Shout! Factory // 1981 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // May 30th, 2013
Imagine your worst fear a reality.
One of the best werewolf movies ever made from one of my favorite directors ever makes its high-def debut. Thank you, Scream Factory.
After news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone, Runaway Daughters) is attacked by serial murderer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo, Stargate Atlantis), she is sent by her therapist to recover at a private resort called "The Colony." Arriving there with her husband Bill (Christopher Stone, Dee's real-life husband), the pair encounters all kinds of strange patients. Before long, a female patient seduces Bill, and Karen is noticing more and more strange behavior. The Colony, it seems, is a haven for werewolves, and they're looking to increase their numbers...
I love werewolf movies and I love Joe Dante, so I'm a pretty easy mark for 1981's The Howling, Dante's second solo outing as a director after the low-budget Piranha. The movie expertly blends comedy and horror (leaning more towards the horror), features stylish and moody photography, groundbreaking makeup effects and a great cast of character actors. Though it was made in the same period that Friday the 13th was about to launch a thousand soulless, depressing imitators, The Howling remembers that above all else, horror movies can be a lot of fun.
Though Piranha had set the template, The Howling is really the first movie to define what a Joe Dante movie is. It's a film that functions both as the thing and about the thing, meaning it works as a straightforward horror movie and as a loving send-up of werewolf movie conventions. It features many of his regular repertory company, including Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski (never lovelier or more appealing) and even cameos from Famous Monsters of Filmland creator Forrest J. Ackerman and producer Roger Corman, Dante's former boss. The characters are named after famous werewolf movie directors, and lots of sly werewolf jokes fill the corners of the frame. These little in-jokes don't call attention to themselves or detract from the movie -- they're only there for savvy horror audiences or fans of Joe Dante who pick up on them. Everyone else can just enjoy a terrific little werewolf picture.
As much as The Howling works as a monster movie, it is rather dated -- not because of the clothing and the hairstyles, but because much of the film's humor is couched in a kind of late '70s new age-y satire. The idea of The Colony is both scary and funny, because it means there's a secret society of werewolves (scary) but also suggests that many of them want to be part of a kind of self-help support group. It's an amusing concept no matter what, but made more sense in the context of the era in which it was released. Even the smiley face stickers found all over the movie, then a popular counterculture symbol, doesn't mean the same thing now as it did 30 years ago.
Then, of course, there are the makeup effects, which were revolutionary until John Landis' An American Werewolf in London came out just a few months later. Rick Baker, who created the Oscar-winning transformation effects for American Werewolf, was originally working on The Howling until Landis secured the financing for his movie. Effects duties on The Howling then went to Baker's protégé Rob Bottin, who was only 21 at the time. As Dante points out on his commentary for the movie, there are problems with the movie's transformation set piece -- namely, that the movie literally stops cold for an impressive two-minute effects demo before resuming the story, raising questions as to why Karen stands there and watches the whole thing happen instead of running away, which she clearly has time to do. Still, it's an impressive sequence, made even more so for being the first of its kind. Nowadays, the few werewolf movies we get feature CGI transformations, but I'll take a practical one like this any day.
The Howling looks better than it ever has on Blu-ray. The 1080p HD transfer gives the film greater clarity and color saturation than its ever shown; the film is over 30 years old at this point and looks it at times, not because there is visible damage or age but because it lacks the polish of more recent movies. The photography has always been a bit on the soft and hazy side, mostly because of Dante's dreamlike approach to the material, and that look is faithfully recreated by the Blu-ray. Otherwise, the image has been cleaned up to an impressive degree, making for one good-looking transfer. The 5.1 lossless audio track does a solid job of mixing the dialogue with the scares, with good ambient wolf noises and effective "jump" moments. It's not too flashy, but it gets the job done.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray of The Howling is a must-have if only for the fact that it combines all of the special features from past releases -- the 1995 Laserdisc and the 2003 special edition DVD -- as well as adds a few new features of its own. The '95 commentary track, featuring Dante and stars Dee Wallace Stone, Christopher Stone (shortly before his death the same year) and Robert Picardo, is intact and just as enjoyable as ever. Dante is always energetic and full of great stories (like one about screenwriter John Sayles secretly working on both this and Alligator at the same time), and the group setting adds a lot of laid back, informal fun. It's the kind of commentary that's worth returning to again and again. Scream Factory has included a second commentary track with Gary Bradner, who wrote the original novel. His discussion is drier and doesn't contain a ton of new information, but kudos to Scream Factory for including a brand new commentary.
Also new to this edition is a collection of interviews with behind-the-scenes personnel: editor Mark Goldblatt, writer Terence Winkless (who receives screenwriting credit alongside Sayles) and executive producer Steven A. Lane, who briefly talks through every entry in the long-running Howling franchise but doesn't say much of value. All of these interviews are presented in HD. Another featurette covers the locations. The Blu-ray also restores a complete interview with stop motion animator Dave Allen, which first appeared on the laserdisc but was almost entirely cut from the 2003 DVD release. It's a fascinating bit of behind-the-scenes info; Allen did some stop-motion sequences for the movie that were ultimately cut out, and he appears pretty unhappy about it. The footage appears in the interview, and despite the fact that he's very talented and undoubtedly worked very hard on the footage, Dante was right to cut it.
All of the extras from the DVD have been carried over, too, meaning we get the deleted scenes with optional commentary from Dante, a photo gallery, a collection of trailers, a vintage "making-of" featurette and, best of all, the terrific five-part documentary "Unleashing the Beast: The Making of The Howling." It runs nearly an hour and includes contributions from many of the key players in the production. It's great.
I almost feel bad for The Howling. Had American Werewolf in London not come out the very same year, its reputation as a genuine classic monster movie would be undeniable. Instead, it's now remembered more as an also-ran -- the Deep Impact to American Werewolf's Pearl Harbor. If you've never seen in, Scream Factory's Blu-ray is sure to make a fan out of you. If you've always been a fan, the excellent transfer and collection of supplemental material will make you appreciate it more than ever before. It's a win/win.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery