Blu-Ray Review: The Howling

JUNE 18, 2013


Power of 35mm! I was mixed on The Howling the first (and until now, only) time I saw it in the early days of HMAD, but watching again on a beat up film print with a (surprisingly large) crowd of people at the HMAD screening last weekend, I recognized its power. I still think the 2nd act has some pacing issues (in fact the movie as a whole could benefit from tighter editing), but once Belinda Balaski's character really gets into her investigation, it works like gangbusters all the way until the glorious finale. And yes, this was a screening I myself was hosting, so you might ask why I'd host a movie I wasn't the biggest fan of, but in a way it's a perfect choice: doing HMAD as a whole was a way to reevaluate how I felt about the genre, so if I can't spread the gospel of Alone In The Dark or Of Unknown Origin (prints don't exist for either), why not pick movies that I myself could look at with a fresh(er) pair of eyes?

I also realized what may have been part of the trouble my first time around - it's not as funny as other Dante's other films. Gremlins (and its sequel), Innerspace, The Burbs... these are all pretty damn funny films, yet work in their respective other genres as well. But The Howling doesn't have as much comedy as those (or even its friendly rival, American Werewolf in London); there are a few funny lines here and there, plus some great in-jokes (the Corman cameo still cracks me up), but it's not a "horror comedy" by any stretch. So now that I know better, not only can I enjoy the horror (and drama) more, but those rare comedic bits land perfectly. Hell I didn't even REMEMBER the "Mazda" joke from my first viewing, and that's one of the funniest things to ever appear in one of Dante's pictures.

But as I mentioned, the editing can work against the movie at times; it's just over 90 minutes but 85 or so probably would have been the sweet spot. Even the transformation, as glorious as Rob Bottin's work is (and holds up under the microscope of a high-def transfer), could be trimmed some - it actually starts to lose some of its effect by going on so long (why doesn't she just leave?). It's almost hilarious; I'm sure part of the thinking was "This looks great, show everything we got!" and nowadays part of the reason you get these super quick-cut edits during FX scenes it's because they don't want anyone getting too good of a look at the sub-par CGI. No surprise that Jurassic Park remains the benchmark for monster movies of this generation - produced at a time when CGI was primitive enough that it couldn't be relied on entirely, but exciting enough for everyone to bust their ass and make it look amazing alongside its practical brethren. A shame to think that we'll probably never again be sitting there wondering "how did they DO that?", but its a testament to Bottin's genius that 30+ years later I'm still not sure how he was able to pull some of those FX off.

Thus it's a shame he doesn't appear on any of the new bonus features on Scream Factory's otherwise perfect special edition, only in the older ones you may have already seen. As is (I believe) always the case, they have ported over all the bonus features from the previous special edition, and they're all worth a look if you missed them on laserdisc or the 2003 DVD special edition from MGM. The commentary with Dante and three of the actors can be obnoxiously choppy (clear edits when other companies are discussed; MGM must not have had any balls back in the day), and Dee Wallace's constant cackling like a drunk aunt can be grating, but it's a fun track all the same. Dante's motormouth offers anecdotes and jokes in equal measure (has he ever had a lengthy talk with Martin Scorsese? That would be more entertaining than all of their movies put together, I think), and since the track was recorded for the laserdisc quite some time ago (I peg it around 1989 based on a few of their movie references, but it HAS to be before 1995, as that's when Christopher Stone sadly passed away), the memories are still fresh. The lengthy retrospective documentary "Unleashing The Beast" from 2003 is also highly recommended; nearly everyone of note that's still alive is on hand to discuss the cast, the makeup, the script, and the film's legacy - Dante's rundown of the various sequels alone is almost worth the price of admission ("That one had were-kangaroos, or something..."), and thankfully Shout! has edited all of the segments (originally broken up into 5 parts with a "Play All" function) into one piece, sparing us multiple views of its end credits sequence.

Then there's a shorter piece called "Making A Monster Movie" (directed by Mick Garris!) that was made back when the film was released, which is fun but not essential. All of the interviews are promotional, not reflective, and it's got that cheesy "news special" feel to it - plus some of the info (and footage) was used in the full doc, though Dante's haircut alone makes it worth a look (also, check out Bottin - anyone else think his look inspired Kurt Russell's in The Thing?). A collection of deleted scenes is also carried over, with optional Dante commentary on why they were cut (distributor wanted it shorter, pacing, etc - though he can't remember why he cut one scene that explains Stone's absence for a while). Plus some outtakes and other promotional material - this stuff is for the completists only, and while I personally have no use for anything beyond a trailer (which spoils the film's ending!), again, I love that Shout/Scream makes sure every little bit is carried over, making it easy to ditch your old copy to reclaim some shelf space. Anchor Bay almost never bothers to do this, which is why I have multiple copies of all their Halloween titles - they refuse to do "ultimate" editions that render the others worthless. They even brought back the awesome Easter Egg featuring Dick Miller! THAT'S fan service.

As for new stuff, Scream has recruited Red Shirt to provide their usual interviews with a few of the folks that weren't featured on the previous doc, making it well rounded without too much repeated info. Editor Mark Goldblatt and executive producer Steven A. Lane both offer their thoughts on the film, though in the latter's case he also gives some info on each of the sequels (he was around for all of them except New Moon Rising, which coincidentally is the only one I didn't catch during the "real" era of HMAD), which is pretty fun. He is basically OK with all of them except part 4; obviously I (and no other sane person, I assume) would agree with him but if you DO like one of those other entries you at least don't have to have your heart broken hearing the producer slam it. Goldblatt's interview is a bit overlong (irony!) but he's fun to listen to and pretty candid at times, so it's all good. They also tracked down Terence H. Winkless (the other screenwriter; John Sayles appears in the older doc) to get his thoughts on how he got involved and how they changed the original novel by Gary Brandner ("We threw out everything but the title!"). Brandner himself offers a new solo commentary, moderated by Mike Felsher, though those looking for much talk about The Howling (movie OR his novel) might be disappointed; they only directly refer to the screen ONCE in the entire thing, and only occasionally talk about the changes from the novel to the film. Instead, Felsher takes Brandner pretty much through his entire career, so if you're a fan of the author's work you'll find much to enjoy, but if you don't really care about his process behind the novel The Brain Eaters, you can probably skip it.

The transfer, unsurprisingly, is terrific, and I am happy to report that the audio problem that plagued a few earlier Scream releases (where the dialogue was hard to hear on the new 5.1 mixes) has been corrected - it sounded great, as did the 2.0 HD mix. As usual, they don't list their new features on the back for whatever reason, so I hope other reviewers follow my lead in stressing which are new, as if you're just looking at the back of the package you'd probably think it was just a straight port of the ten year old special edition. I'm sure they have their reasons since they do it almost every single time, but with more and more people opting for streaming versions, it baffles me that they wouldn't tout the things that can make these editions attractive not only to new buyers, but to those that already own a previous version. That said, this one does NOT have the additional DVD copy like many of their others; you can buy the DVD or the Blu, but there's no package with both.

So, in short - I'm glad I gave it a second chance. Even with quitting the daily version of HMAD, I still find myself with very limited free time, so I certainly have to be selective for which movies I revisit in the hopes of liking more than I did on my first viewing. The Howling, it seems, made for a fine choice.

What say you?


  1. Awesome review and thanks for mentioning the features that weren't advertised. Will definitely be picking this up now. If I would have been in LA when you screened it for HMAD, I wouldnt have missed it. The Howling has always been a favorite pure horror werewolf movie for me behind Bad Moon, which I love. Thanks for the great read/info!

  2. I saw this when it first came out in theaters. I was about eight, but had a mom who let me watch horror movies. I really liked it at the time, as well as An American Werewolf in London.

    Then about the mid-1990's I watched The Howling again. I hadn't seen it in several years and was excited to buy it. I was disappointed. I didn't think the movie held up well at all. In fact, it seemed nearly laughable.

    My feelings haven't changed. I've re-visited the film a few times since then including just last month, but still think it comes off as just too dated. That includes the transformation scene.

    I think Rick Bakers's work in An American Werewolf in London exceeded Bottin's work and still holds up better, but even that movie after more than 30-years comes off as dated. But still there are a few bits in that movie's transformation scene which come off as pretty cool while Bottin's work in The Howling was great at the time, but just seems weird and cheesy now.

    Bottin is still one of the greats in my book though and after re-watching The Howling again last month I enjoyed it a little more than I have in a long time, but I think nostalgia and my preference for 70's and 80's movies colored my last viewing.

    I would not recommend this flick to anyone unless they are really into movies from that era. Even then, I might not.

    1. Well, well, well; it looks like it's suddenly become real trendy to bash bladder effects. It's not like anybody ever bashes Savini's signature paper mache heads made famous in Maniac and The Prowler, even though those dated cheesy effects come off as exponentially faker than most landmark bladder effects.

      And yes I say exponentially faker since those heads aren't even remotely passable as facsimiles to human heads. The quick cuts can't totally conceal that fact.

      As compared to the robotics and bladder work that made the werewolves in AWIL and The Howling look organic and alive.

      What gives? Unless you're Nitly Pickerson, the transformation scene in The Howling still comes off as freaky and iconic. No soulless CGI has ever come close to matching it.


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