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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Werewolf for the Media Age

In 1980, audiences were treated to The Howling, the first, I think, Werewolf movie from a major American studio in a long while. What those audiences saw was a smart, self-conscious thriller of a movie, in love with its’ new-fangled special effects.

The story is essentially this: a beautiful TV reporter is attacked by a serial killer in a sting, and the killer is shot by police who bust on the scene. But the reporter, shaken and spooked, can’t return to work. So she accepts the invitation of a well-known behaviorist and author to spend a week at his quiet community in the woods, called “The Colony.”

While there, lycanthropy breaks out. Howls outside the window, inexplicably mangled cattle, and then the reporter’s husband is attacked while walking alone at night. He then begins to act strangely (he begins to voraciously eat meat after repeatedly expressing a distaste for it). From then on, werewolves are everywhere, and I won’t spoil the plot. At least not yet.

The Howling is a media-aware werewolf tale that implants in its’ narrative little reminders of the human/beast mythology that operates in the culture. For example, during one werewolf attack scene, the action cuts back-and-forth between the attack and a television broadcasting the cartoon, “The Three Little Pigs,” with the Big Bad Wolf baring his teeth and huffing and puffing. Also, there is a bookstore owner who is consulted by investigative reporters, an expert in the salesmanship of the werewolf mythology (“Hollywood nonsense,” he calls it). And, best of all, scenes from the 1941 werewolf classic The Wolf Man are shown on TV as a couple watches them in bed.

So The Howling wants us to be convinced that it knows whereof it speaks.

There is much traditional werewolf mythology here: silver bullets, the perpetuating of the condition via a bite, and the never-ending editorializing about the human/animal condition. But there are notable departures from the tradition as well. For one, the werewolves can seemingly become so whenever they wish; there’s no reference to the full moon or to the wolfbane blooming or anything like that. This is the film’s signature shot, too, where the afflicted newscaster becomes a werewolf in the middle of her broadcast as a way of outing the rest of the werewolves. Heavy modern science, too (as well as the psychological professional), is present, as in Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man, but here the werewolf phenomenon persists not simply in spite of modern science and reason, but also persists against it, overpowering it as something raw and animal (“You can’t tame what’s meant to be wild, doc; It aint natural.”)

Finall, contrary to the classical dilemma of the werewolf film, the tortured afflicted individual in the midst of “normal” society, The Howling’s protagonist turns out to be the only un-afflicted individual, surrounded by the abnormal.

And a word should be said about the technology. The Howling’s special effects for depicting the transformation of people into werewolves were the inspiration for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. They depend heavily on colored contact lenses, primitive computer graphics, tons of makeup, and those little inflatable pockets underneath facial masks. But the sheer spectacle of the special effects, to my mind, is a weak-point in the movie. Because the employment of those effects becomes a kind of end in itself, so that our terrorized protagonist literally stands there motionless for what can’t be less that four minutes of movie time, simply watching this whole transformation take place, in all of its tortured and exquisite detail. It’s terribly unbelievable.

Here’s the real value in The Howling. It contributes a pre-Truman Show analysis of the role of television in our lives, especially when it comes to separating reality from myth. It is no accident that the film’s protagonist is a newscaster, and it is not simply incidental that one of the central problems of the first half of the film (that she can’t recall the face of the serial killer who attacked her) is due to the fact that he attacked her in a movie booth, with the projector light shining straight into her eyes.

It is the question of perception that is central. As the noted behaviorist assures his patient, “Everything will seem better in the light of day.” That, of course, turns out to be just untrue. Because these werewolves are no respecters of daylight. And when Nightly News viewers are treated to the spectacle of the local anchorwoman turning into a werewolf and being shot between the weather and the sports, most of them either go “cool,” or they change the station.

The Howling, I think, was probably an important contribution to the werewolf genre, because it so adapted it to the context of late 20th century America that it told it in a way that it never had been before. In that way it gives you the best of Werewolf of London, with its concreteness of place and time, while also taking advantage, like The Wolf Man, of the classical tools of a horror movie (the woods, the fog, the music, and so on).

It’s a good watch. A bit more labored when it comes to the gore and the special effects, but the core of the story is compelling, and, who knows? It just might scare you.


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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 8:05 PM


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