Modernizing Werewolves in ‘The Howling’ Franchise
By Sara Century
The Howling was released in 1981, the same year that saw two other classic werewolf films hit the theaters: An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen. Yet, it was The Howling, despite being only a moderate financial success, that warranted a long series of sequels, ultimately making for eight total films including the 2011 remake. The franchise makes loose attempts to tie its universe together. The first and second films, for instance, are tangentially related while the fourth film most resembles the novels by Gary Brandner from which the series is based. For the most part, though, the franchise is only connected through its continued desire to modernize and sympathize with werewolves.
This is a series prominently defined by the stereotypical ideal of a werewolf at its center rather than any specific hero, villain, or theme. There is very little consistency from one film to the next, which may be part of why it is so seldom revisited by critics today. Yet, it is precisely this loosely defined central premise that allowed various filmmakers to take the concept in a number of surprising and wholly unrelated directions over the decades.
In the first film, a couple from the city try to take an extended stay in the countryside to heal from recent events in their lives. The wife, Karen White (played by Dee Wallace), a newscaster, was traumatized after the police irresponsibly used her as bait to trap a killer who was sexually obsessed with her. At the retreat, her sensitive vegetarian becomes more aggressive, more sexual, and more interested in traditional masculinity, which concerns Karen. Though they try against all odds, they do not escape the werewolf cult. When the film concludes, it’s not without the realization that these “people of the land” have made some valid points in refusing to join the greater society.
In the sequel, Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf (1985), Karen briefly returns as a werewolf rising from the dead while another woman steps into the role of journalist protagonist. This film was more of a campy ’80s romp that overhyped the sexuality of the werewolves by featuring a very hairy threesome between Stirba the Werewolf Queen (played by Sybil Danning) and two other wolves. A synthy soundtrack and a crew of fashionable polyamorous werewolves serve as a stark contrast to the incredibly heteronormative protagonists.
The third film, Howling III: The Marsupials (1987), attempts to take the legend back to Aboriginal Australia through the lens of a modern-day anthropologist. Much of the film is based on the premise that the werewolves have evolved to become marsupials, again showing a juxtaposition between modernization and inescapable symbology and ancient myth.
Meanwhile, in Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988), the filmmakers take us back to the first novel and to create a slightly more regressive, less modernized take, in stark contrast to the original film. While there isn’t much to compel a revisit of The Original Nightmare, it does give us a slightly more immovable and sure-of-herself take on the central protagonist.
Howling V: The Rebirth (1989) introduced us to Clive Turner, who would be the producer for the rest of the original series of films. Rebirth takes us through the essential plot of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None with a group of apparently unrelated strangers all receiving a mysterious invite to a Hungarian castle specified to each character’s situation only for them to realize that things are amiss after they arrive. One by one, each character meets their own doom here, though, naturally, it’s because of their possible blood relation to an ancient werewolf. Howling V: The Rebirth is far (very far) from being a perfect movie, but by injecting cross-genre elements, focusing on character dynamics, and granting us an interesting female protagonist-turned-antagonist, it might actually be the most interesting entry in a franchise that so often failed to find its center. The female protagonists here don’t pass the Bechdel Test by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re funny and likable, and they all have their own lives. The main character repeatedly turning down the sexual advances of various characters only to be revealed as a werewolf later in the film, is actually surprising and turns away from the tropes established earlier in the franchise. All in all, Rebirth is a pretty interesting film, though it does suffer from the standard issues of low-budget horror of the time.
After Rebirth, the series goes on to bring in carnival tropes with Howling VI: The Freaks (1991) and tries against all odds to connect elements of the series in Howling: New Moon Rising (1995), though both films are considered comically bad by audiences that took the time to see them at all. Still, The Howling is far from the only franchise to lose sight of its early goals over the years. The novels and the films ultimately have very little to do with one another besides a shared sympathetic view of werewolves that continued on, even in the most recent attempt at rebooting the series with The Howling: Reborn.
The Howling franchise is barely connected to its own legacy, which is interesting when one considers that the original purpose was to throw out the old and bring in the new. Still, as previously identified, there are yet some common themes throughout. The most persistent are women being gaslit by their partners into believing that things are fine when they’re not. Another is an aggressive take on male sexuality and the frustration these men feel with their comparatively less-sexual partners, which generally drives them to the somewhat extreme response of joining a community of werewolves. Yet, where the franchise shines is in its attempts to show the drastic difference in human civilization today as compared to decades or centuries before. By crossing genres and using the novels on which it's based as little more than a handbook to guide the way, The Howling might not be the most cohesive horror franchise, but it is one of our most adventurous. 🩸
Sara Century is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches on Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.
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