Joe Dante is possibly my favorite of that crop of directors to come up in the post-Spielberg 1980's that include such giants as Burton, Donner, Zemeckis, and Cameron. Dante may not have been as huge as the others ultimately became, but his body of work was always fun, often silly, and touched heavily and proudly by the B-movies he loved to watch growing up in the 50's and the exploitation movies that he began his career working on for Roger Corman. I still haven't seen a few of Dante's films, but the ones I grew up watching (The Burbs, Innerspace, Gremlins, and my personal favorite, the utterly wacky Gremlins 2: The New Batch) are all a ton of fun.
The Howling came quite early in Dante's career as a director, after only previously making his debut with Pirahna for Roger Corman. It's about a woman named Karen (Dee Wallace) who, after a traumatic experience with a psycho stalker, is sent with her husband to a vacation resort by her shrink. Something is fishy about the resort (aka "The Colony"). The people there are rather suspicious (aka "Werewolves").
There's a lot to like about The Howling, though it wasn't great. It's quite well made for having a relatively tiny, $1 million budget. The cinematography is moody, the effects and gore are cool and done practically, the story has some fun twists, and the score by Pino Donaggio is dramatic and Hitchcockian in that way that he does.
I liked the transformation of Karen's husband from a gentle metropolitan vegetarian-type, to a violent, aggressive meat-eater, after getting seduced and bitten by a particularly naked member of the colony. I also liked the performance of Dante regular Robert Picardo as one of the big villains. He gets the big transformation scene in the movie.
Speaking of the transformation scene, it's a tough one to judge. It was partially designed by Rick Baker, who left during production to do his masterwork, An American Werewolf in London. There are a few similarities between the two, but American Werewolf is a far superior film with a bigger budget, and a much better transformation. It is THE werewolf movie and THE transformation sequence. The biggest difference between the two is the performance of the transformee. In American Werewolf, it looked excruciating. You could feel the agony of his body transforming into a four legged beast. In The Howling, cheaper versions of some of the same effects are in place, but Picardo doesn't play it as painful. In fact, his sadistic character seems to be enjoying it.
Still, The Howling is a different kind of movie than An American Werewolf in London. It's a fun and pulpy B-movie with lots of gore and scares. The ending is actually really clever and quite funny. The credits run over a shot of a hamburger slowly sizzling on a grill, which is a fantastic way to end the movie. You can totally see how The Howling, though imperfect, could have paved the way for Dante to direct Gremlins.