It’s interesting that, considering how easily the Wolf Man is lumped in with titans of terror Dracula and Frankenstein, the werewolf cinematic legacy isn’t as robust as those of its stable mates. Think back through the past decade or so. Even discounting the decidedly non-horror Twilight films, it doesn’t take too much effort to think of some well-made and fairly popular vampire films. It make take a bit more time to think up a few examples of new takes on the Frankenstein story, but a few moments thought will produce some solid examples. Werewolves, though, are a bit harder. There’s the big budget flop, The Wolf Man and its DTV sequel. The action-horror hybrid, Dog Soldiers, sure. The Underworld movies, though the werewolves are largely hitching a ride in what is mainly a vampire series. Other than that, though, the well is pretty dry.
You’d have to go back more than three decades to fine last gasp for werewolf movies: 1981. That year saw no fewer than three high profile werewolf movies, An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen and The Howling. All took a slightly different, modern approach to similar material and in doing so, they essentially drained the well dry. With the exception of the original Ginger Snaps, no werewolf movie since the 1981 golden age has been able to offer a truly fresh take on the monster. The legacy of films like The Howling is a towering one, and well deserved.
Loosely adapted from the Gary Brandner novel of the same name, The Howling tells the story of news reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace). As the film opens she’s on an undercover assignment, helping the LAPD track down a serial killer who identifies himself only as Eddie (Robert Picardo) that has been preying on women in Los Angeles. Eddie formed a fixation on Karen and has been communicating with her, which makes her the ideal bait to draw Eddie into the open. The sting operation has Karen being tracked by police to a porn shop and peep show as she tries to lure Eddie out. Unfortunately, the sting doesn’t go off as planned. Eddie is gunned down by a trigger-happy rookie cop, but not before he’s able to assault and traumatize Karen.
Unable to continue her job as news anchor, Karen takes a leave of absence and, at the suggestion of therapist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) who had been consulting on the Eddie case, she and her husband, Bill Neill (Christopher Stone), head for an ocean side colony and retreat run by the good doctor. Meanwhile, Karen’s friends Chris (future Adam Sandler collaborator Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski) being a deeper investigation of Eddie’s background.
At the colony, Karen’s therapy isn’t going as well as she’d hoped. Every night she’s disturbed by the sound of howling in the forest and the colony’s resident nymphomaniac Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) seems to have designs on Bill. On the way to their cabin one night Bill is attacked by a wild animal and immediately sees a change in attitude: the formerly health conscious vegetarian begins wolfing down meat with a gusto and grows distant and agitated at Karen, spurning her advances to instead rut by firelight with Marsha.
Karen calls Terry and asks her to come out to the colony to provide her with moral support. Once there, however, Terry makes a series of shocking discoveries. Not only was Eddie once a member of the colony, but his brother and sister still reside there. Even more shocking: the colony is almost entirely populated by werewolves who, under the guidance of Dr. Waggner are looking for a way to integrate themselves into society.
With story elements involving porn shops, peep shows, sexual assault and lusty nymphos, a simple plot synopsis can make The Howling sound much sleazier and more lurid than it actually is. With the generous helping of sleaze undercut by some self-referential humour, legitimately suspenseful horror and even some flat out camp The Howling is a movie that really shouldn’t work at all, much less as well as it does. It’s a credit to director Joe Dante that in only his second solo outing as a director he is able to balance such diametric tones so deftly. The Howling serves up heaping portions of ironic references but never in an obtrusive or obnoxious manner. Dante and screenwriters John Sayles and Terrence Winkless don’t feel the need to call attention to every reference, instead let them sit on the screen inconspicuously waiting for you to discover them. As a result, the movie works better with repeat viewings as you are able to pick up on visual gags and references you may have missed first time around.
Helping ground the self-referential supernatural tale in a sense of reality is a great lead performance by Dee Wallace. With bright, sparkling eyes, and an open face, she immediately engenders the audience’s sympathies. And it’s nice that, unlike a lot of horror characters, she’s not the usual slow study, bumbling around the story until she accidentally trips over the main plot. She senses something about the colony is off very early on but distractions with her husband and her marriage override her journalistic inquisitiveness. The Howling’s Karen White is one of the crown jewel roles of Wallace’s career.
The rest of the cast is filled out with a mix of young performances and older, established character actors and, while none of them have as much screen time as Wallace nor as varied roles, everybody is given their moment to shine. Whether it’s Elisabeth Brooks disrobing by firelight, Slim Pickens hamming it up as the local sheriff, Christopher Stone being a sleazy asshole or Belinda Balaski as an amateur Nancy Drew, everybody has a good, if not great, role. One true standout in the supporting cast is Dante regular Dick Miller and his memorable cameo as the owner of an occult bookshop that Chris and Terry consult for information about werewolves. Miller’s deadpan, rapid fire delivery in this scene is killer and it remains my favourite scene in the movie.
At the time of its release The Howling received a level of praise that remains, even today, unusual for a film in the horror genre. As to be expected, there were still some high profile pans of The Howling, with most focused mainly on the special effects, the most common accusation being Dante’s film is just a showcase for them. Poppycock, I say. Watching the film in the wakes of films that truly are an excuse to showcase special effects and you see just how few showpieces there are in the film and how sparingly they’re used. The Howling remains a modern classic not because of its effects, or not solely because of them, but because the story and characters surrounding them bear repeat viewings.
Still, you can’t very well talk about The Howling without mentioning Rob Bottin’s effects work. A makeup prodigy, Bottin was only twenty when he was handed duties as The Howling’s top effects man. His FX work and creature designs are nothing short of astonishing. Contrasting with the other high profile werewolf movie of 1981, Rick Baker’s four legged werewolf in American Werewolf is a fearsome beast, for sure, but I find something terrifyingly elegant about Bottin’s werewolf in The Howling. Thin limbed and spindly, with long tapering ears, there’s something sleek about the design that gives the impression of speed and danger. It helps that, the performer in scene where the werewolf is first revealed sells the power and intelligence of the creature, toying with and then slapping poor Belinda Balaski around like a rag doll.
Whenever the discussion of The Howling comes up, the topic inevitably winds up comparing The Howling to American Werewolf leading to a heated debate as to which is the better film. While I certainly have my preference, I don’t think the comparison is really fair. Even that early in his career, Rick Baker was already an established master of his medium. Rob Bottin, on the other hand, was a neophyte upstart out to prove himself. With American Werewolf’s big (for the time) budget of $10 million, Baker had a nearly limitless canvas. Bottin was trying to pull off similar illusions on a $2 million shoestring. That we’re still talking about both movies more than thirty years later is proof positive that both films accomplished what they set out to do, and accomplished it with style. The dearth of modern werewolf films to come in their wake, and the lack of quality ones at that, shows just what big shoes they left behind.
The Howling has had a checkered past on home video. The VHS format was completely inadequate to bring the film’s soft, murky visuals to the small screen and early home video offerings of The Howling were a muddy, indiscernible smear of darkness. Laserdisc was hardly much better. DVD was a huge improvement, but the soft filters and omnipresent fog still presented challenged for compressionists. Now, The Howling makes its HD debut on Blu-ray. The result is undeniably its finest presentation to date, though a few issues still plague this picture that keep it from being the definitive transfer this movie really deserves.
First, the good. The day scenes are rendered with extreme clarity. You’ll be able to appreciate the nuances of Rob Bottin’s ground breaking makeup and creature designs better than ever. The Howling has a surprisingly varied and colorful visual palate and this transfer renders the deep rich reds, green and blues with great vitality. It’s during these moments that The Howling ranks among the best reissues I’ve seen.
The night scenes, of which there are many, are the real problem. The picture has just been pushed too hard to try and draw some extra resolution from scenes where it probably doesn’t exist. In the scenes lit by firelight, most noticeably, the picture has been enhanced to the point where grain gives way to noise. The irony in that is that the noise tends to obscure what little detail was there to begin with. I don’t know about you, but when I watch The Howling, I want to see Elisabeth Brooks’ muff in all its 80’s glory. Moreover, in almost all the scenes the color timing has been altered slightly from a rich blue to a more yellow/greenish tinge. It’s not huge and I didn’t even notice it until I watched the films side by side but purists maybe have an issue with it. Make no mistake, this is better than The Howling has ever looked and I’m more than satisfied with it, but I still feel that there’s room for improvement.
Two audio options, 5.1 surround and the original 2-channel mono DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are provided on this release. The Howling is one of the few instances where I don’t have a strong preference for the original over the 5.1 remix. The Howling is an exceptional track in that it doesn’t try and out flash the original, but just gives it more depth and presence. There’s no newly created sound effects to call attention to themselves and the surrounds are never dead. The 5.1 track is just the 2.0, but more. More ambiance, more presence, more atmosphere. It’s a classy upgrade that really serves the film well, but I’m still glad that the 2.0 track is provided for purists.
As is standard with Shout Factory titles, no alternate language options and only English subtitles are provided.
Shout Factory ports over all the extras from the MGM Special Edition DVD in addition to creating a few new supplements for this release, though many are not listed on the outside packaging. This disc is a treasure trove of supplemental material fans will wolf down.
The audio commentary with Joe Dante and cast members from the Image laserdisc that was ported the MGM’s 2003 special edition DVD makes its appearance here once again. Despite being nearly 20 years sold (it was recorded in 1995), it feels as fresh and vibrant as ever. I can see why Joe Dante felt such affinity for Dick Miller; they share the same fast talking cadence of speech.
New to this release is an audio commentary with the author of the original novel on which The Howling was based, Gary Brander. Considering that the author recently passed, this track is a one-of-a-kind gem. Moderated by Michael Felsher, Brandner dishes about his career, his original Howling novels and the film adaptation. Brandner speaks with warmth and humour, it’s like sitting down to listen to your grandpa’s stories, if you’re grandpa was a pulp fiction writer. I was surprised and delighted to hear that he also shared my opinion on the self-limited nature of the werewolf story, and shares how The Howling was deliberate attempt to subvert the typical werewolf story template. This track is a must listen.
There are two making-of documentaries, the vintage made for TV Making a Monster Movie (8:02) and the multi-part 2003 documentary Unleashing the Beast (48:34). Making a Monster Movie is fluff more interesting for its vintage than for any real insight into the making of the movie. Unleashing the Beast is far more in-depth and engrossing.
Sean Clark does a Horror’s Hallowed Ground (12:15) episode on The Howling. In what has to be the best job imaginable, Clark revisits the California locations where The Howling was filmed. Robert Rusler also returns to continue the running joke introduced in Halloween II. These segments are always a highlight of a Shout Factor release.
Most people associate The Howling with the early career of screenwriter John Sayles, but they forget that Terrence Winkless co-wrote the screenplay for The Howling. This is rectified on this release with a short Interview (12:33). Though his input was limited to the earlier drafts, Winkless has some interesting insight into the process of adapting the novel to the screen.
Produced for the laserdisc but not ported over to the special edition DVD, an Interview with David Allen (8:49) returns to this release. This has always been one of my favorite Howling-related video clips, mainly because it has rejected and unused stop motion footage that Allen produced, but also because there’s an honesty about how he talks about his disappointment with his experience on The Howling.
Series executive producer Steven A. Lane gets his own feature, Howlings Eternal (18:49), to talk about the franchise as a whole. I was surprised to see just how long this feature was because he’s such an entertaining speaker that it seemed to fly by. Taking a cue from the team at Horror Digital, I’m sure, he does his own “franchise harvest” and gives a rundown on the sequels and the circumstances under which they were produced. This is a lot of fun, especially if you’re interested in the business side of moviemaking like I am.
Oscar nominated editor Mark Goldblatt also is given the opportunity to offer his insight and experiences making The Howling in Cut to Shred (11:20). It’s interesting to hear about just how run-and-gun low budget filmmaking was in the pre-digital age. By many accounts (including Terrence Winkless in his interview) Goldblatt was instrumental in shape the film and make it as good as it is and he gives a good run down of he cut the film’s centerpiece transformation scene. Editors, especially on low budget movies, are often the unsung heroes and it’s nice to see Goldblatt get some much deserved recognition.
The insanely generous supplemental package is topped off with the usual Trailers and a Still Gallery of behind-the-scenes and promotional photos.
Honestly, I can find very little to complain about in The Howling. It’s just such a canny balance of alternating tones, loaded with great performances, a clever script, and it’s just such a fun movie to watch. It was a low budget production and certainly looks it, but the lack of budgetary resources never impedes the entertainment value. Joe Dante and Rob Bottin stretch the money they had to the limit, but never to the breaking point. I hesitate to use the word masterpiece, but The Howling is certainly a classic and has earned that status many times over. Likewise, though it’s not the superlative release in all respects, Shout Factory has done an admirable job of bringing one of the last great werewolf movies to high-def, and has heaped an insanely generous portion of special features onto the already supplement rich offerings from the MGM 2003 DVD.
The 2.0 track is actually a two channel downmix of the 5.1 track, the original mono track is absent.
Am I the only one who thinks this movie is bloody dull?
The FX work is great, though.
Twister, I actually was of that mind for a long time, but revisited it for the new Blu-ray and became one of the converted. Watching it again, I really took to Dante's humor and all the in-jokes and cameos were a lot of fun. Bottin's effects-work, and some of the seedier aspects of the story, like the porn shop opening, also resonated more with me than they had before.
You didn't mention the deleted scenes/outtakes. On the dvd, the hot tub scene started late compared to the laserdisc which had much more boobs afloatin'! It's all back and looking better than ever on the blu. It played into my having to upgrade the title to blu, might for others too.
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