Air Date: Nov. 5, 1971 (NBC World Premiere Movie)
Production Companies: Universal Television
Running Time: 100 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Richard De Roy
Based on the 1968 novel by Velda Johnston
Directed by: Daniel Petrie
Cast: Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman, John Rubinstein, Vera Miles, Tyne Daly, Ruta Lee
Fans of the vintage television sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70), would have been thrilled a year later when its stars, Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman, reunited in the TV movie, A Howling in the Woods (1971.) Hagman brings his comedic charms with him, but there’s really not much chemistry between him and Eden. That might be because she’s playing Liza Crocker, a woman seeking a divorce from her husband, Eddie (Hagman.)
We never learn why she wants the split, and while on one hand it’s not relevant, it might have explained some of the characters’ motivations. It’s clear that he loves her and wants to protect her; this explains why he would turn around and come back to her family home when he suspects she’s in danger. However, it’s not clear why she doesn’t reciprocate and doesn’t explain why she won’t accept his help.
There’s a big difference in a TV movie that aired in a 90-minute time slot vs. a two-hour time slot… more than the 30 minutes it literally indicates. A Howling in the Woods doesn’t take advantage of its extra 25 minutes (minus commercials) to add much. It just runs slower. In fact, it takes a long time before we even know what the crux of the story is going to be. Emphasis is placed on Liza’s return and how the townsfolk don’t much like her or her family.
Sure, a little girl has been murdered, and there’s a dog howling in the woods, but these facts alone don’t place Liza in danger and there’s not much reason for her to need to investigate either one. She does, though, but the emphasis is on the murky entanglements of other characters who are all connected somehow. It touches upon some tricky issues like child abuse and incest, but never lingers long enough to put a spotlight on them.
It’s got a fantastic cast, though. Beside the popular leads, Vera Miles delivers a great performance as Liza’s stepmother, Rose Staines. Her son Justin (John Rubinstein) fancies himself a ladies’ man and a late night encounter with Liza wouldn’t be out of the question. Tyne Daly is Liza’s childhood friend, Sally Bixton, who holds the key to a mystery that is finally identified for us late in the movie.
Richard De Roy wrote the script. Although he wrote the Twilight Zone story, Ninety Years Without Slumbering, A Howling in the Woods is more like a show for which he wrote 20 episodes: Peyton Place. There’s nothing supernatural about it; but, in its defense, it never claims that there is. It’s directed by Daniel Petrie, a veteran television writer who had some success on the big screen in the 1980s.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed this. It just goes near the bottom of the other 70s TV horror movies I’ve watched so far. It’s well-made (it was released theatrically in Europe) and at times generates a spooky atmosphere. Thunder booms and lightning strikes at the most opportune times. Plus, there’s a creepy cellar. Nothing good ever happens in a creepy cellar. Secrets are revealed in its shadows.