three and a half decades before I sat down and watched it. Special thanks to Friend of the Checkpoint Bryan "Brother Ragnarok" Clark (the owner and operator of Cinemasochist Apocalypse and a series regular on Attack of the Killer Podcast as of the summer of 2016) for giving me a copy of this on DVD so I could scratch H off the list for this year's marathon. It's always nice when your friends enable your goofball hobbies.

The film starts with the title appearing as letters slashed onto the film, bright red on black, before the image shatters like glass and a montage of voiceovers and flickering, out-of-focus television images fill the screen under the credits. The rolling picture resolves into static (while the snippets of spoken dialogue sound like they're the technical staff for a newscast, setting up shots and cueing up video footage to play while the newscasters read their scripts), and after the static comes the face of Patrick Macnee talking about repression and the animal nature that lives at the core of each human being. (The first shot before we see that Macnee's character is on TV being interviewed is filmed in a widescreen aspect ratio, which wouldn't have been on television in 1981; it's something that only seems like an anachronism if you're young enough to remember when television screens were squares rather than rectangles.) 

Cutting from the black-and-white image on a television to the studio, we go a level back from there; the film doesn't just show us the news segment where Dr. George Waggner is being interviewed about his book, but also the cameramen at work, including a nifty shot where Macnee is in focus in the film and on a monitor on the news camera at the same time. We also see the director of the broadcast in a control room giving orders to the feed switchers about how they're going to cut away from the interview as soon as anything happens elsewhere, even if it means the doctor doesn't get to mention his book title. Intercut with that is a scene of a woman walking down a dark alley, and then getting propositioned by someone who wants a "half and half". The news director mentions that the psychologist hawking his book has been working with "her", whoever she is, about how to talk to a lunatic. Presumably that's what they're going to cut to, although I don't think the camera shot of the woman is meant to be diegetic (it's not a news cameraman following her, or the guy who wants to solicit an act of prostitution probably would be acting differently). The john recognizes the woman from television (even if the audience doesn't know who it is yet; we've only seen her from behind so far) and laughs at himself for his own foolishness.

Well, thanks to a couple more shots of things going on at the news station, we now at least know the woman's name is Karen. She talks to a hidden microphone while she's looking at a smiley-face sticker in a telephone booth (note to younger readers of the Checkpoint:  Before everyone had a computer / internet connection / portable phone that fit in their pockets, you had to find a public telephone that wasn't damaged and didn't have Superman changing in it, and then pay a quarter for three minutes of communications time with whoever you were calling). That sticker is a guide for her; she's supposed to be where she is to talk to someone named "Eddie" in or around that phone booth. And, because she's using a portable radio transmitter made from the finest components 1981 had to offer, the police monitoring her don't know her exact location. The cops, understandably not wanting to just sit there while a television personality is killed live on television, send patrol cars out to where they're pretty sure Karen is as a precaution.

That location, by the way, is a street full of peep shows and porno shops (note to younger readers of the Checkpoint:  Prior to the rise of the internet, people who wanted to look at pornography had to go to specialty shops to purchase it, or to theaters where pornographic films would be screened; aren't you glad you can masturbate safely at home rather than going to a scummy little room where you need to feed change into a coin slot by the minute to have a loop of your preferred perversion projected for you?). We the audience learn that Karen White is a news personality for KDHB in Los Angeles (via one of her colleagues practicing the news report he's going to deliver). We also learn that the "Eddie" she's looking for is almost certainly a serial killer that's been plaguing the city recently, and that Karen's husband Bill Neill is not thrilled that she's acting as human bait to help the police find this Eddie character and lock him up before he can kill any other women. The intercutting between locations means that the audience is always at least a little bit behind the characters in figuring out what's going on (we can tell the smiley-face sticker in the phone booth is important because of how it is framed, but not why it's significant the first time we see it). I'm used to horror movies spelling things out for the audience, so I'm quite happy to see this one leaving things elliptical and subtle so the viewer has to put the pieces together themselves.

 The phone rings while Karen's in the booth, and it's Eddie (asking if Karen's alone and wearing the outfit he requested, which isn't creepy at all). The closeup on Eddie's mouth as he speaks to Karen shows him to be a stubbly, sweaty pervert and he gives her a location to proceed to that the audience doesn't hear. Neither do the cops; apparently all the electrically charged neon signs in the neighborhood and playing havoc with the radio transmitter that Karen's wearing. Also, the guy waiting to make a phone call who checks the coin slot for unclaimed change once Karen leaves? That's Hollywood's greatest talent scout, the legendarily tight-fisted Roger Corman his own damn self.

Karen makes her way to a particular porno book store / peep booth rental shack, where her presence (either as a woman or a woman who reads the news on goddamned television) drives one customer out within seconds. She's left the radio running, and one of the jerkoff booths in the back of the store has another smiley-face sticker on it, so she knows which particular sweat-reeking closet she's supposed to meet the multiple murderer in. Of course, she doesn't know that the radio isn't working, so the audience is aware of how much more danger Karen's in than she knows. And, uh, volunteering to serve as live bait for a serial killer is already quite dangerous enough as things are.

Karen goes into the booth and the man who's already there, waiting for her in the darkness, feeds a quarter into the vending machine. It's a scratchy 8-millimeter film of a woman being tied up and stripped as a prelude to rape (which might have been filmed with consenting adults in order to be a legally viewable piece of smut, but if that's your spank-bank material you're a horrible piece of work). While Karen's got Eddie's hands on her shoulders he tells her not to turn around and look at him; instead, he wants her watching the violation of the actress in the peepshow booth. The suspense increases because we see the police looking for Karen and closing in and the director back at the station; everyone knows how much danger Karen's in except for her. As mulleted pervert Eddie tells Karen she can turn around now and look at him, she doesn't quite see his face thanks to the light from the movie projector shining in her eyes. But what she does see (and what the audience is not given so much as a glance at, because it's the first act of the film) scares her enough that she screams. Thankfully a pair of police have arrived and the younger one shoots through the peep show booth door, killing Eddie and irritating the hell out of the clerk at the front of the store (who probably has visions of revenue loss thanks to a police shooting on the premises dancing in his head).

The television station is thrilled to have something they can show (their anchorwoman being walked out of the smut shop, red police lights suffusing the scene) while a police detective is upbraiding the patrolman for shooting and killing Eddie because it turns out the guy didn't have so much as a toothpick on him, so it's going to be tough to make that shooting look good to a review board (NOTE:  Eddie was white, so that's a genuine concern for the LAPD). Karen, as one would naturally expect, was completely traumatized by what she saw, and is experiencing an amnesiac episode. Which means she isn't going to be up to recounting anything on the air any time soon; bet her boss isn't thrilled about that (and even less thrilled that if he brings it up he's going to look like a complete asshole in the accurate judgment of anyone who hears that complaint).

In the aftermath of the incident, Karen's not doing so hot. She's having repeated nightmares / flashbacks of the event and wakes up hysterically telling Bill "I turned around, but I didn't see him,". Which could be the truth or it could be something that she's desperately trying to tell herself first and her husband second. The fact that she's sleeping on the living room couch rather than in a bed she shares with her spouse is probably also not a good sign. And good for this movie for having a protagonist that doesn't shake off a massive trauma instantly.

Meanwhile, a pair of  journalists go to a flophouse full of rented rooms, chasing down a lead on this Eddie character. They don't know if they have the right place or not until they open the door and find every wall of the room covered with dozens of taped-up tabloid newspaper articles about killings (including one that's a winking reference to a previous Sayles / Dante collaboration:  DEATH BY MAN-EATING PIRANHAS with a grainy news photo of the prop killer fish from that movie). There's also some weirder things, such as covers of movie-monster magazines and drawings of people with animal features (fur, fangs, etc.) taking up space along with all the journalism about death. They find a sketch of Karen White among all the other weirdness and (sensibly) decide to call the police to report their findings. The last thing they remark on is a sketched landscape of a bay surrounded by grass; the movie wants us to know that's significant by putting ominous pipe organ music on the score when the reporters look at it.

Back at the station, Dr. Waggner looks at copies of all the drawings from Eddie's room, determining that he's a right-brained person--driven by the creative and emotional impulse rather than the rational (thanks for that insight, Doc). It also turns out that Eddie signed his work so the reporters know his last name was Quist. Dr. Waggner gets a little chuckle out of how easy some aspects of the investigation are before we jump cut back to Karen, having further traumatic flashbacks when she's in bed with her husband, cutting short their attempts at lovemaking a couple of seconds in. Bill's a really understanding guy, though, and just tries to get some sleep.

The next day, Karen returns to work at the station (everyone who works with her is concerned about whether or not it's too soon for her to go back to a high-stress job and try to recount the insanely higher-stress events she just lived through, while the person that everyone works for is just happy to see her back because that's going to be ratings gold "Everybody wants to see the woman who fought Eddie the Mangler,"). The movie seems to be more on the peons' side than the director's (and the amount of pressure Karen's under is highlighted by the commercial--showing a car being smashed to a crumpled heap in a wrecking yard--that runs right before they put her live on the air). 

Not everyone's destined to see their trauma and pain as some new injection and rise above human limitations, though, and Karen finds herself freezing up completely when looking into the staring Cyclopean eye of the TV camera. All her colleagues see is her failure to get past "Good evening," from her prepared copy but she sees Eddie Quist's silhouette backlit by the porno theater projection booth when she looks up at the studio lights and obviously won't be ready to continue in any capacity as a professional newscaster at this point. Freddie Francis is a raving dickhead about it (which you kind of have to be when you're the boss, but you don't have to be so convincing in the part) but everyone else is as kind-hearted as you'd expect--even more so, now that I think about it, because having to fill the first three minutes of a broadcast out of nowhere can't be easy to do. But Karen's coworkers are nothing but supportive and kind as they get her off the set.

In her counseling session with Dr. Waggner, Karen says she can't remember anything from inside the peep show booth--she snapped out of a blank daze only to find that she was covered in Eddie Quist's blood and didn't even know how it could have gotten on her. She's been getting flickers of memories in her dreams, but mostly just wakes up terrified. She's worried that the trauma she experienced has permanently changed her mental makeup but the good doctor tells her a two-week stay at "The Colony" so she can rest and be away from triggering stressors might just be all she needs to get back on an even keel. And since it's a California mental health retreat, there's likely to be plenty of nuts and flakes outside of the breakfasts that are being served.

Given that the cultural Eighties really didn't start (as far as I'm concerned) until Reagan was re-elected in a massive landslide, having a group therapy / encounter session getaway camp for nervous adults fits perfectly into the narrative here. It sure might sound more at home in the Me Decade than in the decade of Miami Vice and parachute pants, but calendar pages turning over from year to year aren't hard-and-fast barriers between trends and cultural currents. As I said before, 1980 was basically nineteen seventy-ten. And 1981 is still much more a sociological hangover from the disco age than it is the dawn of the John Hughes decade. Karen hopes that the people she'll be meeting at the retreat / getaway / therapy session / psychological repair institute aren't too weird.

Heh. So of course there's a jump cut to John Carradine yelling with glee at a hoedown that night. There's even a live band and a fire-cooked side of beef at the barbecue pit to make everyone feel at home (although Bill is a vegetarian; it being California, one assumes the Colony staff would be sensitive to the needs of anyone avoiding refined sugar, meat, salt, gluten or Soylent products). Things get off to a marginally awkward start when Jerry and Donna Warren introduce themselves at the Meat Pit and Donna tells Karen that she's a big fan; why, Karen's her second-favorite newscaster! Charlie Barton's a cattle rancher who donated the side of beef for that night's feast. Donna takes Karen off to show her around the Colony (though right now we in the audience just see a beach at night) and a while that's happening a woman in a leather dress at the punch bowl tries to hit on Bill ("I'm looking for my wife." "Why?"). Bill makes his escape slightly sooner than is polite after that exchange, and we go back to Dr. Waggner walking around on the beach and playing the genial host to the various people living at the Colony. 

As soon as the doctor's talking to people by a campfire, though, the leather-dress woman shows up to angrily hand Dr. Waggner a copy of his latest book, telling him that her brother shouldn't read it and that he's done enough damage for the time being. She also throws an above-average HateFace at Karen, though as far as the viewer can tell all the newscaster's done wrong so far is marry someone who wouldn't sneak off into the woods with a stranger after knowing them for less than thirty seconds. Dr. Waggner, striving for fairness in all his Earthly dealings, says that Marsha isn't a horrible person, just "very elemental" and that they all can learn from her. Donna says Marsha's a nyphomaniac, but Dr. Waggner nips that diagnosis in the bud, apparently believing that calling someone by that term says much more about the person making that judgment than it does the target.

John Carradine's character, Erle Kenton, seems melancholy--not wanting to stick around and watch people three decades younger than him kissing near the ocean and socializing at the party (also, like quite a few people, he's not thrilled with the prospect of listening to country instrumentals for an entire night). He tries to fling himself into one of the fire pits at the beach party, but Dr. Waggner calls him back from the edge and escorts him to his cabin for a relaxing night's sleep.

That night, Karen's dreams feature a glimpse of Erle standing by the edge of the fire and yelling, which blends into the wilderness noises in the woods around her cabin. Several coyotes or dogs howl in the darkness ( about wolves, perhaps?) and Karen panics, waking her husband up who sensibly points out that she's lived in Los Angeles her entire life, so all the weirdness she's experienced in her life is strictly urban rather than nature, red in tooth and claw (and noisy as hell at two in the morning). Try as she might, Karen's unable to get back to sleep that night. And outside, a roving POV camera sneaks around the outside of her cabin. Karen doesn't realize she's in a horror movie so she goes out with a flashlight to see what's going on and hears a growling animal noise or two before sensibly retreating back inside the cabin. And out in the lush forest, Marsha's possibly mute younger brother T. C. looks at the cabin, smiling vacantly. But Karen hasn't seen him, and would probably be shocked into a screaming fit if she did.

The next day, Donna and Karen are playing tennis and the local sheriff Sam Newfield (played by "Hey, that guy!" lifetime achievement award winner Slim Pickens) stops by to see how things are going and to look into the coyote problem that Dr. Waggner told him about. He claims that keeping a tight lid on garbage receptacles will help with the scavenger problem, and also turns out to be another fan of Karen's television work.

Back in the big city, two of Karen's colleagues from the station are talking to a morgue attendant played by screenwriter John Sayles in a budget-friendly cameo. He's there to show off Eddie Quist's body to the journalists as part of the special they're working on but when he opens the drawer of his necrofile cabinet the body bag is in tatters and the cadaver is nowhere to be found. The inside door of the locker is damaged and the attendant says that whatever happened to Eddie Quist's body, "He didn't get up and walk out on his own,". Wanna bet?

Back at the Colony, Karen and Donna are talking in the moonlight and listening to the cattle from Charlie Barton's herd as they graze in some convenient pasture. Karen thinks they sound odd, and that even a born-and-raised city girl can detect concern and fear in their vocalizations. Then the howling starts up again from the forest and the two women grab a rifle and a flashlight to go see what's going on out there. Donna gives a laundry list of all the self-help fads she's gone through trying to actualize herself (if this film had been made after the second season of Fargo, I bet LifeSpring would have been mentioned in there somewhere). They don't see anything, and they don't hear anything either (which is itself ominous, because a herd of cattle make noises just standing around) until they stumble upon the body of a bull lying in a pool of au jus. Then, of course, the flashlight goes dead. Charlie Barton and his lieutenant rancher show up to scare the hell out of Karen and tell her that there's another dead cow elsewhere--and that whatever tore them up, it wasn't a scavenger like a coyote.

The next morning, Bill and a bunch of the men are going out hunting for wolves (Bill hasn't been trusted with any bullets for his rifle yet, which seems quite sensible to me if that's the first time he's gone out in the woods to hunt whatever it is they're looking for). In a move that probably marks him as The Whipped Husband among all the late-middle-aged outdoorsmen, Bill gets to endure Karen interrupting the hunt for a moment before he goes out to join the boys. T. C., by the way, is tracking the wolves in lieu of any hunting dogs. While that's going on, though, there's a group therapy session where Dr. Waggner is guiding Karen through her fragmented memories of what happened in that peep show booth when Eddie Quist was shot down. She's able to get up to the point where she turns around to look at the prime suspect in a series of killings but not to describe who--or what--she sees when she does look at him. As Dr. Waggner assures her that it's all right and she can try again some other time, we jump back to the hunters, where Bill bags a wild hare with the first shot he's ever fired from a rifle. The other hunters are actually pretty impressed with that, claiming that Bill's got skills he didn't know he had.

But enough of that linear plot development, we got a DICK MILLER cameo to get to! He's the owner of "The Other Side:  Occult Objects for Special People", a book store full of specialized tomes for people looking for exactly that kind of thing ("The Manson people used to hang out here and shoplift. Bunch of deadbeats."). Karen's two coworkers from the station are still working on the Eddie Quist special, and they've gone to The Other Side to see if there's anything about body-stealing cults in any of those dusty volumes. The book store owner has, as one would imagine, an encyclopedic knowledge base about all kinds of creatures and beasts; he gives the exposition blast to the two journos by telling them that full moons aren't necessary for a werewolf to switch from human to beast, and that fire or silver bullets are the only ways to put them down for good. He also says in the next breath that he's just making a buck, and that if people want to buy black candles, the Necronomicon in paperback or dog embryos he has them. Some jerk ordered a bunch of .30-06 rifle bullets made of sterling silver and never picked them up, which the store owner shows off with a kind of aggrieved pride in the depth and breadth of his stock.

Back at the Colony, we learn that T. C. can talk, as he tells Bill that killing the rabbit that he bagged on the hunt without eating it is a sin (and Bill, for his part, politely points out that he tries to avoid eating meat when he can; he's not the cartoon Angry Vegan you might expect from a movie about California weirdos from the very early Eighties). T. C. also says his sister would be glad to clean and cook the animal if Bill doesn't want it, so Bill heads off to see if it's a prank or if Marsha really will make a meal out of the hare. Marsha does turn out to want to see Bill again, but plants one on him instead of whipping up a quick rabbit stew or roast once she's got the animal skinned and gutted. Bill leaves in a mild huff and that night it's the second full moon in a row over the Colony. Bill heads back to the cabin in the Instant Night and something with baleful yellow eyes watches him from the dark before howls fill the night air. Out of nowhere something huge and shaggy tackles Bill, nips his bicep (tearing the hell out of his shirt) and then leaves, even though one would assume a predatory animal would have pressed its advantage over the pink monkey it was able to overpower. Bill stumbles home and winds up getting a rabies prophylaxis shot from Dr. Waggner just in case the animal was rabid.

And the two journalists, Terri and Chris, are snuggling in bed watching an old black and white werewolf movie on TV. The phone rings and it's Karen calling to talk about the attack on Bill and all the other strangeness that's been going on at the Colony. Of course, this being a movie where people know about the monster's existence from the get-go, the werewolf flick on TV has a character intone about how lycanthropy is contagious and spread by bites. Think about how many zombie movies you've seen where the characters don't know what zombies are, and rejoice in the fact that everybody in this film, including the two nuns looking around the book store disapprovingly, knows what a werewolf is. They drive up to the Colony forthwith so they can give their friend and coworker some much-needed moral support.

During a walk on the beach, Karen talks to Terri about the various things that have happened from the mundane (Marsha having set her romantic sights on Bill) to the bizarre (cattle mutilations and shaggy beast attacks in the night). And at the picnic lunch later, Bill happily gnaws on a barbecue rib, saying that it's delicious and his vegetarian preferences can be happily chucked away when he gets hungry enough. And that night, Karen's feeling amorous but Bill shuts her down this time, since he's sore from the rabies shots he had earlier. She takes it about as well as he did earlier when she wasn't feeling it--so both of them have had to deal with their partner not wanting to have sex when their own engine(s) are humming along. But their relationship is strong enough and things have been bizarre enough at the Colony that neither one will be using lack of desire as a weapon against the other. It's an actual grownup marriage in a horror movie, which I wasn't honestly expecting.

After drifting off that night, Karen has a bad dream where Mario Bava-style red and green lights slash across the screen and she hears multiple voices telling her "Turn around, Karen," while she finds herself seeing Eddie Quist's face, sweaty and animalistic, in her dream. She wakes up and her husband is nowhere to be found (in fact, at that very moment he and Marsha are in the woods near a bonfire, stripping off their clothing and preparing to make the Beast With Two Backs while a chorus of animals howl in the forest as the least arousing mood setting sounds since the release of Metal Machine Music. Karen hears the chorus of howls and goes for a microphone, taping it for later study and evaluation rather than going out into the woods with a flashlight. While she's being sensible in the cabin, her husband's having his bite wound licked by Marsha, and then he grows fangs in his mouth, drooling on the woman beneath him as her own teeth make a change for the distinctly lupine. In his office, Dr. Waggner hears their triumphant roar / howl vocalizations, both of the lycanthropes turning from human to beast as they reach a climax together in a scene that probably clued a thousand furries into their own sexuality.

In the morning, Terri the newscaster looks out at the bay by the Colony and Bill does his Walk of Shame back into the bedroom. And Terri's got a good enough memory and sharp enough journalistic instincts that a puzzle piece falls into place while she's looking out at the ocean--one of Eddie Quist's sketches was of that particular bay, from more or less where Terri is standing right now (the film's score goes all Dr. Phibes on the pipe organ to underscore the clue getting delivered). And since that was a hand-drawn sketch, not a photo, it stands to reason that Eddie was familiar with the area from personal experience. Terri goes back to the cabins to tell someone about what she found, but a shot from inside one of the Colony's dwellings shows a chicken-bone-and-feather art object hanging from the ceiling similar to one of the gruesome mementoes in Eddie's flophouse apartment. And something was watching her in the woods, the audience's first clue that the bookstore owner was right that the full moon triggering changes in werewolves is just Hollywood myth rather than lycanthropic fact.

Terri does something you should never do in a horror movie, and goes into the creepy cabin full of animal pelts and art made from bones (there's also a can of Wolf Brand Chili on display on the refrigerator, and I really hope that was a paid product placement). We get a brief look at a pair of spindly and not-entirely convincing werewolf legs in the woods, and the discovering of a smiley-face sticker in the cabin leads to Terri going into another Serial Killer Room, with tabloid articles about murders taped to the walls and a wolf-skull art piece displayed prominently along with pencil sketches of people with monstrous features. Seconds after she finds that room, something huge snarls and hammers against another door, trying to break into the morbidly decorated chamber. When the werewolf bashes through the door to get to her, Terri leaps out of a second story window and grabs a hatchet from a wood-chopping block outside. It's a really near thing until she manages to chop one of the monster's paws off and she watches in disbelief as it changes back into a human hand once severed from its owner. Terri discards the axe and runs back to Dr. Waggner's office to call Christopher for help. But a cutaway of a claw near a tape recorder suggests that the werewolves are familiar with newfangled technology and will be working on their own plans to avoid detection.

Another nightmare of Karen's about changing faces and monstrous revelations leads to her waking up and seeing four long scratch marks on her husband's back. He says they're from the thing that attacked him a couple nights ago but Karen knows better. Bill, the shitheel, immediately gaslights his wife and says she's getting paranoid rather than admitting he was sleeping with someone else, and backhands her across the face when she calls him out on the obvious lie. Karen decides that she's had enough of the Colony's bullshit in general and Bill's in particular. She's leaving the therapy sessions and probably her husband to boot as soon as Christopher can come pick her and Terri up to get back to Los Angeles, where things are terrifying and smog-choked but there at least aren't werewolves howling in the night all the goddamned time.

Terri's call to Christopher drops a bombshell--she tells her husband that Eddie Quist is still alive (which makes sense because there wasn't a body in the morgue locker). She thinks Dr. Waggner must be in on whatever the hell is going on in the remote location full of weird happenings, because he's sharp enough that he wouldn't miss all the weirdness that's going on. And Christopher's news-hound instincts are sharp enough that he tells Terri to dig through Waggner's files and see if there's anything on Eddie Quist; if he really was at the Colony before there'd be some kind of records in his file. The suspense and fear in this sequence get slightly undercut by the Big Bad Wolf cartoon on Christopher's TV as well as the copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg prominently on his desk near the phone. Yeah, I get it, things are reminiscent of other things.

Terri finds that there's not just one person named Quist in the Colony's medical files; Marsha the seductress and T. C. the simpleton share Eddie's last name. She makes that discovery just in time for a a seven-foot-tall werewolf to yank the file out of her hand. Chris hears Terri's screams as the monster advances (and this one's got two front paws, so either the one that attacked her earlier grew a hand back or it's Marsha or T. C.). Christopher calls in the law but it's far, far too late for his wife. Her blood falls on Eddie's file, complete with sketches of him as a human, halfway to being a monster, and fully lycanthropic. Looks like Dr. Waggner had quite a bit of information in his files about the humans who change into wolf monsters, so he's known about this for years at the very least. 

Well, Christopher's got vengeance on his mind and scoops up those silver rifle bullets from Dick Miller's occult book store, tossing a pile of cash down and saying the store can bill him for the difference if that's not enough. Meanwhile, Karen goes to the doctor's office to call someone to take her back to Los Angeles, which means she finds Terri's body before her killer can do anything to clean up the murder scene. And when the body under a sheet in the doctor's office gets up to reveal Eddie Quist in all his repellent, greasy-haired, sweaty glory it's almost more than she can take. It's also a chance to see Robert Picardo with a full head of hair, about a decade before his lengthy run as the emergency medical hologram on Star Trek:  Voyager.

He's still fixated on Karen and now that he's got her cornered--again--it's time for the show-stopping effects sequence as we (and the heroine of the film) get a good long look at Eddie Quist as his face and body ripple and change from a human into a lupine monster. One must assume that Karen's transfixed in horror because otherwise she could make a run for it. The transformation is not instant, and it takes all of Eddie's attention as he turns into a wolfman. Sure, in 2016 one can easily tell that a new puppet or makeup effect had to be built and operated for each shot where it cuts to something else happening to Eddie's face or body, but in 1981 that sequence had to blow the audience's minds. It still largely holds up three decades later, and how many special effects can you say that about?

Karen throws a bottle of conveniently placed acid at Eddie when he's just about completely turned into a wolf beast and escapes while he roars in pain. But she gets caught by Charlie Barton and his unnamed sidekick and brought over to the Quist cabin (decorated with skeletons, both animal and human) where she sees Terri's body laid out on the kitchen table. Everyone who's been at the Colony is in the room, including Dr. Waggner, who makes it obvious that he's not there as a rescuer. He tells Karen that he's there to help people adjust to their lives as wolfmen (and women) and keep them from revealing their existence to a world where silver bullets and napalm would be the official governmental response to the werewolf threat. It turns out, though, that some of the werewolves at the Colony aren't into this accomodationist crap that Dr. Waggner is pushing for. They think human beings are their prey (and, occasionally, when they find one they like enough to bite without killing, their converts). Unsurprisingly, Marsha Quist is the leader of the Kill And Eat Everyone We Feel Like faction. She also views Karen as an easily removed obstacle to getting to mate with Bill whenever she wants and things are looking pretty dire for Ms. White when Christopher drives up toting a rifle loaded with silver rounds.

At the cabin, it turns out that the werewolf that killed Terri and lost an appendage was T. C., not Eddie, and he's in a killing mood because of his injury. Dr. Waggner tries to tell everyone that killing a local celebrity is a terrible idea, and tries to protect Karen. It also would appear that Waggner is not a werewolf himself (I had my suspicions that he was going to be), because Marsha claws his face and Erle sadly tells him that you can't tame something wild. While that confrontation is going on at the Quist homestead, Christopher's sneaking around the doctor's office and leafing through his files. The semi-human-appearing and horribly burned Eddie Quist punches through the the office door and snags Christopher's rifle. He hands the gun back to Christopher as a display of his invulnerability, planning to take a bullet to prove he can't be killed.When he starts to change so he can kill the interloper, Christopher puts three rounds into him and ends the son of a bitch's reign of terror permanently. 

Then it's time to go down to the Quist place so he can save Karen's life. After all, a silver bullet would do fine against a normal human, which everyone else at the Colony is as far as Christopher knows. T. C. is the next one to get dropped (after the start of what would have been another lengthy transformation scene) and the werewolves suddenly realize that they're not the alpha predators in this situation. Dr. Waggner attempts to reason with Christopher and takes a silver bullet for his troubles, saying "Thank God," as he slumps to the ground. After that, Christopher locks the remaining lycanthropes in the Quist barn and starts pouring gasoline on the outside boards before lighting the place up. The ensuing conflagration puts paid to the remaining monsters (other than one that hops on the car and is dispatched via silver bullet) but the sheriff has blocked the road out of the Colony with his cruiser and is sporting both a mouthful of fangs and a shotgun. Turns out he wasn't expecting silver bullets either, so once Christopher and Karen take his police car they can make a run for the city. This being a horror movie, the car doesn't start and they wind up mobbed by werewolves but eventually escape more or less unharmed (Karen has a nick taken out of her shoulder but she'll be all right, right?). At the end of the escape, there's three wolves left at the Colony, realized by stop-motion animation so their entire bodies can be depicted in the frame. 

Then it's time to go back to work for Karen, giving a special bulletin on the out of control fire at the Colony, which is treated as not only the top story (wildfires in California get plenty of coverage) but with Karen White as another eyewitness who can describe what was going on out there. She ignores what's on the TelePrompter, giving a statement about how humans need to master their bestial nature and raving about a secret society of monsters living among humans. Fred Francis believes that his star reporter's lost her fucking mind, but Karen sprouts a mouth full of fangs live on camera and proves without a shadow of a doubt that the threat is real. Then, because she knows what kind of monster she's been turned in to, she has Christopher shoot her live on the air with a silver bullet (Francis cuts to a dog food commercial rather than show someone die on his news broadcast, naturally).

After a brief montage of people reacting to the news coverage (kids think that it's awesome, the book store owner doesn't need this kind of hassle and some of the random people at a bar think it's some sort of War of the Worlds hoax done with special effects) there's a brief shot of Marsha in the same bar, ordering a rare cheeseburger and smiling. I wouldn't bet more than fifteen bucks on Christopher living out the week, the poor guy.

Well! There's a reason this one was a big hit (it made $19 million on a budget of a million and a half, and spawned seven sequels which, by all accounts, deliver rapidly diminishing returns). The script and characters are well-drawn, the performances range from adequate to note-perfect, and there's the note of tragedy that the Universal Wolf Man movies normally went for at the end of it with Karen's martyrdom live on the air. There are plenty of goofy little references to wolves scattered around like the copy of Howl and the can of Wolf brand chili, and Joe Dante being Joe Dante, virtually all the characters other than Karen, Bill and the Quists are named after directors who had at least one werewolf movie on their resumes. But the movie doesn't put the references front and center like third-rate scripts do (I'm thinking mostly of the not-very-good-at-all Hello Mary Lou:  Prom Night II here; I remember it being one of the worst offenders on that score). 

It's a movie that plays fair with its characters; the werewolves are given distinct personalities rather than making them all unthinking monsters. Some of them, in fact, are thinking monsters and their intelligence makes them unbelievably dangerous. Eddie went to the big city to stalk and kill people, and his siblings don't see any problem with that--they see werewolves as the top of the food chain and human beings as their natural prey. After all, Marsha infecting Bill so she's got someone to mate with involves attacking him as well. She just lets him live after giving him a recruitment bite rather than biting through his throat and watching him die. I think my favorite element of the script is the werewolves at the end all being overconfident when Christopher shows up with a gun; after all, they know that bullets can't hurt them. When they get a fatal surprise you almost get the feeling that they think Christopher isn't playing fair. After all, they've been dancing through the modern era avoiding notice and consequences for their actions so far, haven't they?

They should have known better than to cross someone who got monster-killing advice from Dick Miller.

"I'm...I'm at the wrong beach party, aren't I? This is the werewolf one? Right. I'll just see myself out. Sorry."


  1. Yikes, I wonder if this was inspired in part by Christine Chubbuck, that was only a few years earlier.

  2. Christopher's news-hound instincts are sharp enough

    I misread this for a second and was really hoping that this would turn into a joke about a freshly-lycanthropized reporter having "new-hound news-hound" instincts.

  3. Minor corrections: pretty sure Eddie was the office woofer who cornered & munched Terry, since both that suit's arms were intact. I also get the impression Waggner wasn't reasoning with Chris so much as taking the opportunity to check out since Marsha & the pack rejected his philosophy. That "Thank God" seemed a bit, well, loaded for a human accomplice.