Big Movie Flashback: 'The Howling' (1981)

It’s a shame the endless stream of “Howling”-inspired sequels drew attention away from a darned good monster movie.

Director Joe Dante’s “The Howling” may rely on old-school movie make-up, but the 1981 shocker is smarter than the average horror flick and boasts the kind of tightly coiled narrative often lacking in today’s monster mashes.

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Dante’s werewolf feature boasts an unusually strong concept – news woman infiltrating a bizarre compound – and delivers an ending that ranks as one of the best of the genre. And Dee Wallace sure is convincing as a TV personality in way over her head.

In “The Howling,” Wallace plays ace news anchor Karen White who needs a break after getting mixed up in the case of a serial killer. An affable shrink (“The Avengers'” Patrick Macnee) who appears on her station invites her to a therapeutic retreat where Karen can regain her composure. The respite works like a charm until the strange behavior of her fellow patients makes Karen wish she was back behind the news desk, safe and sound.

Look hard enough, and you can trace the dawn of the meta-horror movie movement to “The Howling.” One scene features a TV flashing a cartoon wolf on the prowl, and several supporting players leaf through aged lycanthrope texts to better grasp the unfolding nightmare. We even get a Wolfman Jack gag, for those old enough to remember the hirsute disk jockey.

Indie auteur John Sayles (“Matewan”) co-wrote the screenplay and appears briefly as a coroner. His presence behind the scenes sets the film far above the slasher trash of its era. You won’t wince at the dialogue or smack your head over some of the inane behavior on display, although some future wolf victims still don’t act in their best interest.

The horror genre all but demands lousy self preservation skills.

We’re even treated to some satirical swipes against broadcast news, nuggets just as noteworthy now as they were then.

“The Howling” has some indifferent direction at times, moments when the actors don’t seem to be responding to the perils afoot. That’s a flaw common in many horror films from that era, but it’s surprising given Dante’s otherwise nimble touch.

The wolves themselves are a treat, furry beasts which look best in menacing profile. And Dante shrewdly holds off from showing us the werewolves until later in the film. Even Karen’s flashbacks regarding her final clash with the serial killer are beautifully teased. In horror, less is almost always more.

“The Howling’s” final scene sadly set up those aforementioned sequels, but it’s still so good you can forgive the film for ending on such a note.