As we turn to the fall season I always start to thing ahead to one of my favorite holidays of the year. That of course is Halloween. Halloween is synonymous with horror films and starting this week I am going to try to review some of my favorite horror, thriller, and fun films that will get you into the spirit of the season. I’m kicking off with really fun horror film 1981 classic The Howling.
The plot of the film is:
Karen White is a Los Angeles television news anchor who is being stalked by a serial murderer named Eddie Quist. In cooperation with the police, she takes part in a scheme to capture Eddie by agreeing to meet him in a sleazy porno theater. Eddie forces Karen to watch a video of a young woman being raped, and when Karen turns around to see Eddie she screams. The police enter and shoot Eddie, and although Karen is safe, she suffers amnisia. Her therapist, Dr. George Waggner, decides to send her and her husband, Bill Neill, to “The Colony”, a secluded resort in the countryside where he sends patients for treatment.
The colony is filled with strange characters, and one, a sultry nymphomaniac named Marsha Quist , tries to seduce Bill. When he resists her less-than-subtle sexual overtures, he is attacked and bitten by a wolf-like creature while returning to his cabin. He later returns to find Marsha waiting and the two have sex by the campfire in the moonlight. During the encounter, their bodies have undergone a frightening transformation as they both shape shift into werewolves.
After Bill’s wolf bite, Karen summons her friend Terri Fisher to the Colony, and Terri connects the resort to Eddie Quist through a sketch he left behind. Karen also begins to suspect that Bill is hiding a secret far more threatening than marital infidelity. While investigating, Terri is attacked by a werewolf in a cabin, though she escapes after cutting the monster’s arm off. She runs to Waggner’s office and places a phone call to her boyfriend, Chris Halloran, who has been alerted about the Colony’s true nature. While on the phone with Chris, Terri is attacked and killed by Eddie Quist. Chris hears this and sets off for the Colony armed with silver bullets.
Karen is confronted by the resurrected Eddie Quist once again, and Eddie transforms himself into a werewolf in front of her. She escapes, and Eddie is later shot by Chris with a silver bullet. However, as it turns out, everyone in the Colony is a werewolf. These werewolves can shapeshift at will; they do not require a full moon. Karen and Chris survive their attacks and burn the Colony to the ground.
Karen resolves to warn the world about the existence of werewolves, and surprises her employers by launching into her warnings while on television. Then, to prove her story, she herself shapeshifts into a werewolf, having become one after being attacked at the Colony by her husband Bill. She is shot by Chris on live television, and the world is left to wonder whether the transformation and shooting really happened or if it was the work of special effects. It is also revealed that Marsha Quist escaped the colony alive and well.
While a lot of attention is given to the other 1981 werewolf feature John Landis American Werewolf in London (which I also really enjoy) it was The Howling that was released first ( April 10th 1981 and American Werewolf in London was relased later that year on August 21st 1981) and at nearly a tenth of the budget ( 1.5 million compared to 10 million for American Werewolf in London) I still think that it holds up considerably well today. The movie was based on a book by Gary Brandner but very little of the book remans in the final film. The film was originally going to be directed by Jack Conrad who also wrote the script but left after disagreements with the studio Avco Embassy Pictures. Terence H. Winkless was hired to write the script but when Joe Dante was hired to direct the feature he had John Sayles rewrite the script and that is the final one used. Sayles had worked with Dante on Piranha and it very obvious that Sayles injected a fair amount of dark humor into the story. Originally Rick Baker was going to do the werewolf makeup but left the project ironically to do American Werewolf in London. Baker handed the makeup effects to Rob Bottin who had also worked on Piranha with Dante. While Baker’s werewolf makeup is very impressive in American Werewolf in London considering the time and budget that Bottin had I still think that his design for the werewolves in The Howling are simply amazing. Were Baker’s was more of a wolf creature, Bottin’s was a classic movie werewolf. The music was composed by Pino Donaggio who Dante had worked with on Piranha and is a nice score that adds a lot of mood to the film and makes the film sound bigger than the budget. While the talent behind the scenes was impressive Dante assembled a really spectacular cast for the film.
Dee Wallace (Karen White), Patrick Macnee, (Dr. George Waggner), Christopher Stone (William Neill), Dennis Dugan (Chris), Belenda Balaski (Terry Fisher), Kevin McCarthy ( Fred Francis), John Carradine ( Erle Kenton), Slim Pickens (Sam Newfield), Robert Picardo (Eddie Quist), Elisabeth Brooks (Marsha Quist), Noble Willingham (Charlie Barton), James Murtaugh (Jerry Warren), and of course Dick Miller (Walter Paisley). The thing that I have have always loved about Dante’s films is that he not only cast young fresh talent but always finds roles for really classic character actors in all of his films. The cast on The Howling is able to play both the serious and the humous parts of the film very well. With the limited budget it was shot in Hollywood and Mendocino Woodlands Camp that might look a little familiar if you have seen Humanoids From the Deep (1980) which was used in the opening shot of that film. The other great thing that Dante loves to do is have a lot of inside nods and winks to genre fans and The Howling is no exception. There is a clip on the television from Ub Iwerk’s 1936 animated short Little Boy Blue and shows the scene with the Big Bad Wolf. Screenwriter Sayles is the coroner and Forrest J. Ackerman is in the bookstore holding copies of his magazine Famous Monsters in Filmland. Many of the characters names are also famous horror film directors such as George Waggner who directed the 1941 Wolfman film. There are references to The Howling in Dante next film Gremlins that has a smiley face image on a refrigerator door. Eddie Quist leaves yellow smiley face stickers as his calling card in several places throughout The Howling. A second reference to The Howling in Gremlins comes at the end of the film when the TV anchorman Lew Landers (played by Jim McKrell) is shown reporting on the gremlin attack in Kingston Falls.
So how does Shout Factory new Blu-Ray compare to the previous Image Entertainment Laserdisc and the MGM DVD? The new 1080p AVC transfer is really nice. First and foremost it looks like film. Meaning that all of the look of the film including the grain and the limitations of the small budget are there in all of their glory. There doesn’t seem to be any heavy edge enhancements or heavy DVNR (digital video noise reduction) used on it. It retains the look that director of photography John Hora soft, diffused, and smoky look is very much intacked that gives the movie such a great moody flavor. Colors are deep and clear and the black levels are really nice (NOTE: there are some times in the film where the black levels are on the light side but that is due to the original way the film was shot and because of the limited budget). The picture retains its original 1:85 theatrical aspect ratio (NOTE: Dante has shot most of his films in 1:66 aspect because in the old days of home video when films were cropped to 1:33 there would not be as much loss of the sides of the picture. But the film was projected at 1:85 and so Dante made sure that no important information was cropped at the top and bottom when shown in the theater) and seems to be the same transfer as the previous Studio Canal transfer from a few years ago in Europe. The audio has a DTS-MA 5.1 audio re-mix I much prefer the DTS-MA 2.0 original mono track of the original release. I always listen to the original sound mix when it’s available because that the way it was done and as a purest that is the way you should listen to it. Not the way someone else thought it should sound like. While Shout Factory has commissioned new artwork for the jacket on the flip side they include the original poster artwork. This allows you to choose which cover that you would like. I of course went with the original poster artwork that I find to be far better than the new art. Thankfully all of the supplements from the original Laserdisc and the MGM DVD have been included on this release. They include the following.
Audio Commentaries — Director Joe Dante sits down with Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo for an amusing and energetic chat about making the movie. Sharing a variety of memories and anecdotes from the set, the four clearly enjoy each other’s company and are very proud of the movie they made together. This was recorded for the 1995 Laserdisc release and recorded by Dennis Rood. Sadly Christopher Stone passed away shortly after the Laserdisc was released. Second commentary is a new discussion with author of the original novel Gary Brandner. Hosted by DVD producer and director Michael Felsher, the track is an interview about the author’s career, with only a few quips about the film.
Unleashing the Beast (SD, 49 min) — An exhaustive five-part documentary produced and directed Jeffrey Schwarz, which looks at every aspect of the production and features some relatively recent interviews with the cast and crew. Included is a brief discussion on werewolf mythology, the casting, the franchise as a whole and most importantly, a look at the special effects with plenty of awesome BTS footage.
Howlings Eternal (HD, 19 min) — A fairly detailed interview with execute producer Steven A. Lane about his involvement while reminiscing on a few memories of the production.
Terrence Winkless (1080i/60, 13 min) — Interview with the original screenwriter, who set the basic structure and formula which John Sayles worked from and led to the final script.
Horror’s Hallowed Ground (HD, 12 min) — Hosted by Sean Clark ofHorror Hound magazine, fans can take a really cool tour of the locations where the movie was filmed as they appear today with some funny anecdotes.
Cut to Shreds (HD, 11 min) — Another recently recorded interview; this time with editor Mark Goldblatt where talks a bit about his love for the genre and the work he did with this particular film.
David Allen (1080i/60, 9 min) — An insightful interview from a couple decades ago with the late stop-motion animator discussing his involvement with the production.
Making a Monster Movie (HD, 8 min) — The original EPK featurette with various cast & crew interviews and tons of BTS footage, and it has been nicely upconverted to high-def video.
Deleted Scenes (1080i/60) — With optional commentary by Dante, this is a nice collection of wisely removed scenes of dialogue and character interaction that would only make the movie longer.
Still Gallery (HD)
Is the Howling Blu-Ray worth your time and money. If you are a fan of Dante (and who isn’t) and love werewolves then this is a great addition to any library. Shout Factory has done a great job of bringing this very underrated film out on Blu-Ray. The picture and audio are good and a huge step up form the previous DVD release. Also the not only are all of the previous supplements included they are really great and you learn almost everything that you would like to know about the film. While some people may find the humor a bit much I really think that it make the scary scenes a lot better because it catches you off guard many times. A