Before he fully established his directorial persona with the 1984 mega-hit Gremlins, director Joe Dante made a name for himself with The Howling, a 1981 adaptation of author Gary Bradner's popular horror novel. As Dante's second feature-length directorial effort, the movie is an odd duck in his catalog, taking a reasonably serious approach to werewolf horror, with only a few hints of his sense of humor. Although it's certainly interesting to see Dante going for real scares and tension, the lack of his usual personality makes this straightforward story feel like a relic that fails to transform a classic monster into something fresh.
Reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone) has put herself in her own story, posing as a mark for a local creep named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) to get the inside scoop. She agrees to meet him in an adult video store, where he forces her to watch rape porn instead of looking at him. Just as something unnatural begins to happen to Eddie, the police bust in and gun him down, turning Karen into an emotional wreck who can't quite process what she's seen. Her doctor, George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) suggests she and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) should take some time off and visit The Colony, a secluded therapy resort near the ocean, while co-workers Chris (Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski) investigate Quist. Karen is tormented by flashbacks, while Chris and Terry uncover a treasure trove of werewolf lore that suggests something odd was going on with Eddie. Meanwhile, advances by Colony patient Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) toward Bill start to seem downright predatory, and the members of the Colony keep acting weirder and weirder...
Having made his debut on Roger Corman's B-classic Piranha and considering his future contributions to the horror-comedy genre, it's surprising how little of Dante's trademark humor is present. There are some winks and nods, sure, but all the cans of Wolf Chili in the world wouldn't change the overall tone of the movie, which is serious. Instead of these little nudges providing some moments of comic relief amidst the terror, The Howling ends up stumbling in both areas, desperately calling out for either more focus on the subtext trickling in from Brandner's novel or a more playful approach to the movie's scare sequences. It's not that The Howling needs to be a joke-fest, just that the movie isn't much fun, which feels like a disappointment coming from a guy like Dante.
With a monster like werewolves, the appeal is not in the details of the monster itself (which audiences are already well-versed in), but the subtext the monster is being applied to. Take away the political and sociological overtones of a Romero zombie movie, and the results would be pretty bland. That's pretty much what's wrong with The Howling, which sets up a comparison between sexual predators and werewolves. Eddie attacks Karen in a video booth in the back of an adult video store, and the fallout affects Karen and Bill's relationship, leading Bill to stray (not to mention the curse of being a werewolf is a physical violation in and of itself). The literal details are all there, but Dante doesn't really work it into the film on any deeper level, switching over to Chris and Terry's standard investigation too often to really delve Karen's psychological state.
The Howling is fondly remembered by many for its spectacular transformation scene, masterminded by a young Rob Bottin. There's no denying that the sequence is a show-stopper, it's just a shame that it literally has to stop the show, showing each and every limb slowly shifting and re-shaping. It's perfectly representative of a final third that's more interested in the conventional aspects of the werewolf movie than anything deeper. As the conventional horror movie sequences begin to stack up, Dante's personality is less and less apparent, practically disappearing completely as the characters move around waving guns and running for their lives. As far as traditional genre fare goes, The Howling has its moments, but with a name like Joe Dante involved, "traditional" is a complaint.
Shout! Factory gives The Howling the complete Collector's Edition treatment. New key art by Nathan Thomas Milliner appears on both the slipcover and the actual case insert, but for the purists (like me), the insert can be flipped over for the original theatrical poster art. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly Blu-Ray case, and a leaflet advertising the rest of the Scream Factory line is tucked inside.
The Video and Audio
Anyone who imports Blu-Rays will know what they're in for when they see The Howling's 1.85:1 1080p AVC presentation open with the Studio Canal logo, who released a Blu-Ray in France back in 2010. I don't blame Shout! Factory, who can only work with what they're given, but this dated master is a disappointment. Some sharpening and maybe some noise reduction have obviously been applied, turning skin waxy and making grain appear noisy. Sequences that take place in the dark are particularly underwhelming, displaying no depth or dimension even when accounting for Dante's soft focus lighting and liberal use of smoke. Daytime material fares better, and there is definitely a jump in detail and clarity from the DVD editions, but it's a shame that Shout! Factory doesn't have the resources to strike new masters for their Blu-Rays, as The Howling is in need of one.
A DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is more impressive. The French release only came with a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track. I haven't seen The Howling enough times or recently enough to judge how the 5.1 remix compares to the original stereo, but this is a reasonably lively mix with plenty of snarls and growls during the film's big transformation sequences. Music is vibrant and dialogue is crisp, but the mix is definitely not as emphatic about the directorial effects as some 5.1 re-mixes -- it's nicely balanced and creates a surround environment without waving the alterations in the viewer's ears. English subtitles are also included.
First of all, Shout! Factory has ported all of the extras from MGM's Special Edition DVD of The Howling, including an audio commentary by Joe Dante, Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo, 2003 and 1981 behind-the-scenes pieces ("Unleashing the Beast: The Making of The Howling" and "Making of a Monster: Inside The Howling"), outtakes, and a photo gallery. For this review, the focus will be on the all-new extras.
Most of the Shout! additions are interviews. "Howlings Eternal With Steven A. Lane" (18:49, HD) is a new sit-down interview with the film's executive producer, tracing his initial jump from theater owner to film producer, and his subsequent Howling journey through the film's five sequels -- a must-watch for fans of the whole series. "Cut to Shreds With Editor Mark Goldblatt" (11:20, HD) mostly dives into Goldblatt's working relationship with Dante, as well as the specific challenges of making The Howling. Interview with Terence H. Winkless (12:32) is a fast-paced chat with one of the film's two screenwriters. He chats about what The Howling meant to his career, his memories of working with Dante, the changes he made to the book, the film's visual effects, Pino Donaggio's score, and how the finished film turned out in comparison to his screenplay. Finally, it wouldn't be a Shout! release without a new episode of "Horror's Hallowed Grounds" (12:15, HD), with Sean Clark visiting the movie's shooting locations.
There are also a couple of "new" extras not specifically produced by Shout! but new to the disc. An interview with stop-motion animator David Allen (8:48) is a fascinating vintage piece from the laserdisc, where the animator talks about the challenge of making the werewolves a little less human. He talks about the filmmakers' attempt to use a full-size werewolf puppet, and his perspective on how his work was treated on the picture. The real highlight is two shots that never made the finished film. From the perspective of the filmmakers back in 1981, it's not too surprising they weren't used, but in 2013, they look like lost genius. The new video content wraps up with a reel of deleted scenes (11:29), with and without commentary by director Joe Dante. The most interesting snip is a hot tub scene with Dee Wallace that brings back a little of the sexual predator theme, and a great little gag about Kevin McCarthy's character, delivered by Belinda Balaski. Dante's comments are mostly explanatory, adding some context for where the scenes belong in the movie.
The final new extra is hidden away in the audio options: an audio commentary by author Gary Brandner, hosted by Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher. Brandner's low opinion of Dante's film is notorious, so it's not surprising that Felsher eases into the discussion, spending a bit of time on Brandner's career and the history of the novel itself before diving into the controversy. They say time heals all wounds, and this track bears that out, with Brandner commenting that Dante "made a good movie," but expresses his disappointment that Dante publicly badmouthed the novel -- "I made him!" Brandner jokes. Other topics of discussion include werewolf lore, werewolf movies, some of the book and film sequels ("I'm sort of a sell-out," he laughs), Brandner's other novels (including the novelization of Paul Schrader's Cat People), and the author's amateur boxing career (!), as well as the occasional comment about the film itself. Despite Brandner's limited involvement with Dante's version of The Howling, his openness and Felsher's exhaustive research and excellent questions result in a wonderful extensive interview with the author that will please both fans and newcomers.
An original theatrical trailer is included. Most should also have no trouble finding a fun little easter egg (3:28).
Although I'm a fan of Dante's work, The Howling still doesn't do much for me, offering only a few dashes of the director's usual sense of humor. That said, the film has plenty of fans, and even with a less-than-perfect transfer, this is a package they should be thrilled to own, offering an improvement on the DVD in all areas. Recommended.
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