I’ll be honest: Monster movies have never really been my thing. I enjoy them from time to time, but I don’t have the love for them — or for horror in general — that most geeks do. So I was pretty surprised to find that I really enjoyed both Alligator and The Howling, two creature features written by John Sayles early in his career.
Both these flicks, again, come out of the Corman school of filmmaking, Alligator directly and The Howling by Sayles and fellow alum Joe Dante. (Corman actually makes a cameo appearance early on in Howling.) Both films were done with a limited budget, so the effects range from effective and ridiculous. One’s a giant alligator movie and the other’s a werewolf movie — I think you can guess which is which — but both have some moments where you buy into the effects. I really loved the werewolf makeup in The Howling, especially the detail of having the werewolves retain some of their human features. And there’s a sequence at the end of Alligator which is great B-movie fun. (I imagine seeing it with an audience would be pretty great, as would The Howling.)
While both of these monster movies have similar thematic content — troubled individuals overcoming their pasts through fighting beasties — they’re also just tongue in cheek enough for the proceedings to be on this side of totally ridiculous. They’re earnest, and they don’t take themselves too seriously, plus, the actors are on board with it, too. One can only be too serious when directing a movie about a giant alligator, even if you are Robert Forster.
Of these two flicks, I liked The Howling more. Dante is a more assured director than Lewis Teague, it’s got some things to say about the New Age movement (already in full swing by 1981, and there’s a Scientology reference that reminds you just how old those crazies are), and it even managed to keep my jaded ass in suspense. It also has a really fantastic ending that led to me clapping a little. “Rare,” indeed.
Sayles frequently acts or makes cameo appearances in either his or his buddies’ films, and The Howling marks his first on-screen appearance within the Sayles Sojourn. I think one of the reasons I chose John Sayles for this cinematic adventure is that I like the way he looks, and acts. He’s kind of goofy, but he’s got a warmth to him. I want to hang out with John Sayles, is what I’m saying.
Sayles would, also, later costar with The Howling and The Lady in Red‘s Dick Miller in Dante’s 1993 Matinee, one of my all time favorite films. You talk about an underrated classic, that’s one of them — it manages to capture so much about what it means to be a film geek, a geek in general, and why we should go to the movies rather than stay home and watch them on DVD. Goodman’s monologue about “Here I am! What have you got for me?” demands to be branded in the minds of every person who eschews going to the theatre.
Since I’m one of those motherfuckers who likes to rank everything, I thought I’d keep a running tally of how I rate the Sayles movies, too: 1. Howling; 2. Lady in Red; 3. Alligator.
Next: For real, this time, Sayles’ directorial debut, Return of the Secaucus 7, wherein I promise not to talk too much about how surprising the wang fest at the 30 minute mark was. If a flick has commentary from Sayles on it, I’m going to watch it twice, so look for that later this week.
Edit: The Howling was Joe Dante’s third feature, not his first. I amended the article accordingly. Thanks to Phil for pointing out the error. And for those wondering why I didn’t review Piranha, Netflix doesn’t have it.