The Howling (Special Edition) Review
“Honey, you were raised in LA. The wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack...”
1981 was the year of the Brixton and Toxteth riots, the wedding of Charles and Diana, the accession of Ronald Reagan to the most powerful office in the world, unemployment hitting the three million mark, crisis in Communist Poland and the death of the last high-ranking Nazi to make it into the television age. But, hey, forget all that and remember the real reason why 1981 was remarkable. It was the year that saw the return of the werewolf to our screens in four very different films. Larry Cohen’s Full Moon High was an out-and-out comedy with one of the most inventively no-budget transformation scenes in cinema history and Michael Wadleigh’s very serious Wolfen is a sociological drama masquerading as a horror movie. But the real contest was between two films which combined comedy with horror – John Landis’s An American Werewolf In London and, my personal favourite, Joe Dante’s The Howling. Although Landis’s film contains superior special effects and is a surprisingly touching love story, The Howling is deliciously witty, packed with good jokes and funny performances, and a thoroughly satisfying horror movie. Thanks to Joe Dante and John Sayles, it’s a film which is a horror buff’s wet dream. There’s a simple test; if the idea of characters called George Waggner and Lew Landers amuses you. then you’ll probably adore this movie.
Karen White (Wallace), an intrepid reporter, is on the trail of a serial killer. Posing as a hooker, she is led by the killer, Eddie Quist (Picardo), to a porn video store where she encounters him. Traumatised and thoroughly confused by the meeting, which ends when police pump a round of bullets through Eddie, she suffers blackouts and recurring nightmares. Dr George Waggner (Macnee), all-purpose talking head and expert on behavioural science, persuades her to take a vacation at his retreat, The Colony, along with her husband. But all is not well at The Colony. There are strange howls in the night, animals being slaughtered and some very odd behaviour at a welcome barbeque. Soon, Karen’s husband is being seduced by Eddie’s mysterious sister and Karen begins to believe that she might be caught in another nightmare.
Although The Howling is notionally based on a pretty badly written bestseller by Gary Brandner, John Sayles’s screenplay takes only a few basic elements from that source. Instead, Sayles comes up with a script which is a Valentine to the horror films of the 1940s, a period when Universal were cranking out sequels to their 1930s classics at a rate of knots. The most direct tribute is, of course, the naming of characters after directors of the period. We get George Waggner, director of the original The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr and Claude Rains; R(oy) William Niell, maker of Frankenstein Vs The Wolf Man; Charles Barton, who brought us Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein; Lew Landers, whose Return Of The Vampire features a rather good werewolf; Jerry Warren, the completely untalented co-director of Face of the Screaming Werewolf and a Yeti monstrosity called Man Beast; Erle C. Kenton, director of the two ‘All Star Monster’ pageants House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula; and to bring things up to date, Terry Fisher (Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf) and Fred Francis (Tyburn’s Legend of the Werewolf) Some people find this charming, others feel it’s a bit obvious and grating – but at least Dante and Sayles have dug a little deeper than the makers of Night of The Creeps, whose inspiration didn’t stretch much further than Romero. The odd one out, incidentally, is Sam Newfield who didn’t make any films featuring a werewolf. He did, however, make a crime flick called Wolf Dog and worked with J. Carroll Naish on The Monster Maker.
You can add to this nostalgic referencing of B-Movie directors, a wicked sense of humour which cocks an eye at the audience and asks them to join in the game. The references to wolves in fact and fiction are numerous and it would be unfair to spoil them all for the first-time viewer. But see if you can spot the following; a copy of “Wolf” by Allan Ginsberg; Little Red Riding Hood; Wolfman Jack; a photo of Lon Chaney Jr; and three clips from The Wolf Man. The fun doesn’t stop there. There are delicious cameo appearances from Roger Corman, Forrest J. Ackerman (and if you don’t know who he is then I suggest you find out), Joe Dante, John Sayles and Jonathan Kaplan. Best of all, the cast is packed with actors who have serious cult credentials. Dante seems to cast these actors for their heritage as much as their acting skills but that’s a side issue when you see the people he’s assembled. Kevin McCarthy from Invasion of the Bodysnatchers gets a nicely self-regarding part as the owner of the TV station and Corman stalwart Dick Miller is a joy as the occult bookstore owner who knows all the werewolf lore you could ever wish for and regards werewolves as “worse than cockroaches”. As Dante says in the documentary, it’s refreshing to see a werewolf film in which every character has seen the same werewolf movies that we have. In even smaller roles you’ll spot Kenneth Tobey from The Thing, Slim Pickens and Noble Willingham. Best of all, there’s a marvellous part for the great John Carradine as an old-timer who isn’t altogether in sympathy with Dr Waggner’s aims for the Colony. One scene, where he stares at the moon in mute longing, is weirdly moving and Carradine, a veteran of more bad directors than you could wish on your worst enemy, is treated throughout with genuine love and respect by Dante.
All of this postmodern fun is highly entertaining but it wouldn’t be quite so satisfying if The Howling didn’t work as a horror movie. Joe Dante has considerable skill when it comes to racking up tension, as Piranha demonstrated, and he builds the story with immaculate pacing until the hell-for-leather final third. The opening scenes in the porn boutique are genuinely unnerving with the faked, but still unpleasant, S/M video providing a thoroughly unpleasant backdrop to Karen’s ordeal with Eddie. Her weird dream sequences are well done too and, thankfully, not overplayed. Dante and his cinematographer John Hora are canny enough not to stretch out familiar scenes too far and the moments of night-time exploration are atmospheric and sinister while always being leavened with character humour. The pair also manage a change of tone for the scene in which Karen’s husband and Marsha Quist – the sensationally sexy Elizabeth Brooks - make love, which is gorgeously shot and unnervingly erotic. Dante walks on a thin wire here, between affectionate parody and genuine horror and, for the most part, he succeeds very well. There’s a particularly impressive moment in which a highly sympathetic character is unexpectedly killed and the finale, which is a great joke in itself and a fine skit on Network, has a gently sad edge to it which the last-minute joke doesn’t quite remove.
Piranha, the first collaboration between Dante and Sayles, had many of the merits of The Howling but fell down a little in the scenes between macho Bradford Dillman and deeply boring Heather Menzies. This later film doesn’t make that mistake. Although Christopher Stone was hardly the world’s greatest actor, he’s more than adequate in the thankless male lead and he has a pleasingly dry sense of humour. Dennis Dugan and Belinda Balaski are very likeable as the TV executives turned werewolf hunters and Patrick Macnee is entirely credible as the avuncular, bullshit-spouting therapist. But the acting honours belong to Dee Wallace. Although rarely seen now, she was going through something of a golden period back in the early eighties, following her memorable appearance in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. In this film, Spielberg’s ET and Lewis Teague’s vastly underrated Cujo, she proved herself a gutsy, memorable actress with a very strong screen presence and it’s a great shame that she didn’t have the subsequent career that she deserved.
However, the star of the film is, in many ways. Rob Bottin. His special effects were groundbreaking in 1981 and paved the way for Rick Baker’s even more impressive work on An American Werewolf In London. In earlier werewolf movies, lap dissolve techniques had been used to simulate the werewolf transformation. Here, you see it happening right in front of you, thanks to the miracle of the special effects ‘bladder’. This moment, when Eddie Quist turns into a wolf before our eyes, was a real showstopper at the time and still looks impressive now. Back in the early 1980s, Baker and Bottin seemed to have a friendly rivalry going, each one-upping the other. After American Werewolf won the werewolf effects competition, Bottin raised the bar once more with his astonishing work on The Thing and then Baker countered with the gobsmackingly weird effects on Videodrome. This was before the days of CGI and if you want to know how awful a CGI werewolf looks then I suggest you have a (very quick) glance at An American Werewolf In Paris and, god help us all, Van Helsing. It’s the sweaty, physical realism of these two werewolf movie transformations that makes them effective and I don’t think you could begin to match that in a computer generated format. But, hey, maybe I’m just old-fashioned.
Mementum’s 2-disc release of The Howling is a fairly good package which is, unlike their release of The Fog, rather different from the MGM Special Edition released last year.
The first disc contains the film in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. This varies from excellent to mediocre depending on the scene in question. Colours are consistently excellent, full and rich, and the level of detail is generally very good. However, there is a considerable amount of unsightly compression artifacting which comes across to irritating effect in the numerous dark exterior scenes, and the level of grain is a little excessive. I also noticed a surprising amount of minor print damage. Overall, it’s not bad but it could have been a lot better.
A variety of soundtracks are offered. The two English tracks are the original Mono and a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. As usual, I preferred the Mono track which simply sounds more natural and represents the film in the way I’ve always seen it. However, the remix is also pretty good with some relatively subtle surround effects added and some nice input from the .1 LFE channel. Kudos to Momentum for giving us the choice – MGM should take note.
Regrettably, the audio commentary from the Region 1 disc doesn’t seem to have made its way over the Atlantic. All of the extra features offered by Momentum are contained on disc 2. The centrepiece is a very impressive documentary called “Welcome to Werewolfland”. This runs approximately 50 minutes and runs through the making of the film with refreshing candour. Joe Dante is a very engaging speaker and he has a fund of great stories. Michael Finnell, the producer, and the DP John Hora come across well too and there are good bits from Dick Miller and Belinda Balaski. Dee Wallace-Stone is also present, highly eloquent and obviously not the easiest actress to work with – this is slightly skirted round but comes across very clearly. Sadly, there are no comments from either of two key personnel on the film, Rob Bottin and John Sayles. Incidentally, this is a different documentary to the one on the MGM R1 disc. Consequently, if you’re a real Howling completist, you’ll have to buy both.
In addition to this documentary, we get some deleted scenes, edited together and varying from very enjoyable (notably Slim Pickens and the hot-tub) to brief and dispensable, a selection of quite enjoyable outtakes, a photo gallery and two trailers – a teaser and the full theatrical trailer.
English subtitles are provided for the film but not for the documentary. This is, however, subtitled in German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.
The Howling is an absolute treat. It’s a werewolf movie, about people who know all about werewolves, for people who love werewolves. Fans can argue about which is best out of this and American Werewolf In London, but while I respect Landis’s very good film, I absolutely love Dante’s. Momentum’s DVD isn’t quite as good visually as I’d have hoped but the extra features are good and, overall, it’s well worth a look.
The Howling: Special Edition is released to buy on the 18th October.