Monday, June 10, 2013

Blu-ray review: THE HOWLING (1981)


Collector's Edition Blu-ray 

Region Code: A NTSC
Duration: 91 Minutes 
Rating: R
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 
Video: 1080p Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Cast: Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine 
Director: Joe Dante 

THE HOWLING (1981) starts off with sleazy exploitation leanings as TV news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace, E.T.) walks the seedy neon-lit streets of Los Angeles on her way to a adult video store for a fateful meet-up with Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo, INNERSPACE), a serial killer stalking the streets of LA whom has ironically adopted the cheerful yellow smiley-faced sticker as his calling card. Karen is wired for sound and working in cooperation with the LAPD to ensnare Quist who's known for shredding his victims. Of course, something goes wrong and White is left alone with the weirdo in a porno booth watching a rape film. Quist stands behind her in the darkened booth not allowing her to see his face, just as something weird begins to happen the cops arrive and blow the creep away. Physically unharmed White is traumatized by the encounter, she experiences partial amnesia, she's an emotional wreck unable to sexually satisfy her husband or appear onscreen at the TV station. 

Karen seeks treatment from therapists Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) who suggests she and husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone, CUJO) visit his private resort-style resort spa located along the scenic northern California coast. Arriving at the resort they meet a rather interesting assortment of folk, particularly the seductive nympho Marcia Quist (Elisabeth Brooks) who lusts quite openly for Bill. There's a bunch of Joe Dante familiars, Kevin McCarthy (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) as a TV newsroom manager, and it just wouldn't be a Dante film if we didn't see an appearance from Dick Miller (GREMLINS) as the fast-talking proprietor of an occult book shop. We also get fun cameos from Roger Corman and Forrest J. Ackerman of Famous Monsters of Filmland plus appearances from character actors David Carradine (BATMAN) as a scruffy suicidal weirdo, and Slim Pickens (1941) as the sheriff.

So, it's a fun cast but what the film is fondly remembered for are Rob Bottin's fantastic werewolf designs and practical transformation effects! Legend has it that Rick Baker began work on the film but left the production to work with John Landis on An American Werewolf in London, maybe not surprisingly the transformation effects are similar in nature, stretched latex and pulsating air bladders. Bottin's transformation seems more gruesome to my eyes, the other major difference being that  the werewolves walk upright. While some of the film's effects were state-of-the-art at the time not all were fantastic, the schlockiest moment comes by way of a strange animated werewolf sex scene, a victim of the film's budgetary constraint, but I cannot help myself, I love it. 

Of course there's some weird stuff happening at the Colony besides Dr. Waggner's primal scream-esque therapy treatment. On a hunting trip Bill is attacked by a wild animal and bitten, soon his personality begins to change. At night the woods come alive with strange animalistic howls and snarls and Quist's body disappears from the city morgue. All the oddness culminating in a frenzied confrontation with a barn full of werewolves, it's a great watch with a nice balance of subversive humor, some truly gruesome moments and fantastic special effects, very nicely done. 

The Howling has some effective location shots, the seedy porno shop and the preceding shots of Karen walking the dirty streets of LA past street urchins are gritty, it feels dirty. Later, once she arrive at The Colony the wooded areas are used quite well, the shadowy moonlit forests and creeping fog are quite spooky, it's a great setting for a werewolf movie and it feels like a traditional horror tale.

There's clearly a subtle tongue-in-cheek humor to the proceeding though it's a fairly serious take on the genre, particularly for a Joe Dante production. Keen observers will notice some fun wolf-themed nice gags throughout, Wolf brand chili anyone? While I love the film it's not quite perfect, there are some slow moments that bring it down a few pegs, it would have been nice to either have the humor elements or horror amped-up a bit, the tone of the film is pretty serious for the most part but it needed some oomph somewhere along the way, it's missing something.  It starts of interestingly enough but slow, however, once they arrive at the secluded spa stuff starts to happen pretty quickly from there on in. 

Surely no one saw this low-budget film spawning seven sequels, I have a soft spot for director Philippe Moira's oddity, HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS (1987), a schlocky ozploitation classic if you ask me, but it's Joe Dante's original that still elicits the most howls of pleasure, it's a true cult classic and a fantastic werewolf film. 

Blu-ray: The Shout! Factory Blu-ray presents THE HOWLING in widescreen (1.85:1) with a sweet 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode and the difference between it and the previous MGM special edition in terms of visual quality is very pleasing. Shot on a shoe-string budget The Howling is a bit soft and hazy by design, there's a nice layer of film grain, colors are deep and robust and black levels are pretty decent. There's a nice amount of fine detail with some moderate depth and clarity to the image, The Howling as never looked better, a very attractive hi-def presentation. 

There are two DTS-HD Master Audio options, a 2.0 stereo mix and a 5.1 remix, I do enjoy a decent 5.1 remix and this one does open up the sound field a bit, creating a submersive surround experience. That said, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the 2.0 which has decent stereo separation during more active sequences and Pino Donaggio's orchestral score and the snarling transformation effects sounds fantastic, the Blu ray disc includes an optional English subtitle track, too. 

Onto the special features we get the full arsenal of bonus content from the previous MGM Special Edition,  some of which get a hi-def upgrade which makes it easy to trade-in the standard-def edition to make room for Scream Factory Blu-ray, though I did save the 4 pg. booklet DVD insert with The Howling trivia and synopsis. 

The first set of features are two audio commentaries  the carry-over of the commentary With Director Joe Dante And Actors Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo is appreciated, it's an energetic and informative group conversation with plenty of great anecdotes, the second commentary with author Gary Brander is moderated by Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher is is more focused on Brandner's life and career than any scene specific observation or comparisons between the film and novel, though both subjects are touched upon lightly. I've read that Bradner has a pretty poor opinion of the film, which deviates quite a bit from the source material but he gives  few nods of approval here and there. 

Another carry-over from the DVD is the fantastic five-part documentary Unleashing the Beast: The Making Of The Howling Multi-part Documentary (48:33) with some great retrospective interviews with the cast and crew, including screenwriter John Sayles. We get some great behind-the-scenes special effects shots which are always my favorite.

Another great vintage featurette is the Making Of A Monster: Inside The Howling Documentary (8:01) with more cast and crew interviews with Joe Dante, Rob Bottin and actor Patrick Macnee. the latter of whom talks about the carnage he witnesses as a veteran of WWII while Dante discusses the history of comedy in horror and Bottin speaks to the difference in old school werewolf transformations in cinema versus what the visceral in-camera effects he was putting onscreen. The last of the MGM produced special features are a selection of Outtakes (7:03), a Photo Gallery and the Original Theatrical Trailer (1:28).

Now onto some brand-new Red Shirt Pictures produced special features made exclusively for Scream Factory's Collector's Edition Blu-ray beginning with the aforementioned author commentary, which was probably the least interesting of the bunch in my opinion. 

Howlings Eternal: New Interview with Executive Producer Steven A. Lane (18:49) is an quite interesting watch as he discusses obtaining the rights to the novel as a Hollywood outsider and taking the film to the studios. he then goes into each of the sequels right up the THE HOWLING: REBORN. he espouses both praise and detraction in equal measure though he definitely has a soft spot for the series, fondly recalling working with horror legend Christopher Lee on THE HOWLING 2: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF, director Philippe Moira on HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS, the S.African co-produced THE HOWLING IV and his favorite of the sequels, HOWLING V.

Not produced by red Shirt but culled from the ancient laser disc edition is a vintage interview with the late stop motion animator Dave Allen (8:48) is bittersweet as the Full Moon veteran speaks about his stop-motion animation that was never used in the final film except for a very brief excerpt at the end, luckily for us we get to see it here though it's easy to see why Dante chose not to use it. As it is we do get a weird animated sequence, this stop-motion segment would have been out of place.

Interview with co-writer Terence Winkless (12:32) is equally interesting as the original screenwriter of the film goes into getting the gig through a softball connection of all things and how finally getting an onscreen credit with THE HOWLING opened the doors for him in Hollywood. he goes into working with Dante whom he recalls had a lot of creative energy and input, it was Dante who named many of the characters in the film after directors of classic werewolf cinema, as well as discussing the adapting/writing process and Roger Corman's cameo in the film.  

A staple of many of the Scream Factory titles is the Horror's Hallowed Grounds (12:15) wherein host Sean Clark from Horror Hound magazine revisits classic locations from the film including a gift shop on Hollywood Blvd. that I've actually been to, I had no idea! They also revisit Marcia's shack from the film which looks nearly identical to what we see in the film to this day, Clark's got a great sense of humor and these location visits are always a howl. 

Cut to Shreds: Interview with Editor Mark Goldblat (11:20) features the horror nut speaking about his love of cinema from an early age, shooting 8mm films in his backyard and then working for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, which he describes as being beat to shit, a place where he met Joe Dante and got the gig editing Dante's feature length Debut PIRANHA ad subsequent projects. He praises Dante for his humorous subtext and delicate balance of fear and humor, his appreciation of how the director sees the irony of every situation. He also goes into the art of editing, lighting a film and the fantastic Rob Bottin effects on the film. 

Reversible Artwork Option 
Also on the disc are a selection of Deleted Scenes with Optional Audio Commentary from Director Joe Dante (11:28), not a lot of notable excised scenes aside from a Dee Wallace hot tub scene, it's nice to have 'em on the set. If your so inclined there's also a fun Easter Egg to be found featuring Joe Dante regular Dick Miller

Non Blu-ray disc special features include a sleeve of reversible artwork with a newly commissioned illustration by artist Nathan Thomas Milliner, the reverse-side features the  iconic theatrical artwork for purists. We also get a slipcase which features the Milliner artwork. This is a great edition, Scream Factory have once again stepped up to the plate dusted off a familiar horror classic and breathed new life into it with fantastic AV presentation and interesting bonus content that serve to enhance your enjoyment of the film, great stuff. 

Special Features: 
- Audio Commentary with Author Gary Brandner
- *Audio Commentary With Director Joe Dante And Actors Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo
- Howlings Eternal: New Interview with Executive Producer Steven A. Lane (18:49) 
- Interview with co-writer Terence Winkless (12:32) 
- Cut to Shreds: Interview with Editor Mark Goldblat (11:20) 
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Audio Commentary from Director Joe Dante (11:28)
- Horror's Hallowed Grounds: A look at the film's location (12:15)
- Interview with Stop-Motion Animator Dave Allen (8:48) 

- *Unleashing the Beast: The Making Of The Howling Multi-part Documentary (48:33)
- *Outtakes (7:03)
- *Making Of A Monster: Inside The Howling Documentary (8:01)
- *Photo Gallery
- *Theatrical Trailer (1:28) 

- Dick Miller Interview (Easter Egg) (3:28) 
*Extras carried over from prior DVD release

Verdict: There are two camps when the mention of werewolves in cinema are discussed among horror aficionado, inevitably the conversation comes down to  John Landis' AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and Dante's THE HOWLING - which both came to cinemas in 1981. Which camp do I fall into you may wonder, honestly I love 'em both the same, depending on what day of the week it is I might prefer one over the other. I couldn't be happier that both films are now available in 1080p hi-def with some awesome special features, this is great stuff and essential to any horror lover's collection. 4.5 Outta 5