Monsters! The Howling

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Karen White is an LA local-news anchor. She has become embroiled in a local serial-killer story. The killer is obsessed with her for some reason and she is willing to play into his obsession in the hopes of breaking the big story. He lures her to a seedy sex shop and something happens to him, something so shocking that Karen is unable to rationally process it. The killer, a guy named Eddie, is killed by trigger-happy police before he can do whatever he was going to do to Karen. What Karen wants is to know, simply, what was the deal with Eddie?free stats

WHO IS THE MONSTER? The deal with Eddie is that he’s a werewolf, and that he’s not actually dead.

WHAT IS THE WARNING? People, The Howling reminds us, are animals. We put on clothes, build cities and try to "explain" our behavior through science and psychology, but all that denies our true nature: we are murderous, predatory, rutting beasts.

The Howling, like its contemporary American Werewolf, has a quite-brief first act (21 minutes), a painfully protracted second act (44 minutes) and a propulsive, action-packed third act (26 minutes). American Werewolf squanders its second act with an inactive protagonist and false scares, but The Howling does something far worse — it takes its eye off the protagonist completely and never fully recovers from its mistake.

Act I puts Karen in her predicament: she is a gutsy newswoman putting her life on the line for a hot story. Her ambition backfires on her when she finds herself cornered in a peep-show booth by murderous Eddie. The police show up in the nick of time and one of them fires his gun repeatedly into the peep-show booth, even though he has no idea who’s inside the booth or what he might actually be shooting. In any case, Eddie dies, or appears to, and Karen is haunted by the irrational thing she saw in the peep-show booth — so haunted that she is now unable to do her job, and so takes the advice of psychologist Dr. Waggner to attend his "colony" for upset people, out of town somewhere with a beach and a lot of trees.

Dr. Waggner’s colony is, you’ll never guess,not what it appears to be. Howls fill the night outside her cabin, the creepy colonists are creepy, and mutilated cattle turn up in the forest. As Karen is unable to continue relations with her husband due to her ongoing psychological trauma, her husband is lured into the snare of the local sex fiend and turned into a werewolf.

Meanwhile, Chris and Terry, a couple of people from Karen’s TV station, undergo an investigation into the whole Eddie thing for an upcoming special. Chris and Terry become a whole separate b-story, researching werewolves and developing theories about Eddie.

Here’s the problem: researching werewolves and developing theories about Eddie shouldn’t be Chris and Terry’s job, it should be Karen’s job. Chris and Terry weren’t attacked in the peep-show booth, Karen was. We know nothing about Chris and Terry, they’re a couple of nice-enough people with no problems who are doing a job unconnected to anything that happened to them. So while Chris and Terry scope out Eddie’s apartment, scour a wacky bookstore for esoterica and interview Eddie’s mortician, Karen sits in a cabin in the woods and frets. The protagonist is relegated to a b-story in her own narrative.

Because we know the colonists are werewolves long before Karen does, the second act drags mercilessly as we sit around and wait for the werewolves to reveal themselves. No less than a full half-hour goes by while actors pull faces, look creepy and menacing and nothing much happens. When the first big transformation scene shows up, it involves neither Karen nor Chris and Terry but rather Karen’s husband, a character we care nothing about.

As Act II reaches its climax, Karen frets so much that she calls Terry and asks her to come to the colony. Terry obliges and, at the close of the second act, discovers that the not-dead Eddie is, in fact, one of the colonists and is — gasp — a werewolf. That’s right, Terry, not Karen, discovers the horrible secret of what happened to Karen in the peep-show booth — Eddie isn’t just a werewolf, he is a werewolf from the very colony where Karen now is.

How the hell did that happen? How did the protagonist of The Howling end up having her crisis resolved by another character? Here’s my guess: The Howling is largely inspired by Rosemary’s Baby (the helpless woman ensnared in a den of gaslighting demons), but is also informed by Psycho, where the "investigating friends" do, indeed, form a whole second set of protagonists. The problem is that the second protagonist team of Psycho are required by the narrative because the protagonist of Psycho DIES AT THE END OF ACT I — the second-protagonist-team investigate the protagonist’s disappearance. By smooshing together Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho (with werewolves) The Howling unwittingly hamstrings its own narrative — it takes its protagonist off the narrative hook at the end of Act I and leaves her to broadcast a narrative dial-tone for the remainder of the movie. The result is a static, uninvolving story about a bunch of people we don’t care about.

And so a character we don’t care about solves the protagonist’s mystery, and what’s worse, once the mystery is solved, the protagonist does nothing at all about it — she goes back to fretting, as the colonists kidnap her and invite her to join their cause. (Why the colonists want her to join them is left unsaid — they don’t want to be exposed, so it makes no sense that they would "select" her out of anyone else It is up to Chris, another character we don’t particularly care about, to leap into action and drive Act III to its conclusion. Informed that the colony is full of werewolves, Chris grabs a box of silver bullets, a rifle that, luckily, will fire those bullets, and drives to the colony to rescue Karen. And so Karen, who still isn’t really that clear on the whole Eddie deal, is required to weep and keen as Chris shows up, shoots a bunch of werewolves, locks a bunch in a barn, sets fire to them and high-tails it out of there with Karen, but not before Karen is bitten during the escape.

American Werewolf squanders its second act but recovers beautifully for its third, pressing its protagonist’s story to its tragic conclusion. The Howling ignores its protagonist entirely, bringing in a minor character to pilot the third act and reducing its protagonist to baggage. An epilogue shows Karen, now dedicated to exposing the werewolf threat to the world, transforming on live television, a transformation that is met in the world with a collective yawn. It’s a moment of jokey, cartoonish cynicism that points its director, Joe Dante, toward his later, more famous and accomplished work.

Comments

18 Responses to “Monsters! The Howling”
  1. curt_holman says:

    Spoiler!

    “An epilogue shows Karen, now dedicated to exposing the werewolf threat to the world, transforming on live television.”

    Doesn’t one of her journalism friends shoot her on-camera, too? Maybe that’s why the plot emphasizes them so much, rather than have us invest our emotional stakes in a character who dies at the end. Not necessarily a GOOD reason, but it is a reason.

    I remember a discussion — it may have been on television — about ‘Howling’ vs. ‘American Werewolf,’ and someone was arguing that the Howling had a scarier transformation scene, because it was in the dark and hinged on act of menace towards the protagonist, while in ‘American,’ it was it a well-lit room and was happening TO the protagonist. I don’t really agree with the argument, though.

    The original Cat People is also another good “transforming monster” movie. I think you could write very entertainingly about the remake, too.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Spoiler!

      I fear the transformation scene in The Howling is in the dark because its special effects aren’t very good. And it doesn’t hinge on an act of menace toward the protagonist, it hinges on an act of menace toward a friend of the protagonist.

      The transformation scene in American should be more intense because it’s happening to a character we identify with — it’s happening to us, and the lighting reinforces the horror because it’s happening in such a generic, domestic environment.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Spoiler!

      Oh, man, the original Val Lewton “Cat People.” I cannot second that recommendation enough. “The Ring” may be the scariest monster movie I’ve ever seen, but “Cat People” is probably my favorite, and definitely the best.

      If you do ever get to “The Ring,” I’ve got a pet theory that the U.S. version is a thinly veiled allegory for Hollywood’s initial terror of the VCR…

      — N.A.

      • Todd says:

        Re: Spoiler!

        Unfortunately, I saw Ringu long before The Ring came out and my experience was badly colored by that. Ringu freaked the ever-loving shit out of me.

        • craigjclark says:

          Re: Spoiler!

          I’ve never actually seen The Ring, but I did seek out Ringu when it finally came out on video over here.

          And I’m a little more forgiving with The Howling than you are, but I have to admit that all of the points you make about it are completely valid. I guess I like it more for Dante’s in-jokes (characters named after the directors of classic werewolf movies) and quirky casting (Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Dick Miller) and John Sayles’s satire of the self-help crazes of the late ’70s.

          • Todd says:

            Re: Spoiler!

            I was really surprised by Sayles’ credit on the screenplay, because I think of him being much stronger on plot and character. The casting, as you note, is impressive, which makes it all the more disappointing for me that none of those wonderful actors were given anything dramatic to do. And yes, Dante’s humor represents the high points of the direction — there just isn’t enough of it.

            • craigjclark says:

              Re: Spoiler!

              I’m wondering how many of the story problems are inherent in the original novel that the movie is based on. From what I recall Sayles was mainly brought in to rewrite a script that had already been greenlit, so he may not have been allowed to make too many alterations to the basic plot.

  2. sheherazahde says:

    So, that is why “The Howling” is so boring. I was wondering why the main character was spending so much time hanging out at a beach resort, in the dark, with nothing happening.

  3. marcochacon says:

    This is the one where she becomes the ‘Cutest Werewolf Evar’TM at the end, right? That was one cute werewolf, I tell you what.

    Great analysis. I’m loving these.

    -Marco

  4. mitejen says:

    I was never that into the Howling movies until ‘The Marsupials,’ because as a child I’d read about Tasmanian wolves. Seeing a horror movie about them was the shit.

    • craigjclark says:

      I’ve only ever seen the end of Howling 3, in which a ballerina transforms into a werewolf in middle of a performance. Didn’t exactly make me want to see the rest of it.

      • mitejen says:

        I think I watched the others at one point but they didn’t really leave an impression, just the one set in Australia, for the aforementioned reason.

        I had few friends in high school, and a local video store with an obscenely comprehensive collection of crap horror movies. I’m not making any apologies for the amount of time I spent watching bad horror, but there were also a lot of forgettable films.