Television journalist Karen White (Dee Wallace) is on the trail of a serial killer in a seedy part of the city, and is in contact with the newsroom via a microphone. Unfortunately the technology lets them down, and the technicians lose the signal, leaving Karen all on her own. She ventures into a porno book shop, as instructed by Eddie the killer (Robert Picardo), and goes to the back of the establishment where the booths showing porno movies are, picking the correct one by the smiley face sticker on its door. Inside, Eddie is there, but instructs her not to turn around, and then - what? She is attacked but blacks out, only coming to when the an ambulance arrives after the police have shot Eddie dead. But have they?
Well, no, they haven't because Eddie is a werewolf, and can only be killed with silver bullets, as you must have guessed by the title. Written by Terence H. Winkless and John Sayles, adapting Gary Brandner's trashy novel, The Howling vied for the attentions with the contemporary American Werewolf in London, and it's true that both harked back to the cinematic past of movie wolfmen, and both adopted a tongue in cheek attitude for some of the time. Here, though, there's more of a sly wink to the audience, especially the horror movie fans, with the cast being filled out with seasoned character actors and named after directors of werewolf films, and more importantly, these wolfpeople are anything but reluctant victims of a curse.
The opening of the film depicts the world of the TV media with hip cynicism, adding to the smart humour with its department head, played by Kevin McCarthy, determined to get the story above anything else so that he puts Karen back in front of the cameras to tell of her ordeal as soon as possible. But she freezes during a live broadcast, leading her to be sent to the self help guru George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) who we have seen on a chat show at the start of the film. He recommends a week spent at his country retreat near the coast where similarly traumatised individuals live to recuperate, so Karen and her husband Bill agree, and head up there in a trepidatious frame of mind.
All the while, Karen's colleagues Terry (Belinda Balaski) and Chris (Dennis Dugan) investigate the mystery of Eddie, visiting his newpaper cutting-filled apartment and finding an occult connection. When the body of Eddie disappears from the morgue, after apparently clawing his way out of a compartment, Chris and Terry realise there's something not quite right about all this, as we've all known from the beginning. But what does this have to do with the country retreat? Bill is trying to be supportive to Karen, but she's pushing him away with her nightmares and reluctance to resume their sex life, so what does Bill do? He turns to the mysterious Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), one of the residents, for comfort. And why does he do that? His lapsed vegetarianism is a clue - he's been bitten and now has the free spirited morals of a wolf person.
The Howling is best known for Rob Bottin's fine special effects, which nowadays look to have an overreliance on inflating heads, yet provide the spectacle the movie needs. Although the modern take on the old tale supplies the sex and violence that the old celluloid tellings had to do without, there's something cosy about this one in the way it nostalgically gazes back to its roots. Usefully, director Joe Dante knows the power of a good suspense sequence can be just as thrilling as the effects, so there's no shortage of the non-suspicious characters creeping through the woods in the fog as chilling howls sound through the trees. What it doesn't have is much emotional connection to its heroes, particularly as just about all the good guys meet a sticky end so there's little of the poignancy of its rival, American Werewolf, but as a straightforward addition to a venerable tradition the film is truly enjoyable and often very funny. Music by Pino Donaggio.
[The special edition DVD includes a fifty minute documentary interviewing the main players in the movie, deleted scenes, over ten minutes of outtakes, a photo gallery and a trailer.]
American director of science fiction and horror, a former critic who got his big break from Roger Corman directing Hollywood Boulevard. Piranha was next, and he had big hits with The Howling and Gremlins. But his less successful films can be as interesting: Explorers didn't do as well as he had hoped, but illustrated the love of pop culture that is apparent in all his work.