THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Werewolves are among the most difficult monsters to get right onscreen. They lack the personality of vampires and the bone-chilling terror of zombies. Even so, a few filmmakers have managed to make terrifically effective werewolf movies. John Landis' An American Werewolf in London is certainly among the front ranks, as is Joe Dante's The Howling, which comes to Blu-Ray on June 18 courtesy of Scream Factory.
Originally released in 1981, The Howling stars Dee Wallace as TV news reporter Karen White. As the film opens, she ventures into L.A.'s porn district to meet the stranger who's been sending her disturbing messages. They have a terrifying confrontation inside a viewing booth, after which she develops amnesia regarding the incident. Her therapist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), sends Karen and husband Bill (Christopher Stone) to “the Colony,” a remote camp in the woods where he leads therapeutic encounters. Unbeknownst to her, initially, is that the Colony has werewolves poking around. Karen's journalistic instincts kick in, and she starts to investigate the strange occurrences going on around her. What she discovers is even more frightening than what happened in the porn shop.
The Howling is a cracking good horror film, anchored by strong performances. Rather than being a stereotypical female victim, Karen is smart, fierce, and formidable, even when she's vulnerable in the face of hairy beasts. The movie is also aided by groundbreaking special effects, which still look phenomenal today. Makeup wizard Rob Bottin developed a smoother, more convincing way to do werewolf transitions than had ever been seen before. Without a doubt, the showstopping moment comes when we spend several minutes watching a character morph into a wolf. This has to be one of the seminal moments in '80s horror.
Beyond that, the movie benefits from Joe Dante's distinctly off-kilter sense of humor. He packs his film with wolf references, including cans of Wolf brand chili sitting in the background of scenes, and a copy of Allen Ginsberg's “Howl” resting on a table. Many characters, including George Waggner, were named after directors who made werewolf movies. Cameos from producer Roger Corman and “Famous Monsters of Filmland” editor Forest J. Ackerman are incorporated in wonderfully humorous fashion.
Dante has always been a master of mixing horror and comedy - just look at Gremlins - and The Howling is surely one of his best works. A few moments look a bit outdated, but other than that, the picture maintains its impact. I don't think there's a better werewolf movie than this.
The Howling Collector's Edition Blu-Ray will be released on June 18. It contains striking new cover art, but if you prefer the original, you can simply flip the insert around.
The extras are a mixture of brand-new stuff and features carried over from a previous DVD release. Kicking off the new stuff are three different interview segments, each running about ten minutes. Executive Producer Steven A. Lane talks about how The Howling came together, as well as the multiple sequels it spawned. (I had no idea there were so many.) Writer Terence Winkless discusses how and why the plot was changed from the book. Editor Mark Goldblatt, meanwhile, offers insight into how he cut the film so as to maximize the impact of the visual effects. All of these interviews are insightful and fun to watch.
“Horror's Hallowed Ground” is a look at the movie's locations, some of which are barely recognizable today due to changes in nature. Stop-motion animator Dave Allen gets a featurette, too, in which he reveals that most of his work was ultimately deemed not realistic enough for inclusion in the final cut. You get to see snippets of his animation; while impressive, there's no doubt it doesn't mesh with Bottin's creepier makeup effects. Last, but not least, are eleven minutes worth of deleted scenes, with optional commentary from Dante. Nothing earth-shattering here, but they're definitely worth a look.
The older goodies are the making-of documentaries “Unleashing the Beast” and “Making of a Monster,” a handful of outtakes, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer, which is surprisingly spoilerific about a third act plot twist. A new audio commentary from author Gary Brandner (who wrote the book on which the film is based) and an older one from Joe Dante with actors Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo can be found on the disc, too.
Scream Factory has done a magnificent job transferring The Howling to Blu-Ray, and their bonus materials are four-star. This is one of my favorite releases of the year.
For more information on this and other titles, please visit the Scream Factory website.
The Howling is rated R for language, violence, and sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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