Werewolves haven’t always been portrayed as evil, gore-chomping psychopaths. The oldest ones were animists who dressed in animal skins and performed sympathetic magic to ensure successful hunts for their tribes. By imitating the animals they hoped to catch, they sought to impose their wills on said animals in real life. (This same principle applies to when teams play pranks on their opponents’ mascots at football rallies.) Some people even hypnotized themselves and “became” animals so they could see and repel evil spirits. Animals often see things humans can’t, so it was thought that by becoming beasts ourselves, we too can enjoy such heightened senses. So the oldest werewolves in history were not monsters, but something more like exorcists who provided an important community service.
And then there are people like the Norse Berserkers, who wore bear skins and drove themselves apeshit with Odin’s “battle frenzy.” These guys went to battle without any armor or weapons, and they became so intoxicated with pure animal rage that they could rip people apart with their bare hands. It didn’t matter what their enemies did to them on the battlefield, either; they’d just keep on fighting and ripping people to shreds until they eventually bled to death. Have you ever become so angry that you dug your fingernails into your palms, only to realize later that you drew blood? Have you ever been so filled with rage that even if someone popped you square in your jaw, you barely even noticed? That is Odin’s battle frenzy, and it helped these guys bring the werewolf idea to a whole new level, establishing the idea of “men who become dangerous animals” as something truly terrifying. (You don’t fuck around with the Berserkers!)
Most men who were accused of being werewolves willingly confessed to it, even seeming proud of their so-called “crimes.” (Compare this to how most accused “witches” insisted on their innocence, right up to when they were executed.) Thiess of Kaltenbrun, for example, identified as a “good Christian werewolf” and claimed to defend his neighborhood from demons at night. He further claimed to be just one of many heroic werewolves who did this all over Europe, and who were collectively known as “the Hounds of God.” Theiss was unfortunately prosecuted for heresy, flogged, and banished from his village for life, and no one knows what happened to him after that. But he is proof positive that werewolves originated as something very different from what we usually see in most horror movies today.
It might surprise you to learn that prior to the 20th century, being a werewolf was almost never seen as a “curse.” Guys like Theiss were in full control of their own actions; they could allegedly change from wolf to human any time they wanted (regardless of the time or lunar phase). They were werewolves because they wanted to be, and their ability to shapeshift into dangerous animals (whether physically or psychologically) was revered for the most part. Ironically, the Greek king Lycaon (from whom the term lycanthropy is derived) was never a true werewolf at all; he was simply turned into a wolf by Zeus for his hubris, and he only transformed once (from man to wolf), never to be human again.
This all changed in 1941 when Universal Studios releashed Curt Siodmak’s The Wolf Man, which popularized the version of the werewolf legend that most people are familiar with today. Here we have the bipedal wolf creature walking around in pants, transforming whenever there’s a full moon (whether he wants to or not) and killing the people around him without even realizing it. And of course, the only way to defeat the monster is by pumping its ass chock-full of silver. Since 1941, this story has been told time and time again; in fact, it is the plot to practically every werewolf movie ever made. The story of Larry Talbot re-shapes the werewolf legend into a metaphor about human predators, with Talbot resembling a serial killer like Norman Bates. In this context, most cinematic werewolves are little more than degenerate cannibals and rapists. Perhaps if Larry Talbot had survived long enough to meet someone like Theiss, he could have learned to control his werewolf powers and become a badass superhero.
Again, most every werewolf movie might as well be a remake of The Wolf Man; you almost never see anything new or original done with the idea. It wasn’t until 1981—40 years after poor Larry Talbot was beaten to death with a silver cane—that we were finally given something different. This came in the form of not one, but two of the greatest werewolf movies ever made: John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling. Both of these films changed the genre foever, and they have both been consistently xeroxed by virtually every werewolf movie that’s come out since (save for a few noteworthy exceptions, like 1994’s Wolf and 2000’s Ginger Snaps).
An American Werewolf in London is often cited as the better of these two films. Indeed, its top-notch special effects were created by Rick Baker over the course of an entire decade. That’s quite a lot of time to work on a film project, and it definitely pays off here. John Landis insisted on shooting a sequence in which a werewolf transformation occurs on camera and in broad stage light. Nothing like that had ever been achieved onscreen before; going all the way back to The Wolf Man, previous films had only used time-lapse photography, showing different layers of make-up being applied to the actors’ faces one step at a time. In many cases, this was also done with as little lighting as possible, so as to occlude the hokiness of the effect. But here, we are shown just how ugly and painful a werewolf transformation can really be, with the actor’s body contorting into horrible shapes and his skin ripping apart to expose fresh wolfskin beneath. The other huge point in American Werewolf’s favor is its irreverent black humor, which pokes satirical fun at the entire werewolf genre even while bringing it into new visual territory.
Yet I personally enjoy The Howling better. American Werewolf is truly extraordinary, but it is really just another rehash of The Wolf Man. Nice guy gets bitten by a werewolf, starts changing whenever there’s a full moon, kills and eats people without realizing it, and has to be put to sleep by someone who loves him. It’s a great homage to a classic film, but apart from the novelty of the effects, it presents nothing new. The Howling also features some truly revolutionary transformation sequences (courtesy of Rob Bottin, who would next create the nightmarish creatures in John Carpenter’s The Thing). It relents a bit more than American Werewolf does in showcasing these effects; it uses more shadows, and it keeps things just a bit more suggestive (which means American Werewolf wins in terms of pure spectacle). But the story of The Howling is unlike anything else that had ever been made before that point. It throws all the “rules” established by The Wolf Man out the window, and it tells an all-new kind of werewolf story.
Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a news reporter investigating a serial killer called “Eddie the Mangler.” Eddie has a crush on Karen, who’s agreed to meet with him for an interview (while wearing a wire). The cops plan to bust in and save her from Eddie before he can do anything to her, but things don’t turn out quite as planned. Karen meets with Eddie in the back of a porn shop on the seedier side of Los Angeles, where he forces her to watch a snuff movie with him. As Karen watches men strip, rape, and murder some poor girl, she starts hearing weird sounds coming from behind her. When she turns around, she gets the fright of her life. The cops show up just in the nick of time to pump Eddie’s ass full of lead, but not before poor Karen is scarred for life. She’s not exactly sure what she’s seen, and she hasn’t been physically harmed in any way; but for all intents and purposes, she is now a survivor of sexual assault.
A therapist named Dr. Waggner (played by Patrick Macnee) encourages Karen and her husband Bill to take a much-needed vacation. So they go to a cabin out at the Colony, a place in the country that Dr. Waggner has put together for the people he treats. These people are all pretty weird; they each give Karen a skeezy vibe, and some of them make really spooky noises at night. Then Bill gets attacked by an animal and starts behaving strangely, getting all gropey with Karen. This doesn’t help the poor lady, who can’t help but think about Eddie the Mangler grinning at her whenever Bill so much as kisses her. She also starts to suspect he’s having an affair with Marsha, the freaky hoochie mama who lives down the road. Things really start bubbling to the surface when Karen accuses Bill of infidelity, and he hits her square in the face. It’s around this point in the story when we discover that Eddie the Mangler is still alive, and that he was once a member of Dr. Waggner’s Colony as well. Then Karen learns that the people who live there aren’t really “people” at all, and that she probably won’t be getting out alive.
Karen White is easily one of the most lovable characters I’ve ever seen in a film of this sort. Dee Wallace really sells the character’s fragility, making me want to leap through the TV screen and beat the shit out of everybody who causes her any trouble. Yet Karen is also incredibly strong. She’s obviously hurt, confused, and alienated by the trauma she has experienced (which is definitely a sexual trauma, even if she hasn’t been physically raped); yet she keeps pushing herself to face her demons and to stop the evil in her midst. The fact that she can stand up to Eddie the Mangler at the film’s conclusion—even after everything she’s already seen up to that point—is nothing short of true goddess power.
Despite its disturbing sexual content, I think The Howling actually has a feminist, pro-woman message. Even the opening snuff film sequence is more tastefully done than you might expect from a movie of this sort. The camera never lingers on the footage for very long, and its presence is clearly meant to alarm rather than arouse the viewer, signifying that Karen is in some truly serious danger here (despite Eddie’s assurances to the contrary). If Karen were played by someone like Shannon Tweed or Traci Lords and she gave us a nude scene every few minutes, I would think very differently on this matter. But considering how realistic a character she is—plus the fact that almost every male character in the film is either stupid, selfish, or completely evil—it seems to me The Howling wants us to think, “Wow, this male-dominated society we live in is fucking terrible for women, and it shouldn’t be this way!”
There are only two male characters in the entire film who are worth a damn. The first is Chris (Dennis Dugan), whose only real purpose is to have other characters explain werewolf folklore to him, and to show up at the end with a big shotgun and some silver bullets. Aside from that, he serves very little purpose for the plot at all. Far more interesting to me personally is the character of Dr. Waggner. As the founder of the Colony, it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that he turns out to be a werewolf as well. But unlike the others lycanthropes, Waggner has successfully integrated himself into normal human society, and he has developed a method for keeping his bestial nature in check. It’s eventually revealed that the entire purpose of the Colony is for Waggner to provide other werewolves with the therapeutic tools they need to become well-adjusted citizens. The real troublemakers in this story are Marsha and Eddie the Mangler, who both seem to think that humans are just here for them to rape and eat.
This ties into what I mentioned above about ancient werewolves. Dr. Waggner has found a way for werewolves to become positive contributors to human society, while Eddie and Marsha insist on following their baser instincts. Waggner’s philosophy seems “revolutionary” to the other werewolves, but his perspective is really the older of the two, stretching all the way back to pre-Christian times. Eddie and Marsha, however, signify what Larry Talbot probably would have grown into, had he lived long enough to accept his “curse.” Many real-life serial killers discover their twisted perversions with a sense of revulsion and guilt; but if they continue satisfying their urges long enough (and if they don’t get caught), they can eventually start to enjoy their sick deeds. In The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot is right at the start of this dehumanization process; here in The Howling, Eddie and Marsha are at its conclusion. They are products of our schizophrenic American culture; had they been born and raised in an animist milieau, they might have turned out more like Dr. Waggner. But Eddie and Marsha succeed in swaying the rest of the Colony to their perspective, and things do not end so well for the philosopher werewolf.
As such, The Howling was the first film to propose that werewolves can actually have things like culture and ideological disputes. Even today, with only a few shitty exceptions (such as 2008’s Twilight), there still aren’t very many films that play with this idea at all. Even The Howling’s own various sequels are remarkably dreadful; the only one that tries anything inventive is Howling III: The Marsupials (1985), which is about a tribe of benign marsupial werewolves in Australia. (It’s not quite as interesting as it sounds; Howling III is one of those films that has plenty of great ideas, but very little talent in terms of execution. It deserves to be remade by a competent cast and crew.) For some reason, filmmakers are just less willing to try new ideas when it comes to werewolf stories; they’ll get as experimental with vampires as you please, but werewolves just keep getting the Wolf Man treatment again and again.
The Howling is a significant work of horror because it is really about rape culture, violence against women, and the refusal of the patriarchy to even acknowledge that these problems exist. When Karen White says, “We have to warn people, Chris; we have to make them believe,” it seems to me she’s talking about much more than just werewolves. When she warns the world about a “secret society” that “lives among all of us” and whose members “are neither people nor animals, but something in-between,” she could just as easily be referring to a conspiracy of sex traffickers or snuff filmmakers. These elements are what make The Howling a truly frightening and disturbing film for me, personally.