Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry reunites the stars of I Dream of Jeannie for a tale of murder, mystery, and A Howling in the Woods.
When: November 5th, 1971
Liza (Barbara Eden) arrives in her small home town of Stainesville with a single goal. She’s planning to divorce her husband Eddie (Larry Hagman) and needs the brief respite and comfort of the familiar before she can follow through. Her father’s away on a trip to Mexico and is currently unreachable, and while she finds it odd that he didn’t take his bible and gun with him she thinks little of it. But things soon grow strange. Her stepmom Rose (Vera Miles) is far from warm, the family maid acts odd even though she and Liza were school friends, and Rose has a mysterious new stepson named Justin (John Rubinstein). The locals are no better as they appear to holding tightly to some dark secret and beating anyone who dares talk to Liza about it.
And of course, there’s also that eerie howling in the woods.
Genre movies, whether feature or television, typically highlight their selling point via the title, so you’d be forgiven for thinking A Howling in the Woods is a reference to killer dogs, a bloodthirsty wolf, or maybe even a werewolf. You would be wrong though. It teases its woods-based howling with a sequence where car trouble leaves Liza walking at night through the forest. Of course, you and I would have stuck to the road, but this is a movie meaning that’s not an option. Something furry scratches her and knocks her down, and the possibilities are endless… until the film reveals fairly early on that the howling is caused by a simple mutt who poses no threat and is instead howling out of loneliness. Frightening, no, but it does afford the story a sense of sadness as the mystery unfolds.
It seems Liza has arrived in the aftermath of a serious miscarriage of justice. A little girl was found dead, a man traveling through town was accused, and a mob seeking vengeance happily stepped in as judge, jury, and executioners. That’s bad enough — violent mobs are legit terrifying in practice — but the nail in their justifiable homicide coffin comes with the knowledge that they killed the wrong man. Jerks! More truths follow turning the film into more of a mild mystery than a horror movie.
Its bigger strength, though, comes in a social commentary on the sexes and the degrees of suffering we allow as a society. Liza’s questions are met mostly with silence, but both a child and a woman — Tyne Daly as the dead girl’s mother — dare to speak up resulting in physical punishment at the hands of the town’s men. They recognize their killing of an innocent man as wrong, but to them this kind of abuse is fair game, and the film seems to take it equally in stride. Liza’s ex, Eddie (Larry Hagman), is a promising addition to that theme as he’s treated her poorly over the years, but his return to town takes an interesting wrinkle.
Its biggest strength though? And its most unrelated one? Liza catches her stepmom and stepson making out! Small towns are gross y’all.
Director Daniel Petrie had a long and varied career with a filmography that includes A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), and Cocoon: The Return (1988). He made nineteen feature films over the decades and helmed dozens more for the small screen including high prestige titles like Sybil (1976) and My Name Is Bill W (1989). He does solid work here capturing the suspicion, mystery, and seething rage well enough even if the ultimate revelation doesn’t quite generate the intended impact. Curiously, a year after A Howling in the Woods he directed another TV movie called Moon of the Wolf… which actually is about a werewolf.
A Howling in the Woods is ultimately a good tale of morality run amok, and while there’s satisfaction in its commentary it feels like a lesser beast after what’s been teased.
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