The Howling

Director: Joe Dante
Screenplay: John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless (based on the novel by Gary Brandner)
Stars: Dee Wallace (Karen White), Patrick Macnee (Dr. George Waggner), Dennis Dugan (Chris), Christopher Stone (Bill Neill), Belinda Balaski (Terry Fisher), Kevin McCarthy (Fred Francis), John Carradine (Erle Kenton), Slim Pickens (Sam Newfield), Elisabeth Brooks (Marsha), Robert Picardo (Eddie)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1981
Country: U.S.
The Howling Blu-ray
The Howling

For whatever reason, 1981 was the year of the werewolf. After there not having been a major werewolf film since Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf back in 1961, the second year of the ’80s saw the release of not two, not three, but four major Hollywood-produced werewolf films, which included (in order from serious to not-so-serious) Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, and Larry Cohen’s Full Moon High. The first one out of the gate, though, was The Howling, which helped to solidify director Joe Dante’s stature as a filmmaker with a real gift for mixing horror and dark comedy. It also established Rob Bottin, a protégé of Rick Baker’s, as one of the most gifted practical effects artists of his generation. His utterly convincing werewolf transformations, which were achieved completely with practical applications such as air bladders and prosthetics, set the stage for the surreal effects he created for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and other films such as Legend (1985), which netted him an Oscar nomination, RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Se7en (1995).

Loosely based on the 1978 novel by Gary Brandner, The Howling takes place primarily at a self-help retreat in northern California, where a television news journalist named Karen White (Dee Wallace) goes with her husband, Bill (Christopher Stone), after she is nearly murdered by a serial killer that had been stalking her. The film’s opening sequence finds Karen acting as willing bait for the police as she calls the stalker and then agrees to meet him in a porn shop. These opening moments are both suspenseful and incredibly grimy, as if Dante decided to channel the seedy vibe of Paul Schrader’s Hard Core (1979) or William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980). Things get lighter once Karen, who suffers from post-traumatic stress following her near-murder, and Bill arrive at the ocean-side retreat, which is run by Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) and is home to a group of colorful eccentrics, including John Carradine’s grizzled old Erle Kenton and Elisabeth Brooks’s vampish nymphomaniac Marsha. It doesn’t take much to guess that this supposed place of respite is actually a haven for werewolves, and the only real question is how many of the people there spout hair, fangs, and claws (unlike traditional werewolf lore, these can wolf out at will, which makes them that much more threatening).

The Howling was made by a group of recent graduates from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, where they had learned how to make the most of every bit of their low budgets and (perhaps more importantly) not to take themselves too seriously. The Howling is laced with humor, some of it offbeat and eccentric, some of it dark, and some of it just silly (try to count the number of visual “wolf” jokes, from prominently placed cans of Wolf brand chili, to a copy of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” on a table). Joe Dante had previously directed the self-aware Jaws knock-off Piranha (1978) for Corman, and producer Michael Finnell, who went on to produce virtually all of Dante’s films in the 1980s and ’90s, had worked his way up the Corman ranks, starting as a production assistant and production manager before producing Rock’n’Roll High School (1979), on which Dante did uncredited directing. The film was written by John Sayles, who took a page from the Orson Welles and John Cassavetes playbook by funding his own independent productions like The Brother From Another Planet (1984) and Matewan (1987) with his paychecks for writing genre fare for Corman like The Lady in Red (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), and Alligator (1980), and first-time scribe Terence H. Winkless, who became a prolific director of B-movies like The Nest (1987) and Not of This Earth (1995) and television series like Mighty Mophin Power Rangers and Pacific Blue.

Of course, humorous and self-aware as it often is, The Howling fundamentally works as a scary-gory werewolf thriller, with Bottin’s transformation effects casting a nearly hypnotic spell as we watch in grisly detail as faces elongate into snouts, fangs emerge, ears grow long, and hair sprouts all over, all of which is filmed in close-up detail that remains utterly and completely convincing even decades later. At the same time, the film also functions as a sly satire of everything from the shallow nature of television news (the newsroom is run by a sensation-seeking producer played by Kevin McCarthy, star of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers), to the absurdity of the New Age-y self-help fads that dominated the 1970s (which also happened to be the subject of Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Like many horror films of its era, the underlying dread of The Howling is that horror is everywhere, even in bucolic ocean-side retreats and television newsrooms. The film ends, of course, with a joke, and a delightfully cynical one at that: We have become so accustomed to both real-life horror and its make-up effects variety on the big screen, that even when faced with the worst, we may very well just blow it off.

The Howling Collector’s Edition Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio Commentary by director Joe Dante and actors Dee Wallace Stone, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo
  • Audio Commentary with source novel author Gary Brandner, moderated by Michael Felsher)
  • Interview with producer Steven A. Lane
  • Interview with editor Mark Goldblatt
  • Interview with co-writer Terence H. Winkless
  • Horror’s Hallowed Grounds episode
  • “Making a Monster Movie: Inside The Howling” featurette
  • Interview with stop-motion effects artist David Allen
  • Unleashing the Beast multi-part documentary
  • Deleted scenes with optional director commentary
  • Outtakes
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Photo gallery
  • DistributorShout! Factory
    Release DateJune 18, 2013

    Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition of The Howling offers a definite improvement over the previously available MGM DVDs. The 1080p/AVC-encoded image is dramatically sharper, with much better depth and detail, as well as sharper contrast. It is also slightly darker, which serves the visuals well and feels right for the material. There has also been a clear change in color grading from the warmer, redder look of the DVD to a cooler palette that sometimes makes flesh tones look a tad greenish. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack serves the film well, with good separation in the surrounds and a real sense of space when we hear howling in the distance. The score by regular De Palma collaborator Pino Donaggio is appropriately rich and dynamic. The supplements are a mix of the old and the new. From the 2003 DVD we get a fun and informative audio commentary by director Joe Dante and actors Dee Wallace Stone, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo, as well as the excellent 50-minute Unleashing the Beast retrospective documentary, which includes interviews with much of the cast and crew and tons of behind-the-scenes footage. New to this edition is an audio commentary by Gary Brandner, author of the source novel, which is moderated by Michael Felsher, who has directed, edited, and/or produced hundreds of making-of featurettes on horror and sci-fi films. Interestingly, the commentary is primarily about Brandner’s career as a writer, with only minimal attention paid to the film (which is not too surprising given how much of the novel was discarded in the adaptation). There are also a number of new interviews with contributors to the film, including producer Steven A. Lane (19 min.), who talks about how he essentially stumbled into producing the film and has since produced all of the (mostly) terrible sequels, some of which he defends and some of which he just chuckles about; editor Mark Goldblatt (11 min.); co-writer Terence H. Winkless (12 min.); and stop-motion effects artist David Allen (9 min.), whose work was left almost entirely on the cutting room floor (Allen’s interview was actually done many years ago, as he passed away in 1999, but this is the first time, I believe, it has been included as a supplement). We also get a 12-minute episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds in which gregarious host Sean Clarke takes us to virtually all of the film’s locations, most of which have not changed one bit. Finally, there is “Making a Monster Movie: Inside The Howling, an 8-minute EPK featurette from the film’s original release, as well as a number of deleted scenes with optional commentary, outtakes, a theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery.

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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