Horror is all about atmosphere.
It doesn’t matter how bloody or gory a film is. It doesn’t matter how creative the filmmakers gets when it comes to creating their monster or plotting out their haunting. It doesn’t matter how meta the dialogue is or how many references are tossed in to other horror movies. It all starts with atmosphere.
The right atmosphere keeps us, the viewers, off-balance throughout the entire film. The right atmosphere leaves us wondering what’s lurking behind every corner and it makes us jump at every unexpected sound. The right atmosphere tells us that something terrifying could happen at any minute. The right atmosphere makes us feel as if we’re watching a filmed nightmare. The right atmosphere keeps us watching even when we might want to look away.
The Howling is full of atmosphere.
Now, before anyone asks, this British film is not a remake of the classic American werewolf movie. Instead, it deals with the legend of Dr. Rathbone (Jon-Paul Gates). Rathbone, it’s said, was a scientist who lived in a mansion outside of a small English village. Everyone suspected that, inside of his mansion, Rathbone was performing horrific experiments on both animals and humans. When Rathbone mysteriously disappeared, no one regretted his absence. In fact, many people suspected that perhaps Rathbone had been killed by one of his experiments and, if so, good riddance! Of course, the only problem was that, with Rathbone gone, no one was quite what had actually happened to his experiments. Were they now living in the woods or was the whole thing just an urban legend?
Dr. Rathbone, at work
As Halloween approaches, three teenagers — Jason (Erik Knutsvik), his girlfriend Kristy (Tiffany-Ellen Robinson), and their friend Sophia (Maria Austin) — camp in the woods, hoping to discover the truth. After all, there’s a lot of online clicks and youtube views to be captured by hunting the paranormal. One need only watch Mystery, Uncovered with Ben Tramer (Matthew Fitzthomas Rogers) to understand that!
(I assume that Ben Tramer was named after Laurie’s unfortunate crush in the first two Halloween films.)
When it starts storming and their car disappears, Jason, Kristy, and Sophia are forced to seek refuge in what appears to be some sort of decrepit asylum. They’re met by the caretaker, Shelley (Hans Hernke), who says he works for the Master and who, when an inmate suddenly makes an appearance, says, “Don’t mind him, he’s harmless.”
Of course, no one that they’ll meet that night is harmless…
The Howling plays out like a filmed dream, full of strange characters and nicely surreal images. The film starts with a series of overhead shots, all of which suggest that not only the main characters but the entire world is being watched and stalked by some ominous and unknown force. With the exception of a few key scenes, the majority of the film is in black-and-white and some of the images captures, especially in the doctor’s lab, are striking in their starkness. (There are also a few brief scenes where the asylum is so dark that it’s hard to visually make out what’s happening. Instead, we only hear voices in the blackness, an effective reminder of why so many people sleep with at least one light on.) The few times when color does intrude on the film, like when Shelley lights a candle or when we see an episode of Mystery, Uncovered, the effect is a disquieting one. In perhaps the film’s strongest sequence, several of Rathbone’s “patients’ suddenly appear in full, vibrant color, a nightmarish montage that seems to literally explode from the film. There’s also a nicely down black-and-white scene involving a rather haunting dance.
Lest I give you the wrong idea, The Howling definitely has a sense of humor about itself. In many ways it’s an homage to the gloriously over-the-top horror films of the past. It’s a film that obviously was made for horror fans by horror fans and, as a result, the 83 minute running time is full of references to other classic horror films. Shelley, for instance, will be a familiar character to anyone who has ever seen a haunted house film from the 40s or 50s. There’s always a mysterious caretaker. As for the Asylum itself, it feels like it could have been transported in from the twisted, psychological landscape of German Expressionism.
I liked The Howling. It’s a low-budget horror film that makes pays homage to some of my favorite horror films and makes good use of a dream-like atmosphere. And, as I said before, atmosphere is everything….