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The Howling (1981)

Shout! Factory
Blu-ray Disc Released: 6/18/2013

All Ratings out of
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 6/26/2013

Even if you've only followed horror movie trends for a few minutes, you've noticed that scary films go in trends. In a short period of time, two or more movies with the same or similar themes will be released, and we all wonder if it's just a coincidence or was something nefarious happening behind the scenes. 1981 was definitely the year of the werewolf. In August 1981, An American Werewolf in London from The Blues Brothers director John Landis was released and went on to win an Oscar for its special effects. However, earlier in the year, a smaller film called The Howling came out and became a hit with the indie horror crowd, as it boasted its own impressive special effects. The two movies may have both had ground-breaking effects, but they are very different, as we can see with the new Blu-ray Disc release of The Howling.

As The Howling opens, we are dropped into the middle of an assignment by TV report Karen White (Dee Wallace) who is on the trail of a serial killer, known simply as "Eddie", who has been contacting her. While patrolling skid row, Karen makes her way to an adult book store, where Eddie confronts her and is shot by the police. As one would imagine, this event is very traumatic for Karen and she is unable to go back on television. With the support of her husband, Bill (Christopher Stone), and a psychiatrist, Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee), Karen goes to The Colony, a northern California retreat. Meanwhile, Karen's co-workers Chris (Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski) investigate Eddie, and find some very strange things. Speaking of strange, Karen finds the other residents at The Colony to be eccentric, but Bill not only joins in the other men, but also finds himself attracted to Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks). However, Karen has no idea just how weird things are going to get.

The Howling is one of those movies which I saw as a kid that I remember as being awesome. (Of course 99.9% of the movies, especially horror movies, which I saw during that period fall into that category.) Watching the movie now, I have some different views on it. The first thing that you notice is that this really isn't a werewolf movie. If you went into The Howling unaware, you would probably be very surprised when 42 minutes into the movie, furry creatures arrive. Up until that point, the movie plays more like a mystery procedural, combined with melodrama. This is both one of the things that one easily forgets if you haven't seen the movie in a while and something which makes the movie unique. This could have easily been a wall-to-wall exploitation film, but the screenplay by future Oscar-nominee John Sayles and Terence Winkless is happy to take its time and take the viewer down one path and then suddenly turn the tables on them. This is combined with Director Joe Dante's love for Hollywood history, which he integrates into many scenes early on in the film.

However, it's these same things which make The Howling different which also hurt the movie. The first half of the movie does a good job of setting up the characters, but it also meanders at times, and it's very easy to wonder if The Howling has any idea what it is doing. Once this officially becomes a werewolf movie, it does so in a way which is again, different, and again, off-putting. It looks as if it's going to slowly (finally) morph into a horror picture and then suddenly there's a werewolf attack -- but this transition doesn't feel very organic. The movie has a reputation for being campy and funny, but this isn't really true. Yes, Dante's nods to other movies and media are clever, but there isn't much humor here.

This nitpicking aside, there are definitely reasons why The Howling didn't slip away into horror obscurity. First of all, the special effects makeup and werewolf transformation effects were very impressive. The camera doesn't turn away when we finally see the change take place. Also, the look of the wolves themselves is very cool, as I've always preferred the werewolves which look like wolves, but walk upright. (And there's something about the especially long ears here which is very unique.) (Having said that, just as with An American Werewolf in London, it can be argued that the story screeches to a halt to show off these effects.) The movie also helped to give Joe Dante more mainstream exposure, which would help him get the job on Gremlins, and he truly proved that he has a great eye here, as many of the shots are well-composed and there is a nice use of moving camera. The movie is notable to cult fans due to its unique cast. Is The Howling a good werewolf movie? Yes. Is it the best werewolf movie of 1981? No. But, it certainly wears its independence on its sleeve and it offers enough unique thrills to be worth watching.

The Howling apparently becomes a were terrier movie at the end on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Shout! Factory. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The transfer looks good and it's obvious that care went into it. There are moments in The Howling which has always had that soft focus look, so there was probably no way to correct those. However, much of the movie is very sharp and clear, showing only slight grain at times and very minute defects from the source materials. Those sharper scenes are very crisp and the level of detail is good. The image is never overly bright or dark, despite the many nighttime shots. The depth is average. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 30 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are noteworthy, most notably in the scenes where characters are moving through the forest. Likewise, the surround sound also works well here, showing that the mix was utilized to compliment the film. Subwoofer effects aren't overwhelming, but they do add to the werewolf growls.

Unlike the sheriff in the movie, the extras on The Howling Blu-ray Disc aren't Slim Pickens. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Joe Dante, Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo. This must has been recorded for a laserdisc release, as Stone died in 1995. This is followed by a second COMMENTARY author Gary Brandner, on whose novel the film is based, who is accompanied by commentator Michael Felsher. "Howlings Eternal" (19 minutes) has Executive Producer Steven A. Lane describing the making of The Howling and the sequels...and yes, he was behind all of them. Mark Goldblatt discusses editing the film in "Cut to Shreds" (11 minutes). "Interview with Co-Writer Terence Winkless" (13 minutes) has the veteran talking about how he got his start on this film and it effected his career. "Horror's Hallowed Grounds" (12 minutes) has Sean Clark leading us through several real-life locations which were featured in the film. "Making a Monster Movie: Inside The Howling" (8 minutes) is a brief, archival piece, presumably from the early 80s, which features comments from Dante, Bottin, and Macnee, as well as clips from the movie. (Bottin really needs to button his shirt.) "Interview with Stop Motion animator David Allen" (9 minutes) has the artist talking about his work on the movie while a werewolf sits on his lap, which is odd. This piece shows some moments which are not seen in the film. "Unleashing the Beast - Making of The Howling" (49 minutes) is a comprehensive pieced which offers interviews with the cast and filmmakers, as well as some production stills. This gives a very detailed look at the evolution of the film, the cast, and the production. The Disc contains twelve DELETED SCENES which run about 11 minutes. These can be viewed with the original audio or with COMMENTARY from Dante. The scenes are brief and mostly throwaway, but we do get a brief glimpse of one of the stop-motion wolves. We get a 7-minute reel of OUTTAKES. The extras are rounded out by the THEATRICAL TRAILER and a PHOTO GALLERY.

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.