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Howling, The (Special Edition)

    Ian Jane

  • Howling, The (Special Edition)

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    Released by: MGM
    Released on: 8/26/2003
    Director: Joe Dante
    Cast: Dee Wallace-Stone, Matrick Macnee, John Carradine, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Elisabeth Brooks
    Year: 1981
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    The Movie:

    In 1981, a young director named Joe Dante, who had previously been best known as a Roger Cormen protégé, working on Rock N Roll High School and Piranha for him, would branch out and make a name for himself with a new kind of werewolf film, The Howling. Successful enough to spawn six grossly inferior sequels, The Howling launched Dante into the big time, surely helping him to get directing gigs on films like Gremlins (in which the film is referenced) and The 'Burbs.

    When TV news anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace-Stone of The Hills Have Eyes) agrees to aide the police by meeting with a serial killer named Eddie Quist who has been stalking her by phone at an adult video store in Los Angeles, things go from bad to worse as the police shoot him dead and Karen goes into a mental lapse, unable to recall what happened. She's so distraught by the event that she is unable to function at her job and even something that should be good in her life, like being intimate with her husband, is no longer pleasant but is instead frightening and hard to deal with.

    Her psychiatrist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee, best known from TV's The Avengers) decides that she and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone, from Cujo) should head off to his retreat in a more reclusive, small town outside of the big city. Known as The Colony, it's a mellow atmosphere out in a pretty area of the country where the two of them are sure to be able to rekindle their relationship and make the best out of what Karen has gone through.

    When they arrive, they meet an odd cast of characters including a drunk named Earl (genre stalwart John Carradine) and a mysterious and sultry but none-too-friendly woman named Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), who immediately sets her sights on Bill. But all is not as it seems at The Colony, and in addition to hearing an unusual amount of wolves howling at night, Karen also begins to come across the shredded corpses of some dead cattle that look to have been torn up by some wolves.

    Karen gets her friend Terry to come up for solace as her relationship with Bill deteriorates after a wolf in a sense, attacks him. Terry arrives but when she starts nosing around about the death of Eddie Quist, she uncovers a lot more than she ever wanted to know about the thought-to-be-dead serial killer and indeed, the entire population of The Colony.

    A lot of what makes The Howling such a great movie is the attention to detail and the little tributes Dante pays to the werewolf films that have come before it. It's not hard to see his influences as he wears them on his sleeve, but astute viewers will clue in to the picture of Lon Chaney Jr. hanging indiscreetly on the wall in the background of one shot, or the names the characters are given (Terry Fisher is obviously a nod to Terence Fisher - the director of Hammer's The Curse Of The Werewolf, and Fred Francis is a nod to Freddie Francis who helmed the Peter Cushing vehicle, Legend Of The Werewolf). Not only do the pay respect to the genre but they also, at times, serve as foreshadowing of what's to come, like for instance, the skillful placement of the can of Wolf brand chili or the title of a certain book that a certain character is reading before a key scene (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, sorry if that's vague).

    There's also a nice sense of black humor running through the film and while sometimes comedy can easily ruin a horror movie, it's pulled off so subtly here (at least for the most part, the ending isn't so subtle) that it doesn't take anything away from the suspense in the picture.

    Likewise, a couple of little cameo appearances (that if you blink, you'll miss) add to the fun - like legendary director/producer Roger Corman waiting to use the phone or a disheveled looking Forest J. Ackerman, complete with a copy of his Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine in hand, lurking around the occult bookstore. Actor/wrtier/director John Sayles (The Brother From Another Planet) also makes an un-credited cameo the morgue attendant in the film.

    But where the movie really shines, and where it totally outdid its competition back in the day, is the special effects, particularly those used in the transformation scenes. A lot of older werewolf films would have the actor transform via a stop motion animation technique, filming it one frame at a time, or just avoid the problem all together and have the character transform off screen. Not in The Howling. Nope. It all happens right before our eyes, and it's all organic effects works obviously, as the film predates the over abundance of CGI that has taken over special effects work these days. Considering the man responsible for these transformation scenes, Rob Bottin, was only 21 when he pulled these tricks off, it's no wonder that he went on to work on such films as The Thing, Robocop, and Total Recall (for which he won an Oscar). Considering got his start working on films like Piranha (also with Joe Dante), Maniac, and the infamous cantina scene in Star Wars, well, he lived up to his potential. Bottin makes his creatures writhe and snarl as they transform in front of the camera from man to beast, and he does a good enough job of it that, even by today's standards, it's still creepy and more than a little bit unsettling.


    While there is a minimal amount of grain throughout, that's really the only problem apparent at first. Colors are robust and nicely hued while the blacks, which make up so much of the movie, are deep and rich and don't waver or turn gray. The different shades of orange also play an important visual role and these likewise come through clean and bright without over saturating. The fog scenes are also handled well without any compression or edge enhancement problems worth noting. The presentation is offered in a 1.85.1 anamorphic transfer or in a fullframe edition. Dante wanted the film to be 1.66.1 (which the laserdisc was), and watching it with that in mind, you can see a few spots where the compositions would have been slightly improved had MGM opted to use that ratio instead of 1.85.1, and why they didn't give the director his wish and offer the film up as 1.66.1 is beyond me, but other than that, there's really very little to complain about this otherwise exceptional transfer.

    Again, there are two options on the disc. Purists will be happy to find the original mono mix (which was also included on MGM's first disc) as well as a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. While the majority of the action takes place up front, there are a few scenes that do benefit from having the rear channels active, and the lower end action that hits your subwoofer comes through with a welcomed bang during these moments as well. The 5.1 track opens up the soundscape a bit more and adds some more depth that the mono track lacks. The clarity as far as dialogue concerned is nice and crisp and everything seems to be balanced out quite nicely as far as the sound effect and the film's score are concerned. English, French and Spanish subtitles are also included.

    First up, MGM has ported over the commentary track that was originally recorded for the laserdisc release back in 1995. Director Joe Dante dominates the track with his interesting look into the making of the film and he's joined by the stars of the film - Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo. The cast seems to have had a good time on the track as they're obviously quite comfortable with each other as the reminisce quite fondly about the conditions under which the film was made.

    There are also roughly seven minutes of outtakes included on the disc as well, in addition to a few deleted scenes, running about ten minutes. The commentary from Dante that ran over the deleted scenes on the laserdisc release are not included on the DVD and the nudity that was in the hot tub scene on the laserdisc looks to have been trimmed here as well. Most of the deleted scenes are more extensions of the action that takes place in The Colony, and it's interesting to see them here as they do add a bit to the film.

    Also missing from the extras that were supplied on the laserdisc are the interview with animator David Allen, which featured some nice unused effects footage, the complete script used for the film, the isolated music track that did justice to Pino Donaggio's excellent, if not a tad dated, film score.

    The liner notes on this release are different from the laserdisc as well. The laserdisc focused more on Dante's career while the ones on this DVD are more trivia oriented and pay a bit of attention to Rob Bottin's effects work.

    There are also two generous still galleries that feature a bunch of great promotional and production photos as well as some publicity material, and a pair of theatrical trailers that really don't differ from each other very much at all.

    Also included is an eight-minute documentary that was made back in 1981 during the filming of the movie entitled Making A Monster Movie - Inside The Howling. It's a fun, if not a bit too light hearted, look at the making of the movie as it was happening. It's a bit of a cheese-fest and comes across extremely dated, but it's nice to see the footage on the disc regardless. Oddly enough, this was shot by Mick Garris, who would later go on to direct Critters 2, and a lot of horror-related TV projects like The Shining and Psycho IV - The Beginning.

    Finally, what I found to be the most enjoyable extra on the disc is an all new forty-eight minute documentary on the film entitled Unleashing The Beast: Making The Howling that was created especially created for the DVD. The piece has input from pretty much everyone involved in the movie, from director Joe Dante to the producer, Michael Finnell, as well as most of the key cast and crew members. Sadly, reclusive special effects maestro Rob Bottin is not included in the piece as he declined to participate (again, this is according to Dante from that aforementioned Fangoria piece). The segment is broken up into five different pieces, each focusing on a different aspect of the film, though viewers are given the, in my opinion, preferable option of playing all of them in sequence. The five sections are: A Brief History Of Werewolves, A Company Of Werewolves, How To Make A Werewolf Picture, I Was A Latex Werewolf, and finally, Requiem For A Werewolf. The titles more or less give you a rough idea of what to expect from the content, and I found this to be a terrific and entertaining look at the making of and influence of the film. MGM deserves a high five for this one.

    Everything is all wrapped up in a nice slipcase that features a nice, almost three-dimensional version of the film's original theatrical one sheet - that famous image of the face and the claws coming through the poster.

    The Final Word:

    Overmatting issues aside, and despite not including all of the laserdisc special edition extra features (hey, it would have been night, right?) MGM has done a knock out job on this release and considering it can be easily found for $14.99, it's a no-brainer to add this one to your collection. It's worth it for the extra features alone, especially the new documentary.
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