There is a moment early in Joe Dante’s The Howling (’81) when the heroine, a TV reporter on the trail of a mad killer, steps into a phonebooth in a very dark corner of L.A. nighttown. As she checks in with the cops on the periphery of the hunt, she fails to notice that a man has appeared behind her, just outside the booth. He bulks there, sinister, back to her and to the camera, till she finishes her call and prepares to exit. Then she sees him, gasps, draws back. He turns, favors her with a what-the-hell,-lady? look. She edges out of the booth; he steps in. He was just a guy waiting to use the phone.
For the casual viewer, a standard horror-movie tease; for film buffs, something more. The anonymous lurker happens to be none other than schlockmeister-supreme Roger Corman, the producer and studio boss under whom Dante apprenticed in the movie business. OK, an inside joke. But Dante’s jokes have layers and layers. This one’s an in-joke for superbuffs like Joe Dante himself, because it also refers to a specific movie moment. Back in 1968, when Roman Polanski worked a similar phonebooth tease in Rosemary’s Baby, the menacing/innocuous presence behind Mia Farrow turned out to be that film’s producer, former schlockmeister-supreme William Castle.