When discussing the definitive entry into the werewolf film subgenre, there are three titles that will rise to the top of every horror cinephiles’ list: John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, George Waggner’s The Wolfman and Joe Dante’s The Howling. Whereas Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps draw nearer and nearer to the top of that list as time goes by, those three powerhouses of lycanthropic fiction are unrivaled in terms of technical, visual and narrative execution. Even in the upper echelon of werewolf films, however, The Howling is still considered the underdog amongst its cultural contemporaries, despite a vocal and ardent fan base. Now finally coming to Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, The Howling is finally given the high-def presentation that the film deserves in a package specifically tailored to both satisfy fans and tempt the unfamiliar.
Loosely based on the novel by Gary Brandner, The Howling is the story of a traumatized newswoman (Dee Wallace) who goes to a remote village to shake off her experience with an obsessive serial murderer, gunned down in front of her own eyes. With her husband (Christopher Stone) in tow, the newswoman meets many eccentric and enigmatic figures in this town, who, of course, turn out to be a secret society of werewolves. Brought to the screen featuring a retrospective dream team of cult filmmaking greatness, including indie auteur John Sayles, iconic horror composer Pino Donaggio and special effects maestro Rob Bottin in his breakout project, The Howling is part crime-thriller, part romance-drama and part straight-up scare showcase, with enough eye-candy and engaging story to keep any film fanatic glued to the screen.
In the pantheon of werewolf lore, The Howling uniquely changes to portrayal of lycanthropes, being one of the first films to suggest that lycanthropes may operate out of a pack mentality, much like actual wolves. Furthermore, where it’s cinematic predecessors claimed werewolves channel their ferocity out of beastly desires to hunt and kill, The Howling suggests that werewolves not only can control their behavior and change at-will, but psychologically channel from a place of carnal desire and instinctive freedom. In addition, The Howling may be the first werewolf film to introduce the notion of the temptation to become a werewolf, as the society itself doesn’t view the condition as a curse as much as it is a means to immortality and spiritual nirvana. Lastly, The Howling was one of the first reflexive takes on the genre, which had been milked throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, in a rather wonderfully biting scene featuring Dante’s cinematic mainstay, Dick Miller.
In the oeuvre of Dante, however, The Howling is somewhat of an anomaly, albeit a technically impressive and cinematically satisfying one at that. Dante, who cut his teeth under the tutelage of Roger Corman, had previously only been attached to kitschy or comedy-heavy films, such as Piranha, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Hollywood Boulevard, and later made less straight-faced horror fare such as Gremlins, The ‘Burbs and The Hole. The Howling, to this date, remains Dante’s least-comedic horror entry, and despite moments of levity, the film is incredibly atmospheric and intuitive, offering a primal horror that spectacularly leaps at the audience at a moments notice. Dante’s penchant for timing and visual splendor creates a truly inimitable werewolf tale, and with the passion on full display, it’s easy to see why the film has become so revered in the horror community.
Of course, as with any Dante film, The Howling features top-notch performances from a fantastically varied cast of dependable character actors. Dee Wallace absolutely shines in her role as the heroine of the piece, hitting levels of emotional vulnerability while also transcending the scream queen status with a courageous willingness to the story at hand. In a parallel role, Elisabeth Brooks almost steals the title of the films most valuable player, embracing the complex and physical role of Marsha, the rebellious and sexual matriarch of the clan. And aside from the aforementioned Miller and Stone, the film features a cavalcade of wonderful supporting performances, from the wonderfully articulate Patrick Macnee to the understated Belinda Balaski to the campy indulgence of character acting legends Kevin McCarthy, Slim Pickens, John Carradine and Robert Picardo.
However, no critique of The Howling would be properly suited without covering the incredible, still-effective work from the rookie effects artist Rob Bottin. A prodigy of the legendary Rick Baker, who simultaneously worked on An American Werewolf in London as this film as in production, Bottin used innovative, state-of-the-art techniques with latex, air bubbles and prosthetics to create some of the most visually arresting and beautiful werewolf effects to date. The transformations in this film are only rivaled by a rare few, American Werewolf being one, and yet to Dante’s credit, the effects never overshadow the film, allowing the immersive story to continue even in the face of the films greatest, most unflinching transformation.
SHOUT! Factory’s blu-ray release of The Howling seems to use the same Studio Canal HD master that was released in France in 2010, and is none the worse for that. The AVC-encoded, 1080p transfer, in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is nearly exemplary. A bare minimum of DNR and edge sharpening seems to have been applied, but this is done judiciously, so the film grain is present, but not obtrusive, and the image retains its organic softness. Colors are also nice and strong. In short… this is a major upgrade from the old DVD release.
This release includes two audio tracks: A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 stereo, which is presented in nice surround sound, and a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo, which is simply the original mono soundtrack trasposed into stereo. Both tracks offer good fidelity across all ranges, with hiss not being a problem.
As per any SHOUT! release, the features to this package are stellar and completely worth the reasonable asking price for the package. The audio commentary from Dante and the actors is great and informative while also being light and never overbearing. The two documentaries, Unleashing the Beast and Making of a Monster, are both wonderful looks into the films legacy and creation, which may appeal beyond the film’s die-hard supporters. The deleted scenes may be the only underwhelming part of the package, yet still maybe be worth a watch for absolute Dante completists. A featurette on the films locations, entitled Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, is detailed and nicely put-together, yet not as entertaining as the other documentaries on the package. Lastly, the film comes with a nostalgic one-two punch of a still photo gallery and theatrical trailers.
Thrilling, gorgeous and absolutely captivating, The Howling absolutely stands the test of time, and for fans of Dante, werewolf films or classic horror, picking up this disc is a no-brainer. Hopefully, the SHOUT! treatment will bring in new fans to the unfortunately sputtering franchise, and if not, give the definitive Howling experience to the films’ established audience.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he recieved an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.