The Howling (1981)

I had an old friend crashing on my couch for the night so we decided to watch something horrific. After complaining about the paucity of decent werewolf features, we came upon The Howling, and the poor slob confessed to never having seen it.

Well, that settles that.

Plucky Los Angeles TV anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) has caught the eye of local serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who phones her to arrange a classy tryst at a local porn theater.

Of course, the police have Karen wired so they can capture the maniac. Sadly, surveillance technology is still in its infancy and the cops lose contact with the nervous reporter.

Eddie is gunned down but Karen can’t remember anything about their deadly encounter at the dirty movie house.

In order to dredge up every lurid detail of her trauma, renowned psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) recommends Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) take a restful vay-kay at his coastal retreat, The Colony.

There they meet Slim Pickens, John Carradine, James Murtaugh, and Elisabeth Brooks, all of whom are probably werewolves.

“Join us Karen! It feels wonderful!”

The Howling is a fantastic werewolf movie, maybe the best one. The only problem is, it came out the same year as An American Werewolf in London, which is generally acknowledged as the apex of the lycanthrope genre.

Granted, AAWiL is a more modern film, and special effects wizard Rick Baker’s transformation makeup hasn’t been equalled in over 40 years. Baker was also an effects consultant on The Howling, but the heavy lifting was done by Rob Bottin (The Thing, Total Recall, Fight Club), a man with a resume nearly as impressive as Baker’s.

In other words, prosthetics on both wolf and victim in The Howling totally shred.

Director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles bring a keen combination of wit and irreverence to the shaggy subject matter, mainly in the person of occult bookstore owner Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), who, when asked if he believes in the supernatural, replies, “What am I? An idiot? I’m trying to make a buck here.”

Cameos by Roger Corman, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Sayles himself should keep the film school nerds energized, and everyone else will be sated by premium werewolf carnage.

Note: There are a bunch of Howling sequels and I might revisit a few, to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

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Watcher (2022)

Holy Hitchcock, Batman!

From its Read Window voyeurism to Julia’s (Maika Monroe) resemblance to classic Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren, Watcher is a first-rate homage to the 20th century’s finest suspense filmmaker.

Best of all, it’s exquisitely crafted by writer-director Chloe Okuno, who orchestrates grinding fear and dread for a serial killer’s potential victim, a woman who knows too much in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.

Julia and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just moved to Bucharest for his work. Julia, a one-time actress, is left to entertain herself in their new apartment for long periods of time while Francis wheels and deals.

Right off the bat, Julia is unnerved by a silhouette in a window across the street, a figure that seems to be fixated in her direction. In what becomes a pattern, she tries to tell Francis about the suspicious person, only to have hubby minimize her fears.

Meanwhile, women alone in their apartments are turning up headless. Yeah, thanks for your concern, Francis! Probably nothing to worry about.

There isn’t an ounce of flab on Watcher. Dialogue is minimal. Each frame is a precision brick in a wall of menace that threatens to fall on Julia at any moment. Precarious angles of endless invention are used to create a perpetual male gaze on Julia, a person seen, but not heard, due to a language (and gender) barrier.

Maika Monroe (It Follows, The Guest) continues to bloom, transcending the genre’s Final Girl status and emerging as a reluctant action hero, correctly channeling frustration and rage into not only self-preservation, but victory.

Make no mistake: in the hands of a lesser actress this film would not have achieved such thrilling peaks. As the unwilling object of a madman’s desire, Monroe is charismatic, capable, and committed to each character moment, as only someone fighting for their life can be.

Julia’s determination to find her tormentor and destroy her victimhood provides serious octane in Watcher, a sleek thriller that both embraces the Hitchcock tradition, and flips the camera back onto the audience (and Hitchcock), as if to ask, “What are you looking at?”

Definitely a Top Ten film of 2022. See it straight away.

Freeze (2022)

Well, let’s see you make a tale of Arctic terror on a microscopic budget!

Written and directed by Charlie Steeds (Winterskin, Death Ranch), a MetFilm grad with an abiding love of bygone horror tropes, Freeze is a Lovecrafty pastiche of Victorian Era exploration that bravely demands your attention, despite being financed by old soda bottles.

Captain Roland Mortimer (Rory Wilton) charts his warship the HMS Innsmouth (hint) to the North Pole in search of his best friend, William Streiner (Tim Cartwright), a fellow sea captain who disappeared two years before in search of a passage through the ice.

It doesn’t take long for the Innsmouth to get frozen in the ice and set upon by Deep Ones, so Mortimer and his intrepid crew of a half-dozen men abandon ship and try their luck on the frozen tundra.

The Arctic region isn’t very large, so Mortimer and company soon discover a massive cave containing a few stiffs from Streiner’s earlier voyage. After that, they discover Streiner himself, who has gone native and joined forces with the so-called “Icthyoids” in a vague scheme of world domination.

All he needs to lead his baggy suited fishmen to victory is his copy of The Necronomicon, which Mortimer thoughtfully provides.

Freeze is old, old-time entertainment that would have worked just as well as a radio play accompanied by scary sound effects and a wheezy organ. Of course, then we’d miss grotty details like Streiner biting his best friend’s fingers off, and admittedly, that’s a fun scene.

Steeds cheerfully peppers the proceedings with DIY practical effects that any Dr. Who fan would endorse, particularly the pesky Icthyoids, who resemble a Sleestack dance company when appearing en masse.

So what can we really say about Freeze? Campy enthusiasm and resourceful story telling can still save the day, if you agree to meet them halfway.