“What if this is a movie where the characters have actually seen a horror movie?” –John Sayles
By the dawn of the 1980s, there hadn’t been a genuinely successful werewolf film in years. And in the wake of films like The Last House on the Left and Halloween, which brought horror to the cities and suburbs where most Americans lived, torch-wielding villagers and mythical monsters lurking around the European countryside seemed quaint. Even when the cinematic werewolf mythology was occasionally modernized in the 1970s, with films like Werewolves on Wheels and The Werewolf of Washington, the results were lackluster.
But just as the sub-genre appeared to lose its bite, The Howling burst onto screens and changed everything. The first in a series of three werewolf-centric films released in 1981 — Wolfen and An American Werewolf in London opened later that summer — The Howling helped to revitalize the waning subgenre by mixing wry satire with genuine scares (artfully conceived by director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles) and state-of-the-art makeup effects by the legendary Rob Bottin. This decidedly modern take on classic horror tropes created a singular vision that can still be felt within pop culture 40 years later: from the expansive series of sequels and werewolf films it spawned, to other self-aware horror films like Scream (“What’s that werewolf movie with E.T.’s mom in it?”), they all owe a debt to The Howling.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, several of the people involved in the making of film were interviewed about their roles in creating this influential horror classic. Specifically, director Joe Dante, producer Mike Finnell, screenwriter John Sayles, actor Dee Wallace, actor Robert Picardo, editor Mark Goldblatt, and studio executive Robert Rehme.
Based on pulpy bestseller by Gary Brandner, The Howling’s journey to the screen began when producer Steven A. Lane and director Jack Conrad purchased the film rights to the book, and brought the property to fledgling mini-major AVCO Embassy. However, the duo would not stay on the project long. When concerns arose about the film’s direction under Lane and Conrad, AVCO Embassy turned to a group of hungry young filmmakers looking to break out of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures: director Joe Dante, producer Michael Finnell, and screenwriter John Sayles.
Tossing out the original script, and most of the book, this new creative team quickly instituted dramatic changes. With an eye towards the modern, they infused the screenplay with biting social commentary that lampoons self-help groups, the ubiquitous smiley face logo, and the clichés of horror films themselves. But while writing the script, they made the crucial choice to include an elaborate transformation sequence that relied heavily on new technology and the skills of a makeup effects wiz just out of his teens, Rob Bottin.
MICHAEL FINNELL, PRODUCER: I worked for Roger Corman and worked my way up through the ranks [at New World Pictures]. Ultimately, I was producing for him. I produced some additional scenes for a movie called I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which was one of Roger’s attempts to get a little classier than most of his normal fare. The producer of the movie was Edgar Scherick, a really old school producer, and he had a younger partner named Dan Blatt.
Afterwards, I guess [Blatt] liked the way I handled things because he called me and said, “I have this movie called The Howling but I’m not really available. I have a bunch of other things going on and I can’t really produce it myself. I’ll be the executive producer, but would you like to produce it?” So I said, “Yeah!” I had only worked for Roger — Rock n Roll High School was my last venture there — and I figured I had to move on at that point because I had gone as far as I could go. [Dan Blatt] sent me the script, which was based on a book by Gary Brandner. I wasn’t crazy about the script, but on the other hand, it was a movie to produce outside of Roger.
The origin of [The Howling] is that a guy named Steve Lane had partnered with another guy named Jack Conrad, who directed a really low-budget movie. Steve Lane bought the rights to the book and Jack Conrad wrote the script based on the book and was going to direct the movie. It was for a company called AVCO Embassy, which was originally formed by Joseph E. Levine, who had started by [distributing] Hercules movies starring Steve Reeves. Anyways, he formed this company called Embassy, but by this time, he was no longer involved in the company. The company was [now] run by Robert Rehme. He had been the head of Roger’s distribution, so I kind of knew him, too.
ROBERT REHME, STUDIO HEAD (AVCO EMBASSY): AVCO Embassy was owned by Avco Corporation, a large public company based in Connecticut, and it had bought Embassy from [Joseph E. Levine]. He left after that and then I came in. I enjoyed being there and Avco was quite interesting. Avco stood for Aviation Corporation. They made airplanes, they had all kinds of interesting businesses. Some big public companies had bought movie businesses at that time. But we were not going for anything too expensive. We couldn’t afford that, we had no money. It was my decision to focus on young directors that I thought could make exciting films. I got Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and a number of people to do films that were easily promotable.
JOE DANTE, DIRECTOR: Since Rehme had come from New World Pictures, he was very well versed in selling that kind of picture and even how to make it. So the complexion of the movies that AVCO Embassy was making changed when he showed up and they became a genre [film] supplier — they had Cronenberg and Carpenter — so it was a place to go to make those kind of pictures. They were low-budget but they weren’t really cheesy. They were very cost conscious but the movies didn’t look crappy. They were pretty well photographed and they were pretty well produced under the circumstances. They competed very well with the studio pictures and they were all pretty successful. But the AVCO Embassy pictures were a slight step up because they were a little bit classier, or viewed as such.
FINNELL: So we started to work with [Conrad] on pre-production. And as things progressed, Dan and I started to get worried that this guy wasn’t really going be able to pull this off. First of all, he wanted to use real wolves, which would have been insane. The movie was going to happen, Bob Rehme wanted to make it. It wasn’t like a development deal, it was a greenlight movie. But we were worried that if we proceeded with this guy it would not work out well.
DANTE: Mike Finnell, who was my producer on many movies, had been hired as line producer on this picture. It became apparent to him that they were having some problems. The studio was having some problems with the director and the direction of the movie. And so they started to put out feelers: “Maybe we could bring somebody else in here.”
FINNELL: I knew Joe from working with Roger Corman and we become friends. I worked as the assistant prop man on Hollywood Boulevard, Joe’s first movie that he co-directed with Alan Arkush. I said, “I’m sure that Joe would love to make a werewolf movie because he’s a horror movie guy.”
DANTE: I was at Universal making what would have been my first studio picture — Jaws 3, People 0 — but there was a tremendous amount of turmoil on that picture and it looked to me like it wasn’t going to happen. And then I got a call from Mike saying, “Do you think you might want to do a werewolf picture?” I said, “Naturally. I mean, who wouldn’t want to do a werewolf picture?” But in the meantime, I couldn’t just walk out on this other movie because it was a studio picture. It was supposed to be my big break. But as luck would have it, that movie just fell apart in time for me to take the job on The Howling.
FINNELL: [Joe] read the script and said, “I would love to make a werewolf movie but not this werewolf movie, not this script.” I said, “I can’t argue with you about that.”
DANTE: What they had was [a script] based on this paperback bestseller by Gary Brandner. It was one of those books that reads fine when you’re on the bus but then if you really want to think about it, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. So if you’re trying to do a movie, you can’t really be too faithful. And they were being fairly faithful to the book. I read the script and it was really ludicrous. It was just a really bad adaptation and the dialogue was unspeakable.
So I said to Bob Rehme, “I think we can do better than this. Why don’t you let me bring on a new writer and we’ll work on it. We’ll try to find a way to adapt the book into something that’s watchable.” So Terry Winkless came on board. He and I shut ourselves off for however long it was and tried to do a version of the script that still adhered to the book but made sense. Even when we had finished that, it really just didn’t click.
FINNELL: Terry was a really good writer and I think what happened was we still stayed a little too close to the book. What he did was a huge improvement over the original script, but it still wasn’t quite there. The feeling was we needed a completely fresh approach. Terry was probably, unfairly by us, saddled with too much from the original book.
DANTE: So I said, “Well, John Sayles just rewrote my last picture, Piranha, and maybe he’d want to do it.”
FINNELL: John basically threw out the book.
JOHN SAYLES, SCREENWRITER: When I looked at the book, my main problem with it was just how obvious it was, right away, who the real werewolves were. It was the usual: the woman hears howling at night and she comes into town the next day and everybody she talks to says, “We didn’t hear any howling?” And of course you know they must be werewolves. We heard that, everyone with ears heard that.
DANTE: I think the problem with the book is that all the characters are cardboard. It’s not a character book. It’s a fantasy thriller book that you’re just supposed read and turn the page, which is fine. There were certain things you couldn’t get away from. You had to have a heroine who has this traumatic experience — I think she’s raped in the book — and then she’s taken to recuperate in this closed village, which is boarded up but on the main highway. And all the people hiding inside the buildings are all werewolves. The mistake we made was sticking too close to the book for too long. When John came in, he basically threw out most everything except the lead character [Karen]. I don’t think there’s a Dr. Wagner character in the book. I mean, that’s half the movie right there.
SAYLES: So we started talking back and forth about a couple things, and I think the most important one was: “What if this is a movie where the characters have actually seen a horror movie?” So they don’t seem so clueless and so there’s just a little bit of, “Oh, come on. This is just like the movies.” But it’s not, because we wanted to do some different things.
FINNELL: The idea was to make sure that people realized, while watching the movie, that werewolves are something that’s known in popular culture. So we had the clip of The Wolf Man in the movie, rather than pretend like, “Oh my god, a man turned into a wolf! Whoever heard of such a thing?” We wanted to make sure that characters in the movie knew that was the thing.
DANTE: Werewolf movies at the time were considered old hat, and the last few that had come out hadn’t really done very well. I didn’t think that promoting this as a werewolf picture was really the way to go. So, we tried to make it look like a slasher picture, which was very popular at the time, and AVCO Embassy traded in slasher pictures. They were very good at selling them. We tried to work it out so that the supernatural elements of the picture didn’t really show-up until the audience was already hooked on the story and the characters and what was going on with them.
Then we dragged in the idea that, “This is the old-fashioned werewolf that you’ve heard of but this is a modern world and we have characters in our movie who know as much about werewolves as you and the audience do.” Which was a big departure. Usually they would take a lot of time on a movie to go to the learned professor, and the professor would tell them a whole bunch of stuff about vampires or werewolves or whatever. Stuff the audience already knew, and everybody would go out for popcorn.
I decided that I probably would never get to make another werewolf movie, so this needs to be my statement on werewolf movies. So, I insisted on having people watch The Wolf Man and to have all of the clichés that we’ve come to know be seen by the characters firsthand on TV, which made it easier to dismiss them.
SAYLES: And then the second big conversation we had was about free will. The myth, the folklore that the original werewolf movies come from, they’re about shape changers. Sometimes it’s a wolf, sometimes it’s a panther, but the main idea is you make a deal with the devil or whatever and you can change your shape, commit a crime, then change it back, and walk away. And they’re looking for paw prints, not your prints. Well, there’s free will involved in that. The Hollywood version of it was that the poor guy got bitten by one of these creatures, and now whenever there’s a full moon he loses his free will, turns into a werewolf, and does terrible things that he feels really bad about. So, when the full moon starts coming close, he wants to be locked up somewhere so he can’t hurt any of his friends.
Well, one of the things I said was, “First of all, if you go with that full moon thing, you can have action and then you have to wait a month. There’s only one full moon a month. What do we do to fill in the rest of the time?” But also, “What if we go back to the idea that there is some free will involved? Yes, maybe on the full moon you have to turn into a werewolf, but the rest of the time it’s optional, and you can get away with incredible stuff. Or you have to figure out, how am I going to deal with the modern world? They’re worried about predation.”
And so once we started into that idea of the werewolves having free will, I brought up the possibility, and then developed it into the script, of these EST and primal scream kind of groups. What if the werewolves, instead of just living in some town, are at some place where they’re literally trying to cope with being werewolves, and partly by repressing it. And that kind of led to the stuff that’s different about The Howling than your average werewolf movie.
FINNELL: At the time, these new age self-help organizations were big, EST was one up in northern California. So he came up with the great idea of an EST-like place that was all werewolves. They were trying to get the werewolves to deal with their inner beast and channel it, which was hilarious.
DANTE: There was a self-help thing going on in the 1980s, being self-aware and learning about yourself, and going to lectures where you had to wear catheters because you weren’t allowed to leave. It was a very strange period, but it was very helpful for us because we were able to couch all of our nonsense, basically, in a whole bunch of psychobabble gobbledygook. We had a character who was a doctor [and] popular TV figure leading the cult, basically. And this was also around the Jim Jones period, which I think is referenced in the movie. So it was very up to date.
SAYLES: All those groups were around and they were very hip for awhile. Some of them turned into dangerous cults, which had already happened with the Weathermen, the Charlie Manson kind of people, and stuff like that. So there was always this edge of, “Well, this could turn ugly.” And I was interested in in dealing with that. This is kind of like a cabal, which we’ve seen in the movies before, but let’s put the two things together.
DANTE: People were weary of old-fashioned werewolf movies because, indeed, they were old-fashioned. We can’t have villagers with torches anymore, this is the modern world. So this managed to take a lot of the weaknesses in the werewolf plot and overcome them by saying, “No, this is just an adjunct. This is a group of people who are trying to fit into society because they’re really antisocial and they are trying to overcome their baser instincts but, of course, they can’t because it’s in their nature.” That seemed to be a pretty compelling attitude.
FINNELL: So he came out and rewrote it. John is incredibly facile and fast. I think he wrote the script in two weeks, literally.
SAYLES: Some of it is that I do write very fast when I know what I’m supposed to do, when I have a good mandate. Also, there was a lot more happening in those days, people weren’t so note happy. Things actually got made a lot quicker.
DANTE: [Sayles] was almost always rewriting [scripts]. He wasn’t coming up with stories. He wasn’t inventing them. He was basically fixing them. [Sayles also] got the assignment for Alligator, which is a made for Group One, an even lower budget version of AVCO Embassy. He lived in New Jersey and so somebody would have to fly him in. Sometimes, the two movies would split the cost of having John come in.
SAYLES: I was in a low-rent motel on the Sunset Strip. Both of those movies were in play and so I was working on both at the same time. I may even have been working on a third script for all I know. They get started, then different companies take longer to read your draft, and so you can’t just write one thing at a time, especially if you’re just making scale in those days. So pretty much whenever I got an offer that I thought was interesting, I’d take it. And what that meant was I might be doing this third draft of one thing while I do the first draft of something else, but they would be made six months or a year apart.
DANTE: If you went to knock on his door to find out how things were going, he would say, “Who is it?” Then you would hear him pulling paper out of the typewriter and putting in a different piece of paper because he was writing them all at the same time. In the end, I was convinced that one of the sequences in my picture was supposed to be in Alligator and vice versa. They were so similar that sometimes I think he would actually get confused to which movie he was writing.
SAYLES: So yeah, I was working on both. And when people would come to talk to me, I’d just say, “So who’s that?” I was still typing on an electric typewriter and I was like, “What should I have in the typewriter? What pages should be in front of me when they come in?”
FINNELL: It’s impossible for [Joe] to do anything without a sense of humor in it. John Sayles is also very funny and has a tremendous gift with sly humor. It really worked out well. The script was terrific.
SAYLES: I would say some [of the humor] was written in and some is just knowing, by that point, Joe’s sensibility and his style. I knew he was going to add a lot of stuff. A lot of the film reference stuff is stuff that Joe put in. He had me name some of the characters after people who had directed werewolf movies. And because you have a lot of characters and you’ve got to give them names, I think a lot of the other characters are named after Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitchers. I was a Pirates fan.
I think [the script’s humor] was probably about 50/50 of stuff I wrote in that was meant to be funny and then just stuff that Joe found, like Roger Corman shows up and check the phone to see if there’s any coins, which was very much an in joke. Putting the [smiley face] sticker on the on the phone booth or at the porn booth, that was Joe’s idea.
DANTE: Well, I think a lot of us always found [the smiley face logo] sinister anyway.
SAYLES: I felt like, knowing [Joe], he’ll make these things more interesting and he’ll pull all these things off. But honestly, I wrote most of Piranha before Joe was assigned to direct it. I did several drafts of The Lady in Red before Lewis Teague was assigned to it. I wrote Battle Beyond the Stars and I never met Jimmy Murakami. So, it was a luxury on The Howling and Alligator to know who the directors were and feel like, “I can write this and they’ll do a great job.”
[It was a collaborative process] because we did know each other already. I did get to sit with [Joe] and Mike Finnell and work some of these ideas out before I went off and did my first draft. They would come back with story ideas and sometimes just with practical things: “This is the problem that’s going to cost us a lot of money” or “we’re looking at this one actor.” At some point [Joe] said, “We’re thinking of getting Slim Pickens for the sheriff. Can you make the sheriff part at least look a little bigger?”
And so I not only padded a few things, but also broke one of the big speeches up into a couple of pieces. And apparently when Slim Pickens came on the set, he said, “Boys, this dialogue fits me like a glove.” Which is what you get to do when you can have some back and forth. You can tailor things a little bit more.
DANTE: There was obviously a parameter with which you had to stay because it wasn’t an expensive film. The difficulty was doing special effects. How much of the budget are the special effects going take up? And how are we going make these things look like it’s not a guy in a bear suit? Which is what a lot of our initial efforts looked like.
Lupine bodies and human bodies just don’t have the same proportions at all, and we didn’t want to do the classic Lon Chaney Jr. version of a guy with a werewolf head and werewolf hands but an otherwise regular body. We loved all of those pictures but we they were passé and we didn’t want to do that anymore.
So, one of the keys to making the picture work and actually getting AVCO Embassy to make the picture was to say that we were going to try to do new things. To do transformations on screen that were much more complicated than the ones they were able to do in the 1940s.
FINNELL: The Wolf Man was old news, although it was good make-up for the time. So we actually found old woodcuts [of werewolves] from the 15th or 16th century, there’s a shot of it in the movie, which looked much more like a wolf. It was a huge wolf but it’s on its hind legs. So we said, “That’s what the werewolves should look like.”
DANTE: We did a lot of testing. Initially, Rick Baker was going to do the picture. Then John Landis, who had been nursing a werewolf picture for a number of years and had gotten Rick to say he would do [his film], found out that Rick was working on our picture, then called him up and lowered the boom: “You can’t do his picture! You’ve got to do my picture! I’ve just gotten the money for it!”
So, Rick had to leave and he put in charge his second in command, Rob Bottin, who had worked with me on Piranha. He was very young. He was like 19 but, in many ways, he was a genius. He was able to come up with a whole raft of things, based initially on Rick’s original tests, that didn’t involve keeping the actor in a chair for six hours to have makeup applied by using fake heads and animatronics in ways that had not really been done before. It was very interesting.
FINNELL: As we wrote the script, we hired Rob and we were able to get AVCO Embassy to start spending money on pre-production. He started designing the werewolf effects and everything. We went ahead and made the movie.
With a finely tuned script now ready, Finnell and Dante began to cast The Howling’s array of colorful characters. They assembled a cast of fresh-faced actors for many of the film’s younger roles during a casting call, while Dante cherry-picked some of his favorite character actors for many of the film’s older parts. And Dee Wallace, an ideal choice for the film’s lead Karen, helped cast her on-screen husband, while Rob Bottin had final say on the casting of Robert Picardo.
FINNELL: Susan Arnold, who was the director Jack Arnold’s (Creature From the Black Lagoon) daughter, was initially the casting director but she had other commitments. And so she had a friend named Judith Weiner do the readings with the actors and everything. It was a combination of Judith and Susan finding actors that we didn’t know, which was mostly for the younger parts, and us being able to populate the rest of the cast with people that we had grown up watching. Searching for Dee Wallace’s role was a very long, drawn-out process. We went through all kinds of names and saw all kinds of people. But when we finally met Dee, we realized we hit the jackpot. She was perfect.
DANTE: I had seen Dee in 10, where she is, I guess, playing a prostitute. She really impressed me in that movie. When it was suggested that she might do a picture like [The Howling], I was very impressed: “Really? You think we could get her?”
DEE WALLACE, ACTOR (KAREN WHITE): I went in and auditioned, then I went in for a callback, and then they hired me. My thoughts were it was a job and it was the lead in a movie. It was going give me the opportunity to do a lot of emotional work, which I love. Really, that’s where I was at. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m a star and this is below me.” I was thrilled that it was the opportunity to do a lead.
DANTE: And she came in and she was excited and very nice, and helped in the casting process. She came in to read with other people and all that kinds of stuff. She was very into it. She was very dedicated. So that was an incredibly lucky break for the movie to have somebody that good in that part.
WALLACE: Dan Blatt, our wonderful, fabulous producer, called me and said, “We’ve got a lot of great people surrounding you in the cast. We just can’t find anybody yet to play your husband.” And at that point I had never gotten involved in casting. I said, “Well, exactly what are you looking for?” And he said, “We need somebody really strong and virile, but with a real vulnerable side.” And I went [to myself], “Oh my God, I’m engaged to him.” But in one second I thought, I can’t say that because they’ll never hire him if they know. So I said, “You know, um, I worked with this guy on CHiPs, Christopher Smith or Stone. Some s-word.” And so they went out and found him, called him in, and he booked it.
DANTE: She suggested [Christopher Stone], but we didn’t know that they were a couple until after we hired him. I think one of the producers called her number to talk to her and he answered.
WALLACE: The next day, Dan Blatt calls. I pick up the phone and he goes, “Dee?” And I go, “Hi, Dan.” He said, “I’m sorry, I must have called the wrong number. You know that guy you recommended? Well, we loved him and we hired him.” I said, “Yeah, you didn’t call the wrong number, Dan.” And then there was this long pause, and he goes, “Oh, shit.” He said, “You’re going to gang-up on me.” And I said, “No. Look at it this way, you only have to get one trailer.”
FINNELL: We didn’t care. He was perfect for the part. Two for the price of one. Not really two for the price of one, but he’ll be able to drive her over to the set. Not that we could afford drivers at all, really, to pick up actors.
DANTE: He’s really good. He’s very sympathetic and very macho and all that kind of stuff. We really lucked out. It’s a good cast. There’s no ringers in the cast.
ROBERT PICARDO, ACTOR (EDDIE QUIST): I was a fairly successful theater actor with two leads on Broadway under my belt by the age of 24. So to do a genre movie like that out of the gate, some of my actor friends thought, “What the heck are you doing?” But even I probably thought that.
I was in David Mamet’s first produced play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Shortly after that, I was cast in a play called Gemini. And while I was in that play, I auditioned for the plum role of the following Broadway season for a young actor, which was to play Jack Lemmon’s son in a play called Tribute. The play had maybe six or seven characters but the son was definitely the second lead to Jack Lemmon’s character. That was at 24-years-old that I opened in that play opposite him. I want to say [this was] the beginning of the summer of 1978. And then the following year, in 1979, I recreated the role with Jack in the Los Angeles production and Joe Dante saw me play the role.
At the end of the first act, I had a very explosive emotional scene where I catch [Jack’s character] having sex with his ex-wife, who happens to be my mother, and I love the stepfather. So I am really enraged that this terrible thing has happened and I just yell at him. And in that scene, because you had to go from zero to sixty emotionally in one second, I guess that emotional risibility made Joe think, “Well, there’s my werewolf.” There was something about that explosive anger that made him want to audition me for the role.
So I went in and had a regular audition for Susan Arnold, the casting director. I think I got the part because I successfully creeped out the casting director so much in reading with her. It was the scene in the porn booth where Eddie is behind Dee Wallace’s character and he won’t let her turn around to look at him. He’s just talking in her ear. So I got behind the casting director and just my voice creeped her out enough that they probably cast me just because of the reactions on her face.
DANTE: [Robert Picardo] came into the casting session and read the porn booth scene and she was so creeped out that we knew we had to get this guy. He was just so magnetic with her. Plus, he was such a great ad-libber.
FINNELL: [Picardo] is a Yale trained stage actor. He came in, read, and totally freaked her out. We said, “This is the guy. He’s perfect.”
DANTE: His other great attribute was that he was willing to sit still for hours on end in Rob Bottin’s makeup. To do those casts, the suffocating plaster casts that you have to do in order to make these appliances, he was so cooperative.
PICARDO: It was the strangest casting situation because, even though they wanted me to do it, I had to be approved by Rob Bottin. Joe wanted me to do it but he knew that Rob had to be all in with my casting. That was an agreement he had with Rob. Rob’s work hinged so significantly on the actor who played that character because the transformation scene was going to be the money sequence.
But Rob had to hang out with me and realize that I was willing to really go for it. Every makeup designer’s terror is that the actor is going to get all this shit on him and then he’s going to either freak out or freeze up or just not come through. His performance won’t come through the rubber and the rubber will look dead. You have to really be willing to animate your face and move the rubber to make it look real. He wanted to make sure that I was willing to really go for it.
So we hung out a few days. We had makeup application tests and all that, and he basically decided that he approved of my casting. I remember getting through the makeup test sessions and the design sessions more than shooting the movie itself. [Rob] had an old pickup truck and he would drive me around, and he just kept looking over at me, like he was assessing me. He’d work with actors before because he’d already worked on a few movies, but I was this Broadway theater actor and maybe he thought I was going to think of myself as some young Laurence Olivier. But we had fun hanging out. He was good company, he made me laugh, and he was just different from anybody I’ve ever met.
We stayed friends. I haven’t seen Rob in the last several years, but we maintained a friendship for many years after that.
FINNELL: Then for a lot of the other supporting roles — Joe has an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies, so he always likes to, where possible, populate roles with actors that he loves from old movies. So we had Kenneth Tobey, Slim Pickens, and, of course, John Carradine, who’s incredible.
DANTE: I had tried to get John Carradine in Piranha for the part that ended up being played by Keenan Wynn…but we did hire him for this one. He was at a point in his career where he would do almost anything. He had ex-wives to deal with and he had kids to deal with and all that. So he was working on everything, but didn’t treat this movie with any less reverence than any big movie that he would do. He was a total professional. He was getting to a point where he was a little bit rusty with his lines, but he was a joy.
PICARDO: I think Patrick Macnee is an unsung hero in that film because he’s so likable and he’s such a gentleman that he exudes authority. He’s so well intentioned [in the film].
DANTE: Everybody knew [Patrick Macnee] best from The Avengers [TV show] and he had that persona — he was very tall and very imposing. What I was trying to do with this part, who ends up being a villain, is cast it with somebody that the audience liked. So that they feel, “Oh, look. He’s a nice guy and is trying to help her.”
Christopher Lee was proposed [for Macnee’s role]. I was a big Christopher Lee fan and I would have loved to make the movie with him, except that it would have killed the movie. Because as soon as you saw Christopher Lee you would have said, “Oh, he’s the villain.” So I said, “No, we can’t go there.”
But I did want to use somebody British. So I thought, Well, let’s see if Patrick McNee will do this. So he came in one day and was very charming, which was his stock in trade. He’s good in the movie and he did everything we asked. Except he said, “I don’t want to do werewolf makeup. That’s the only thing I ask.” We managed to find a way to not to have to do that.
WALLACE: Patrick [Macnee] was the nicest, sweetest, most soft-spoken gentleman. He was just beautiful for me to work with. He and Chris got along great. All the classic older actors would sit around the [set] and Chris would go sit with them. They would regale him with all their stories of the olden days when they were coming up. Let me tell you, they had hundreds of stories between all of them.
DANTE: I decided to do the [clapperboard] myself so I could hear the stories [John Carradine] was telling [in-between takes]. Then I would do another take, even if I didn’t need it, just to hear the end of the story. Because when you’re making a low-budget movie, you hire people like Carradine, Slim Pickens, and people like that, who have gobs of fascinating information about Hollywood history and you don’t really have time to shoot the shit with them because you’re so busy. You just take what you can get.
The film’s tight budget allowed for only minimal sets to be built, so the production relied heavily on real locations around Los Angeles. This included some of the city’s more seamy and colorful destinations. After filming in L.A., the production briefly moved to Mendocino (in Northern California) for its scenic landscapes and greenery. But the film’s distinct and diverse shooting locations are then seamlessly blended in the editing room.
DANTE: I had worked with Dick [Miller] on my first picture Hollywood Boulevard, which I thought would probably be my only picture. We hit it off and I thought, “This guy is great. I’ll try to put him in every movie I make.” And then when I got a chance to do The Howling, there weren’t a lot of parts for him. But there was one part that I had earmarked for him, a bookstore owner who explains werewolf lore to the other characters, and it was the first thing we shot [on location]. It was a real bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard and we shot it in like half a day. And the next day, the dailies came in and the head of the company is sitting there watching them with me and says, “Is this a horror picture or a comedy?” Which is something I got from then on for the rest of my career. They would always say, “I don’t understand the tone of this movie.”
But Dick captured it perfectly. I mean, he’s a wisenheimer who doesn’t believe any of this stuff, but he makes a living at it. Then at the end of the movie, he realizes, like everybody else, that all this stuff they didn’t believe in was actually true. He did a little ad-libbing, as he tended to do, and he proclaimed it, years later, as his favorite part. Now, I find that hard to believe because it’s such a small part, but he does dominate the screen while he’s on.
But we shot a lot of stuff in L.A. We shot all the TV [station] scenes and Eddie Quist’s house there, it was right up the street from the bookstore. And then we went to the City of Hope morgue to shoot the morgue scene — with real dead bodies by the way.
SAYLES: There were four drawers [and] one of them was still empty. We were told that this is a working hospital, so shoot as much as you want but if we get another body, we’re going to have to preempt you. So I think we did the opening of the drawer shot first. I had worked as an orderly in a hospital, I’ve dealt with dead bodies, so I was the one person who was not freaked out by shooting down there. So it kind of seemed like I knew what this scene is about. Joe had said something like, “Don’t write anything hokey, like having the morgue attendant eating an egg salad sandwich while he’s talking to them.” And, of course, the real morgue attendant came down and ate his lunch while he was talking to us. It was lunchtime.
DANTE: [The barn scene was shot] in a place called Westlake Village, and we shot in the same area that The Dukes of Hazzard TV Show was shooting. In fact, we had to make sure that we weren’t in each other’s shots because they were actually shooting there on that day. But that barn, I believe, was used extensively on The Dukes of Hazzard.
WALLACE: I had it in my contract that there would be no additional nudity in the film. It was important back then because look at what happened to a lot of [The Howling sequels] after us. Nudity wasn’t needed. So we’re getting ready to do the big barn scene and I walk in, and there’s all these girls with their breasts hanging out, leaning across [the barn set]. I go, “What the hell is this?” And Joe said, “Well, the foreign investors wanted more nudity.” I said, “Joe, I have it in my contract that there’s no added nudity. And besides, it looks stupid. All of us are dressed and then there’s these four broads with their boobs hanging out? No, I’m not doing it.”
So they called poor Dan, and at 4 a.m. in the morning, you see Dan flying up the ranch road. He gets out, slams his car door, goes in and takes one look, he turns around and says, “She’s right. It’s stupid. Tell them to put some clothes on.” He got back in his car and left. That’s how I remember it. I would love to hear how Joe remembers it, because I’m sure I created some difficulty on that night of shooting for him. But I thought it was important. The more nudity, the more of a B-film it becomes.
DANTE: Well, when she showed up to the barn scene there were people in the upper stalls who were naked. It was supposed to show the paganism of this group. In retrospect, it really stood out like a sore thumb. But anyway, she hadn’t been told about that. And when she got there, she was upset that this was, in her mind, going into the porno range. She had a very little tolerance for that kind of thing. When we were shooting in the actual porn store where she has to walk in and meet Eddie, that was a real book store with real porn, the discomfort that she shows was not all acting.
WALLACE: That scene in the porno store … ew. I just go off into la la land, emotionally, with a lot of that stuff. It was creepy. Very, very creepy. Obviously it was closed down [for the shoot], so all the people that were frequenting it were extras. But just the whole area down there was pretty creepy. Chris, actually, he didn’t work that night but he went with me because he was concerned about the area that we were shooting in.
FINNELL: That was the idea. She was going into this seedy area to do the reporting and to try to find the guy, Eddie Quist. I remember that the house that they go to, where Eddie’s room is, was really scary. I can’t exactly remember where that was, but it was it was definitely not in Beverly Hills.
DANTE: [That] was totally what [Western Avenue in Los Angeles] was like. People forget how many porn shops were in L.A. You can’t even see it in my first picture, Hollywood Boulevard. There is a shot where you go down Santa Monica Boulevard and there’s signs like: The Institute of Love. Which meant that you go in and a naked woman behind the glass talks to you. That was The Institute of Oral Love. The Sexual Cafeteria was another one. It was a very scuzzy period.
We shot [a fake movie for the porn shop scene] before we shot anything, on 16mm in my garage with a girl from Hal Guthew Productions. He was a fly-by-night guy who supplied girls for nudie cuties, but I’m not so sure some of them weren’t actual porn movies. The girl was very nice and the two guys were young production assistants. It’s as graphic as we could have it be for an R rating. She was very sweet and very nice. I never got her name and she has no billing. Scratching up the film [we shot] was a lot of fun, too.
WALLACE: And dear god, we had the whole nude love scene [with Christopher Stone and Elisabeth Brooks]. I didn’t watch him. I went into town and had drinks. Actually, Joe came up to me the day before, because we’d gotten really close with the crew, and said, “So Dee, are you going to be here tomorrow night when we shoot this?” I said, “Hell no. I’m going to town and I’m getting plowed.” And he went, “Thank god, because so many of the crew members were worried. They wanted to protect you.” It was very sweet. But I’m sitting up in bed when Chris comes in [after shooting his sex scene] and he says, “Honey, go to sleep. You’ve got nothing to worry about.” I won’t go into detail about what he said, but he said seriously, “Nothing to worry about, go back to sleep.”
DANTE: She’s a trooper. I mean, she kept getting hung up by werewolves. There was a lot of unpleasantness going on. She had makeup also and she gets those fake eyes put in. You really find out how dedicated actors are when they work on low-budget horror films, because there’s just a lot of crap you have to go through in order to make it good. And if you’re dedicated, they do it.
WALLACE: I would like to think I’m a real team player. But I do know that. at times, on the set of The Howling, I just got into things a little bit too much. Sometimes it was hard to bring me back. We were in final rehearsals for this big scene, I was already in emotional la la land, and somebody thought it would be funny to put a blank in the gun. It went off during the rehearsal and I was gone for three or four hours. It just threw me into a whole other place. But ultimately they loved the fact that Chris was there because Chris was quite brilliant at bringing me back into balance.
FINNELL: We went up to Northern California, to the Mendocino area for just a week, at the most, to get the wide shots. Like when Belinda Balaski’s character is sitting by the ocean and you see this beautiful shot of the ocean. That kind of stuff. But then, for the tighter shots, we shot a lot of it in Griffith Park.
DANTE: Everybody shoots at Griffith Park. [We shot] Belinda Belaski’s chase scene there. She starts running on a stage on Cahuenga Boulevard, then she runs through Griffith Park, then she runs through Mendocino. You just piece them all together and they all look like the same place.
FINNELL: Literally, Belinda or somebody will be running through the woods in Mendocino and then cut, she enters the frame in Griffith Park. But that was low-budget filmmaking. You’ve got to be resourceful. We couldn’t afford to spend any more time up north because you have to put people up in hotels and all of that. So we just maximized the stuff that would really show up on screen and give us that great Northern California look.
DANTE: We built a lot of jungle like sets on [a soundstage] because we [had] so much night work to do. Night work goes very slowly and it’s hard to light. John Horn was very good at artful lighting and it’s much easier to do if you’re on a soundstage. So a whole bunch of scenes, like the scene where Chris gets attacked by the werewolf, were done on the stage. But everything is so artificially lit that it all blends.
FINNELL: John Hora was the cameraman and he was great. Originally we wanted Jamie Anderson to shoot it because he had shot Hollywood Boulevard, Piranha, and other stuff for me. We were really good friends with him but he was trying to get into the union and he really did not want to do another non-union movie. But he suggested John Hora: “He’s non-union but has shot a lot of movies and tons of commercials, so he’s really adept and can do any kind of look.” So we got Hora, who is really an incredible character. Kind of a renaissance man. He shot it and it was a great look.
Reshoots and Post-Production
While Dante was finishing principle photography, his co-editor and fellow New World alum Mark Goldblatt began to assemble The Howling. But it quickly became clear that some of the film’s special effects were not working in the editing room, especially the pivotal Eddie Quist transformation scene. Looking for a fix, Dante and Finnell secured additional funds for reshoots as Rob Bottin recalibrated his approach. These reshoots, shot by the notable Gary Graver, lead to some of the most iconic practical effects of the 1980s and helped cement The Howling’s legacy.
Mark Goldblatt, Editor: The experience of working on [The Howling], quite frankly, was no different from the experience of working on New World pictures, in the sense that it was many of the same people. It was like we had this core group of people [with] the same mentality. I think Joe and I had a similar editing esthetic, the New World style of editing, which is basically no nonsense, mean and lean. Make it scary if it’s supposed to be scary, make it sexy if it’s supposed to be a sexy, and don’t bore the audience. Keep them excited and glued to their seats.
DANTE: I got into the movies because I was a Sam Fuller fan and I really appreciated the fact that he edited his own movies. But then when I faced the cold, hard fact that the studios don’t like directors to edit their own movies because it gives them too much control, I realized I had to have a co-editor. In addition to that, no studio was going to wait for you to finish shooting to start putting the movie together. So, in order to make any kind of a date, you’ve got to have somebody assembling the footage and actually working on it. So, Mark edited the movie until I was done shooting, and then I came back and I edited the other parts of the movie that hadn’t been edited.
GOLDBLATT: In my experience, you always try to cut [the film] together as quickly as possible. I used to try to cut pretty tightly. I believe it’s your job is to edit the movie and make it work, not leaving a lot of stuff. That’s a different way of approaching it for some people. Some people put everything in the movie, but I believe that you can make decisions up front about shortening things and structuring things, if they work better.
Of course, [the director] has to be amenable to that. But Joe gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted to do, with the understanding that if he didn’t like it he could change it. Or we could change it together. He went over every frame of what I had cut and modified things as we went. But essentially the movie was put together, up to a degree.
Now, you have to remember on The Howling, the sophisticated full-body werewolves shots could not be made during principle photography because the puppetry had not been assembled yet. Even the complex transformation makeup technology was not quite ready. They had, basically, a bearskin suit and a couple claw gloves for the initial shoot because it took too long to create.
DANTE: We had shot some stuff with Rob’s material. He built a great werewolf head and he built some hands. But when the werewolf attacks her in the office, you had to keep moving the camera so that you didn’t see the arm of the guy who was holding the head. So that meant you couldn’t do any real shots. It was very limiting and it was just not good enough.
FINNELL: As we were shooting, it was clear that Rob Bottin is a genius, incredibly talented. But he’s also a perfectionist, which can be a problem on a movie because he wants to keep working on it and making it better. We’d say, “Rob, we’re shooting tomorrow. You can’t keep working on this thing.”
DANTE: The scene in the car at the end when they’re being attacked by werewolves, there was only one werewolf suit. The way it’s edited, it looks like this several in the scene but we only had one and all the rest of it was rubber hands. By shooting it and editing it correctly, it looks like there’s a whole lot of wolves. That’s the Val Lewton approach. What you don’t show them, they can imagine. And if you don’t have enough money to do it properly, then the only suggest it. Don’t show it.
GOLDBLATT: We knew that Rob was working on stuff, but it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. We were trying to give him as much time as he needed to get everything working properly and pristinely. Joe had experimented with some stop motion. At the end of the day, though, we found the full body stop motion animation didn’t work with the puppet heads that we had. In other words, the puppets gave you a different sense of reality. The stop motion felt more animated and the lighting looked different, and it just felt like it was from a different movie. So, regrettably, we couldn’t use very much of it in the picture.
DANTE: The stop motion was always planned because Dave Allen was a friend of ours and we loved stop motion. So we thought, Oh, we’ll have stop motion in the movie. But unfortunately, once he went to the considerable trouble to shoot the stuff he did, we cut it into the movie and we would show the pictures of people and they would say, “Wow, what picture did you get that stop motion stuff from?” Because it just didn’t fit in with the style of the rest of the picture.
And so these scenes kept getting shorter and shorter and shorter, until there weren’t any left in the movie. But there’s one at the very end that’s part of a dissolve. We didn’t feel that, on its own, it was going to pass muster because the movements are so different. But we got away with it by having it dissolve right away. So that was the only thing left of Dave’s work. And he was really crushed by it and I felt terrible. But you know, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
So, we went back and Rob had an idea for building a giant wolf puppet, which we used a little bit but more often we used it in pieces. We used the legs, we used the arms. I don’t think there is a whole shot in the movie of the entire puppet, but then he built a new top for an actor to wear. The scene where she’s at the filing cabinet, that’s a guy in a suit.
But because of the tapering of the waist and the fact that it’s got a big chest, it still jives with the image of what the wolf was supposed to look like. Before that, there’s some shots of legs walking, which are separate legs. You put them all together in your head, it gives the impression of seeing an actual creature but, in fact, we never really had one. It really wouldn’t have worked if we had not gone back.
GOLDBLATT: We were down to the wire. It was only after we had the first cut put together — there were a lot of holes in it — that they were able to go back to AVCO Embassy. Mike and Joe convinced them to give a little more time and money to shoot the werewolf.
FINNELL: We were able to put a rough cut together and see exactly what we needed going in. We were able to do it fairly quickly.
DANTE: When Rob needed more money to complete the werewolf stuff — because we had shots some stuff that we didn’t think was good enough — we went back to our investor, Wescom Productions, and asked them for $50,000 to do more special effects. When we went to the financiers, we said our goal is to do a transformation entirely in one shot, which turned out to be a bad idea and something we couldn’t do anyways. Then the guy said, “And if you can’t do it in one shot?” We said, “Well, then we’ll have to cut it up.” And he said, “That’s what I want to hear.” He was afraid we were so indoctrinated that we’re just going to keep spending money trying to do the impossible.
FINNELL: I can’t remember how many days it was. It was like two or three days of additional shooting, which is where we mainly shot the transformation. We did that after principal photography. I’m pretty sure there was a gap between when we shot the transformation stuff and when we wrapped principle photography.
DANTE: John [Hora] had another job and he wasn’t available and Gary [Graver], who was a master at imitating other people’s styles, came in and did [all the reshoots] for us. Gary had an office down the hall from [our production office] and I’d known Gary for years. And, at night, he was also directing pornography.
PICARDO: My recollection is that I worked three days. One day, just as Eddie with the wig and some dental appliances; I had upper and lowers as Eddie to make my teeth look a little more animal like. Then, two days of makeup shooting. I think they had to shoot on a Monday because, at the same time, I was doing a musical review of Frank Loesser [called Perfectly Frank]. So I was singing and dancing six days a week, and on the seventh day, I was tearing women’s throats out in my part-time job as a werewolf.
Joe and Mike came to see me in my musical role right before I started shooting for them. It was funny because Joe knew I sang and everything, so during shooting breaks on the big transformation scene, if something went wrong with the makeup effects — like if one of the air bladders burst and they had to replace it — I would fill the time by making Joe laugh and singing. I remember singing Old Man River as a werewolf.
I had a bladder on my neck, so that my neck started the pulse like a bullfrog, and the moment they inflated it off camera, it completely closed my windpipe. It was like The Rock had put your neck in the middle of his elbow and then pulled back. You just had no air at all, and you didn’t know when it was going to happen. So, I’m busy talking, and then they start to inflate it, and I start to gag. After all of that stuff, you’re hoping to get it in one or two takes. But, inevitably, you have to do it a couple of times. And after they choke you on the first take, you’re like, “Oh my God, please don’t kill me this time, guys.”
FINNELL: It really was torture shooting it because it took forever to get Picardo in the make-up. It took hours and hours and hours. The first day, it took basically all day for him get into the make-up. By the time we were able to shoot, we were like, “We’re just going to have to eat it and just shoot something. We’ve got to shoot something.” But then it got better as a couple of days went on.
PICARDO: Working on a tight budget like that, [Rob] got an enormous amount of cool stuff by working with very simple [techniques]. Here I am holding up a plastic arm with a couple of cables coming out to push the fingernails up, the focus is really critical [for this shot], and I have to raise it to just the right spot in front of my face and I can’t see it because I got these giants scleral lenses in, which is like taking a shot glass of tequila, throwing the tequila out, and jamming the glass in your eye. Old-fashioned scleral glass lenses seemed to be more than half the size of your eyeball, like 60% of your eyeball. They would open up your lids and put this thing over your eye. It was the most unpleasant thing, I can not tell you. Years later, they would make them at least soft and out of contact lens material. The fact that they were glass and just awful. And you can only keep them in a certain amount of time and you could barely see. I’m very picky about my eyes, so I would say that bothered me more than anything else.
But I just thought Rob was great. He was very careful not to scare me away. My impression is that Joe told him, “Don’t scare the actor off by making it seem like it’s going be so bad.” So he had this incredibly funny way of steering me into the idea that it was going to be grueling, it was going to be annoying, it was going to be hard, then you’re going to wait around, and then all of a sudden, after hours in the chair, you’ve got to bring your energy up and do it, but it’s not that bad. Don’t worry, it’s not that bad. He would go back and forth between trying to make me understand what I was in for so I wouldn’t be a prima donna, but then the moment I looked at him like, “Oh, that doesn’t sound so good,” he would completely backpedal.
Rob was there watching every second and really had strong opinions about how it was lit and all that. So, there was a lot of effort put into really creating the creepiness of that scene. All the little gags, the fingernails growing out and all that, is from Rob’s imagination. You read a script and it says, “He turns into a werewolf.” How do you turn that into four and a half bone-crunching minutes where the audience goes, “Oh my God!” Rob visualized these things, these different moments.
Rob knew what he wanted, he led me. Joe staged the scene and gave me direction, but Rob really was half inside the makeup with you. He was not just looking at you. He was inside with you, looking out. He envisioned the makeup in a certain way. So whenever Rob gave me a note, I just took it without any questions and did it. I was supposed to look like a combination of what he created and myself; I was his creation and I had to do my best to execute. He often gave really great technical notes that went into the performance. He did more than just paint the picture, he helped you get inside the head of the character.
WALLACE: [Rob] was amazing and so detail-oriented. He was there every moment talking about the lighting, spraying it down, which angle would be better. It really was a wonderful collaborative effort between our cinematographer and Joe and Rob.
PICARDO: Rob is a very unique. He’s really striking looking. He was tall, had these piercing eyes, and this long flowing brown hair, kind of like a well-groomed hippie. I can’t remember whether he had a full beard at the time or he just had a mustache, but he had some facial hair. And the thing that struck me off the bat is that he was designing Eddie to look like him, with the long hair and everything. Honestly, I think he would probably not agree with that. He’d say, “The reason you had long hair is because that was the best way to hide all the hoses coming out of the background.” So he would probably challenge that, but he did make me look like him. Although, I’m nowhere near as tall as he is.
FINNELL: Some of the stuff was not [Picardo]. Some of the stuff was a fully mechanical head without Picardo wearing it. It was just a bust, like when the nose grows and all that kind of stuff. But Picardo wasn’t even in there.
WALLACE: Well, [Karen’s] transformation isn’t me. The transformation is an animatronic that they decided to add at the end, after they got all the letters back and everybody wanted to see me as a werewolf. I was shooting Cujo and Joe called me. I said, “Okay, can you just make her a little more vulnerable because she’s fought so hard?” And so they came up with this Bambi werewolf, which I think is hysterical. The only makeup that I really had to do was at the beginning of that transformation. They had to put the gold contacts in my eyes and I had a little hair on my cheeks that they added.
FINNELL: Then the transformation scene was, of course, the big, big scene that everyone would talk about. And it was. It was very complicated. Obviously, this was way before CGI, so it was all practical and done with make-up effects, but it worked out.
DANTE: There’s always these restrictions when you’re making effects movies and you have to mix and match on effects. I’ve had to do it my entire career, even as the effects quality changes and the techniques change and the old ones become obsolete. Sometimes they’re better than the new ones. The trick is, in all these special effects movies, they all rest on the quality of the acting of the people who are watching the effects happen. Not just the effects.
PICARDO: Dee shot all of her reactions to Eddie’s transformation without me being there, without seeing any of it. She had to react to all of that.
WALLACE: It’s tricky, like in the scene where you have the big transformation, to just allow yourself to stay there and be truthful. It’s a lot easier to go into screaming and all that stuff.
GOLDBLATT: Joe actually worked very hard on some of the final transformations. When Eddie Quist transforms into the werewolf, Bob comes out and [Dee Wallace] is watching it, so we showed the scene through her eyes — as she’s stunned, shocked into a state of unconsciousness. We had all of the stuff involving Dee Wallace reacting, but at that time, we didn’t have the werewolf changing. So her close-up shots were shot independently of that. To make it seamless, we had to make sure the reactions were working with the transformation.
DANTE: The thing that sold AVCO Embassy on the movie was the transformation scene where Bob Picardo turns into a werewolf, which I showed them the rough cut of and they said, “This is great. Don’t change anything.” And I said, “But it’s too long.” They said, “No, no, no. We’re going to show it to exhibitors.” So they took it to the exhibitors, showed it to the exhibitors, and it got them all excited. They said, “You can do whatever you want with the movie but don’t change any of this scene.” The problem with the scene is that it just goes on too long. It’s like the movie stops so you can have a special effects reel. It always annoyed me and we tried to make it as palatable as possible. I think it’s a high spot of the movie, but it’s a weak spot in the movie because it just stops the movie cold.
GOLDBLATT: Because this technology had never been used before, we wanted to make it an outstanding sequence. So the scene stops — it doesn’t stop the movie — but it becomes a self-contained transformation scene that is so visually fascinating that you can’t take your eyes off of it. And it’s longer than you might expect because we dwell on the transformation. Frankly, we were blown away by the footage. We were seduced by it. I guess it’s risky. It’s like a showstopper. But it worked because it was so great and so innovative. The audience bought it immediately. It’s actually pretty scary to watch. It’s amazing technology.
DANTE: When we were editing the movie, down the hall was a casting office, and they had a bunch of kids coming in. The editors said to me, “Let’s show the kids the transformation and see what they think.” So we brought a bunch of kids and showed it to them on the moviola, and they were duly impressed. Except, at one point, a kid says, “Why doesn’t she run away?” “She’s too scared! She’s too scared to run away!”
PICARDO: Rob really had a vision for how he wanted it to be shot. Everybody made a lot of noise about how An American Werewolf in London’s transformation is in broad daylight, which is a very bold thing to do, it really is, but it’s nowhere near as scary.
Release and Legacy
With a clever ad campaign behind it, The Howling opened to solid box-office returns and good reviews on March 13, 1981. But while the film was well-received, its success was not an immediate boon for AVCO Embassy or director Joe Dante, who both faced uncertainty as the film was released. Ultimately, though, the film was a significant stepping stone in the careers of many who were involved. Forty years later, those involved still have a fondness for The Howling.
DANTE: [Mick Garris] moved over to AVCO Embassy and he was working for them in publicity. I’m sure he was responsible for the press book and a lot of the promos and stuff that they did. And they sold the picture really pretty well.
FINNELL: The poster was really good. We didn’t want to show too much in the trailers and TV spots. We didn’t really want to give away everything. So it was fairly subtle. What was big at the time were things like Halloween, slasher movies, and serial killer movies. I think that there may have been a fear that really old-fashioned movies, like The Wolf Man, would turn people off. So, we wanted to make it more mysterious and very dark, like there was probably some killer on the loose and everything. I don’t think we even mentioned the word werewolf at all.
DANTE: Originally, that’s not the poster they wanted to use. They came in with an ad, which was a naked woman who was half werewolf and half woman. Dan Blatt, who was our executive producer, had a conniption. He said, “This is garbage. This is not what we worked on. We worked for so long and so hard to make this picture classy and now you’re going to make it look like a piece of garbage.” And so we made a big stink about it.
I think they hired a different agency and they came up with this screaming woman thing with a clawed hand, which was good because it didn’t give away the fact that was a werewolf movie. And it has this tagline — “Imagine your worst fear reality” — which was a completely meaningless ad line. But even so, when the picture opened in Europe, there were some distributors who felt that wanted to replace the screaming woman with a snout of a werewolf, which they did in all of the British ads. At this point, it doesn’t matter. But, at the time, it was like, “What kind of movie is this?” It made it look more mysterious.
FINNELL: It wasn’t a huge success, financially. It wasn’t exactly a smash hit, but it wasn’t flop. It was one of those movies that grew over time and got a following over the years. AVCO Embassy didn’t have the kind of distribution that the studios had, but it did ok. And it really did get some really good reviews. I was thrilled that Pauline Kael, of The New Yorker, gave it a good review.
REHME: It was highly promotable. My theory was that when you made a picture like The Howling, I felt that they were somewhat review-proof. It didn’t require any reviews from critics. I wanted rave reviews from the audience.
SAYLES: I went to see it with an audience, not an industry screening or a cast and crew screening. So it was really fun to see it with an audience of people. There are some good pounces in the movie and people’s popcorn was flying up in the air and stuff like that. I felt like, Oh god, this is great. This is beyond what Joe was able to do with the minuscule budget on Piranha. Then it was fascinating for me to see what Rob Bottin did with the effects and how good they were, and what Joe had done with the werewolves themselves. It was really fun to watch.
GOLDBLATT: I love it. I loved it when it came out. I’m very gratified that it was a hit. I’m very gratified that audiences responded to it. You know, there’s nothing better than watching a projection of a film that you worked on, watching it in a packed theater, and the people go ballistic watching the movie. I’ve worked on a number of films where people do go ballistic, which means they scream, they laugh, they’re into the movie, and you can feel it. It’s a palpable feeling, which makes the shared cinematic experience so important. The Howling really scared people. It’s a very unique movie. I’m very proud to have worked on it. It’s a classic.
WALLACE: Oh, I loved it. I thought we had done a great job, and all the little nuances that Joe had put in, I thought, really took it from a B-film to an A-film.
DANTE: [AVCO Embassy] released the movie and they were very happy that it made money. [Wescom Productions] also got a piece of the movie for [financing the reshoots.] They were so happy because the movie made a lot of money on a small investment. They used to send me little plaques saying, “Thank you so much for making this movie.”
REHME: We were making low-budget movies and we started to make a profit. But [AVCO Embassy] had never made a profit for five years and they decided they would sell the company then. That was interesting, I didn’t get involved in that. I didn’t stay with them. I went to work as the president of Universal.
DANTE: I had been working on another picture called Meltdown, an atomic meltdown movie I was developing for [AVCO Embassy], when the studio was sold to Norman Lear. He decided he didn’t want to make any of those kind of movies, and so the entire slate of everything they were developing got wiped out. I didn’t make a dime because I did [The Howling] for no money. I was non-DGA, so I didn’t get any residuals. And then AVCO Embassy goes out of business while we were editing the movie, so I didn’t get paid for editing. It almost cost me more money to make the movie than I ever made from it.
I was really left holding the bag because I had almost no money at all. If it wasn’t for me getting the script for Gremlins in the mail from [Steven] Spielberg, which I was developing at the same time I was doing The Twilight Zone: The Move, I might have had to go back home to New Jersey. Here I was with pictures under my belt and no money in the bank.
FINNELL: The reason we were hired for Gremlins was Steven saw The Howling and he really loved it. When he got ahold of the script for Gremlins, he said, “This is exactly the tone that I want for this movie, which is horror mixed with humor.” It was our calling card for Gremlins. He really loved the movie.
SAYLES: You write a lot of movies if you’ve been doing it for 40 years. I’ve written over 100 screenplays for myself and the rest for other people — some don’t get made and some do get made. My favorites are the ones that get made and end up being good movies. This is one of the high points. This is one where I felt like the director took what I did and I got 110% out of it, which was the idea.
The idea was to always pick this thing up and run with it, and make it even better. And as far as the movie is concerned, it was one of the first self-aware horror movies that tried to bring us from the classic old-school horror movie into something more modern. As I said, where the characters themselves have seen a horror movie. So, in a way, it doesn’t seem that dated.
Quite honestly, the one thing that’s dated in it is that people don’t go into porn booths anymore.
PICARDO: I came into this being a big horror fan and I’m proud that I was in this. It’s 40 years on now and people still look at The Howling. It was pre-CGI, it was all practical effects, and it still stands up. People like the movie, they’re still creeped out by it.
I’ve met so many writer-producers that I’ve worked with, including two of our best writers on Star Trek: Voyager — Brannon Braga and Bryan Fuller — who when they found out I was Eddie in The Howling, looked at me different. They were just like, “You scared the shit out of me when I was 12.”
Once Brannon Braga found out I was Eddie in The Howling, he wrote a Jekyll and Hyde episode for Voyager. As an homage in that episode, I wore a leftover lower bite plate from before Eddie’s transformation when I played the other character in the show. That was my little tip of the hat to Eddie.
WALLACE: You can label The Howling as a horror film, and it is, but to me, it’s also a psychological study of the light and the dark in all of us, and what part is going to win. It’s that old Indian saying: “Whichever wolf you feed the most, that’s the one that will dominate.” I think it was an interesting study into all of that.
DANTE: Studio Canal, which now owns [The Howling], has just asked me about a 4K release, which is great because there’s not even a DCP of that movie. Every time we’ve ever revived it, I’ve had to give them my 35mm print, which is getting a little worse for wear.
So, they’re doing this and they’re talking about a theatrical reissue with a whole bunch of promotion for it and all that kind of stuff. So when they said, “Do you want to be involved?” I said, “Well, sure.” I guess it’s getting a second lease on life.
This oral history is dedicated to cinematographer John Hora, who passed away during its creation.