1981 was a big year for lycanthropes in cinema, with two of the werewolf genre’s most beloved entries - John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling - making their respective bows. Landis’ more comical film proved to be the biggest critical and commercial success of the two, but, for many fans, Joe Dante’s is the purer werewolf vehicle. From its sweeping Pino Donaggio orchestral score to the gypsy-like antagonist Marsha (played by the late Elisabeth Brooks), The Howling is loyal to the genre’s Universal Monsters origins almost to a fault, eschewing Landis’ film’s oftentimes self-parodying humor in favor of old school thrills and chills. Many critics dismissed the film as “silly” and “old fashioned”, completely overlooking the fact that it wasn’t Dante’s intention to reinvent the wheel, here, but, rather, to retread it ever so slightly for modern audience consumption by heightening the level of eroticism and violence while holding true to the classical elements of the films he grew up watching. It’s an obvious labor of love that, even after thirty-plus years, holds up as well as its more popular sibling.
Dee Wallace stars as Karen White, a popular news anchor who has found herself the object of serial killer, Eddie’s (Robert Picardo), affection and admiration. The police decide to use Karen as the bait to lure the killer out of hiding, fitting her with a wire, and following her to a rendezvous with Eddie, while her husband, Bill (the late Christoper Stone, Wallace’s husband in real life as well as in other films, including Cujo) and best friend/reporter, Terry (Belinda Balaski), listen in. The police lose contact with Karen as she enters a sleazy adult book store, and enters a movie viewing booth with Eddie, who is hidden in the shadows. Eddie forces Karen to watch a violent porno flick whilst regaling her with tales of his sordid crimes, and then invites Karen to turn around to see him as he truly is. Just as Karen bears witness to his horrific visage, the police arrive, and, hearing her screams, fire blindly into the movie booth, “killing” Eddie.
Traumatized by the incident, Karen finds herself unable to recount anything that occurred inside the booth, and, after an onset meltdown, is put in the care of psychiatrist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee). Waggner recommends Karen come stay at his remote psychiatric retreat, The Colony, where he assures her they’ll get to the root of her problems. Accompanied by Bill, Karen arrives at The Colony, where she is introduced to the retreat’s eccentric residents, including the temperamental seductress, Marsha who immediately sets her sites on Bill.
Meanwhile, Terry and her boyfriend, Chris (Dennis Dugan), tying up the loose ends on their report on Eddie, and visit the killer’s apartment, where they discover a disturbing collection of news clippings, drawings of werewolves, and other assorted ephemera. At first, Eddie’s fixation with the supernatural seems like it would make for good television, but, after Eddie’s body mysteriously disappears from the morgue, they begin to question their better judgment.
Things come to a head when a hysterical Karen calls Terry, informing her of strange noises and behavior at The Colony, prompting her friend to pay the coastal community a visit.
With its classic creep-outs and vintage sensibilities, The Howling is very much a Universal Monsters flick juiced up for the slasher generation, with extremely effective special effects by Rob Bottin (replacing Rick Baker, who defected from the project for An American Werewolf in London), and an impressive cast that includes both veteran actors (Macnee, Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, and, of course, Dante regular, Dick Miller) as well as (then) fresh faces (Wallace, Brooks, Picardo). The real star of the film, however, is director, Joe Dante, as his love and respect for the classics is evident throughout, with nods to everything from The Wolf Man to 1970’s Nympho Werewolf. It’s not a perfect film, and, in my opinion, Landis’ and Baker’s An American Werewolf in London still stands as the best werewolf movie of the 80s (if not of all time), but The Howling is still a thrilling and entertaining throwback that deserves a spot in any self-respecting horror fan’s collection.
Scream Factory presents The Howling on Blu-ray as part of its Collector’s Edition series, and, as has been the case with virtually every release by Shout! Factory’s horror division, the results are nothing short of spectacular. The film is presented in a gorgeous 1.86:1 transfer that manages to recreate the early 80s aesthete without sacrificing sharpness, clarity, or depth of image. Colors are rich and vibrant, especially evident during the neon-drenched opening sequence and the cool blue moonlight of The Colony’s creepy forest scenes, and blacks are deep and true, with no sign of blocking or excess noise. As with previous vintage Scream Factory releases, we’re presented with two options for audio tracks – a 2.0 DTS HD Master Audio track and a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track. The purist in me prefers the former, but the 5.1 track is very well mixed and isn’t as forced sounding as other attempts to modernize mono source materials.
Extras are abundant, as usual, with a vintage commentary by Dante, Stone, Wallace, and Picardo, as well as a new commentary track with Gary Brandner, the author of the book upon which the film as based (albeit loosely, as screenwriters Terrence Winkless and John Sayles, took many liberties with the property).
We’re also given a trio of interview segments (HD) featuring Winkless, editor, Mark Goldblatt, and Stop Motion Effects Artist, David Allen, as well as a new episode of punk-rock-horror-hound, Sean Clark’s Horror’s Hallowed Ground (HD), which re-visits some of the locations where the movie was filmed.
Two making-of featurettes are included here, with the vintage Making a Monster Movie: Inside The Howling (HD), as well as the previously released Unleashing the Beast - The Making of The Howling (SD), which is a much more in-depth retrospective.
Rounding out the extras are a collection of deleted scenes (with optional commentary) (HD), outtakes (HD), the film’s original trailer (HD), and a photo gallery (HD). Oh, and a DVD version of the film, AND, of course, Scream Factory’s reversible cover!
Of course, it goes without say that this release comes highly recommended!