Blu-Ray Review: The Howling

Director: Joe Dante
Screenplay: John Sayles, Terence H. Winkless
Based on a Novel by: Gary Brandner
Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens
Country: USA
Running Time: 91 min
Year: 1981
BBFC Certificate: 18


Hollywood has a history of releasing two similarly themed films to fight for an audience in the same year (memorably, 1998 had a double bill of double bills with A Bug’s Life competing against Antz and Armageddon up against Deep Impact). Back in 1981 it was the battle of the werewolves, with three films released that featured the mythological creatures – An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen and The Howling. Wolfen was the most expensive of the three but bombed and is largely forgotten these days. An American Werewolf made the most money, but The Howling hit theatres first and was still fairly successful (particularly as it cost far less to make than the other two). It certainly went on to spawn the greater legacy, with its seven sequels and a remake coming soon. That said, it’s always stood in the shadow of An American Werewolf, especially since both films take a humorous approach to the subgenre. I couldn’t help but compare the two either, so my review is definitely affected by the fact that I’m a fan of John Landis’ film and have seen it quite a few times, whereas this viewing of The Howling was a first time watch.

The Howling opens with newswoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) being tailed by police as she goes to meet a possible serial killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who is obsessed with her. The killer is shot dead whilst he tries to sexually assault Karen, who is left disturbed by the experience. It affects her marriage and work, so she is sent to a retreat called The Colony by her TV station’s resident doctor, George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), who runs it. Once there, her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) gets bitten by a wolf and starts acting strangely. Meanwhile, a couple of Karen’s colleagues, Chris (Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski), investigate Eddie for a story, but find his body missing from the morgue and uncover links between him and the Colony, so Terry heads over there to warn Karen. As more werewolves crop up, it becomes difficult to say who’s in danger from who.

I’m going to get the comparisons with An American Werewolf out straight away. Overall, I didn’t find The Howling quite as funny or quite as scary, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own charms. With a lot more characters and a more elaborate plot it’s a richer film on the surface. A twist near the end isn’t entirely unpredictable, but puts a new spin on the werewolf movie too. The very final scenes also provide a bit of commentary on how the public have become desensitised to violence. So it felt like its own animal (sorry) and not just another generic monster movie.

A big draw to An American Werewolf has always been its Oscar-winning special effects makeup and The Howling was similarly applauded for its work in this department. I’m pleased to see most of the effects still stand up well today. In particular, there are a couple of transformation scenes that greatly impress, using practical effects to have characters’ bodies stretch and mutate before our very eyes. A couple of other shots are less impressive, such as a weird animated werewolf shot which comes out of nowhere and the werewolves themselves when fully formed look a little too fake at times. There’s a single stop motion shot which is cool, but doesn’t fit in with the rest of the effects. Supposedly more were made for the film, but didn’t cut with other effects so were left out. Luckily these can be viewed in the special features and I’d recommend giving them a look.

Like An American Werewolf, there’s plenty of irreverent black humour to break up the horror. What The Howling contains to a higher degree than the other film are in-jokes. Director Joe Dante is a big horror and B-movie fan, so the film is strewn with references, most notably having most of the characters named after directors of werewolf movies. There’s also a great cameo from Roger Corman as a man waiting to use a phone booth who checks the dime slot for spare change once he’s in. There are lots of little werewolf/wolf references in the background too. On-screen TVs are often showing wolf-related films or cartoons and one character has a copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg on his desk. There’s also a great cast of cult genre and B-movie character actors making up the credits – Dick Miller, Slim Pickens, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine and Patrick Macnee for instance. Most of these actors deliver the goods too, although the less established leads are a little bland, it must be said.

In terms of straight up construction, the film is tightly cut together, jumping right into the action and leaving little down time. There’s a healthy mix of regular scares, gore, sex and jokes throughout. The finale is enjoyably action packed too and no time is wasted after everything’s wrapped up.

So overall it’s a fun, fairly original spin on the werewolf myth. Some elements have dated and there are scarier and funnier werewolf films out there, but it’s still punchy, unique and enjoyable enough, with a cool pay-off and some generally great practical special effects. It’s no American Werewolf, but it’s not far off.

The Howling is out on Blu-Ray, DVD & digital download on 9th September in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds great.

There are plenty of special features included too. These include:

– Howlings Eternal with Producer Steven A. Lane
– Cut to Shreds with Editor Mark Goldblatt
– Interview with Co-writer Terence Winkless
– Horror’s Hallowed Grounds: A Look at the Film’s Locations
– Interview with Stop-Motion Animator David Allen
– Audio Commentary with Author Gary Brandner

It’s a solid selection of extra material, although it’s a shame not to see Dante or Sayles included in any of it. The Brandner commentary is a pleasant listen, but it doesn’t delve too far into the film itself as quite a lot was changed from the original novel. Instead Brandner discusses his career. He’s a friendly, honest man though, so I enjoyed the track. The other interviews are worth a look too and the locations video was more fun than most similarly themed extras.

One minor criticism I must add though, is that I wish they’d kept the awesome original poster design on the cover of the discs.

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devolutionary
Guest

Good breakdown. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Howling even though it’s pretty far removed from Joe Dante’s sensibilities nowadays. Not sure if you knew but Rick Baker was the original F/X guy for the Howling until he was coerced to join Landis on American Werewolf. He then recommended Rob Bottin to replace him. Apparently the bladders used for the werewolf bubble effects were condoms. 😉