Beyond Fest: “The Howling” And “The Wolf Man” With Joe Dante Q&A

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Halloween is nigh, and that means horror movies aplenty, not that we need any more of an excuse to dust off the classics of our favorite genre. But BEYOND FEST, an event taking place in LA throughout this October, is making that experience interactive, bringing together some of the finest filmmakers, the best movies, and even infusing screenings with live music from the likes of Umberto, Goblin, and Alan Howarth.

Perhaps the day I was most looking forward to was this past Saturday’s “Full Moon” double feature, serving up perhaps the two best werewolf movies of all-time, right after one another. Kicking off the evening is 1981′s THE HOWLING, followed by the movie that it (and every werewolf movie) is indebted to: Universal’s THE WOLF MAN, with Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, and Bela Lugosi. That right there is reason enough to make the trek to the movie theater… but to top it off, THE HOWLING, PIRANHA, SMALL SOLDIERS, and GREMLINS director Joe Dante was COMING, and in attendance, promising a Q&A in between the two films.

THE HOWLING

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I had never seen THE HOWLING and was gloriously ignorant about its plot, and I absolutely loved the gruesome picture. The film came from a novel by Gary Brandner, with EIGHT MEN OUT’s John Sayles and Terence Winkless working on the screenplay with Joe Dante. It was Dante’s third feature and may be his best, though GREMLINS and PIRANHA fans might beg to differ. I grew up with SMALL SOLDIERS, so I have a soft spot in my heart for that particular film. This one couldn’t be more different, starting out in the pervy, grimy porno booths of LA, very much setting up a disturbing serial killer thriller… until it takes a campy and terrifying turn when the shaken and bewildered Karen White (horror queen Dee Wallace of E.T., CUJO, and CRITTERS) arrives at a remote hideaway in the woods with her husband Bill (CUJO costar Christopher Stone).

Rob Bottin’s FX are phenomenal, and still hold up to this day, as I particularly dug the pulsating skin during the painful and long transformations. What’s better, there is no shortage of transformations, nor of werewolves. This isn’t a one wolf movie, this is a movie about a whole sexed-up tribe, led by the Quist family, with the great Elisabeth Brooks as Martha (what an odd name for such a sexed up beast!) and Robert Picardo (STAR TREK: VOYAGER) as the deranged and feral Eddie. The film is chalk full of fantastic character actors from John Carradine and Slim Pickens to Dante mainstay Dick Miller.

My personal favorite moment came when Terry (Belinda Balaski) chops off the hand (those wonderful tactile, long and jittery fingers!) of an attacking werewolf (seen here), which then bubbles, recedes into itself, and folds over into a hairy and bloody omelet, until finally turning back into a human hand.

The movie is a send up of self-help books and self-promoting psychiatrists, news rooms, and classics in the horror genre. Joe Dante, as he loves to do, sprinkled in the cameos, throwing Roger Corman in early on, and most importantly, featuring our very own Forrest J Ackerman perusing the antique and macabre at a local supernatural book store. To top it all off, he was even holding a couple FAMOUS MONSTERS magazines, including “The Werewolf of London” issue (#41)! Each appearance gave way to cheers of recognition in the audience. It’s also wonderful to decipher the many allusions to THE WOLF MAN through the character names, with George Waggner (after director of THE WOLF MAN), Terry Fisher (after HAMMER extraordinaire Terence Fisher, director of CURSE  OF THE WEREWOLF), Sam Newfield (director of THE MAD MONSTER among tons of others), and more.

If you haven’t seen Bottin’s awesome werewolf transformation, or just want to travel back in time for a few minutes… behold:

Following THE HOWLING, director Joe Dante came to the stage for a discussion about the film and his career. Below is my run-down of all the pearls of wisdom espoused by the Monster Kid.

JOE DANTE Q&A

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  • Joe Dante was joined by comedian Dana Gould, a former producer for THE SIMPSONS and PARKS & RECREATION and self-pronounced horror geek. The chat was moderated by Nerdist’s Ben Blacker.
  • 1981, after 1941 (due to THE WOLF MAN), is perhaps the most important year for werewolves in cinematic history with not only THE HOWLING but John Landis’ seminal AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON also tearing through theaters. Apparently Joe Dante told Rick Baker about his idea for THE HOWLING and wanted him to do the makeup and practical FX for the film, and when John Landis heard, he reminded Rick Baker of his promise to do his movie. At that point, Landis didn’t have a movie, Baker pointed out. So Landis wrote the script in like a week, and the rest is history, with Baker disciple Rob Bottin (THE THING) taking over the FX in THE HOWLING (which Baker received a consulting credit). I don’t know if it could’ve worked out more perfectly for both movies.
  • THE HOWLING wasn’t marketed as a werewolf picture but as a slasher, hiding the supernatural elements for when people arrive in theaters. Imagine going to THE HOWLING not expecting a werewolf movie? I feel like you’d be stupid not to, especially now, but it’s an intriguing thought.
  • Joe Dante is well aware of the fact that it makes no sense that Dee Wallace’s character Karen White doesn’t run away from Eddie during his 3 minute transformation. The truth is the producers loved it and didn’t want him to cut a frame of the FX and the amazing transformation (check it out above). It’s not very often you’ll thank a financier for their input, but I think this is one of those cases, even if it boggles the mind plot-wise.
  • As I mentioned earlier, Forry makes a cameo in THE HOWLING, and gets a special mention during the Q&A, as Dana Gould and company compliment Joe Dante’s easter eggs and cameos in his films (creature feature extraordinaire Roger Corman also appears in the film). Joe Dante said that he learned on this film that while he loved putting these kinds of things in, unless everybody got the reference or joke, it wasn’t the best use of a film’s time.
  • Joe Dante finds it remarkable that horror movies are the genre that studios milk and use to make money, with the litany of werewolves and zombies in cinemas today.
  • THE HOWLING was the first film where the characters in the film KNOW what a werewolf is. There’s isn’t any exposition or explanation of the phenomenon. Another reason why we love it.
  • Joe was an atomic fear kid, growing up in the 1950′s, believing each day could be his last, or the one when the bomb went off. He grew up on those metaphoric monsters of the times, specifically mentioning THEM.
  • Joe Dante on CGI: it’s a wonderful invention but heavy usage loses that tactile feel on set and on film.
  • Even if CGI had been invented for GREMLINS, he would’ve shot the film the same way. The only times he’d use CGI would be to cut the puppeteers out, which would’ve made his life easier.
  • In discussing what makes a good horror movie, Dante explains what we all know yet Hollywood struggle to achieve: Horror movies are like any other, they need story and characters first and foremost.
  • When asked if he had seen any of THE HOWLING sequels, Dante said he hadn’t really sat down and given them a chance, but can’t believe they have 8 movies, including the remake. Wow.
  • Perhaps the biggest announcement was that Joe Dante is prepping to work on a film, and hopes to bring staple Dick Miller out of retirement to do so. He couldn’t expound on what the movie was, or what it was about, but says to expect more next month. It certainly appears to be in the realm of horror, and I can’t wait to hear more!
  • A fan asked what Joe Dante would do to revamp or revitalize the werewolf genre nowadays, and Dante was stumped: “Tough one, they’ve been done,” believing the sub-genre had mostly been played out. He knows what he doesn’t want to see: the two step hop into wolves werewolves that don’t go through the painful transformation process.
  • Awesome John Carradine anecdote: when making the film, Dante told Carradine, “I’m sorry this isn’t the best film you’ve ever done.” Carradine’s response: “Son, it won’t be the worst.”
  • When Dante received the GREMLINS script from Steven Spielberg, he thought it arrived at the wrong address. The film went from being a small movie to Dante’s first studio film, and obviously, a tremendous hit.
  • Dante: “When hired to direct a movie, you should let them direct the movie.” Dante has been lucky that when he’s gotten a job, the result have mostly been “his films.”

THE WOLF MAN

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Every Monster Kid has their favorite Universal movie, and will argue to no end about why its the best. I’ll skirt that controversy, but I will state that I was a WOLF MAN kid. When my Dad gave me the VHS collection of the Universal Monsters, it was Lon Chaney Jr.’s tortured performance that stood unrivaled, and George Waggner’s tale of gypsies, love, and family that was my most prized possession.

I hadn’t revisited THE WOLF MAN in years, and this happened to be the first time I had the esteemed pleasure of seeing the classic on the big screen. I’ll admit immediately that if I had to choose a favorite Universal movie again NOW, it’d be different than when I was a kid, but I’ll always be smitten by the werewolf. Jack Pierce’s makeup and the original transformation is nothing short of miraculous, and still sends shivers of nostalgia down my spine and gives me flashbacks to the hairy dude at the pool in the 4th grade. There were many a night where my Dad tucked me in reciting the curse of the werewolf (“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”) and it was a treasure to hear Rains, Ouspenskaya, and Ankers recite it once again on the big screen.

Beyond Lon Chaney Jr., the supporting cast is just as memorable, with Claude Rains playing the tragic father figure who’s forced to kill his last living son, and of course Bela Lugosi’s gypsy, Bela, as the original werewolf. For me, there’s nothing more memorable about the movie other than the transformation than Maria Ouspenskaya’s wonderful turn as Maleva.  That voice, her tone, the wisdom: “The way you walked was thorny though no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity.”

The love story between Lawrence Talbot and Gwen is laughable to today’s standards, as he literally is a peeping tom, looking at her through a telescope and taking notes about her jewelry. Then he thinks it’s a good idea to tell her about it, and inquires after her spangled moon earrings. Creeper, much? But hey, back then, showing interest was half the battle, and Lawrence sweeps Gwen off her feet in a day, as she leaves her fiancee out in the cold, despite having grown up with the man.

Even so, THE WOLF MAN still takes me back to a simpler time, and is just as fun and wonderful as I remembered it. Seeing it on the Full Moon, decades after my first screening of the film, is likely to be one of the biggest treats of the Halloween season this year.

For more information on Beyond Fest, go to my previous coverage. Stay tuned for a ticket giveaway for the Halloween screening of NOSFERATU, with live music accompaniment. If you can’t make it, be sure to follow me on Twitter, as I live tweet the events and Q&A’s.

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