The Howling (film)

The Howling

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joe Dante
Produced by Jack Conrad
Michael Finnell
Written by Novel:
Gary Brandner
John Sayles
Terence H. Winkless
Starring Dee Wallace
Patrick Macnee
Dennis Dugan
Christopher Stone
Belinda Balaski
Music by Pino Donaggio
Cinematography John Hora
Editing by Joe Dante, Mark Goldblatt
Distributed by Avco Embassy Pictures
(Sony Pictures Entertainment)
Release date(s) April 10, 1981 (1981-04-10)
Running time 91 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,000,000 (estimated)
Box office $17,985,893

The Howling is a 1981 werewolf-themed horror film directed by Joe Dante. Based on the novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, the screenplay is written by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless. The original music score is composed by Pino Donaggio.



Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a Los Angeles television news anchor who is being stalked by a serial murderer named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). In cooperation with the police, she takes part in a scheme to capture Eddie by agreeing to meet him in a sleazy porno theater. Eddie forces Karen to watch a video of a young woman being raped, and when Karen turns around to see Eddie she screams. The police enter and shoot Eddie, and although Karen is safe, she suffers amnesia. Her therapist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), decides to send her and her husband, Bill Neill (Christopher Stone), to "The Colony", a secluded resort in the countryside where he sends patients for treatment.

The colony is filled with strange characters, and one, a sultry nymphomaniac named Marsha Quist (Elisabeth Brooks), tries to seduce Bill. When he resists her less-than-subtle sexual overtures, he is attacked and bitten by a wolf-like creature while returning to his cabin. He later returns to find Marsha waiting and the two have sex by the campfire in the moonlight. During the encounter, their bodies have undergone a frightening transformation as they both shapeshift into werewolves.

After Bill's wolf bite, Karen summons her friend Terri Fisher (Belinda Balaski) to the Colony, and Terri connects the resort to Eddie Quist through a sketch he left behind. Karen also begins to suspect that Bill is hiding a secret far more threatening than marital infidelity. While investigating, Terri is attacked by a werewolf in a cabin, though she escapes after cutting the monster's claw off. She runs to Waggner's office and places a phone call to her boyfriend, Chris Halloran (Dennis Dugan), who has been alerted about the Colony's true nature. While on the phone with Chris, Terri is attacked and killed by Eddie Quist. Chris hears this and sets off for the Colony armed with silver bullets.

Karen is confronted by the resurrected Eddie Quist once again, and Eddie transforms himself into a werewolf in front of her. She escapes, and Eddie is later shot by Chris with a silver bullet. However, as it turns out, everyone in the Colony is a werewolf. These werewolves can shapeshift at will; they do not require a full moon. Karen and Chris survive their attacks and burn the Colony to the ground.

Karen resolves to warn the world about the existence of werewolves, and surprises her employers by launching into her warnings while on television. Then, to prove her story, she herself shapeshifts into a werewolf, having become one after being attacked at the Colony by her husband Bill. She is shot by Chris on live television, and the world is left to wonder whether the transformation and shooting really happened or if it was the work of special effects. It is also revealed that Marsha Quist escaped the colony alive and well.


Though the film has been noted for its semi-humorous screenplay, it began life as a more straight forward 1977 novel by Gary Brandner. After drafts by Jack Conrad (the original director who left following difficulties with the studio) and Terence H. Winkless proved unsatisfactory, director Joe Dante hired John Sayles to completely rewrite the script. The two had collaborated before on Dante's 1978 film Piranha. Sayles rewrote the script with the same self-aware, satirical tone that he gave Piranha, and his finished draft bears only a vague resemblance to Brandner's book. However, Winkless still received a co-writers credit along with Sayles for his work on the screenplay.

The cast featured a number of recognizable character actors such as John Carradine, Kenneth Tobey and Slim Pickens, many of whom appeared in genre films themselves. Additionally, the film was full of in-joke references (see 'References' below). Roger Corman makes a cameo appearance as a man standing outside a phone booth, as does John Sayles, appearing as a morgue attendant.

The Howling was also notable for its special effects, which were state-of-the-art at the time. The transformation scenes were created by Rob Bottin, who had also worked with Dante on Piranha. Rick Baker was the original effects artist for the film, but left the production to work on the John Landis film An American Werewolf in London, handing over the effects work to Rob Bottin.[1] Bottin's most celebrated effect was the on-screen transformation of Eddie Quist, which involved air bladders under latex facial applications to give the illusion of transformation. In fact, Variety claims that The Howling's biggest flaw is that the impact of this initial transformation is never topped during the climax of the film.[2] The Howling also features stop-motion animation by notable animator David W. Allen, and puppetry intended to give the werewolves an even more non-human look to them.[3] Despite most of the special effects at the time, the silhouette of Bill and Marsha having sex as werewolves is quite obviously a cartoon animation. Joe Dante attributed this to budgetary reasons.

Due to their work in The Howling, Dante and producer Michael Finnell received the opportunity to make the film Gremlins (1984) for Steven Spielberg.[4] That film references The Howling with a smiley face image on a refrigerator door. Eddie Quist leaves yellow smiley face stickers as his calling card in several places throughout The Howling. A second reference to The Howling in Gremlins comes at the end of the film when the TV anchorman Lew Landers (played by Jim McKrell) is shown reporting on the gremlin attack in Kingston Falls.[5]

Differences from Brandner's novel

The plot and characters of the film deviate from the original novel in many ways:

  • In the novel, Karen White is called Karyn Beatty. Her husband in the novel is called Roy Beatty (as opposed to Bill Neill in the film). Neither Karyn or Roy work in television.
  • In the novel, Karyn is raped by a man in her apartment. In the film, she is saved by the police before she is attacked by a werewolf in an adult bookstore.
  • In the novel, Karyn's psychiatrist is only briefly mentioned. In the film, her psychiatrist is Dr. Waggner who is a major character and a werewolf himself.
  • In the novel, Karyn goes to recuperate at Drago, a mountain village in California. In the film, she goes to "The Colony", a health resort run by her psychiatrist Dr. Waggner.
  • Karyn's rapist in the novel is named Max Quist, and he is an ex-con who has no involvement with the village of Drago or its inhabitants. In the film, Karen's (attempted) attacker is named Eddie Quist and is already affiliated with the Colony before he meets Karen.
  • Marsha Quist's name in the novel is Marcia Lura, a shopkeeper in Drago, and she is no relation to Max Quist.
  • In the novel, Karyn and Roy bring their pet dog with them to the village, which is killed later on. In the film, they have no dog.
  • The werewolves in the novel are described as completely wolf-like, though larger. The werewolves of the film are more anthropomorphic, and can walk on their hind legs, standing over seven feet tall.
  • The werewolves in the novel are never seen in the daytime, suggesting that they can only change at night. The werewolves in the film can change at will at any time of the day and are seen in daylight hours.
  • In the novel, the character Chris Halloran is Roy's best friend. In the film, Chris works with Karen and Bill at the television station. Karen's friend Terry (Chris's girlfriend) who also works at the station is not featured in the novel at all.
  • In the novel, Karyn escapes from Drago unscathed (though traumatised) and survives after being rescued by Chris Halloran. In the film, she gets bitten by her husband who is now a werewolf, and later transforms into one herself on live television. She is then killed by Chris with a silver bullet, live on air.


Director Joe Dante put many in-joke references in the film, including subtle references to wolves (The Big Bad Wolf from Walt Disney's The Three Little Pigs (1933) is seen on TV, Sheriff Newfield is seen eating Wolf Brand chili and a similar can is seen on the counter in Eddie's cabin, a copy of the Allen Ginsberg book Howl appears, a mention of disc jockey Wolfman Jack, and in Karen and Bill's cabin there is a picture of a wolf who killed a sheep within the flock).

Furthermore, many characters in the film are named after horror film directors who directed other films that featured werewolves, including George Waggner, who directed The Wolf Man (1941). Others include R. William Neill (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)), Terence Fisher (The Curse of the Werewolf (1960)), Freddie Francis (Legend of the Werewolf (1975)), Erle Kenton (House of Dracula (1945), which co-stars John Carradine, who plays Kenton in The Howling), Sam Newfield (The Mad Monster (1942)), Charles Barton (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)), Jacinto Molina (La Marca del Hombre Lobo (1968)) and Lew Landers (The Return of the Vampire (1944)).

Dick Miller's bookstore owner Walter Paisley gets his name from Miller's starring role in the low-budget horror film A Bucket of Blood (1959). Also present in the bookstore is the mummified "grandpa" mannequin in his rocking chair from the attic of the house in the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre film.[6]

The film's screenwriter (later director) John Sayles, Dante's former producer Roger Corman and science fiction and horror film personality Forrest J. Ackerman all have cameos.[7]



Critical response to The Howling varied. Writing in 1981, Roger Ebert dismissed it as the "silliest film seen in some time..."[8] although Gene Siskel liked the film and gave it three and a half stars out of four.[9] Leonard Maltin also wrote in his book 2002 Movie & Video Guide that The Howling is a "hip, well-made horror film" and noted the humorous references to classic werewolf cinema.[10] Variety praised both the film's sense of humor and its traditional approach to horror.[11]

The film won the 1980 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film (despite the fact it was not released until 1981). This film was also #81 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.


  1. ^ Joe Dante interview @ Combustible Celluloid
  2. ^
  3. ^ Joe Dante interview @ Combustible Celluloid
  4. ^ DVD commentary; Steven Spielberg presents Gremlins. Special edition. Warner Home Video, 2002.
  5. ^ [1] - Lew Landers character bio from the Internet Movie Database
  6. ^ [2]
  7. ^ Bill van Heerden (1998). Film and Television In-Jokes. McFarland & Co.. pp. 318. ISBN 978-0-7864-3894-5.  [3]
  8. ^ Roger Ebert review
  9. ^ Interview with Siskel in Fangoria #15 (1981)
  10. ^ Leonard Maltin's 2002 Movie & Video Guide, Signet Books, August 7, 2001 ISBN 0-451-20392-5
  11. ^

External links

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