1981 was the greatest year ever for fans of werewolf cinema.
Bold statement? Possibly. Plain silly in light of Sybil Danning’s 1985 entry into the genre? Most assuredly. But if you were to make a list of the top five werewolf movies of all time it’s a near certainty that two of them were released in 1981. Late summer ’81 saw the August release of John Landis’ classic horror/comedy An American Werewolf in London, and just four months earlier Joe Dante‘s The Howling tore its way onto screens across America.
While the two films are often spoken of in the same breath thanks to their chronological proximity and successful mix of laughs and terror, they’re also bonded through their unique but equally mesmerizing werewolf transformation scenes. A very young Rob Bottin handled the effects for Dante’s film, and they’ve never looked better than they do on Scream Factory‘s brand new Blu-ray of the film.
Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a TV reporter enjoying her fifteen minutes of fame thanks to a serial killer who’s been contacting her with details. She agrees to meet him for an exclusive interview, but when it ends in a hail of bullets a frazzled White is gently pushed in the direction of a remote retreat in the woods called The Colony. The vacation is meant to be relaxing, but as the perfectly timed smash cut between her saying “I hope these people aren’t too weird…” to a grizzled John Carradine howling at the moon implies, the trees will be echoing with the crazy sooner or later.
In addition to the nutty, eccentric and oddly hairy fellow Colony residents White is also visited by the killer she saw gunned down by police, and soon her life is in danger yet again. Her boyfriend (Christopher Stone) finds himself seduced and bitten in the same evening, and when two co-workers (Dennis Dugan, Belinda Balaski) from the news station dig into The Colony itself they make some startling revelations.
Dante brings his own twisted, dark humor to the tale, and it pairs well with the script co-written by John Sayles (who also cameos as a morgue attendant) and Terence H. Winkless.Wolf-related paraphernalia litters the film, and fun is had with targets as diverse as New Age-y self help groups and the media. The wicked sense of humor continues right into the end credits too.
The laughs never get in the way of the terror though, and while it takes about an hour for the first full-on werewolf attack it’s well worth the wait. The scene’s intensity is amplified with the use of shadows and sound, and the transformation scene that follows is a visual feast of bubbling skin, bursting flesh and animatronic genius.
This was Wallace’s first real foray into genre work, but here plucky innocence here opened the door to roles in other genre flicks including Cujo, Critters, Popcorn and more. Happily she was never defined by them though and has gone on to find success in all types of film and TV. The supporting cast adds to the film’s label of genre classic as well with a host of familiar faces including Patrick Macnee, Kevin McCarthy, Slim Pickens and the legendary Dick Miller. Hell, even Roger Corman shows up briefly.
There’s a definite goofy side here as evidenced by some animated lupine copulation and an ending that skirts the line between ridiculous and tragic, but Dante usually maintains the balance between the light and the dark well enough. The moments where it does slip too close to the silly are almost always grasped back quickly with the swipe of a claw or the threat of silver bullets. Above all, The Howling is sometimes funny, often exciting and never less than entertaining.
Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray features a fantastic picture (reportedly similar to the recent StudioCanal release in the UK) that manages to look and sound better than any other domestic release to this point. It comes complete with reversible cover art including the original artwork and the new illustration pictured to the right. The disc is loaded with special features including two commentaries. The first features Joe Dante, Dee Wallace
Stone, Christopher Stone (awkward!) and Robert Picardo, and the second is a solo from the source novel’s author, Gary Brandner. The additional features are as follows.
- Howlings Eternal with Steven A. Lane [18:49] – Theater owner Steven Lane talks about how Gary Brandner’s original novel first got him into filmmaking. He was mostly a money guy on the first film but took a more hands-on role with the sequels. “You would think The Howling VII would be the death of anything, but…”
- Cut to Shreds with Mark Goldblatt [11:20] – The editor discusses his love of genre filmmakings and his time spent at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. “We wanna scare the shit out of everybody basically…”
- Interview with Co-Writer Terence Winkless [12:32] – The screenwriter shares how he got the gig on The Howling, his thoughts on writing in general and how this film helped get him into directing. “The very first thing we did was throw out the book and start from scratch…”
- Horror’s Hallowed Grounds: A Look at the Film’s Locations [12:15] – Sean Clark explores the various places where the movie was filmed.
- Making a Monster Movie: Inside ‘The Howling’ [8:01] – This making-of was produced during production and includes classic interviews with cast and crew.
- Interview with Stop Motion Animator David Allen [8:48] – Another period interview, this one focuses on Allen and his brief work in the film.
- Unleashing the Beast: Making ‘The Howling’ [48:33] – MGM produced this making-of for the 2003 DVD release, and it features interviews with all of the big names associated with the film including Dante, Sayles and others.
- Deleted Scenes [11:29] – These are offered both with film audio and with commentary.
- Outtakes [7:03] – Bloopers and other fun bits including the severed arm flipping the bird!
- Theatrical trailer and Photo gallery
The Bottom Line
Thirty two years after its release The Howling remains not only one of the finest werewolf films ever made but also one of the most well-balanced horror comedies too. It’s a classic for a reason, and Scream Factory has given it the treatment it deserves.
Buy Scream Factory’s The Howling on Blu-ray from Amazon