Our review of The Howling (Blu-ray), published May 30th, 2013, is also available.
Imagine your worst fear a reality
When it comes to werewolf movies, there are usually two very vocal and very loyal camps. There are those who believe that the classic wolf man, mouth full of false fangs and face a time lapsed matte of glued-on yak fur is the only true legitimate lycanthrope. Unless Lon Chaney Jr. or Oliver Reed is drooling excessively from the lower lip, there is no real Hollywood magic. Then there are those who like their shape-shifter with a tiny bit of post-modern technological methodology. Not content to just sit back and watch the Harryhausen hairiness overtake their lupine champion, they want to see expanding brow bladders and bloody snout transformations. They don't want passive metamorphosis; they want their skin walker to suffer a little and blow bone joints before he does his sheep's clothing routine. The banner year 1981 saw the rapturous result of all this anatomical animal activism. In what was basically a competition between John Landis and Joe Dante as directors and Rob Bottin and Rick Baker as make-up and effects artists, two landmark motion pictures hit the silver screen to show how condoms, latex, and long, laborious hours in the design studio could create unnervingly real monster transformations. Yet with all this body bending goodness offered, the camps still remain split, but now for different reasons. Some prefer their comedy with a little werewolf ala American Werewolf in London, while others like their lupine with a little less cheek tongue and a lot more acerbic bite circa The Howling. Even digital releases have been in competition. Universal released American Werewolf in London with commentaries, interviews, and assorted bonus DVD goodies. The original Howling from MGM was a bare bones widescreen presentation only. So now, with the release of a new Special Edition of the walking wolfman movie, perhaps a consensus on which movie is the best can finally be reached.
Facts of the Case
Karen White is a famous local television anchorwoman. She is in the middle of the biggest story of her career. Seems a serial killer named Eddie Quist has been carving up people all over the city, and he has made Karen his primary point of personal contact. After a blown sting set-up and bloody shoot out, Eddie is dead and Karen is emotionally frazzled. Her husband Bill and producer friends Terry and Chris want her to take a break. A psychiatrist working on the case, Dr. George Waggner, suggest that Karen spend time at "The Colony," a group therapy/EST style living environment. She agrees and, along with her husband, travels upstate to the secluded, wooded oasis.
When she arrives, she meets several of the other attending members of the self-help enclave. Mixed among the businessmen and oddballs is Marsha, a gloomy overtly sexual siren, and her feral brother TC. Bill takes an immediate interest in Marsha, much to Karen's chagrin. During her treatment, Karen tries to remember what happened in the last moments between her and Eddie. She senses something is not right about the circumstance. And that extends to The Colony. At night the woods surrounding her cabin are filled with animal noises…mostly those of wolves. When husband Bill investigates, he is attacked and bitten by something. The next night, Marsha calls him to a campfire where he learns the truth about The Colony: it is a haven for werewolves.
Karen calls Terry and Chris for help. Terry comes out to The Colony to meet her friend and has an unfortunate run-in with a strange creature in the woods. She then discovers Eddie, back from the dead and ready to show his shape shifting skills. It's up to Chris to gather some silver bullets and speed to the rescue before everyone is cursed with The Howling.
Is there a more frustrating set of genre credentials than those of one Mr. Joe Dante? Here is one of the best examples of unattained directorial respect and achievement ever to hit the silver screen. The man has had critical and commercial successes, and yet seems to still be the bastard stepchild of the industry, an anarchic presence in a room filled with yoga practicing yutzes. When he has a triumph (Gremlins) it seems like he wasn't responsible; it was always someone else's movie. But as the noble failures fill up his oeuvre (Matinee, Small Soldiers), the irrevocable link between their non-popularity and his personal stamp seems concrete. When it was announced recently that he would be helming a Warner Brothers movie mingling of the classic Looney Tunes characters with real life actors (ala Roget Rabbit or the studio's own Space Jam), fans and scholars finally issued a sigh of sincere relief. Seems the floundering yet fertile imagination of this fallen idol had finally found an apropos home to roost in. Problem is, Dante is not a bad filmmaker. Not by a long shot. Even when his movies don't work 100% (the 'burbs, Innerspace, Explorers), they contain more wit and imagination than almost all other similar cinematic offerings. He just seems cursed with a true fan's obsessive compulsive desire to make every scene count, overstuffing the art design and visual style with obvious references, inside jokes, surprise cameos, convoluted plot twists, and over-the-top character creations. There is no such thing as "enough" in the Dante lexicon. His films are full to bursting with way too much.
It's interesting to note then that The Howling, one of his best-loved and most complete works, is also one of his earliest and leanest. With only Hollywood Boulevard (which he co-directed with Roger Corman comrade Alan Arkush) and Piranha to his credit, the low budget Avco Embassy monster movie proved to be his making…and eventual albatross. Dante showed that a simple idea, executed extremely well and ripe to capture the mind of the movie going public, could easily be superb. Taking over for another director and throwing out a previous script, Dante was hampered in making The Howling by all the things that should make for yet another independent terror travesty. However, it's this hired hand, run and gun filmmaking mentality that makes this monster movie such a lean, mean fight machine. Freed from the confines of the novel upon which the story and previous screenplay was based, Dante got the wonderful John Sayles to concoct a story that functioned as social commentary (on the then-popular idea of self-help clinics) and terror tale all in one. The director then relied on his expert cast and creative team to produce a patchwork concoction of fright, funny, and skewed vision. About the only thing that overshadowed the release of this film was the success of its direct competition: An American Werewolf in London. Landis's landmark movie came out that August and was suddenly the talk of the industry. Poor Howling had come out many months before, and was all but forgotten by the time David Naughton and the song "Blue Moon" changed people's idea about what a wolfman motion picture could be.
What makes The Howling, in the end, a better film than American Werewolf in London (not by much, mind you, but by enough to matter) is the idea of tone and atmosphere. John Landis may be many things, but he is not the creator of serious psychological thrills or melodrama. Gregarious and jovial to the point of being manic, his movies are excuses for unforced frat boy fun. He loves a jest and relishes rubbing your face in it. He can't help but make his movies comically comment on themselves, from the college as crazy counterculture turmoil of Animal House to the Stallone as hambone old-fashioned farce in Oscar. But when pushed to the wall and forced to deal with situations of great tragedy or corporeal fear, he cuts a fart and runs, hoping the crudity and its remaining after burn will earn audience forgiveness (See Innocent Blood or Into the Night). Joe Dante, on the other hand, loves the more sinister side of life. Almost every film he has made, from Gremlins to TV fare like Eerie, Indiana has in some way or another explored the wicked within the wacky. In interviews and comments, Dante has always mentioned his affinity for the Looney Tunes, mostly because of their wild anarchic spirit. Bugs Bunny and friends have always been the more darkly animated pals to the squeaky clean cavorting of Disney's dull denizens. Dante clearly loves the mildly menacing characteristics of these crazy cartoon characters; he seems to have a sequence suggesting their signature onscreen antics in each of his films.
Thanks to the spirit of shadowy silliness and serious scare servitude, The Howling becomes a wonderfully wicked and malevolent look at the wolfman as sexual and slaughtering beast. It is also a horror fan's fun-filled inside joke, a constantly self-referencing exercise in exploring the genre's history and inconsistency. You can't include Dick Miller (famous for working for Roger Corman), John Carradine (who never met a low budget monster movie script he didn't star in), and Forrest Ackerman (with his publication Famous Monsters of Filmland in hand) and not assume that some of the population will get the amusing aside. But Dante still wants to make this monster movie work, and he uses his darker tone and affinity for the formulas of fright films to carve out his own unique and still perfectly recognizable niche. The genius move in The Howling is to set the film within the world of serial killers and the media. After all, most fright fiends are indeed flesh carving mass murderers, so why not explore the story from that angle? It's also a clever conceit that Dante and Sayles throw out the old rules about when and where a lethal lupus can transmogrify. The one-month waiting period for future fear factors is just too long and occasionally kills this kind of movie in its tracks. The notion that, day or night, The Colony is filled with confused lycanthropes that can and will fall back on their ability to shape shift (and slaughter…and kill) keeps the tension high. The notion of an entire population trying to deal with their inner canine is another wonderful and brave element of the film. The atmosphere and setting, combined with the great casting and ambitious special effects, make The Howling one of those new classics that seemed to constantly crop up in the early '80s; films that would set a standard that many makeup and filmmaking souls have tried to live up to since.
In the battle for the special effects heart, though, Rick Baker narrowly wins over Rob Bottin's frightening, but ultimately unsatisfying creature creations. When viewed back in the light of 1981, Bottin really created something absolutely terrifying and spine-chilling with his overall Eddie effect. All aspects of the make-up, from full werewolf transformation to a post-acid bath skin melt, were and are still today unnerving. The show stopping in-camera transformation, complete with pulsating face bladders and evolving body shaping, is an acknowledged stunner. But in 2003, the tell-tale signs of puppetry, masks, and false fronts are now clearly obvious. When David goes full moon mental in American Werewolf in London, Landis uses music and cutaways to confuse and misdirect the audience, thereby upping the "wow" and "how" factors. But Dante holds on the menacing face of Eddie for what seems like forever as the mouth curls into a toothy grin and his eyes bug out of his sockets. Unfortunately, such observational abilities expose the dummy being propped up and the servos being actuated. While Bottin's full sized werewolves are far fiercer than Baker's irritated beer barrel pit bull finale, the now legendary lycanthrope workout, the one that inspired a gaggle of geeks to become effects artists and horror movie maniacs seems—sorry to say it—dated. Bottin would go on to create his highly recognizable signature style and cement his myth with the unsurpassed imagination and intensity of John Carpenter's The Thing. But back during the days of The Howling, he was a 21-year-old kid in charge of making a man into a monster. He succeeds, but nowadays the magician's trick is mostly exposed.
Time, indeed, has somewhat faded The Howling, turning it over the course of twenty-some years from a ferocious beast into an angry animal. Most of the self-help, EST, and TM jokes will go whizzing over the heads of young people never forced to listen to dunderheaded adults discuss the positive benefits of inner discovery and/or personal space. Much of the insular humor will ring unrecognizable to modern monster mavens and the asides to famous films will only seem like footnotes from a horror history book. But still, The Howling does work marvelously. Dee Wallace Stone makes her characters near-collapse completely believable, and the usually amusing Robert Picardo taps into a deep, damaged realm of real danger that he hasn't really explored since. Dante creates some wonderful tension by utilizing the wooded locations and isolation to their logical ends. Add Bottin's watershed effects and a distinct theoretical ideal, and you have a once great movie that has lost some of its shimmer over the decades. It's interesting to see how, after the one-two punch of American Werewolf in London and The Howling, Hollywood sort of backed off the whole wolfman movie, employing it only as a über idiot premise (Teen Wolf, My Mom's a Werewolf) or watching it waste away in a hundred hackneyed low budget basement projects. Even more contemporary attempts to bring the fable up to date have been met with either misplaced fanboy lust (the clever but arid Ginger Snaps) or CGI catastrophe (An American Werewolf in Paris???). In many ways, The Howling and its ilk ruined it for everyone else. They were the last word in werewolf movies and makeup. It just seems impossible that current computer based effects could capture the visceral feeling of transformation the way Bottin and Baker did.
Hoping to repent for its less than stellar initial release of The Howling on DVD, MGM does a little scavenging and borrowing to create a new Special Edition release of this important work of horror. Originally, they provided the movie in a fuzzy anamorphic widescreen disc with only a trailer. Thanks to a little perseverance, they have come up with a group of good, but not necessarily great, bonus features (only one of which was newly created for the disc). Visually, the movie has been cleaned up dramatically. Most fans with early VHS copies of the film will remember that Eddie's big beast moments were usually drowned in shadows and too deep blacks. Well, thanks to the digital remaster, the movie is bright and clear. Now, Mr. Quist's physical personality alterations can be viewed for all their fearsome worth. The anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen image is still a little on the low budget side, an obvious issue of the original production elements used, but frankly the flick has never looked more brand new. Dante always has a deft way with compositions and framing, so it's good to have the original theatrical aspect ratio preserved. There is the option of watching an open matte version of the film, but the question becomes why, as even Dante says in his commentary that you may occasionally see boom mics.
Speaking of microphones, sonically there is a new faux 5.1 Dolby Digital mix for the film that tends to push sound effects off to the sides while keeping far too much of the movie's aural issues in the front speakers. Still, it's better than the Mono track that tends to blend everything into one big buzz of noise-sound.
MGM has also made a new documentary about the film entitled Unleashing the Beast: Making the Howling. It features Dante, Sayles, Wallace-Stone, and Picardo adding their personal insights about the film. We also get some information from producer Mike Finnell, director of photography John Hora, and actors Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski. What's fascinating is how everyone responds with a manner of dignity and pride for this project. Surely, it couldn't have appeared like anything other than an available exploitation experience when the script and chance to make this monster movie first came their way. Picardo is particularly detailed about his journey from Broadway to Bottin's make-up chair from hell, and Finnell describes how the original novel was trashed to let Dante and Sayles place their stamp on the project (Sayles wrote both The Howling and Alligator simultaenously!). About the only downside to this feature is that it is divided into five sections. They can be played all at once but you will still have to sit through the credits each and every time. For a near 45-minute presentation, that's almost seven minutes of dead, dull air. Still, the amount of back-story offered here is better than what was produced at the time. The publicity piece entitled Making a Monster Movie: Inside The Howling is totally uninvolving. We get press junket snippets of interviews, with Dante, a welcomed Rob Bottin (where was he for the big time documentary?), and actor Patrick Macnee all waxing poetic about their involvement in the movie. It's superficial, and fun if only to see how absolutely Robin Williams hirsute Bottin is (Rob, Bigfoot called—he wants his coiffeur back).
As for film features, we get a few minutes of deleted scenes that provide some moments of clarity for certain characters and a couple of subplot points that were later abandoned. Unfortunately, there is no commentary over this material. There is also an outtakes/bloopers reel that provides a few screw-ups, line flubs, makeup bladder explosions, and human farts as proof that all moviemaking is not pristine perfection. But probably the best overall extra is the commentary track, recorded for the Elite laserdisc back in 1995. It features Dante, Wallace-Stone, her husband Christopher Stone, and Picardo, and it's like old home week at the funny farm. These people get along wonderfully well and they joke and jeer about certain aspects of the film: Wallace-Stone's aversion to walking into a real porno theater, Picardo's day-long disappearing acts into Bottin's house of horrors, Dante's memories of working with fog and smoke machines, and Christopher's recollections of getting buck naked with Elizabeth Brooks (Marsha) in front of the cameras…and his fiancée. Everyone has memories of John Carradine and his "craft services" anxiety (he would bring his own food onto the set, thinking that as with most no-budget films he'd appeared in, his own food would be his only food for the day) and Patrick Macnee's bawdy British wit. The anarchic spirit within the film is played out here in full force, making this supplemental audio track a great addition to the DVD package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a movie about werewolves, The Howling (as with American Werewolf in London) can be accused of being a little light on the lycanthrope. When a movie is about wolfmen or wolfwomen, you wanna see some killer canines and lots of them. But here we have to wait about 50 minutes until the big transformation scene, and then we only get one other look at a lupus in the making. Whenever we see any other beasts, they are either poorly animated, guys in suits, obvious masks, oversized rod puppets, or stop motion mierda. Even the finale is not wall-to-wall lupine. Dante talks about how he tried to make a few arm appliances, a trick head, and the lone wolf suit look like several…or at least a couple. And he succeeds. They look like a few…but not enough! Budget is probably the reason why we don't get more monster magic for our buck…that and time. Bottin was apparently shooting from the hip a lot during the production, and sometimes the makeup would be applied, the pumps started, and the wires ready and…nothing would happen. So it's clear that with the production limitations there was to be a minimal of shape shifter. That's a shame, since the one thing that could have elevated The Howling even further into the upper echelons of horror is more mean mad transmogrifying wolfmen. And that weepy little female Pekinese thing at the end doesn't count.
So where do you, personally, come down on the whole London vs. Howling debate? Are you a fan of the Pepper who gets picked off by a Moorish monster and has to battle his living dead best friend and Jenny Agutter's breasts to turn into a limey biting beast? Or do you like your werewolf more on the disgusting pervert side with slimy sick sexual intentions and a Colony of cohorts hanging around the Northern California woodlands? Do you want your lycanthrope with laughs or do you prefer a more satiric cur? Truthfully, you can love both movies and still feel you are on the right side of fright. The Howling may be a more menacing and mean movie about the legendary half man, half wolf supernatural spaniel, but American Werewolf has its blood spattered Credence Clearwater Revival moments as well. Or maybe you are totally old school and just can't cotton to all this face appliance reverse engineered puppeteering. You feel that the only viable dog villain is a man with a face filled with process dissolve puppy fur, talking with gypsies and baying at the big blue cheese with that standard blood curdling bark. However you want your wolf served though, you really can't do better than this benchmark in the worlds of both monster movies and makeup magic. The Howling may occasionally wink a little too hard at the audience, and there are moments when the narrative threatens to lap itself and become way too insular. But for meat and potatoes low budget feral beast blessings, you really can't beat Joe Dante's version of lupine life in these wooded United States. The Howling is a great werewolf movie, and you don't have to see David Naughton's naked butt to enjoy a little shape shifting. At last, some justice in the world.
The Howling is found not guilty and is free to go. MGM is also praised for taking the time and effort to dig up some respectable bonus features to flesh out its new DVD release. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director and Cast
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