THE HOWLING -- At AMC Carrollton, Hampton Mall, Lincoln, Roth's Parkway, Roth's Tyson's Corner. Showcase Beacon Mall, Showcase Fairfax Circle, Showcase Mercado, Showcase Oxon Hill, Springfield Mall, Tenley Circle, Laurel Towne Center, Village Mall.
How far makeup has come since Lon Chaney Jr. became transformed into "The Wolf Man," as Chaney smacked his lips overlengthening teeth and the peach jazz got hairer and hairier.
In "The Howling," when man becomes werewolf, ping-pong balls of subsutaneous tissue wiggle their way around the cheeks and forehead to become supraorbital ridges; the knobs throb inside the arms, transforming common biceps into hairy animal arms. Nails curl out into four-inch claws. The being grows taller, and taller, rearing up on satyr's legs. Ears reach for the skies. Orifices ooze until the wolf's big black nose and chin become a river of slime.
No wonder the intended victim, Karen White, anchorperson of KDHB-TV, stands in rapt fascination for five minutes watching it happen.
The makeup is the best part of "The Howling." For the rest, there's a laugh or two interspersed with animal gore (organs on the medical examiner's table piled next to a half-eaten hamburger) and crack-pop psychology: "It is very unusual for a killer to draw as well as this." The psychiatrist is played by Patrick Macnee, who, so dignified and dapper in "The Avengers," now comes off as a buffoon.
The tension-relieving humor that was a fine art in "Jaws" is more boredom-relieving in "The Howling." At a California "experimental living community," where she has gone to "recharge her batteries," the anchor-woman, played by Dee Wallace, is awakened in the night by the sounds of howling. As her husband rolls over again, he says, "Honey, you were raised in L.A. The wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack." The movie takes paw-swipes at feminists: when our anchorperson freezes before the camera and can't describe how she was attacked, the station manager (Kevin McCarthy) observes, "Who knows? Maybe she's pregnant." And as in "Night of the Living Dead," there's the country-bumpkin local police, played here by a not-so-Slim Pickens.
Two of White's colleagues, who help her uncover what turns out to be a secret society of werewolves, are watching "The Wolf Man" on TV when they get a phone call: White's husband is hurt, has an animal bite on his arm. Just then, the old gypsy familiar to "Wolf Man" fans comes on the television screen to woefully pronounce sentence on Chaney: "Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself."
This device explains the story line of "The Howling," but also shows the movie for what it is beneath the makeup job. The snippet from the classic horror film reminds us of getting just a little bit scared late at night in front of the flickering TV.
And so, is "The Howling" frightening? Not even the wolf howls are frightening. They're funny, though, when they crescendo during a love scene.
"The Howling" could only be scary if your name happens to be Little Red Riding Hood.