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Key Films #10

The Howling [Joe Dante, 1981]:

Functions, primarily, as a homage to werewolf movies.  The use of on-screen quotations from The Wolf Man (1941) for instance not only provide narrative exposition but also establishes the world of the film as being self-aware and conscious of the depictions of 'lycanthropy' in popular culture.  The iconography of the film is therefore coloured by these references, where allusions to the myths and legends propagated by Universal or the Hammer Films studio - as well as in-jokes and suggestions of certain scenes - create an ironic, almost satirical inflection, typical of Dante's post-Godard/pre-Tarantino approach to genre deconstruction.  Although set predominantly in northern California, the encroaching mists and the eerie light of the forest seem to evoke the European setting of films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) and the Paul Naschy starring Mark of the Wolfman (1968).  Likewise, the development of the characters, their gradual metamorphosis into the specific types - hero and heroine, villain and victim, etc - is consistent with the film's greater acknowledgement of the history of its genre; the rules of the game. 

However, there is much more to the film than a simple play of references.  The script, adapted by John Sayles, uses the requirements of the genre - the isolated location, the psychology of the beast within - to create a sly satire on the cult of psychoanalysis.  The film's setting, the "colony" - a riff on the mid-to-late '70s phenomenon of bourgeois health clubs or self-help organisations that could function almost as spiritual new age 'retreats' - is used to lampoon the very conservative idea of repression, both emotional and psychological, as it pertains not only to the subversion of the werewolf mythology, but also to the often transgressive spirit of horror films in general.   There is another element to The Howling that is possibly even more remarkable, in which the nature of images, or the manipulation of images, is suggested by the continual use of distorted newsreel footage, television broadcasts or video display monitors.  This emphasis on the image - or the integrity of it - sets up the film's final act; a disorienting set-piece intended to question - with a great deal of humour - the audience's ability to discern between fantasy and reality.  The idea that seeing is no longer believing for an audience numbed by the fictions of Hollywood, or the violence of the mass-media.

A History of Violence [David Cronenberg, 2005]:

Cronenberg continues to expand and develop the themes of his oeuvre.  Still as focused on the fragilities and the limitations of the human body, as in films like Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and The Fly (1986), but now pushing away from science-fiction, into reality, or a heightened reality, through the influence of Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996).  Films in which the damage inflicted by these characters creates a wound that is both emotional as well as physical; where the recognisable 'body horror' transmutations of those earlier works continue to progress; moving away from the external, the purely physical, to the internal, the psychological.  Although not initially an assignment for Cronenberg, this adaptation of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, scripted by Josh Olson, covers much of the same territory as the more recognisable "Cronenbergian" projects, such as those aforementioned.  Specifically, the idea of identity; the way experiences shape a character's personality; that distinction between the inner and outer self. 

More than anything, the film is a supposition on the transformative nature of violence, both from the perspective of those who inflict it - either knowingly, or in self-defence - or those who are a witness to it.  The effect that this violence has - both on the central character and on those closest to him - is devastating; representing a psychological mutation that is as harrowing and perplexing in its nature as the potentially physical mutations of the character Max Renn in the masterpiece Videodrome (1983).  In this sense, the film, like most by Cronenberg, is an update of the Jekyll and Hyde mythology, where the metamorphosis of the central character goes back to 'the shape of rage' as defined by Oliver Reed's antagonist Dr. Hal Raglan in The Brood; that idea of the mind manipulating the body, turning it against itself, creating something that exists betweenthe physical, between the psychological.  The final scene, which has the family reunited, but still torn, is offset by the disquieting implication that the man returning to this house, to this domestic scene, is not the same man that originally left.


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