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Howling, The (Special Edition) Print E-mail
Saturday, 23 August 2003

The Howling

MGM Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Dick Miller
release year: 1981
film rating: Four stars
sound/picture: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

When Avco-Embassy bought Gary Brandner's novel "The Howling" for filming, initially the plan was to follow the plot of the novel, which was not quite about werewolves, but about people whose spirits inhabited wolves hanging around in a nearby forest.
Things changed radically when Joe Dante was hired as director. At first, he tried to stick with the unpromising idea as scripted by Terence Winkless. But then he and producer Michael Finnell decided to bite the silver bullet, and suggested that instead of werewolf-like creatures, why not go all the way and do the first Hollywood werewolf movie in 18 years? Only this time, instead of the standard lap-dissolve werewolf transformations, go for broke and show the transformations in real time without optical effects. This would be a marketable element in and of itself. (Meanwhile, John Landis was getting together the money and materials to do his own "An American Werewolf in London" with a similar approach.)

And so it was done. John Sayles wrote a new script and Rob Bottin, then only 21, was hired to realize the complicated effects. As things turned out, the effects were outstanding, involving inflated bladders and heads that could be physically changed, and certainly were a salable feature -- but as with "An American Werewolf" what really counted was the script and the direction. "The Howling" was so successful in its original release, in rerelease and on video, that it has spawned no fewer than six sequels/follow-ups, not one of which is anywhere near as good as "The Howling" itself.

The one-two punch of "Piranha," made not long before, and "The Howling" established Dante as a director with a fresh eye and an unusual approach. There has never been another movie director with Dante's sardonic/sentimental charm, a genre buff's love of SF and horror, a cartoonist's wit and a willingness to go for broke with scene after scene. Some of this doesn't work, but most of it does.

The trouble is that this makes Dante hard to cast as a director, and he's made fewer films than someone this talented should have. He slips back and forth between big movie projects (one of his biggest, "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" is due out at Christmas), small movies and television shows ("Eerie, Indiana," for example). Often, though, he goes for some time taking a lot of meetings for projects that don't get off the ground.

"The Howling" represents Dante as well as any film he's ever done, except perhaps "Gremlins" (or, seen through broken lenses, "Explorers"). It's brash, fresh and funny -- but it's also scary, involving and tragic. No other American horror movie had ever even considered taking an approach like Dante does in "The Howling." Although on the commentary track (recorded several years ago for a laserdisc release) laments that the movie now seems dated, it really doesn't. It's as witty and lively as ever, and though this kind of makeup effect has been seen many times since (and to a degree supplanted by CGI), the transformation scene is still awesome.

Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a TV reporter about to set up an interview with mysterious serial killer Eddie (Robert Picardo). He meets with her in a porno shop viewing booth, and something happens that so horrifies Karen that she can't remember what she saw. Her boyfriend Bill Neill (Christopher Stone) is supportive, but she responds best to Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), a motivational therapist who runs an Esalen-like group known as The Colony.

Karen and Bill go up the California coast to The Colony (mostly shot in the Mendocino area), and things do start seeming a little better for Karen. (Some group therapy scenes were cut, but are included in the set of deleted scenes.) But Bill is strangely attracted by the sexy Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), which leads to sex and then terror in the woods. Karen's best friend Terry Fisher (Belinda Balaski) is torn to shreds -- but Karen doesn't know right away that she's in a colony of werewolves.

The only clumsy part of the film is when it returns too often to the same shadowy office in The Colony headquarters. Yes, the film had only a moderate budget, but surely another location could have been found. Still, there's a great variety to what happens in the office, for this is where the paralyzed-with-fear Terry watches Eddie turn into a giant wolf that walks on its hind legs. These werewolves are vulnerable to silver bullet, and can pass on lycanthropy by biting but not killing a victim, but they change by choice -- they're not unwillingly transformed when the autumn moon is bright. So there's absolutely none of the pathos that centered on most previous movie werewolves, most especially Lon Chaney, Jr., as Lawrence Talbot, The Wolf Man of blessed memory.

Dante layers the film with sassy jokes -- references to older werewolf movies (including a strangely beautiful photo of Chaney, jr. au naturel), Ginsburg's "The Howl," a big-bad-wolf cartoon on TV, sheriff Slim Pickens' Wolf Chili, and so forth. But these are the kinds of jokes that are there for those who get them, and go right by those who don't. It isn't necessary to recognize Roger Corman or Forrest J Ackerman (of Famous Monsters of Filmland) when they do their cameos, or to know that most character names are borrowed from directors of werewolf movies to enjoy "The Howling," but they add another layer of fun. As with Dick Miller's energetic appearance as occult bookstore owner Walter Paisley. He only worked one day, but in an interview admits it's his favorite role.

"The Howling" is fun, and provides lots of it. The cinematography by John Hora is excellent, making great use of foggy forest locations, the supporting cast is full of entertaining actors, from Patrick Macnee through John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy and Kenneth Tobey. Except for the kind of stumble about halfway through -- we see a bit too much of the coast highway -- the movie rockets along, carrying a surprised and entertained audience in its wake.

The DVD presents a pristine print of the film, available for 16X9 expansion for those with the tools to do so. The sound is especially lively and layered, with a wide variety of effects; the title sequence is full of quotes from the film, though you don't know that the first time you watch it. And the movie really is one of those that deserves rewatching.

This isn't the first DVD of "The Howling," but the first one, also issued by MGM Home Video, had virtually no extras. This newer edition features a slip cover for the case, and is so laden with extras that both sides of the DVD are required. The commentary track features Dante, Dee Wallace, her husband the late Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo. It's reasonably entertaining and occasionally surprising, but it's also on the chaotic side -- a bit more planning would have resulted in a more entertaining track. Still, for those who like the film, it's a must-listen.

The other side of the disc features "Making a Monster Movie: Inside 'The Howling'" that dates from 1981 and the initial release of the film. It's mostly talking heads against the same blue background, but much of what's said is interesting. There are also several deleted scenes and outtakes (which lack the narration Dante did for the laserdisc release), a couple of trailers and even more trailers for other MGM DVD releases. But the real triumph of the added material is "Unleashing the Beast: Making 'The Howling,'" a new documentary by Jeffrey Schwartz. Many involved with the film, including Dante, Finnell, Sayles, Dee Wallace-Stone, Dick Miller and others were interviewed in a variety of settings. Footage from the film and the outtakes is well-used -- this is an especially intelligent, worthwhile behind-the-scenes feature. Even the sound effects and how they're used in the film are discussed, which is rare.

MGM has been issuing a lot of "Midnite Movies" == horror films mostly from the '60s and '70s, but occasionally reaching way back, as with their recent release of the 1931 "The Ghoul" -- which is the liveliest, most welcome horror movie series on DVD since the Universal Classics of a few years ago. "The Howling" was initially one of these MGM "Midnite Movies," but this new release is a "Special edition." and it certainly is.

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed (16X9 enhanced)
special features: commentary track with director Joe Dante and some of the cast; documentary "Unleashing the Beast -- Making 'The Howling'," documentary "Making a Monster Movie -- Inside 'The Howling.'" Deleted scenes, outtakes, two theatrical trailers, publicity photos, production photos, trailers for other MGM DVD releases.
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reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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