Yes, I know what you're thinking: you're thinking werewolf. Why not? After all, the ABC Movie of the Week did feature a made-for-TV werewolf movie, Moon of the Wolf, about a year after A Howling in the Woods first aired. But Gary Bradner's novel The Howling didn't appear until 1977, and the movie series that would make the title (in)famous didn't get started until 1981. In 1971, the word "howling" didn't have the associations it has now.
The Howling in this movie's title is regular, normal howling from a regular, normal dog. It's the sort of howling my dog sometimes does in her sleep... though A Howling Under the Covers doesn't sound nearly as spooky. Minor spoiler alert, though, for those like me who are touchy about such things: the howling is cut off rather abruptly halfway through the movie. So you've been warned.
A Howling in the Woods is a mystery, so it would be cruel of me to go into too much detail about the plot. I can give you a general overview of the movie, though... and if you're able to guess the identity of the killer just from the cast list, I wouldn't be a bit surprised. But the most interesting part of the movie isn't "who done it": it's the particular path the movie takes to get us interested in who done it.
Our heroine is Liza Crocker, and she's played by Barbara Eden. Eden is best remembered for playing the title role in "I Dream of Jeannie", the NBC sitcom about a genuine genie who made life pleasantly difficult for her astronaut "Master" (played by Larry Hagman). The chemistry between Eden and Hagman elevated that silly sitcom ever so slightly above its material. Eden in particular was both a very beautiful woman and an effortless comedienne, and most of the show's modest success can be attributed directly to her. "I Dream of Jeannie" limped to its final episode in 1970, and though Eden would continue to be most closely associated with comedy, by 1971 she was ready for a change of pace. NBC seems to have agreed: though A Howling in the Woods is based on a 1968 novel by Velda Johnston, it's clearly Eden's movie all the way through.
Liza is returning to her home town of Stainesville, Nevada, after being gone for five years. Her successful career as a New York City fashion illustrator has allowed her to distance herself from her rural upbringing in more than just miles. As she drives back into the squalid little town — wearing what New York fashion might insist was its idea of a ten-gallon hat, but which is better described as a 3,2-liter chapeau — she certainly doesn't look like she belongs there. Its clear from the expressions of the few locals who watch her drive into town that they don't think she belongs there, either.
Liza is particularly upset when a beat-up pickup truck seems to follow her through town. When she realizes that she's not imagining things... that the truck is not only tailing her, but getting closer and closer.. she pulls off to a place where she thinks she'll be safe: the gas station run by old Mr. Henshaw, who is also the town's sheriff. Henshaw is a little perplexed when Liza insists he top off a tank that's already nearly full. But that's nothing compared to Liza's consternation when she finds out the surly young man in the pickup truck is Henshaw's son Lonnie. As she drives away, Henshaw snaps at his son to show some respect, but Lonnie Henshaw has nothing but contempt even for his own father.
When Liza arrives at her family's sprawling lakeside hotel, we start to realize why she's here, and what her arrival really means. Before she was Liza Crocker, she was Liza Staines — of the Stainesville Staines — and before her visit is over, she intends to become Liza Staines once more.
No-fault divorce — the idea that a married couple could become un-married by choice, and not because of criminal or moral offenses on the part of a spouse — was a controversial issue in the early 1970's. It was as fiercely debated as, say, gay marriage is in 2010. The Guardians of Public Morality insisted that easy divorce would lead to the end of the traditional institution of marriage, and to an inescapable cultural decay which would bring down the whole of Western society. Nowadays, divorce in the U.S. is so common and taken so much for granted that there are many commentators who say the Guardians of Public Morality were right (personally, I think the mythology built up around love and marriage in our culture is much more dangerous, and that it's a good thing that people now have a way to get out of the bad marriages that everything from religion to pop culture encourages them to fall into; but that's the subject for a whole separate diatribe). In any case, by 1971 there were only a few states that allowed no-fault divorce — the most famous (or notorious) being Nevada. Liza has come to establish legal residency in her old home state so that she can file for an amicable divorce.
But the Stainesville Liza returns to is not the place she remembers. The mines that were the literal bedrock of the town's economy had come up empty a year ago. The Staines, as lords of the feudal manor, had been forced to close the mining operations. But though they'd had their fading hotel to support them — barely — the townspeople who couldn't afford to look elsewhere for work found themselves with nothing else to do. The bottom had fallen out of Stainesville — had been mined out from under Stainesville, to the enrichment of its first family — and now the remaining locals wish there were a few less Staines on the landscape.
This seems to explain the hostile attitudes of the townspeople like Lonnie Henshaw. It also helps to explain why some of the people who used to be her friends — like Mae Jean Warren, who now works at the hotel — no longer want anything to do with her. Of course, if she looked a little closer, she might discover that Mae Jean isn't just hostile. She's terrified.
Liza is further surprised to find that her father has gone away. This isn't all that unexpected: as an amateur archaeologist (which, I guess, is not a bad side-line for a mining man), he frequently takes trips to Mexico to do a little digging. He hadn't known his daughter was coming home to stay, explains Liza's step-mother Rose (Vera Miles, of Psycho and The Strange and Deadly Occurrence); otherwise he'd have postponed his trip. But with the town's sentiment the way it is, we can understand why he might have picked this particular time to get out of the country for a while.
But Rose is glad to welcome Liza back home, to the richly-appointed hotel where even the bathroom taps are made of silver (NOTE: this is the point at which, if you were still expecting a 1980's werewolf, your head would explode. "This must mean something," I can hear you say; "How in the world can you kill a werewolf with... with... a bathroom faucet?!" »STHPTHT!« No head. You see? Sometimes mild spoilers can be good for you).
And at very least, this trip gives Liza the chance to finally meet her step-brother Justin (John Rubinstein). Justin is a deceptively fresh-faced young man, who plays the piano very well and has an easygoing charm about him. But Justin's history is not as untroubled as his demeanor suggests. In fact, he'd been wounded in Viet Nam, and had come back addicted to painkillers as a way of dealing with more-than-just-bodily pain. During his hospitalization in San Francisco, his mother Rose had come to visit him regularly and give him her support... but she'd never even mentioned his existence to her new husband until he had successfully beaten his addiction.
Justin wins over Liza immediately with his warmth and humor, but Rose is wary of her son's behavior. She knows he likes to use his abundant charm to take advantage of women... but, she reminds him privately, his sister-in-law is still a married woman. Justin's glib reply suggests he's caused some real trouble in the past.
In the meantime, Liza hears the Howling in the Woods for the first time.
There's no full moon involved. It's full daylight, in fact, so we'll have no more references to werewolves or any supernatural critters. The howling is just the sound of a very unhappy dog, somewhere in the forest surrounding the hotel. Mae Jean explains to Liza without even trying to stay polite: the hunters leave their animals behind at the end of the season, and the dogs run feral. That's always been the way of things. Perhaps Miss High-and-mighty New York career woman has simply chosen to forget?
Mae Jean's reaction may seem a little over-the-top. But as we'll soon find out, the Howling in the Woods makes the whole town uneasy. Even Henshaw. Even Justin. Even Rose.
When Liza made her break for the West, there's one important thing she neglected to do: she didn't tell her husband Eddie that she was planning to divorce him. When he finds out she's gone back home, he immediately calls the hotel to speak with her. It's quite a shock to him when he finds out Liza wants to end their marriage. On the other hand, it's quite a shock to us when we realize who Eddie is...
... because Barbara Eden is divorcing Larry Hagman.
Now, these two actors' television personae had been married just a year and a half ago on this very network... in a play for ratings that had destroyed the sexual tension between Jeannie and Major Nelson and hastened the end of the show. It hardly mattered that Eden and Hagman were playing different characters here, nor that "I Dream of Jeannie" had never been more than a modest success: they were still one of TV's most instantly-recognizable couples... and they were splitting up! Imagine Laura walking out on Dick Petrie, or Samantha taking the kid and twitching her way back to Andorra's. This was big.
Eddie Crocker is something of a jerk, though the screenplay tries to convince us he's a likeable jerk. And what the hell: he's played by Larry Hagman, so of course he's going to be likeable. His attempts to make peace with Liza sound even less convincing to us today than they did in the 70's; but it's clear that Liza still has some lingering affection for him, in spite of the fact she thinks they're no longer compatible. Consider their professions, for heaven's sake: she's a fashion illustrator, and he's a fashion photographer. Is it any wonder they don't see eye to eye?
Liza tries to put a brave front on things. She's out getting re-acquainted with the hotel grounds, when she runs into a little girl who has evidently been spying on her. The girl turns out to be Mae Jean's little daughter Betsy, who's been strictly warned not to speak to Liza. Her parents' warning has had exactly the effect you'd think it would have on a girl of nine: she's anxious to find out what kind of mysterious creature a "clothes horse" might be. Liza and Betsy get along at once. Betsy has just confided in Liza the big event in her life — how she found another little girl's drowned body floating right here in the lake — when Betsy's surly lump of a father shows up. Betsy immediately turns pale and runs off, giving her father a wide berth. Mel Warren just stares sullenly at Liza, dangling his hunting rifle, before he turns and stalks after the child.
When Liza sees little Betsy again, she's sporting big bruises on her face from the beating her father has given her.
This would be bad enough... but the situation gets even grimmer. Liza finds out that the dead girl was the daughter of Sally Bixton, neé Henshaw (Tyne Daly), who had been a school friend of Liza's. The girl's death had not been an accident. Justin reluctantly fills Liza in on the details, as far as he knows them: the child was dead before she was put in the water, and the killer was never found. In the meantime, unbeknownst to Liza, Sally Henshaw Bixton is anxious to speak to Liza. But Lonnie Henshaw, her brother, forbids her to speak to Liza, telling her he'll kill her if she tries.
While all this is unfolding, Liza tries to get in touch with her father in Mexico. Fortunately Justin speaks tolerable Spanish, so he puts in some calls to track him down. When Justin sends Liza for a pad and paper to write down what the Mexicans are telling him, Liza is stunned to discover her father's pistol and Bible lying in the drawer. It's unthinkable that her father would have gone on his archaeological expedition without them (hmmm... why would anybody think it was unusual for an American to go exploring another culture without a Bible or a gun? Hmmm...). Why didn't he take them with him? Why would he have been in such a hurry that he completely abandoned his routine?
And then there's the dog in the woods. Its continual howling seems to make the truculent townspeople even more irritable. Liza tries to make friends with the dog, but her attempts just make the town folk even madder: the local grocer tries to refuse to sell her meat; while Mel Warren tries to shoot the poor animal practically over Liza's shoulder... At this, Liza's Jeannie-like good nature wears thin very quickly. And surprise! Under the pliant exterior of Barbara Eden's persona, there's a core of iron.
But she's going to need all her strength when the dog in the woods leads her to what appears to be a hastily-dug grave... a grave that Sheriff Henshaw and the town folk seem completely uninterested in investigating. And, to make matters worse, that fool Eddie Crocker is on his way to Stainesville, suitcase in hand, determined to win Liza back.
I promised I wouldn't go into too much detail to spoil the mystery, and believe it or not, I haven't. All this is just the basic buildup. The movie itself reveals more than I've given away; and to be fair, I'm not even going to tell you how the movie spoils itself.
But from the details of the plot that I have revealed so far, you can see that this is a very remarkable movie for its time. Remember: in 1971, divorce was controversial. Yet here we have a movie that also deals (often in graphic terms) with the widening gap between the rich and poor (9 years before the rise of Reaganomics), Viet Nam vets returning with drug addiction and PTSD, spousal abuse, animal abuse, child abuse and child murder. Later on, we'll get a brush with vigilantism, and strong hints of incest. This being a 1971 movie, the screenplay backs off from some of these issues, but not before making us think they're going to figure more prominently than they do. A Howling in the Woods has dropped Jeannie and Major Nelson straight into the real 1970's — the Seventies that few people at the time were willing to talk about in public.
But this is absolutely not an "issue movie", of the type that would become infamous as the decade wore on. It's a thriller. All this human tragedy, complicated though it may be, is just background for the murder story. And it's extremely effective background — A Howling in the Woods has aged much better than some of the more "serious" TV movies of the era, which thought they were tackling difficult issues head on, but look embarrassingly naïve to us today. Unfortunately, though, the resolution of the "mystery" part of the film is nowhere near as satisfying or believable as the rich, disturbing incidental details have been.
Where the movie really shines is as a vehicle for Barbara Eden. Though her well-intentioned husband does make himself useful, Eden's Liza doesn't need a man to come rescue her: she proves to be intelligent, resourceful and tough all on her own. More pointedly, when Liza tells Hagman's Eddie that she still likes him, and cares about him... but that he's just not good for her any more... we can't help but imagine that not only this line, but this whole role, is Eden saying farewell to the Jeannie persona that made her famous.