The Howling: Special Edition
Film Length: 91 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1), Full Frame (4:3)
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Mono
Greetings all! I want to begin by telling you how grateful I am to have been given this opportunity on this great forum, and I truly look forward to interacting with all of you! Hopefully, at the very least, you will find all of my reviews informative and useful! There is a lost of product out there these days, so I will attempt to make my reviews as complete as possible to help you make purchase or rental decisions. Of course, I welcome feedback, as long as it is tastefully presented, as it will help me to incorporate things that you want to see in my reviews. Anyway, enough ranting, and on to my first review...
1981 was a watershed year for the modern werewolf movie, with the release of three well received lycanthrope films, An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen, and The Howling For me though, The Howling, director Joe Dante’s B-movie horror classic, stands above the others as the werewolf movie of the 1980s. I do have some minor quibbles with the film’s pacing, but the mix of tongue-in-cheek humor, groundbreaking effects and makeup work by Rob Bottin, and effectively frightening horror elements all add up to a genuinely satisfying movie experience. Largely for these reasons, the film was honored with the 1981 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Moreover, it has influenced countless horror films since, and spawned six sequels, albeit mostly horrible ones. Without further adieu, let’s take a closer look at this Special Edition release of The Howling.
At the outset of the movie, a serial murderer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo) is stalking television reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone). In order to help the police apprehend Quist, Karen agrees to be wired and bait him into an ambush. When the wire fails during the set-up, things almost turn out badly for Karen, but fortunately, several police officers are able to follow her anyway, and gun down Quist before he can add her to his list of victims.
This experience severely traumatizes Karen, rendering her unable to function as a reporter, so she seeks help from a renowned psychologist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee). Upon meeting her, Dr. Waggner convinces Karen and her spouse Bill (Christopher Stone) that it would be beneficial for her to visit his retreat, The Colony, so she can recuperate. Ironically, shortly after reaching The Colony to confront her inner demons, Karen becomes perturbed by the odd nature of the rest of the guests, and the guttural, demonic sounds emanating from the nearby woods.
In the meantime, a couple of White’s colleagues, doing some snooping of their own, journey to her assailant’s residence and find some rather bizarre items inside. To decipher these clues, they travel to a bookstore that deals in the occult. The owner tells the pair that their discoveries are related to werewolves, and informs them that most of the myths associated with werewolves are just that – myths. For example, werewolves are called shape-shifters because they can change forms at will, not only when the moon is full. They can also regenerate when injured, and unless killed correctly, they will rise from the dead. Apparently, however, silver bullets are the real deal, and can indeed fell werewolves. Coincidentally, he just happens to have a case of silver bullets lying around, but then again, who doesn’t? :wink:
The film continues drawing the two storylines together, and it turns out that The Colony is sort of a commune for werewolves, where they have organized to help ensure their own survival. The most interesting plot points and horrific scenes are unveiled during the final 30 minutes of the film, with the mortals struggling to stay alive, and the residents of The Colony battling each others’ philosophies about their place in the world. For those who haven’t seen the film, I really don’t want to spoil any more of the story, so I will leave it up to you to find out how these events play out for yourselves.
As I inferred in the previous paragraph, the final third of the film is where the meat of this story lies. This brings up my only real complaint about The Howling. The pace of the movie is never laborious, but it takes some time to really get moving, and in my opinion, the general lack of action hinders the first hour of the film somewhat. I found this especially true when comparing the first hour with the almost breakneck pace of the latter portions of the movie. Perhaps Dante was trying to build up anticipation for the seriously cool transformation scenes, but I think a little more excitement during the first hour would have been welcome.
Pacing issues notwithstanding, this is a pretty good flick, which succeeds on many levels by not taking itself too seriously. The performances are little better than average, but that is forgivable, as this is clearly supposed to be a B-movie. More importantly, there is a subtle balance between wit and horror that never gets out of control, and the ending is well constructed. Finally, the skillful make-up and effects were carried out with such precision that they remain effective despite the passage of over twenty years. Joe Dante’s The Howling is not quite perfect, but it remains more fun and entertaining to watch than many of today’s creature features, which makes it easy to recommend it.
So, How Does It Look?
The film is presented two ways, in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), and in full-frame (4:3). Cheers to MGM for giving those who are still, for whatever reason, watching films in full-frame a choice. Obviously, after making that statement, I viewed the anamorphic widescreen presentation of the film for this review, and given the age/budget of this film I was impressed. I do not own the previous movie-only version, so I could not do an A/B comparison of the two discs. I have seen it though, so if memory serves this transfer is a slight improvement over the previous one.
To be more specific, although the source material shows its age a bit, flesh-tones are spot-on, and colors are bold and vivid, giving greater impact to the visceral images in the late stages of the film. Blacks are also deep and rich, giving the film a nice texture and good shadow detail, which is important because many scenes occur at night. Thankfully, it seems that compression was kept to a minimum. As such, fine detail extends well into the background, and I did not see any noticeable artifacting. I must say that I am surprised MGM was able to pull off a transfer this good with two versions of the movie and a commentary track on one side of the disc. A very respectable transfer overall, especially considering the age of the source material.
What Is That Noise?
The audio in this Special Edition of The Howling has been given a full-blown Dolby Digital 5.1 re-mix, although the original mono soundtrack is included for those who want to experience the sound as it was originally. I should point out that I am a big advocate of surround mixes, so I chose to listen to the Dolby Digital mix. Again, considering the age of the source material, I thought the 5.1 mix sounded very good, but LFE extension is a somewhat disappointing and the high frequencies seemed a little muddy.
Surround effects were also used somewhat sparingly, but I thought it actually heightened the tension of the film because they were aggressive during the right moments. The really good news is that the sound field of this new mix is expansive, dialogue is crisp and clear, and there seems to be a good balance between the soundtrack, effects, and dialogue within the mix.
Please note that most of the extras (except the commentary track) are on side two of this flipper disc. Also, although it is debatable that these classify as extras, this DVD comes with an attractive, textured cardboard slipcover and a four page leaflet that contains some interesting trivia along with the standard chapter selection list.
** Unleashing the Beast: Making The Howling documentary:
Without a doubt, this is the most interesting new addition to The Howling, in terms of added-value material. This is a wonderful documentary, sliced up into five sections, that runs for approximately 45-minutes. Most of the major cast members have participated in this well produced supplement, including Dee Wallace-Stone, Dick Miller, and Robert Picardo. There are also interviews with some of the production team, including Joe Dante, John Sayles, and Mike Finnell.
Throughout the five segments, these individuals cover the journey of this project to the big screen, including how Dante was brought on board and the story was changed to depart from the original novel. There is also exhaustive coverage of the creative processes that went into creating the creatures and morphing effects. To put it bluntly, if there is something you want to know about The Howling, it is in this documentary. In all respects, this is a thoughtful, interesting, and creative documentary, so make sure and watch it!!!
**Making A Monster Movie: Inside The Howling featurette:
It is easy to see that this 8-minute promotional piece was filmed in 1981. The music is horribly dated, and there is little reason to watch this except for nostalgia, now that the far superior Unleashing the Beast has been included on the disc. You may wish to watch the first two minutes for a look at circa-1981 Rob Bottin though. I think he could have passed as a lycanthrope in this movie without any makeup!
Originally recorded for the laserdisc release, the feature-length commentary, in stereo, re-unites Director Joe Dante and stars Dee Wallace Stone, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo. This commentary differs from many of the others I have listened to, in that the participants really seem to have had a good time doing it. Dante does the majority of the talking, but the others join in frequently, poking fun at the fashions of the time, telling stories about people in the film, and relaying the experiences they had on-set.
During the commentary, Dante fires off a lot of interesting information about The Howling. Serious fans will probably already know most of this information, but I was fascinated to learn how the budget was kept to a mere $1.1 million. For example, Wallace-Stone wore her own clothes, and news coverage of dead bodies early in the film was not filmed by Dante, but was actual coroner’s footage. Dante also provides a lot of detail about the people in the film, and alerts viewers to the fact that most of the characters in The Howling are named after the directors of famous horror films.
For budding directors, producers, or just people interested in the art of filmmaking, Dante goes into a lot of depth about various cinematic techniques employed on the film. Among them include, the piecing together of important scenes, getting actors to visualize and respond to creatures that are not really on-set, and the thought process behind trimming scenes and dialogue from the movie.
That is the good, so let’s move on to the very few not-so-well done aspects of the commentary. Really, other than some haphazard editing, there is not a lot wrong with this commentary track. At certain points, there are large breaks between comments, and there were a couple instances where someone would make an inquiry that was never answered. One thing is for sure, there certainly are a lot worse commentaries out there. Overall, this one is a fun listen, and can easily be recommended to fans of the film. However, if commentaries are not your cup of tea, do not worry, because much of this information is also present in the new documentary “Unleashing the Beast”.
There are many scene extensions/edited scenes here, and they play continuously in non-anamorphic widescreen. Most of them were wisely cut from the film, at least as far as I am concerned, but here are some of the highlights:
-- Additional footage of the barbeque on the beach
-- A group therapy session at The colony
-- A conversation between Karen and Dr. Waggner
-- A scene with Karen outdoors in a hot tub, which included an effective “cheap scare”, but was overly long.
Nothing terribly interesting in this set of outtakes. Just the standard 5 minutes of line flubs and other similar antics. There are some interesting shots of burning stuntmen jumping out of the window of a barn though.
Two sets of promotional and production photos have been included, and most of the photographs are in color.
Two original theatrical trailers for the film are featured (in widescreen).
The Score Card
The Last Word
The Howling has enough going for it to make it my favorite werewolf film of the last twenty years. It is a great mix of genuine frights, dark humor, respectable (if not memorable) performances, and stellar FX work. It is easy for me to recommend the purchase of this Special Edition release, even if you own the original DVD, as MGM has really done it right this time. The transfer is film-like, and largely free from digital distractions. Better still, to my ears the new Dolby Digital 5.1 re-mix is a vast improvement over the sound on the previous movie-only release, and the great supplements should satisfy fans of the film. Go pick it up, turn the lights down, and enjoy!!!
August 26th, 2003