Writer-director Joe Dante is pop culture dead weight today, but in the mid ’80s he was the zeitgeist. A progenitor to the highfalutin sub-horror irony of Scream and a cornucopia of too-scared-to-admit-they-are-horror films in the intensely glib world of ’00s horror, Dante’s brand of irony was much less prone to the fraudulence of incessant hedging. His earliest films, Piranha and The Howling, upend horror tradition without fecklessly resorting to ingratiating pleadings of blasé, sycophantic self-superiority. They rib and tickle, but they’re also honest-to-god horror films, as marinated in tenebrous cinematography and bone-rattling sound as any films of their time. They tease us, but they do not trick us: they mean what they say, and they bite.
Dante’s more famous films, like Gremlins, elevated kiddie-horror to new heights by mixing the winsome and the bilious and wielding their miscreants and minions of fear as legitimate weapons of terror as well as victims of human abuse. Dante, much like Sam Raimi, understood that horror-comedy ought not tarnish the reputation of a good fright with maladroit mechanics; real horror-comedy relies on the intersection of primal, full-bodied sensations like fear and laughter to entrench the audience in a beguiling whirlwind of befuddled emotions and perceptions that not only tickle but distort the senses. Comedy ought not play the spider to the horror fly; rather, comedy and horror ought to function like a web of serrated spindles entangling us in our own emotions. Both comedy and horror engender the uncanny, and Joe Dante’s The Howling harmoniously accepts both as pathways to instilling social dissonance and shearing the accepted mores of society. Comparatively, a film like Scream, expunging horror into the dripping maw of unfettered comedy, sacrificing the former to the latter, is child’s play.
Case in point, while The Howling interferes with horror via unearthing the sexual duress subcutaneously existing under the skin of the genre, it doesn’t excise the scares either. The queasy urban-nightmare introduction is the apotheosis on this front, relying on feral editing and subterranean color to induce paralysis in the audience as reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) is coerced into serving as bait for a serial killer in a red-light pornography theater. Traumatized by the event, her and her husband abscond to a mysterious beach resort known as “The Colony” to preserve their sanity.
Proudly exploring the hirsute potential of the werewolf subgenre and the parallel threats of male malintent dominance and inability to control one’s own physical being, The Howling’s comedy is of a scintillatingly warped, on-edge variety rooted primarily in exploring the lunacy of our perception that we truly know our physical beings, master our urges, control our selves. Parsimonious slips of absurdity abound – many of which are derived from the old-fashioned Atom Age acting, courtesy of Dante’s fixation on low-brow horrors of the more gentile era. But these fringes don’t overweeningly inoculate the film from genuine terror and atmosphere. John Hora’s subfuscous cinematography and a handful of genuinely startling shots where the camera mimics penetration with a vituperative, lecherous edge ensure the film never sacrifices creepy for comic.
Often compared to John Landis’ more openly ironic An American Werewolf in London from the same year, The Howling is more furtive about its comedic impulse and less invested in committing slander with the good name of its fiendish monsters. It’s also a superior film, with a more robust palette of visual twitches, more combustible, although less tactile, physical effects from Rob Bottin, and a less impudent, more mordant screenplay scalpel with which to dissect the werewolf mythology. Truth be told, An American Werewolf is circumstantially a werewolf film, but its energy is enervated a tad by the innocuousness of its attitude toward its titular monster. It’s as if “werewolf” was interchangeably landed on in a spin-the-wheel game of “pick your monster”; a vampire would have been no less practical.
The Howling, meanwhile, is deeply aware of the lasciviousness of lycanthropy specifically, with the fertile region of body hair tracing the contours to the untamed, brutal urges of unkempt sexual energy underneath. Gander at the way a werewolf attacking Karen directly mimics a beating from her husband not minutes before-hand, and dare to denounce The Howling’s status as the more socially penetrative of the two films.