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The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film is An Essential Read for Werewolf Fans

Elisabeth Brooks in Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981)

The Howling is one of my all-time favorite horror films. I discovered it as a child, and it was one of the rare horror movies that my dad enthusiastically introduced me to.It’s always held a special place in my heart for that reason, but more than that it’s something that I love on every level, from Joe Dante’s direction to the phenomenal special effects by Rob Bottin to the fantastic ensemble cast led by Dee Wallace. So to say I was looking forward to this book is a bit of an understatement. The latest in the Studies in the Horror Film series from Centipede Press, it is written and edited by Lee Gambin and for a fan of the movie, or werewolves in general, or even film in general, it doesn’t disappoint. It is exactly, on every level, the kind of book that a Howling fan would dream of. And that starts from the outside, just seeing the book itself.

The cover art by David Ho is stunning, better even than the artwork produced for the impressive Scream Factory Blu-ray from a few years ago. This is definitely the best looking of the books in the Studies in the Horror Film series that I have read so far. Wrapping around the front and back, it provides excellently rendered paintings of iconic familiar faces from the film.  The layout of the book in general is striking. It’s easy to read, but full of photos, all full-color and gorgeous,some of them simply shots from the film itself—which are more than appropriate for the book’s analytical approach to the feature—while many others are behind-the-scenes photos that have never been glimpsed before.

Of course, there wouldn’t be much to review if the content of the book didn’t shine as well, but thankfully it does. Gambin very smartly takes a scene-by-scene approach to the film, providing thoughtful analysis of each of the biggest (and sometimes even smallest) moments while also letting the talented cast and crew speak for themselves when it comes to the making of the film and reflections on their work after nearly forty years.

Joe Dante, Dee Wallace, Dick Miller, Pino Donaggio, Mark Goldblatt and so, so many more offer their reflections on the movie and the making of it. The only person who could possibly have made it feel more complete would be Rob Bottin and that’s something Gambin can’t at all be criticized for as no one has been able to pull off an interview with Bottin for years. Even so, the stories that are shared about him are amazing almost because of the mystery that’s come to surround him. It’s fantastic to hear about the process of a master like Bottin, especially what a perfectionist he could be. After all, Bottin was a protégé of Rick Baker, who was initially hired to create the effects for The Howling before jumping over to An American Werewolf in London.

The Howling boasts some of the best werewolf FX ever, which are arguably even more influential—at least on the werewolf genre—than Baker’s incredible work on London. The bipedal, wolf-headed creatures that Bottin crafted for Howling have become the de facto werewolf movie appearance ever since. And those FX were created by a makeup artist who was only nineteen at the time. It’s a legacy almost akin to nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein.

Fascinatingly, though, Bottin is not the only special effects legend covered in the book. Because of my personal interest and admiration for the man, I was delighted to see the attention paid to stop-motion wizard David Allen, who had created sequences for The Howling, almost all of which were not used as they did not gel with the werewolf designs crafted by Bottin. There’s a tremendous respect paid to Allen and his craft, which is incredibly nice to see considering most of the work he put into The Howling was not used.

It’s also impressive to see just how much attention is paid, from the cast to screenwriter John Sayles, to how ahead of its time The Howling was. With the exception of American Werewolf in London happening at the same time, The Howling was the first major werewolf movie in quite a while. There’s much conversation about how intentional it was to make sure that the characters in the movie had seen werewolf movies before. Gambin does a great job of making note of the references to classic lycanthrope cinema, from the visual cues to the names of the characters. But the structure remains the strongest and smartest aspect.

The scene-by-scene analysis and breakdown is a perfect approach to a text on The Howling for several reasons, as Gambin delves into everything from composition, to the scene’s impact on the overarching story, to the thematic elements, while the cast and crew provide some incredibly insightful anecdotes. The interview with Dick Miller is a particular delight, as he’s Joe Dante’s muse and such a seasoned veteran of film and—more than anything—just seems to take great joy in talking about the movie. It’s great to learn that John Sayles was essentially tasked with writing a role for Dick to play, resulting in one of The Howling’s most memorable characters and one of the standout—if relatively brief—performances of Miller’s career.

There are so many other surprises as well, but it would ruin the point of the book to spoil all of them here. I can’t stress enough how much of a must-read this book is for any fan of The Howling. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say it’s the kind of book fans of the film have been dreaming of. You’ll know that as soon as you see it, from the genuinely dazzling layout. Beyond that, though, it’s such a clear love letter to this film, this genre, this director and everyone involved with the making of what became one of the most iconic werewolf films in history.

Maybe I’m an easy mark because I hold the movie so dearly,but I love that this book exists and I’m so grateful that it’s as good as it is. There’s a wealth of information about a true horror classic contained in these pages, but more than that, it’s a book full of people talking about a clear passion for the film that they made, and for filmmaking in general. If any of those things appeal to you, I would absolutely not hesitate to pick this up.

About Nat Brehmer

In addition to Diabolique, Nat Brehmer has written for Wicked Horror, Dread Central, We Got This Covered, That's Not Current, Dark Knight News and Tom Holland's Terror Time. As an author, he has had fiction published in several lit mags and anthologies including Sanitarium Magazine and Hello Horror, as well as novels and novellas... at least three of which are still in print. He currently lives in Orlando, Florida.

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