TV newswoman, Karen White, goes on a retreat after a traumatic incident with a serial killer. But is she really safe? And what should she fear more: regaining her memory or the creepy residents of "The Colony"?
'The Roger Corman Film School’ is a phrase attributed to Titanic director James Cameron who, along with such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Jonathon Demme, openly recognised that he learnt all he needed to know about filmmaking whilst churning out low-budget genre pics for the famed B-movie maestro.
Joe Dante sits somewhere in the middle of the list of RCFS alumni. He never received the level of industry respect enjoyed by Ron Howard or John Sayles, but he directed with a deep, dark sense of the macabre, informed by a love of 1950’s horror-schlock and Chuck Jones’ Warner Bros. cartoons. His career took off with the Jaws parody Piranha (1978) and he achieved his first blockbuster hit with Gremlins (1985), under his mentor, producer Steven Spielberg.
Many still consider his 1981 werewolf film The Howling, a sly satire on 1980’s self-help obsessions and a thoroughly chilling horror film to boot, his best work.
After a sickening run–in with serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), newsreader Karen White (Dee Wallace-Stone) and her husband (real-life partner Christopher Stone) take a spell in the country at an establishment called The Retreat, where they are attended by therapist and friend Dr Waggner (Patrick McNee). The Retreat is populated by an odd mix of suburban self-awareness nuts and drooling hillbillies, and soon the real reason for its remote woodland setting becomes apparent: it’s an outpost for modern lycanthropes, living off slain cattle and indulging in howling orgies and barnyard sacrifices when the moon is full and the mood strikes.
Wallace-Stone puts in a charming performance (she was on a roll that year, having been cast in both E.T. and Cujo while this film was in production) and there is cheeky stunt casting of B-horror notables John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy and Kenneth Tobey. But the true star of the film is effects master Rob Bottin, for the ground-breaking man-to-wolf transformative effects (Bottin replaced Rick Baker, who departed the production to work on John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London). Dante’s nightmarish visuals and Sayle’s wicked script ('I’d like to give you a piece of my mind, Karen...") are complemented by Bottin’s make-up work – the bone-cracking shape-shift of Eddie Quist is a horror classic.
Despite being singled out for his contribution to the omnibus film Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and having a strong cult following, Dante has disappeared from the A-list of Hollywood directors following a series of underperforming studio films (Gremlins 2, The 'burbs, Explorers, Innerspace, Small Soldiers, Looney Tunes: Back In Action).
The Howling is a testament to Dante's enthusiasm, firm grasp and obvious love for his craft. It stands as both a loving homage to the monster-pulp of Dante’s youth and as a thoroughly modern, multi-layered and terrifying horror film.
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