Below is the transcript of cult film historian Darrell Buxton’s introduction to Joe Dante’s The Howling, which took place on Friday 28th August (a full moon might I might add!). Our next Fringes screening is this Friday 5th September and is an arthouse horror double bill of Celia and Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders.
Hello again, and welcome to Fright Club on the evening of a full moon. Scientists and scholars have in the past attempted to study the effect of the moon’s phases on mankind, and seem to have drawn a blank. Various worldwide police authority accounts of increased disorderly and violent behaviour in their regions on the occurrence of a full moon have proven unsubstantiated by statistical fact, and doctors’ claims that more patients die through loss of blood on the operating table during heightened lunar activity are equally suspect in truth.
But we’re in the legend-making game here at QUAD, not the staid and boring myth-busting business, so as far as we are concerned, the full moon means were-beasts. Slavering, hairy creatures, red in tooth and claw, bright-eyed, aware, sensory to a degree mere humans couldn’t comprehend. And cinema of the early 1980s went shape-shifter crazy. Tonight we’re screening Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING, originally released in the UK in 1981, and right at the heart of a whole wolfpack of movies designed to revive lycanthropy as a key horror theme.
Just as the zombie film seemed to take a break of fifteen or twenty years before re-emerging in its shuffling and now near-ubiquitous form, so too did the werewolf once fall out of fashion. The few werewolf flicks of any note produced during the seventies either harked back to ancient special effects techniques, camera dissolves, actors covered in painstakingly-applied and uncomfortable yak hair, stuff we’d been watching since at least the 1930s; or played their man-into-beast scenarios for laughs, as in 1973’s broad but clever political satire THE WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON. The make-up jobs on the likes of THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF, LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, and WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS were expertly done, but distinctly unimpressive to audiences who had been watching the same old same old furry freaks for too long. In Spain, Euro horror superstar Paul Naschy played variations on every monster in the book, but his favoured creation was a character named Waldemar Daninsky, a werewolf who appeared in a popular series of Costa Del Terror features from the late sixties onwards. And on U.S. television, the regular time-filling tradition of the made-for-TV movie offered up further examples of shape-changing savagery, with fare such as DEATH MOON, SCREAM OF THE WOLF, MOON OF THE WOLF, and THE WEREWOLF OF WOODSTOCK.
Around 1980, a new breed unexpectedly began to emerge in Hollywood – a generation of teenage make-up artists who had grown up enthralled by the work of pioneers like Dick Smith on THE EXORCIST, and who wanted to turn their precocious talents towards developing the craft. Rick Baker was the first to make a name for himself, and in his wake arrived dozens of kids just out of school who wanted to mess around with putty, latex, air bladders, and buckets of blood, the chief ingredients in this new horror stew.
John Landis had been trying to get his AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON project off the ground for twelve years, and finally it seemed the time was right – at last Rick Baker had the tools and the skills at hand to effect a brightly-lit, on-camera, in your face, full man-to-wolf transformation scene. Baker had been offered the gig designing the make-ups for Joe Dante’s film of Gary Brandner’s novel ‘The Howling’, but passed this rival production task on to a young protege, Rob Bottin. Bottin had been working alongside Rick since he was fourteen, and now at just twenty years of age, was deemed sufficiently capable to go into the big wide world alone. Competing directly against his boss. Fans may regard Baker’s work on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON as superior but I’ve always had a liking for the rougher, wilder transformation set-piece Bottin provided for THE HOWLING. Actor Robert Picardo ultimately became a household name with prominent roles in TV shows like STAR TREK: VOYAGER, CHINA BEACH, and STARGATE: ATLANTIS, but has been a regular in the movies of Joe Dante and started his career with a bang here, playing Eddie Quist, perhaps THE HOWLING’s most reprehensible character even in human form and positively nightmarish once the fur begins to sprout.
Director Joe Dante has been one of the most reliable talents working in horror, science fiction and fantasy in modern times. A huge fan of Fright Club style films himself, you can bet that if he lived in Derby he’d be at QUAD three or four times a week. Maybe we ought to invite him to our Fantastiq festival one year?
As a boy, Joe wrote a letter to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine detailing the fifty worst horror films – editor Forrest J. Ackerman ran it as a feature article, to 13-year-old Joe’s delight, and in his later teens Joe began writing professional reviews for the publication Castle of Frankenstein. He worked for the great Roger Corman in the seventies, preparing movie trailers for Corman’s outrageous exploitation output at New World Pictures, and wound up making his own movies there with the caustically comic HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and PIRANHA, bringing him to mainstream Hollywood’s attention and landing him the job of directing THE HOWLING. Joe is an excellent, rather underrated director, who works closely with actors and achieves a pace and clarity in his storytelling that should be the envy of most. His reputation is that of being rather light-hearted, giving films with gruesome subject matter a more comedic touch, but he has brilliantly subverted this – rather than facing accusations of watering his work down with the funny stuff, he is celebrated by most fans for bringing subversive and crazy touches to the mainstream in films like GREMLINS, EXPLORERS, and INNERSPACE.
Joe always crams his movies with in-jokes galore – here in THE HOWLING, for instance, many of the characters are named after werewolf movie directors, the aforementioned Forrest J. Ackerman has a cameo role, Joe’s old boss Roger Corman appears in an hilarious “blink and you’ll miss it” bit which takes a lovely dig at Corman’s reputation as a penny-pinching, “anything for a buck” producer, and best of all Dante’s favourite actor, cult legend Dick Miller, pops up as the most unlikely occult bookstore owner you’ll ever see. If you don’t know Dick’s name, you’ll know his face – he occasionally appeared in the popular ‘Fame’ TV series in the eighties, memorably played Murray Futterman in Dante’s two GREMLINS films, and stole the show from under everybody’s noses with a superb cameo as the gunshop proprietor in THE TERMINATOR – legend has it that he improvised the best line in that film, as Schwarzenegger selects from a range of high-powered weaponry and Dick deadpans “any one of these is ideal for home defence”. I watched Dante’s latest colourful horror comedy treat, a back-from-the-dead romp called BURYING THE EX, just a couple of weeks ago, and sure enough, just when you think they’ve forgotten, a now frail and elderly but still game Dick Miller shuffles on as a geriatric cop for his customary twinkly-eyed guest star role five minutes from the end. Don’t forget, of course, that THE HOWLING also offers a major starring part for the always welcome English gentleman of small screen fantasy, the late great Patrick Macnee, who sadly left us this summer. Tonight’s screening is dedicated to Mr. Macnee.
THE HOWLING led the way in bringing about a new type of high-tech, special effects-laden monster movie. Its release in spring 1981, followed promptly by AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, Michael Wadleigh’s WOLFEN, and Larry Cohen’s sly comedy FULL MOON HIGH, brought werewolves back into vogue, and of course paved the way for the likes of Michael Jackson’s THRILLER, the two TEEN WOLF pictures, the 1982 were-insect gem THE BEAST WITHIN, Stephen King adaptation SILVER BULLET, and allowed the fun vampire outing FRIGHT NIGHT to feature a werewolf sidekick as a major supporting character, something that might not have happened a few years earlier. The first half of the eighties also saw Spain’s Paul Naschy still hard at work under the fur in three new titles, playing Waldemar Daninsky in THE CRAVING and THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD, as well as playing a non-Daninsky werewolf in 1982’s BUENAS NOCHES, SEÑOR MONSTRUO. The early eighties also saw Britain’s own take on wolfy fairytale lore via Neil Jordan’s THE COMPANY OF WOLVES; and my QUAD colleague and expert on all things cinematically Asian, Satori Screen host Peter Munford, might be able to fill you in on a trilogy of Hong Kong productions from 1982-1984, WOLFEN NINJA, VENUS THE NINJA, and PHOENIX THE NINJA, all featuring a strange figure called the Wolf Devil Woman. We love our Ninja movies here!
And I’ve run out of time, so can’t get on to mentioning the bizarre history of the sequels to THE HOWLING, most of which seem to have been shot in entirely different continents to one another, and which feature such oddball elements as a disco-frequenting Christopher Lee, line dancers, circus freaks, and Dame Edna Everage. Should we ever get around to screening HOWLING II – STIRBA, WEREWOLF BITCH – which is probably a very doubtful prospect – I’ll give you the full lowdown. For tonight however, here’s the first and best. Beware the full moon, and enjoy Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING.