A Howl of a Good Time

howl1The Howling, 1981, 91 mins, 4K UHD

Watched Joe Dante’s The Howling for the first time in, oh, more years than I like to think. Twenty years or more, probably. Back in the VHS days this was a fantastic rental and a perennial favourite. This time around it was via Studio Canal’s recent 4K edition; it looks surprisingly good. I hate that over-used term ‘the best its ever looked’ but its true; and here its quite surprising, it was a low-budget feature and such films often seem to suffer under the scrutiny of ever more-unforgiving and demanding video formats. There’s some much more prestige pictures that have looked worse translated to the demands of 4K.

Back in the day I actually preferred this film to John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, but the years have proved kinder to Landis’ film, which holds up better now. Part of the charm of The Howling was its rough-and-nasty, four-colour comic-strip feel and of course it’s amazing creature effects by the great Rob Bottin. Those transformations used to be the chief ‘wow’ but they have inevitably dated, and are not helped by seemingly going on FOREVER. But nonetheless there is a lot going for The Howling. It has the feel of those 1970s/1980s cheap horror paperbacks my mate and I used to read back then (not surprising, as the film is based upon a Gary Brandner novel); lots of gore and a sprinkling of titillating sex seems to have been the blueprint for so many books that thrilled teens those days, before they were replaced by VHS video nasties etc. Anybody remember those The Crabs series of horror paperbacks by Guy N Smith?

Was it wrong of me to have a bit of a crush for Elliot’s mom from E.T.? Dee Wallace is very good in this, watching it today she’s very impressive indeed albeit really deserved a better script. Much of the rest of the casting -typical for Joe Dante pictures- features some genre faves, like the great Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo and Patrick Macnee (although I wonder how Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing would have been in that particular role?). As for Elisabeth Brooks as the nymphomaniac leather-clad witch/werewolf-bitch…  ah, you gotta love horror films from back then.

I was horrified to learn awhile back that Brooks had died some years ago- back in 1997, at the far-too young age of 46. She was apparently quite bitter regards her rather (in)famous nude scene in The Howling, believing that she was misled onset regards just how much would be visible to the camera and in the film. She thought the flames of the campfire would be artfully positioned to preserve her modesty but Dante and the cameraman seemed to have other ideas. When I saw that scene again this crossed my mind; I don’t know how true it is regards her claiming to have been taken advantage of, but is rather sad if true. Movies. Hollywood.

On one of the (sadly rather few) extras on the disc, Joe Dante makes an interesting observation. The Howling was very much a b-movie, and he notes that he later found it very difficult working in Hollywood as budgets got bigger, and eventually what would once have been referred to as ‘A’ pictures were actually just b-pictures with bigger production values and tighter control from the studios. I think he’s right: look at most blockbusters now, they are usually very dumb and very safe. Its probably why I gradually gravitate towards watching older movies: they are often much more satisfying than the silly comic-strip adventures that pass as major motion pictures now. The b-movies took over, but even the b-movies of old are more sophisticated than what we get today.

Columbia Noir: Drive a Crooked Road (1954)

cnoirdveThe third times the charm- here we go with the third film in Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 boxset and this one won me over completely. I thought this was absolutely terrific. The script, the direction, the characters, the actors, everything is just firing on all cylinders, a great film all round and the most obviously noir of the films I’ve seen so far in this set.

Two bank robbers, Steve Norris and Harold Baker, are looking for a getaway driver for their next heist, and decide car mechanic and amateur race car driver Eddie Shannon (Mickey Rooney) is the perfect choice: a down on his luck racer who never achieved the success of his dreams, with no family or freinds who lives alone in a rented room.  The robber who has planned the heist, Steve (Kevin McCarthy) sets his girlfriend Barbara (Dianne Foster) as a honeytrap, pulling Eddie into a relationship and eventually  ensnaring him into a scheme that requires a souped-up getaway car and a hair-raising race down dangerous roads to foil a police roadblock once the alarm is raised.

This film works on so many levels. Even just as a character drama; Mickey Rooney is excellent as the lonely and melancholic Eddie who becomes smitten by the surprising attention from the beautiful Barbara, a woman clearly out of league. Rooney’s performance proved something of a revelation to me, I’ve never been much of a fan of his (probably because of his early comedy-musical work not really appealing to me) but here he proves that are real depths to him as an actor. Its a very quiet, subtle performance that truly convinces and proves really endearing- clearly not the simple hero one might expect him to be. One can understand how, once his natural doubts are assuaged, that he falls head over heels for the ‘too-good-to-true’ beautiful woman who shows an interest in him.

Rather at odds with the usual depiction of a noir  femme fatale, Dianne Foster plays Barbara with warmth and some subtlety (again, there’s that word ‘subtle’ which really distinguishes this film from the exploitation thriller it might have been). Usually one would expect Barbara to be a scheming beauty using her sex as a weapon and trapping our male hero into her web, but this is refreshingly more sophisticated than that. Barbara’s sudden doubts, and guilt, about pulling Eddie into the bank robbery feels genuine. “Lets call the whole thing off… he’s like a lonesome little animal that’s never had any love in his whole life” she pleads to her boyfriend Steve, but Steve’s having none of it. Indeed, there is a hint that Steve’s been manipulating Barbara all the time, and that his real affections lie elsewhere, with his crime buddy Harold (Jack Kelly) – that the two men are homosexual lovers and that Barbara is almost as much a means to an end as Eddie. Kevin McCarthy, a favourite actor of mine, always seemed to look rather dangerous- here he is sometimes a charming fellow and quite disarming but at others chews up the scenery with a coldness to him that feels psychopathic. 

Naturally it eventually dawns on Eddie how he’s being used, and that he’s never going to get what he was promised-  neither Barbara or his share of the heist money (which he was going to use to finance his racing dreams in Europe). But he’s still a ‘good soul’ and realises that Barbara needs saving, leading to a deadly confrontation at the close of the film that ends well for no-one. How very spectacularly noir.

I was really taken by this film, really surprised by Rooney’s empathic and sympathetic performance, and beguiled by Foster’s charm. There’s quite an impressive chemistry between them even if physically they seem as mismatched as their characters. Foster had a surprisingly short career as an actress, perhaps not fulfilling her potential- I was really taken aback to learn that she didn’t have a long career and the success I expected to see. Again, there is that horrible, almost morbid perspective looking back on these ‘old’ films and performances, and then seeing actors lives and careers summarised so perfunctorily, almost dismissively, while in the films themselves they are frozen forever young, forever perfect. Its a sobering perspective I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

Director Richard Quine would go on to direct a few more notable films during the next decade or so -notably Bell, Book and Candle (which I still somehow haven’t seen yet) and one of my favourite comedies, the glorious How to Murder Your Wife. Blake Edwards, who wrote the screenplay for Drive a Crooked Road, would go on to considerable fame as a director  with films like Experiment in Terror, Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffanys and of course the Pink Panther films all ahead of him. Mickey Rooney’s career, while it never regained the famous heights of his earlier days, remains a formidable achievement but he seems now as infamous for his personal life as what he left on the screen. Declaring himself bankrupt in 1962, drinking problems and eight marriages suggests his private life was as much a soap opera as anything daytime television could put on screen. After his long career his estate should have been worth tens if not hundreds of millions, but following his death in 2014 the media was full of stories of his poverty and suffering elder abuse at the hands his eighth wife and one of her sons, questioning how Hollywood turns its back on its stars of old. Dianne Foster, as I have noted, did not go on to any long-lasting or glittering career as an actress, her most notable later film role being in Burt Lancaster’s The Kentuckian in 1955 before languishing in guest-spots on television shows in the early 1960s. Other than the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kevin McCarthy’s future success largely lay in television in guest-star roles, mostly as bad guys, but I’d cite his role in Joe Dante’s Innerspace as a late career highlight.

Revisiting ‘Innerspace’ (1987)


The central premise of Innerspace, the miniaturization of someone in order to inject them into someone else, is preposterous- the film makers knew this, so rather than maintain the po-faced seriousness of Fantastic Voyage, they decided to have fun with it, and made a better movie because of it. Innerspace is a comedy, an unlikely buddy movie in which the buddies actually never really meet until the end, shot through with a storyline concerning technological espionage and rather inept and unlikely arms dealers. That said, Innerspace is really surprisingly sophisticated, treading a fine line between comedy and action, a really tricky thing to pull off, but here it really works. I’ve always championed Innerspace, ever since I first saw it back at the cinema when it landed with a box-office thud in spite of generally favourable reviews.

Recently released on a region-free Blu-ray disc Stateside, watching it today it has not lost any of its charm- indeed it seems better now than it did back then, a reminder of, frankly, simpler times. Pre-9/11 times, certainly (its sobering to consider how the the events of 9/11 have culturally changed things, but there’s an innocence to Innerspace that places it in a certain time, a certain mindset. The bad guys would be foreign terrorists in a modern-day Innerspace, no doubt, and it also lacks the cultural cynicism that it would likely be saddled with today).

Innerspace is definitely of its time. Back when summer blockbusters came armed with witty scripts with endearing characters, sparse but effective miniature visual effects that served a story rather than dominated it, and maybe even a great score. I’ll labour that last point further- Innerspace had a really good melodical score by a genius film composer with his own identifiable ‘sound’ rather than the generic noise we hear in so many films today (well I’m glad I got that of my chest). When a film could be just cute and funny and entertaining without worrying about selling toys. That last bit may not be entirely true, I don’t recall toys being marketed around Innespace but they may have been, it’s just that it is more ‘in your face’ these days.Certainly there is little of the product placement that riddles films so much now- I can well imagine a ‘new’ Innerspace and all the product placement it would be saddled with in the lab scenes. It’s nice just to watch a film that doesn’t shove brands in front of your eyes all the time.

inner1But the pleasures of Innerspace are many, and I wonder where to begin. Maybe I should go on further about Jerry Goldsmiths wonderful score.  A mix of orchestral and electronic textures that epitomized his work at the time, it’s a brilliant score that carries me back to those days in an instant, and prefigures his work on Dante’s later The Burbs. Thrilling and funny it supports the narrative in ways that film music simply isn’t allowed to these days. I recall being horrified when the CD soundtrack release turned out to be the then-typical mix of songs with a too-brief selection from the score. Thankfully a full score release eventually came out a few years ago, so there you go- a complete soundtrack release and a reasonable HD edition on Blu-ray: all is right in the world for Innerspace fans.

Maybe I should go on about the cast – the main trio are great; Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Martin Short make a great team. Quaid’s hero has a cynical edge at odds with Short’s innocent hypochondriac, and Meg Ryan has a sort of dizzy charm that surprisingly convinces. But perhaps more importantly, the supporting cast are a geeks utter dream; Kevin McCarthy as the delightfully slimy baddie, somehow both threatening and hilarious, Robert Picardo a treat as The Cowboy, with Henry Gibson, Kenneth Tobey and Dick Miller in delightful cameos. Its got great old-school visual effects that are pretty much as effective as any CGI and haven’t dated at all (which can’t be said of the early CGI-dominated films that followed).

But the deft direction by Joe Dante is the real star of the show. He handles the subtle comedy (throwaway one-liners) with the wacky slapstick stuff so well, manages to shoot great action sequences and stunts with aplomb, and ensures that the pretty much seamless effects work doesn’t distract viewers from the story but rather supports it. The whole thing is a masterclass in direction, really, whatever one thinks of the film itself. The realisation that Dante is pretty much relegated to working in television these days is a sad indication of what movies are now. I thought Innerspace was great back in 1987 and I still do today.