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 into 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 familiar kind of 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.
The Video and Audio
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.
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).