Joe Dante looks back on the werewolves of 'The Howling'
05:00 AM, Jun 17, 2013
Before vampires and zombies were de rigueur, director Joe Dante helped lead werewolves to the head of the horror pack.
A collector’s edition of his 1981 movie The Howling arrives on Blu-ray Tuesday, and the themes it contains are still as timeless now as they were 32 years ago.
“These particular supernatural myths have never died over the years because there is something each generation finds applies to them,” Dante says. “The metaphor for werewolfism is adolescence, which is encapsulated in (1951’s) I Was a Teenage Werewolf. All of a sudden you’re growing up, you’ve got hair all over you, you have these urges you don’t understand and that’s one of the reasons boys particularly relate to werewolf movies.”
Dante has directed a number of notable movies over the years Gremlins, Innerspace, Explorers and the original Piranha among them but The Howling especially has grown its fandom over the years.
“Look, here’s a Blu-ray what can I tell you?” Dante, 66, says. “Even Piranha, which is a much less accomplished movie than The Howling, is still in the zeitgeist because of the recent remakes.
“When we were making these movies, the general feeling was they would play the theaters and then they would go into syndication and then they’d end up as the midnight movie and that would be the end of it.”
The Howling stars Dee Wallace as TV newscaster who, when faced with the threat of a serial killer, heads out of town to spend some time at a secluded retreat. However, she’s swapped one dangerous situation for another, and there’s some monstrous goings-on in the forest that are of the hairy, lycanthropic variety.
When The Howling was released, however, werewolf movies had lost their considerable pop-culture bite, according to Dante.
The best-known ones, like The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, were from the Universal horror period in the 1940s. There weren’t many at all in the 1950s or ’60s, and 1970s films such as The Boy Who Cried Werewolf and The Beast Must Die where the wolves were played by real animals, “an approach I always found disappointing,” Dante says didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
“It’s not like what happened to the zombie movie now, where zombie movies have become this incredible genre when they used to be reviled and played second features and no one took them seriously,” Dante says. “Werewolves were pretty much in that position at that time.”
But 1981 changed all that: The Howling kicked off a new wave of movies that year that also included An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen and Full Moon High.
“All of a sudden, there were all these werewolf movies where no one quite understood where they all came from,” Dante says.
Werewolves were thought by many to be “corny and old hat” when Dante started working on The Howling, he says. So his approach was to disguise it as long as possible and make it look like a slasher movie which was a lot more popular at the time “and then bring in the supernatural elements slowly so that the audience could get acclimated and not immediately reject it as something old-fashioned.”
Dante’s original plan was to do the innovative transformation scenes all in one shot. Special-effects wizard Rick Baker did the first tests, and then handed the reins to Rob Bottin after Baker left to work on An American Werewolf in London.
They discovered, however, their initial idea wasn’t that dramatic, Dante says. “There were no cutaways, and once the transformation was over, it was like, ‘OK, that’s all the spectacle you’ve got.’
“We realized while making the picture that it was much more interesting to be able to prolong the transformations and try to get the best out of the new technology we were using, including air bladders and fake heads and slow motion and fast motion and all sorts of tricks.”
The transformation sequences became the talking point of the movie and set a template for later werewolf movies, according to the director. They were not without their difficulties, though.
Dante recalls there being a lot of prosthetics and makeup used, and Bottin was also a perfectionist. He spent the entire first day of the memorable transformation of actor Robert Picardo putting makeup on him, to the point where they couldn’t actually film anything because they had to send the crew home and avoid overtime.
It also meant Picardo had to stay in his werewolf makeup overnight so Dante could finally film the scene the next morning.
“It was a grueling experience for him because there was a lot of spirit gum,” the director says. “There’s a lot of spirit gum in Bob’s career to begin with, but he was the perfect actor for this part in addition to being the only actor who would sit still for all this makeup.”
The Blu-ray features an audio commentary that Dante, Wallace, Picardo and Christopher Stone did way back when for a laser-disc release, plus outtakes and documentaries. The new material for this release includes deleted scenes, interviews and a commentary by Gray Brandner, the author of the original 1977 novel The Howling.
While Dante hasn’t spoken to Brandner since the movie first came out, he recalls the writer thinking it was pretty good even though Dante had made many changes in characters and tone for the cinematic version.
“I must confess I was less than politic in my discussion of the book, which was not my favorite,” Dante says.
“One day I was talking to some group and I mentioned my opinion of the book, and (Brandner) was sitting there and he said, ‘Well, I wrote that book!’ It was one of those great moments like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall a moment that you just wait for to happen. And it was actually filmed for an ABC TV show that was supposed to be about a day in the life of Hollywood but luckily didn’t make it into the final cut.”
Today Dante is active on Twitter, runs the website Trailers from Hell and directs the occasional episode of Hawaii Five-O he did one last season and is doing another this summer “to get the rent paid,” Dante says, adding that another monster movie from him is “inevitable.”
He sees his younger self in a few of today’s directors, such as Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) “a much better director than I ever was but comes from the same background and loves the same stuff I do” and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead). “I certainly see a lot of elements of things I thought were important in making movies when I was younger,” Dante says.
Later generations can tap into The Howling on a coming-of-age level, but werewolves and their ilk will always hold a special place for Dante and his fellow “monster kids” folks his age who grew up adoring Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and American International Pictures and Hammer horror flicks of the ’50s and ’60s.
“We have a fondness for this kind of thing. They’re our fairy tales,” Dante says. “The trick, then as now, is to try to find a way to connect this material to people who are younger and don’t have a background in the classics.
“But it’s being done pretty well,” he adds. “The werewolf genre has survived and prospered over the years, not quite to the extent of the zombies who have taken over, but these myths and legends, they’re still potent. Otherwise, you wouldn’t find so many people trying to find new ways to tell these stories.”