The film was released on April 10, 1981 and became a moderate success, grossing $17.9 million at the box office. It received generally positive reviews, with praise for the makeup special effects by Rob Bottin. The film won the 1980 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film while still in development, and was one of the three high-profile wolf-themed horror films released in 1981, alongside An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen. Over the years, The Howling has accumulated a cult following. Its financial success aided Joe Dante's career, and prompted Warner Bros. to hire Dante (as director) and Michael Finnell (as producer) for Gremlins. A franchise consisting of seven sequels arose from the film's success.
Karen White is a Los Angeles television news anchor who is being stalked by a serial murderer named Eddie Quist. In cooperation with the police, she takes part in a scheme to capture Eddie by agreeing to meet him in a sleazy porno theater. Eddie forces Karen to watch a video of a young woman being raped, and when Karen turns around to see Eddie she screams. The police enter and shoot Eddie, and although Karen is safe, she suffers amnesia. Her therapist, Dr. George Waggner, decides to send her and her husband, Bill Neill, to the "Colony", a secluded resort in the countryside where he sends patients for treatment.
The Colony is filled with strange characters, and one, a sultry nymphomaniac named Marsha Quist, tries to seduce Bill. When he resists her unsubtle sexual overtures, he is attacked and scratched on the arm by a wolf-like creature while returning to his cabin. After Bill's attack, Karen summons her friend Terri Fisher to the Colony, and Terri connects the resort to Eddie Quist through a sketch he left behind. Karen also begins to suspect that Bill is hiding a secret far more threatening than marital infidelity. Later that night, Bill meets Marsha at a campfire in the woods. While having sex under the moonlight, they undergo a frightening transformation into werewolves.
While investigating the next morning, Terri is attacked by a werewolf in a cabin, though she escapes after cutting the monster's hand off with an ax. She runs to Wagner's office and places a phone call to her boyfriend, Chris Halloran, who has been alerted about the Colony's true nature. While on the phone with Chris, Terri looks for files on Eddie Quist. When she finally finds Eddie in the file cabinet, she is attacked by Eddie in werewolf form, and is killed when she is bitten on the jugular vein. Chris hears this on the other end and sets off for the Colony armed with silver bullets.
Karen is confronted by the resurrected Eddie Quist once again, and Eddie transforms himself into a werewolf in front of her. In response, Karen splashes Eddie in the face with corrosive acid and flees. Later, as Chris arrives at the Colony, he is confronted by the horribly disfigured Eddie, who is fatally shot by Chris with a silver bullet when he attempts to transform. However, it turns out everyone in the Colony is a werewolf and can shapeshift at will, without the need of a full moon. Karen and Chris survive their attacks and burn the Colony to the ground.
Karen resolves to warn the world about the existence of werewolves, and surprises her employers by launching into her warnings during a live television news broadcast. Then, to prove her story, she herself transforms into a werewolf, having become one after being bitten at the Colony by her husband, Bill. She is shot by Chris in front of a live viewing audience, and the world is left to wonder whether the transformation and shooting really happened or if it was the work of special effects. It is also revealed that Marsha Quist escaped the Colony alive and well.
Though the film has been noted for its semi-humorous screenplay, it was adapted from a more straightforward novel by Gary Brandner which was first published in 1977. After drafts by Jack Conrad (the original director who left following difficulties with the studio) and Terence H. Winkless proved unsatisfactory, director Joe Dante hired John Sayles to completely rewrite the script. The two had collaborated before on Dante's 1978 film Piranha. Sayles rewrote the script with the same self-aware, satirical tone that he gave Piranha, and his finished draft bears only a vague resemblance to Brandner's book. However, Winkless still received a co-writer's credit along with Sayles for his work on the screenplay.
The cast featured a number of recognizable character actors such as Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Kenneth Tobey and Slim Pickens, many of whom appeared in genre films themselves. Additionally, the film was full of in-joke references (see 'Tributes' below). Roger Corman makes a cameo appearance as a man standing outside a phone booth, as does John Sayles, appearing as a morgue attendant and James Murtaugh as one of the members of the Colony. Forrest J. Ackerman appears in a brief cameo in an occult bookstore, clutching a copy of his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.
The Howling was also notable for its special effects, which were state-of-the-art at the time. The transformation scenes were created by Rob Bottin, who had also worked with Dante on Piranha. Rick Baker was the original effects artist for the film, but left the production to work on the John Landis film An American Werewolf in London, handing over the effects work to Bottin. Bottin's most celebrated effect was the on-screen transformation of Eddie Quist, which involved air bladders under latex facial applications to give the illusion of transformation. Variety claimed that The Howling's biggest flaw is that the impact of this initial transformation is never topped during the climax of the film. The Howling also features stop-motion animation by David W. Allen, and puppetry intended to give the werewolves an even more non-human look. Despite most of the special effects at the time, the silhouette of Bill and Marsha having sex as werewolves is obviously a cartoon animation. Dante attributed this to budgetary reasons.
Due to their work in The Howling, Dante and producer Michael Finnell received the opportunity to make the film Gremlins (1984) for Steven Spielberg. That film references The Howling with a smiley face image on a refrigerator door. Eddie Quist leaves yellow smiley face stickers as his calling card in several places throughout The Howling. Also Jim Krell's character as News Reporter Lew Landers appears in both " The Howling " and " Gremlins ", which suggest both movies share the same universe.
Critical response to The Howling was generally positive and it currently holds a 66% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 6.4 based on 29 reviews. In 1981, Roger Ebert's 2-out-of-4 star review described The Howling as the "silliest film seen in some time", but Ebert also said the special effects were good and the film was perhaps "worth your money, IF you get it two for one". Gene Siskel liked the film and gave it three and a half stars out of four. In his Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin wrote that The Howling is a "hip, well-made horror film" and noted the humorous references to classic werewolf cinema. Variety praised both the film's sense of humor and its traditional approach to horror. Kim Newman, in his 1988 book Nightmare Movies, called The Howling "a brisk chiller that effortlessly revives the prowling-through-misty-forests genre", and called Picardo's transformation sequence "the movies' most impressive werewolf monster".
The film won the 1980 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film (despite the fact it was not released until 1981). This film was also #81 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
The Howling debuted on The Movie Channel on January 5, 1982 at 10 a.m. CST.
Shout! Factory re-released The Howling on DVD and Blu-ray on June 18, 2013 through their Scream Factory branch. The movie was previously released to DVD by MGM (owners of the video and TV distribution rights to The Howling due to the distribution deal with Studio Canal, itself the owner of the Avco Embassy library) on August 26, 2003 as a Region 1 widescreen 'Special Edition' DVD.
There have been seven sequels to The Howling. In May 2015, a newly formed production company announced that they had bought the rights to the original film and were working on a ninth film, a remake of the original.