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40 years of 'The Howling', Joe Dante's gooey werewolf horror

'The Howling' - Joe Dante

Where many pulpy horror films of the 1980s were preoccupied with the activity of masked murderers in suburban America, Joe Dante was presumably fiddling with tiny sprockets and manipulating tiny models. Straddling the border between freaky childhood monsters and nightmarish adolescent beasts, Dante’s fantastical concepts toyed endlessly with gruesome special effects and defined the gruesomely gory aesthetic of late 20th-century horror. 

The Howling, Dante’s 1981 venture into the full moon of werewolf horror turns 40 this week, though remains a pillar of monster movie-making even before the dawn of digital effects.

Beginning not in the Yorkshire Moors, nor a dilapidated cabin in the backend of America, Dante’s film opens in the sleazy red haze of a porn-shop peep show as Karen White (Dee Wallace) a television newswoman leads a sting operation to bring down a deadly serial killer named Eddie Quist. It’s certainly a strange task for a newswoman to be taking part in, particularly when police officers know the killer’s whereabouts, and it’s surely one Karen regrets partaking in as Quist almost takes the chance to kill her. So traumatic is the incident that her doctor recommends that she and her husband visit a mountainside retreat to help rid the PTSD the event has provided.

Like a peculiar summer camp from a Goosebumps novel, the retreat itself, named ‘The Colony’, is overfriendly and immediately suspicious, particularly when one of the elderly residents threatens to throw himself in the bonfire. For many, this would be enough of an alarm bell to get straight back down the mountain, though for Karen and her husband Bill, it is only the beginning of their new hellish reality. 

With the facade of a communal paradise, under the surface, like many groups on the periphery of modern society in the 1980s, The Colony displays some cult-like tendencies, namely an underlying carnal spirit. Such turns the rotting cottages and bleak forests into a sleazy den, akin to the peep show of the film’s opening. A layer of smutty oil seems to lightly glaze the whole aesthetic of the mountainside community, revealing itself like an erupting boil in the form of the werewolves that secretly inhabit the community. 

Like a pulsating urge from beneath the skin, Dante’s werewolves bubble alive in pulpy transformation scenes, contorting the skin with rubbery, fleshy extensions created by special efforts icon Rob Bottin. It’s a little goofier than Rick Baker’s remarkable efforts in An American Werewolf in London, though it suits the films alternative style and natural wit, illustrated by Eddie Quist’s darting eyes and strange monstrous grimace in the film’s transformative main course. Ubiquitous with the hands-on approach to 1980s horror, Bottin’s squidgy palpable effects are a joy to behold, witnessing a master honing his craft before he would flex his muscles on John Carpenter’s The Thing and Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop later that decade.

These gooey, slimy creatures live in disguised guise, eager to keep their identities secret whilst carefully spreading their influence outward. Though, interestingly, not all of them share the same murderous intentions, as the group’s doctor mutters ‘thank God’ after he is killed with a fateful silver bullet.

An accessory to the group’s cannibalistic ways, this character exposes a central truth that lies at the heart of The Howling, that even those who pose as innocent, are guilty of deceit and idleness in such crimes. It speaks of an inherent fear that was airborne across a 1980s Western world, a fear of the unknown, of the other and that which poses as safe but morphs into something far squidgier, and more dangerous.