"The Howling" gets off to a flashy, alarming start: The title backgrounds are ripped and then shattered before our startled eyes. The heroine encounters instant peril: Dee Wallace, cast as Karen White, popular TV newswoman, narrowly averts homicide in a peepshow cubicle at a Los Angeles pornshop after agreeing to help the police entrap a psychotic killer, Eddie the Mangler.

When her transmitter conks out, valiant Karen is left at the mercy of a shadowy presence who confides, "I've watched you on TV and I know how good I can make you feel. I'm gonna light up your whole body, Karen." Before he can carry out the threat, two patrolmen arrive and pump several rounds into her assailant. The proprietor, who had watched in consternation as browing customers made shamefaced exits when Karen entered the joint, comments grumpily, "I knew I shouldn't have let that broad back there."

The quality of understanding isn't significantly better back at the station.

Karen is too shaken to comment on her harrowing exclusive immediately, and her best friend tries to be comforting: "I talked the old man out of putting you on camera tonight. We'll tape something when you feel better. Just what happened in your own words. Nothing newsy." When she finally goes on, Karen freezes on camera, provoking the producer, played by Kevin McCarthy, into a presumptuous tantrum. "Who knows, maybe she's pregnant," he fumes. Seeking his own mug on a monitor, the producer points to it and boasts, "Now there is a pro!"

The trauma is also causing Karen to freeze up when fondled by her big, solicitious husband Bill, played by Christopher Stone.

Being a forward-looking establishment, the station retains a psychological consultant named Dr. Waggner, played by Patrick Macnee. While Eddie the Mangler was terrorizing the city, Dr. Waggner could be seen on the tube counseling lofty understanding. "Repression, repression," he coos, "is the father of neurosis. We should never try to deny the beast, the primitive, in our nature." Given this outlook, it's apparent that nothing but further trouble is in store for Karen when she agrees to take a vacation at the good doctor's Northern California retreat, a woodsy Esalen that turns out to be a haven for werewolves.

"The Howling," opening today at area theaters, plays without a hitch up to the point at which Karen and Bill seek therapy at Waggner's hideous hideaway. One assumes that the snappy opening reel owes a good deal to John Sayles' contributions as screenwriter. The witty dialogue and the satiric treatment certainly recall the writer-director of "The Return of the Secaucus Seven." Between Sayles' humorous conceits and the vivid proficiency of director Joe Dante, "The Howling" appears to be shaping up as an unusually clever update of the traditional werewolf melodrama.

The movie begins to accumulate a wretched excess of terrifying details once the location shifts. The filmmakers don't run out of clever ideas, but they let them get cluttered up. Even the highlight spectacle -- the transfigurations from human to werewolf created with prodigious skill by the young special-effects wizard Rob Bottin, encouraged to trump the most spectacular monsters invented by his mentor, Rick Baker -- prove too much of an impressive stunt. There are so many werewolves running around and the camera lingers so appreciatively on Bottin's illusions -- faces grotesquely transformed, hair sprouting all over, fangs decending, all in fluid, methodical order -- that they cease to be strictly scary. Less would be more from the standpoint of sheer situational terror, and yet it's easy to see why Dante himself was spellbound by Bottin's monsters.

If you're willing to overlook the superfluity of werewolves and gratuitous jokes, "The Howling" may be recommended as an enjoyable frightfest.

Despite its excesses, "The Howling" has some tricks and jokes worth howling about. The sexual undercurrents in the werewolf myth have been made playfully explicit, especially in the sultry, voluptuous form of Elisabeth Brooks, cast as a nympho werewolf named Marsha. When she ambushes a victim in the woods, they change forms in the course of coupling strategically obscured by a blazing campfire in the foreground -- a deliberate howl of a sex scene.