Directed by Joe Dante
Distributed by Scream Factory
Werewolf movies. Why are they so hard to get right? It’s a subgenre ripe for mining, and yet, aside from a handful of exceptions, 1981’s “golden age” remains the essential standard for lycanthropic creature features. Back then, two films (not Wolfen) emerged and raised the bar so high that only Neil Marshall has come close to raising it further in the years since.
Yes, of the two, John Landis’ comedic monster movie An American Werewolf in London is perhaps more well known, but I’ve always preferred this horror film helmed by Joe Dante. The Howling may not crackle with the easy accessibility of Landis’ outing, but it remains a rich and atmospheric horror film that happens to be casually hilarious.
There’s stunning FX work by Rob Bottin, some of my all-time favorite genre performances (Elisabeth Brooks is such a sultry, slinky monster that I named a character in my first novel after her) and a humorous script from John Sayles that’s so subtle, it takes a few viewings before the humor even begins to resonate (werewolves with emotional problems – greatest hook ever!). It’s tied together masterfully by Joe Dante, who was smart enough to bury the humor in the background, focusing instead on the horror at hand.
And what grimy horror it is! We open with Karen White (Dee Wallace), a Los Angeles television reporter, being used as bait to catch a brutal serial killer (Robert Picardo, never better). When the confrontation in a sleazy porno theater goes awry, Karen is left badly shaken and emotionally distraught. At the behest of her psychiatrist (Patrick Macnee), she agrees to a vacation at a recreational support community in rural California. Upon arriving at this “Colony”, her chances of recuperation go right out the window, with the town vixen (the late and beautiful Elisabeth Brooks) instantly making eyes at her husband (the late Christopher Stone) while she often hears a howling in the nearby forest…
Writers John Sayles and Terrence H. Winkless took Gary Brandner’s excellent source novel and gave it something of a witty facelift. The general story is the same, a woman visits a rural village in California only to discover it’s a haven for werewolves, and many of the characters have been ported over as well. But Sayles put his own spin on the story, playing up the humor as well as the horror. One of my favorite things about The Howling is how I’ve come to “get it” throughout the years. As a kid, it was little more than a scary monster movie with a hot werewolf babe and one hell of a transformation sequence. It’s hard to catch all the references to lycanthropes past if you aren’t worth your weight in classic werewolf films: characters here are named for horror filmmakers such as William Neil, Freddie Francis, Terence Fisher, Roy William and George Waggner.
This might’ve been annoying if Joe Dante hadn’t directed with a straight face. There are moments of genuine tension in here, and he makes great use of the woodsy locale.
The brilliance of The Howling doesn’t belong to any one individual. There was just too much magic happening for its enduring success to be attributed to a single person. But one can’t talk about this without delving into the sheer genius of Rob Bottin’s FX work. By now we’re probably all familiar with the story of how Rick Baker was originally slated to work on this film and had gone as far as creating some of the technical ‘how to’ when it came to transforming man into wolf. Story goes that Baker had to leave the project once John Landis went into pre-production on American Werewolf, and Bottin stepped in. No matter how it happened, Rob Bottin’s FX work remains a masterpiece of artistry. And while both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London featured watershed special effects, my preference is for Bottin’s transformation. Maybe it’s the way Dante shot the sequence, but it feels much more horrifying than what we got in Landis’ film.
I’m always impressed by how well this one holds up. Over thirty years later, it looks as fresh and state-of-the-art as it did when originally released. It helps, of course, that Scream Factory has gone ahead and doused this seminal werewolf classic in royal flames. I’ve seen this one countless times, and their transfer is absolutely wonderful. There have been some complaints about artifacting in this transfer, but having just watched the film with commentary, I’m not seeing it. This is a robust high-definition print with natural film grain, an impressive color palette and inky blacks that knocked my socks off. As is always the case with older films, it’s important to ask whether or not this is an accurate representation of what the film looked like on theater screens in 1981. I would say most definitely, yes.
Audio-wise, the lossless 5.1 HD audio is pretty spiffy. Textured sound FX work is noticeable from the get-go, and Pino Donaggio’s amazing score has never sounded so robust. I’m more of a mono purist when I watch these films for leisure (and thankfully, Scream included that in this release), but this 5.1 audio is a worthwhile listen for audophiles.
If you’ve already got MGM’s awesome special edition DVD, you might be asking yourself if Scream Factory’s new disc is worth the cost of an upgrade. All of the extras from the previously stacked release have been ported over, with the inclusion of some new features that any longtime fan will thoroughly adore.
Newly minted extras include an audio commentary by the novel’s author, Gary Brandner. I’ve been a Brandner fan for years so this was an interesting listen. Moderated by Michael Felsher, it covers all aspects of the author’s career. There’s also a twenty-minute interview with executive producer Steven A. Lane that covers not only The Howling but also the plethora of sequels (which he also produced). If you’re a fan of the whole series as I am (and you’re not, let’s face it), this is probably the closest we’re ever getting to sequel special features.
An 11-minute interview with editor Mark Goldblatt discusses some of the techniques employed to boost a horror film’s scare quotient. There’s a 12-minute interview with co-writer Terrence H. Winkless detailing his approach to adapting this material, and David Allen’s brilliant stop-motion FX work is detailed in an eight-minute featurette. Finally, we get a Horror’s Hallowed Ground piece that tours the film’s shooting locations.
The rest of the features from the MGM DVD are here: audio commentary by Joe Dante, Christopher Stone, Dee Wallace and Robert Picardo. The Unleashing the Beast documentary. The Making a Monster Movie: Inside The Howling featurette. Deleted scenes (with optional commentary added for this Blu-ray release), outtakes, trailers and a photo gallery round out this set.
The Howling is one of my favorites, and I couldn’t be happier with what Scream Factory has released. It’s a great film and one that is likely to find a wider audience thanks to its sardonic sense of humor and phenomenal special effects. It arrives on Blu-ray in a stellar A/V package and boasts a killer assortment of extras. Simply put, it’s highly recommended.
5 out of 5
5 out of 5