The Howling is a 1981 horror film directed by Joe Dante, based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Gary Brandner. The film stars Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Christopher Stone, Dennis Dugan, and Robert Picardo.
The film received generally positive reviews, with praise for the makeup special effects by Rob Bottin. It won the 1980 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film while still in development, and it was one of three major werewolf films of 1981, the other two being An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen.
Seven sequels have been made to The Howling, the first film’s success having helped Dante’s career so he could make Gremlins in 1984. A remake of The Howling is in development, with Andy Muschietti set to direct.
The differences between the novel and the film are huge. In fact, the film only ever-so-vaguely follows the plot of the novel. I’ll point out just a few of the differences for now.
Karen While (Wallace) is Karyn Beatty in the novel, and her husband is Roy Beatty, his film equivalent being Bill Neill (Stone), for we learn that White has kept her maiden name. Karyn is raped at home in the novel, whereas Karen is almost attacked by a werewolf in an adult bookstore’s movie booth in the film. In the novel, her psychiatrist is only briefly mentioned; in the film, psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Macnee) is a major character, who has her recuperate in his health resort, called “The Colony,” while in the novel, she recuperates in a town called Drago, in California. The nymphomaniac werewolf is Marcia Lura in the novel; in the film, she’s Marsha Quist (played by Elisabeth Brooks), sister of werewolf/serial killer Eddie Quist (Picardo). The rapist of the novel is non-werewolf Max Quist.
It’s interesting to analyze the nature of the changes of the novel’s beginning to those of the film’s, that is, in psychoanalytic terms. It’s as if the screenplay to the film were written by Karyn Beatty instead of by John Sayles and Terrence H. Winkless, as if an attempt by her to reframe her trauma in a way that’s less invasive of her body, replacing a direct rape with a more symbolic, dream-like attack.
In the novel, as stated above, Max Quist, an ex-con resentful of being an unacknowledged worker and with no werewolf powers, comes into Karyn’s apartment while her husband’s away and rapes her, even biting her hard on the thigh. The Beattys have a dog, significantly named Lady, that tries to intervene on Karyn’s behalf, but is kicked away by Max. The dog goes with Karyn and Roy to Drago, and it is killed there. Violence against a dog named Lady seems like a further projection of Karyn’s trauma elsewhere.
So what we have in the novel is a straightforward act of brutal violence causing Karyn’s trauma. In the film, this violence is transformed in many ways, suggesting in its distortions a diluting of that pain.
First of all, Karen White is a TV news reporter risking her life by drawing out her stalker, Eddie Quist, so the police can catch him. Instead of Quist raping her, he has her meet him in a sleazy porn movie booth in an adult book store, where he makes her watch a video of a young woman being bound and raped. Thus the trauma of Karyn is projected onto the woman in the porn video.
Instead of getting a…lupine?…bite from Quist, Karen looks behind her and sees his terrifying transformation into a lycanthrope…though immediately afterwards, she is amnesiac about it, her repression of the memory protecting her from the pain.
This comparison between novel and film leads to a discussion of one of the film’s themes: the contrast between the true self and the false self. As Dr. Waggner says in a news interview with a TV host, “Repression is the father of neurosis, of self-hatred.” He speaks of the unfortunate reality of denying “the beast, the animal, within us,” of replacing the true self with the false self.
This replacement, in the film adaptation, of the novel’s rape scene with Karen watching a video of a rape, a man transforming into a werewolf, and her no longer being able to remember the traumatic experience, is an example of replacing the truth with a kind of fantasy, a falsehood that hurts less. Such replacements of painful truth with comforting falsehood are also seen in characters in the film replacing the true self with the false one.
Another interesting observation can be made of how the true experience of Karyn Beatty’s rape is expressed via the written word, whereas the trauma of Karen White is given in visuals, in images. These two presentations of the traumatizing incident correspond respectively with Lacan‘s notions of the Symbolic and the Imaginary, the trauma itself corresponding to the Real.
Trauma corresponds to the Real because the Real cannot be symbolized, or articulated with words. It is through psychotherapy, or the “talking cure,” that the horrors of the ineffable, undifferentiated world of the Real can be transformed into the Symbolic, the realm of language, of the differentiated. Such a talking cure is attempted with Karen in group therapy sessions in The Colony. This therapy is an attempt to peel away repression, bit by bit, to find the truth.
In the novel, it is significant that Karyn Beatty escapes the town of Drago, which is all engulfed in flames, defeating the werewolves that inhabit the town. In the version of the story given in the written word (the Symbolic), she survives–she’s ‘cured,’ metaphorically speaking. In the film, the version with images and an examination of the narcissistic false self (the Imaginary), Karen White becomes a werewolf and is (presumably) killed with a silver bullet shot from the rifle Chris Halloran (Dugan) has been using on the werewolves.
If you’ll indulge a brief digression, Dear Reader, it is through the Imaginary that one establishes a sense of self, an ego; this comes about during the mirror stage, when an infant first sees his reflection and realizes that that person over there, in the specular image, is himself. He’s alienated from it, though: it’s himself, yet it’s over there, as if a totally different person. That image is also a unified, coherent one, as opposed to the awkward, clumsy, fragmented being the child feels himself to be. Is that really me over there? Is the ego real, or is it illusory?
The ideal-I as seen in the mirror reflection is an ideal that one feels compelled throughout life to measure up to; an example of this attempt to measure up is seen in the scene in the public washroom, when an anchorman (played by Jim McKrell) is standing before the mirror practicing how he’ll enunciate his introduction of a news story with the most mellifluous, rounded tones he can muster. It’s a comical scene, especially when Bill Neill walks in and the anchorman switches to his normal Southern accent to speak with him.
The Imaginary is fundamentally narcissistic; Lacan called it “Fraud.” Indeed, it is the false self that hides the beast…and the buffoon.
This scene in the washroom ties in well with the fact that Karen also works as a TV news reporter. Those of us who observe the media carefully have known for decades that the news frequently disseminates false or at least misleading information, intended to serve the interests of the corporate elite and the military-industrial-media complex. Images of people like Karen on the TV (i.e., the stoic anchor persona) are thus thematically fitting for the purposes of this film.
On two occasions when in front of the camera, Karen fails to present this fake persona expected in the news media. On the first occasion, her trauma causes her to see images of her painful memories of that night with Quist instead of seeing the camera in front of her; this causes her to freeze on air, making her unable to announce the news. The second time, at the end of the movie, she turns into a werewolf for everyone to see on TV.
This theme of the media as representative of fakery is developed, however indirectly, through the film’s use of many nods to classic old werewolf films, a cartoon with a wolf, and actors known for having appeared in old horror/sci fi films. These actors include Kevin McCarthy (who appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as the TV news station manager, John Carradine, and Kenneth Tobey (who was in The Thing from Another World, later remade as The Thing). Even Roger Corman (who made The Little Shop of Horrors) does a cameo, waiting for Karen to finish using a pay phone at the beginning of the movie. Recall how the aliens in Snatchers and The Thing are fake imitations of people. Recall also how fake the special effects of those old horror movies were, as compared to the effects in The Howling.
When Karen and Bill (or Karyn and Roy) go out to The Colony (or the town of Drago) for her to recuperate, she is disturbed at night to hear howling coming from the woods surrounding their cabin. She goes over to the bedroom window, looks out into the trees, and listens for the howling. This howling represents a projection of her trauma, her howling in pain, as it were, out into the woods. The notion of werewolves out there, as she eventually finds out is the source of the howling, is a transformation of the rape trauma, in her unconscious mind, into something unrecognizable as symbolic of a rape memory, since what is repressed returns to the conscious mind and hides in plain sight, unrecognized by us in our waking hours. The howling also represents the honest expression of feelings, the true self.
The film makes a strong link between werewolves and sexuality (I also did this in my novel, Wolfgang), as already indicated above. This howling in the woods reminds us of Freud‘s rather far-fetched interpretation of the dream of the “Wolf Man,” in which Freud’s patient saw six or seven wolves on tree branches outside the window of his home. Freud interpreted this dream as representing Sergei Pankejeff‘s witnessing, as a child, the primal scene–that is, his parents making love in ‘doggy-style.’ (I’m not endorsing Freud’s wild speculations here: I’m just using the fame of this interpretation to reinforce the link between wolves–and therefore werewolves–and sexuality.)
Another such link in the film is seen in Marsha Quist, a known nymphomaniac in The Colony who seduces Bill, the two of them turning into werewolves as they have sex in the woods. In the novel, Karyn immediately feels jealousy on meeting Marcia Luna, angered at the attractive woman’s constant attention to her husband. As in the film, Roy has a sexual relationship with Marcia, a werewolf like all of Drago’s residents.
Bill’s becoming a werewolf coincides with two other changes in his personality: first, going from being a faithful husband (initially resisting Marsha’s sexual advances) to cheating on Karen; second, going from being a vegetarian to eating meat. Again, the false self hides the true self through repression of unacceptable behaviour.
In the film, a character not in the novel, Terry Fisher (played by Belinda Balaski), also works at the TV station and is Chris’s girlfriend. She continues to investigate Eddie Quist, going into his home with Chris and discovering his aptitude at art. The killer has drawn many werewolf portraits and has posters of old werewolf movie ads on his walls. Terry quips that Eddie “could’ve designed the Marquis de Sade colouring book,” another link between werewolves and sexuality.
Terry later explores The Colony, finds Quist’s body missing in the morgue, learns from a bookseller (played by Dick Miller) that regular bullets don’t kill werewolves, and that Quist’s drawing of a lake is one in The Colony area. She’s found his other drawings there, too. Quist is alive!
Now, how does one become a werewolf? By being clawed, scratched, or bitten by another. This is what happens to Bill when walking through the woods back home after he resists Marsha’s initial sexual advances. Since the film links werewolves with sexuality–rape and, as we can see here, unwanted sexual advances in particular–the scratching or biting of someone by a werewolf, making him or her into a new werewolf, is thus symbolic of passing the sexual trauma onto a new victim.
The werewolf’s claws and teeth are phallic symbols, cutting yonic wounds into its victims, making the werewolf’s attack a symbolic rape. This symbolism is how I can see the film’s beginning trauma of Karen seeing Eddie Quist’s transformation in the porn movie booth, juxtaposed with her watching that porn rape scene, as a transformation of Karyn’s actual rape, with the wolf-like bite on her thigh, in the novel.
When Terry puts all the pieces together about The Colony, and is about to reveal its secrets, she is attacked by TC Quist (played by Don McLeod), the werewolf brother of Eddie and Marsha. Terry manages during the struggle to find an ax and hacks off the werewolf’s hairy, clawed hand, which she sees transform back into a human hand. Since the clawing of a victim, with phallic claws, is a symbolic rape, then the cutting off of a werewolf’s hand is a symbolic castration.
Later, she is killed by werewolf Eddie in Waggner’s office after phoning Chris and telling him about the werewolf secret in The Colony; when she’s being killed, the phone call being interrupted by Eddie means it hasn’t been hung up, so Chris listens in horror at his girlfriend’s screaming and death. (Later, Chris arrives in the office and confronts Eddie, who tells him Terry has “a sexy voice,” once again linking werewolves with predatory sexuality in The Howling.)
Karen goes over to Waggner’s office and finds Terry’s bloody body there, then she confronts resurrected Eddie, who transforms in front of her. She’s paralyzed with fear.
Eddie’s transformation into a werewolf is the highlight of the film, being an impressive example of pre-CGI special effects (though the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London is even better). Eddie is proud of his powers, pleased to demonstrate them to terrified Karen. He’s displaying his bestial true self, as opposed to his human false self.
One of the insights Terry and Chris get from the bookseller is that the movies’ notion of werewolves needing a full moon to transform is “Hollywood baloney” (reinforcing what I said above about this film’s theme about the media and falsehoods); actually, as shapeshifters, lycanthropes can transform anytime at will, as we see Eddie doing here.
Karen scalds Eddie’s face with acid and runs outside, but she is caught by the other residents of The Colony. Waggner appears among them, revealing his sympathy for them, but also pleading with them about the necessity of fitting in with society for the sake of keeping their secret safe.
The other werewolves have lost patience with the psychiatrist’s recommendation that they all hide their lupine true selves behind a human false self; Marsha in particular is adamantly opposed to this hiding, having earlier rebuked the doctor for giving her brother TC a copy of his book, The Gift, which rationalizes man’s bestial nature as a source of creativity. (Recall in this connection Eddie’s artistic aptitudes.)
Chris arrives with a rifle loaded with silver bullets he got from the bookstore, and after killing Eddie with it, he shoots and kills a few of the werewolves holding Karen (Waggner, too, gets shot, and–having just been scratched by a werewolf–he’s grateful no longer to have to continue the burden of treating the untreatable, or to have to be a werewolf himself), and Chris runs off with Karen to his car to get away, having also burned down a building filled with werewolves.
Even Sam Newfield, the sheriff of The Colony area (played by Slim Pickens), is a werewolf, and as Karen and Chris are getting away, they have to put a silver bullet or two in him, too. The sheriff, with his rifle, has shot up Chris’s car, including blowing a tire, and a few more werewolves are attacking, so he and Karen have to switch to Sam’s police car to get away.
Werewolf Bill, however, is one of their attackers, and he bites Karen from the back seat of the car, so she will be a werewolf, too. She knows she must warn the world, using her position as a newswoman to disseminate the message to as many people as possible. This means, contrary to the normal media practice of presenting a false self that is pleasing to one’s viewers (i.e., that image of stoic reporting that her male colleague was practicing before the mirror in the public bathroom), she must show her true self as a new werewolf…on live TV.
Chris, heartbroken, must now put a silver bullet in her.
The film ends in a bar where its patrons, having watched the news broadcast on the wall-mounted TV screen, debate whether what they’ve seen was real or the gimmickry of special effects–another manifestation of the film’s exploration of the theme of truth vs. fakery in the media.
Marsha’s managed to survive the fire in The Colony, and she’s in the bar, where a man hoping to get lucky with her has treated her to a hamburger cooked rare. She’s enticing him with her nymphomaniac false self, while waiting to reveal her true self to him in his bedroom.
While the credits roll, we see her burger cooking. It’s interesting to watch the slow transformation of the pink meat into a hamburger; this parallels the slow transformation of Eddie into a werewolf…or the slow process of psychotherapy revealing, bit by bit, repressed trauma. On top of all this, there’s the symbolism of the rising heat of sexual passion, and meat…flesh…to be eaten: more of the merging of the carnivore with the sexual predator.