Monday, April 28, 2008

What's Meant To Be Wild

As one last taste of Dante’s Inferno, the New Beverly ran THE HOWLING, one of the best of all werewolf movies, at midnight on Saturday. Few things could ever top the unforgettable glory of THE MOVIE ORGY, but it was a fun time anyway. Joe Dante turned up again, as did star Dee Wallace and makeup maestro Rob Bottin to help introduce the film. I spotted a number of familiar faces on line and inside, people who have been going pretty regularly the past few weeks and the movie we were seeing felt like an appropriate choice to close things out. The film was preceded by a number of Dante-related trailers including an EXPLORERS teaser I have no recollection of ever seeing and, of course, the immortal AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON. From the wave of applause that greeted Roger Corman’s cameo it was pretty easy to figure out what sort of crowd this was. That’s the way it should be.

Seen in the aftermath of THE MOVIE ORGY, it was easy to look at THE HOWLING more clearly through its obvious affection for classic monster movies, but also its other preoccupations seen through the world of 1980 it was made in such as psychoanalysis, smiley faces, porn shops and the news media. The excess of wolf in-jokes throughout could possibly be Dante’s most successful example at implementing such a concept but it also underlines how some times the answers we’re looking for in life can be right in front of us.

I’ve loved THE HOWLING for a long time, but in all honesty the film has always felt to me like it was heavily assembled in the cutting room, moreso than most films (the film was edited by both Dante and Mark Goldblatt, who also attended the screening). One of the main indications of this, at least to me, has been a feeling that there is a slight structural oddity which makes it feel like the film goes from the first act to the third, without much of a stop in the second. The deleted scenes on the DVD shed a little light on possible deletions but they actually raise more questions than they answer. There’s also the evident production limitations which has always made it seem to me that the ‘colony’ is more implied than actually seen. But in the end, little of this actually matters. In watching it again these issues don’t affect how well it all ultimately works, from the satire of the script by John Sayles to the undeniable impact of Rob Bottin’s creations which make it endlessly rewatchable.

But THE HOWLING is clearly the earliest example of good Dante can be with his actors. Seeing it on the big screen, I was struck by how good John Carradine is in what has to be one his best, if not the best, parts of his final decades. Patrick Macnee provides a great deal of authority as Dr. George Waggner, even if we’re not sure how much to trust him—forget about werewolves, how much can we trust a doctor who spouts off the sort of psych jargon that he does? Of course, Dick Miller nearly steals the show as bookshop owner Walter Paisley and Dante gives us what truly feels like another Barbara Steele in the late Elizabeth Brooks as the ultra-enigmatic Marsha. But it’s interesting to seen how much the film is anchored by Dee Wallace, one of those cases where the film feels like it’s elevated by someone who doesn’t seem to be aware how much of a b-movie this is, and never thinks to play any of it as anything but totally real.

The film played great with the crowd reacting to all the expected things, such as when Robert Picardo gives Dee Wallace a piece of his mind. As a werewolf movie made right around the same time as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (this one came out first) THE HOWLING remains truly potent and subversive, expertly maintaining that balance between scary and funny. And seen after both THE MOVIE ORGY and listening to Dante speak for several weeks, I had a greater awareness of the meat (sorry) of the movie and what he may have been saying about the people we were turning into in the modern world—and, I suppose, still are. If they ever remake it and you know they will, all of this will probably be cut out, so enjoy what we have while you can. All the way down to the film’s memorable closing sequence (is it a reach to connect the end of this film to the end of THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE? Could this have been intentional on Dante's part?), leading up to the best end crawl the director has ever had, is the darker message that lies beneath the fun. How much you want to listen to that message is, of course, entirely your choice. You could say that about a lot of Joe Dante’s films and it’s one of the many reasons why they hold up as well as they do. And why movie theaters feel like lesser places without new Joe Dante films appearing in them on a more regular basis.

“Go now. And heaven help you.”


Dennis Cozzalio said...

This was an excellent assessment of the movie, Mr. Peel. Had I been sans out-of-town company, I would have been there too. And I wasn't aware that Elizabeth Brooks had died. Do you know the story? It always surprised me that she didn't do more movies, based on how effective she was in this one.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks very much, Dennis, sorry you had to miss it. Her story can be found in a few places by Googling her name. The fact that she didn't appear in more things after THE HOWLING seems to be partly a result of health issues and maybe her life just going in other directions, as far as I can tell. Sadly, she died of cancer back in 1997.

Anonymous said...

Thanx for the nice words.
You're the first one who ever caught the LYLAH CLAIRE reference!

Anonymous said...

sorry about the anonymous ID.

I'm hopeless with these talkback things.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Holy cow. I'm speechless. Am I really the first person to catch that? I guess that ten-year old memory of seeing LYLAH CLARE at a Cinematheque screening paid off.

It's a thrill and an honor to have you stop by, Joe. Many thanks for all of your films over the years and also for this recent festival which has reenergized my own movie love in ways I couldn't begin to express.

I'm truly humbled.