There’s something about an ’80s glare, an ’80s fog and midnight light streaming through trees. It’s nostalgic, I guess, reminiscent of a time when real film ruled as did real and rugged special effects. The Howling doesn’t let us forget either and certainly takes its time to deliver frightening aspects of both. The beginning paints a picture of a gritty New York scene, where there was a greater separation between the haves and have-nots, where peep shows still ruled Times Square and there was no real difference between what was in an alleyway and what was behind the doors of some neon sign. All was ruthless, all was chaotic—and you were considered crazy if you went looking for any kind of action at night. It was the perfect scene to open up a werewolf film. We weren’t in the remote hills of some European town or some too-quiet suburban street. The Howling reminds you that there are worse monsters amongst the murderers, rapists and thieves you already probably live near, which is such a refreshing way to start a story taken from folklore.
I’m sitting there at The BAM in Brooklyn, getting ready to watch this film as part of the latest Joe Dante series. There are maybe fifteen people in the whole audience. Horror shows should be packed! Needless to say, that didn’t enhance the experience for me. Neither did the out-of-focus few minutes here and there when the projectionist lagged a little. The BAM always does a great job at promoting their series, but I guess this curated series was not cool enough for Brooklynites? I can’t really tell. Anyway, I’m there with my husband, Ryan and our friend Tim, who was probably the most excited to hear this is what we wanted to do on a Saturday night. We’re the weird wide-eyed nerds who like to watch anything that was made before we were born, but Tim is there as a child of the early ’80s. He remembers what it was like to watch the VHS late at night, obsessing over the camera angles, the transformations and the gore. He loved these great horror films and even showed us his teenage fan art—excuse me—bookmark to prove it:
As a professional photographer who shoots famous faces and anything interesting that catches his eye, I had to ask him—what was the best part about seeing The Howling on the big screen?
“The best part of seeing The Howling, revisiting the film now after not seeing it for probably two decades, was the chance to see it projected. The print that the theater secured was atrocious, and I found myself honestly wondering if that was a bonus (because it enhanced the analog and dated quality of the film) or a hindrance. I was most excited to see the transformation scene in the medical office. In my memory the scene was a lot darker, literally and it probably was, given the VHS copy I had watched on a television. When projected, it looked a bit brighter and there was less left to the imagination with my eye being able to now see the image about twenty times what I had seen before. And yet, it still looked really great. The part I liked the most was how long the transformation took! So many stages. At one point while the beast’s face was changing and elongating the creature had a menacing Joker-like grimace, which people couldn’t help but laugh at—though not because it looked cheap. It was simply a reaction to that stage of the crazy, painful process. The lanky, agile quality of the werewolf is its most wonderful trait and probably why it’s my favorite of all of the monsters. It’s partially human and can walk on two legs, but it’s beyond that—it’s certainly not something that’s going to trudge along, dragging its feet while one looks for a door to escape through. The werewolf is man realizing his full potential and beyond and it comes with arrogance.”
I’d never really thought about the werewolf in that sense, mostly because all the werewolves I grew up with were good guys who had to learn how to control their evil. But I had to ask myself why, now in my Thirties, did The Howling affect me so much. Growing up, my father had us watch Lon Chaney Jr.’s transformation in The Wolfman through double-exposure, the coarse hair growing over his still white hands. We were mesmerized and felt sorry for the man. His fate was sealed but there was nothing he could do. My sisters and I were also allowed to watch American Werewolf in London. There was no sex (which made it appropriate?) but also because of that fully lit transformation scene that was so incredible that the whole family HAD to watch! Again, though, you felt sorry for this guy. What do they all have in common though? I got used to seeing the guys as the werewolves and women as the victims.
The Howling was not a part of my childhood and yet is the first real glimpse I got of both the arrogant werewolf AND the female werewolf. Though Karen White (Dee Wallace) is the heroine, she isn’t the one who stole it for me. Marsha Quist (Elisabeth Brooks) is the catalyst, the queen, the alpha and the one who holds all the power. And she’s arrogant as fuck about it, too! She was the character I found so refreshing, ignoring the other characters’ eyebrow-raising and comments on her bold mannerisms. Marsha, Marsha, Marsha, I say! The alternate character, Karen, does still use that same power for good in the end. I did find it fun that she, at the beginning, is whispered among the cult members as having too much power as a celebrity in the real world. Yet, in the end, she must be destroyed once she shows her new superpower to the general public. Am I arguing that The Howling a feminist monster movie? Yeah, well, maybe. But more than the fact that everyone in this film more or less each gets to become his or her all-powerful beastly self, the transformations, as Tim pointed out, still work. The gore and effects still work and the werewolf—male or female—is powerful, for the most part proud of it and still frightening as hell. Giving it 4 out of 5 zombie heads, The Howling has officially been added to my own scrapbook of favorite ’80s horror.