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Category:    Home > Reviews > Horror > Werewolf > Howling - Special Edition (1981/MGM DVD)

The Howling – Special Edition


Picture: B-     Sound: C+     Extras: B     Film: B



The Howling is an early ‘80s horror hit that largely holds up today.  Smart and efficient, especially for a micro-budget B-picture, the film is a sincere horror effort, but also a playful one – it pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, along with the then-emerging phenomenon of self-help therapy.  In the arena of modern werewolf films, only John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (released in 1981, the same year as The Howling) stands taller.


The film is also an early – and unlikely – bright spot in the careers of three talents who went on to thrive in – and around - Hollywood: director Joe Dante, screenwriter John Sayles, and makeup effects artist Rob Bottin.  Dante, from the school of Roger Corman (his previous film was the Corman-produced Piranha), rose to the mainstream after The Howling hit – Spielberg quickly recruited him to direct the blockbuster Gremlins.  Sayles, who wrote The Howling and another delectable bit of trash – Alligator – simultaneously, became a writer-director of artsy character dramas (Lone Star, Limbo, and, most recently, Casa de Los Babys).  With his remarkable werewolf transformation work in The Howling, Bottin instantly became one of the most prominent makeup effects artists in Hollywood; he went on to create spectacular effects in films like The Thing, Se7en, and Fight Club.


To The Howling, Dante – besides his staple performer, Corman veteran Dick Miller, who Dante has cast in every film he’s directed since – brings genre expertise; he successfully employs the genre’s conventions as often as he bends them.  Sayles lends the clever satire – his script has TV news reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace, not yet Dee Wallace-Stone) following a serial killer story to a self-help retreat for – it turns out – people with some terribly insuppressible tendencies – lycanthropic ones.  Bottin steps in for the money sequence, the part arguably responsible for making the film a sensation upon release, the lengthy transformation of White’s culprit, Eddie (Robert Picardo), into a wolf, shown with minimal cuts.  The sequence’s effects – the apparent onscreen stretching of Picardo’s flesh and bones – were revolutionary in 1981, though they were soon upstaged by Rick Baker’s effects in the abovementioned An American Werewolf in London.


Despite the shadow cast over it by that film, The Howling, after more than two decades, is still loads of fun, still required viewing for the horror crowd.


MGM’s latest Howling disc offers both full frame and anamorphic 1.85:1 transfers of the film.  The transfer – along with many of the extras – feels a bit stale; it appears to be recycled from the days of laserdisc.  Sharpness varies greatly from shot to shot.  There is a fair amount of noticeable compression, as well as some mild blemishes on the source print.  This transfer isn’t poor, but it is a disappointment, especially in the context of a new special edition.  In the audio department, the disc offers the film’s original mono mix and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.  The latter is another disappointment; it sounds a tad strained.  Surrounds and LFE are nonexistent.  Not even the film’s score – by Pino Donaggio – separates like it should.  All in all, the presentation is slightly subpar.


Unfortunately, we’ve already seen almost all of the disc’s extras.  The commentary – by Dante, Wallace, Picardo, and Christopher Stone – is the same so-so track from the special edition laserdisc.  It’s old news that wasn’t all that lively when it was new.  In addition, the track’s handful of truly interesting points are covered elsewhere on the disc, in the “Unleashing the Beast” documentary (more on this later).  Also recycled are the laughably vintage “Making a Monster Movie” featurette; approximately 9 minutes of deleted scenes, strung together, without commentary, and nothing revelatory; approximately 5 minutes of “outtakes,” a mix of screw-ups and some additional moments excised from the film; 2 theatrical trailers; and photo galleries including promotional photos and art, and production photos.


The disc’s saving grace – and single fresh extra – is the newly-produced, approximately 53-minute documentary “Unleashing the Beast: Making The Howling.”  It’s split into five chapters that cover various aspects of the film’s production.  Almost everyone you’d want to participate does: Dante, Sayles, and most of the cast.  Sadly, the only absentee is a major one: Bottin.  The doc attempts to compensate by taking an in-depth look at his effects.


Though the transfer doesn’t give The Howling the attention it deserves, the new documentary, “Unleashing the Beast” does.  This “special edition” is a mixed bag, but it is the best that fans can get for now.



-   Chad Eberle


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