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THE HOWLING: SPECIAL EDITION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Robert Picardo, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Elisabeth Brooks
Director:  Joe Dante
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  August 26, 2003

“Doc says if I just remember what happened to me, it won't scare me anymore…but I'm not so sure.”

Film ***

The 1980s was a great decade for horror movies, and you could say it all kicked off with a werewolf picture offering from Joe Dante called The Howling.  It captured my imagination as a kid, and now, twenty years later, it still retains a cherished place in my heart and memory.

Here was a horror movie with some teeth (no pun intended).  It was clever without being satirical, gory without being over-the-top, and intelligent without being cautious.  The premise was terrific, the execution was sharp, and man, did those wolves ever look cool.

The story begins when television news reporter Karen White (Wallace) makes a courageous attempt at landing the scoop of a lifetime:  Los Angeles has been terrorized by a killer nicknamed “Eddie the Mangler”…and now, he's come forth with an offer to talk to White, and White alone.  But events don't go smoothly.  Something bizarre but not quite identifiable at first occurs, leaving Eddie shot dead by the police and Karen haunted and terrified by something she can't even remember.

When her psychiatrist, Dr. Waggner (Macnee) suggests a retreat to a reclusive colony where other patients of his patients are staying, Karen and husband Bill (Stone) head off, only to find a group of rather eccentric “weirdoes”, as she calls them.  Her dreams are still being haunted, but now, her sleepless nights seem to be getting worse with the presence of a distant, constant howling.

Things grow even more bizarre when Karen's news partners discover that Eddie's body is missing from the morgue…and what are those marks on the door that seem to suggest someone clawed his way out?  At this point, we get the obligatory werewolf exposition, and the “rules” of the film, which every wolf and vampire movie seems to have.  We learn, for example, that wolves don't just come out during a full moon, but can shape-shift at will.  If not killed by a silver bullet, a wolf can come back to life, and even regenerate body parts.  All of this makes for a promising second half.

That half delivers nicely…I won't spoil the nice little surprises Dante and crew have in store for you, but be prepared for a few jolts along the way.  The wolves, as mentioned, look frightfully cool, and the transition sequences, which predated An American Werewolf in London by a half-year, are very well done…icky and effectively terrifying.  Give credit to make-up and effects whiz Rob Bottin, but Ms. Wallace should also get credit for the under-reaction of the year when she first watches one of those things change right in front of her!

Werewolf movies seem a bit few and far between…perhaps because of the make-up challenges they pose…but at any rate, few since 1980 have been as satisfying as The Howling (certainly not any of the uninspired sequels, at any rate).  By mixing scares and surprises with a dash of brains and some effectively spooky creatures, it's no wonder this film has remained a fan favorite for more than twenty years.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Many of the characters at the Colony are named after famous werewolf movie directors!

Video **1/2

As with most 80s films, The Howling is visually problematic on DVD.  It's far from unwatchable, to be sure, but I'd have to score it about 70-30 percent good to bad.  The print shows its age with a little bit of haze and grain from time to time, and the expected scratches and flaws.  Coloring is generally very good, especially in lighter scenes, but the darker scenes are where the picture is most inconsistent.  The anamorphic pressing means that this is probably the best this movie has ever looked for home video, and overall, I found the experience satisfying enough…just not exemplary. The disc features both anamorphic widescreen and full frame versions on the same side.

Audio ***

The new 5.1 remix is a welcome improvement over the original mono release...digital surround almost always benefits horror.  Though most of the straight dialogue and music are still center channeled, the effects spread out over all stages for maximum eerie effect.  Heck, just the first minute alone lets you know that this is a remix that's going to work!  The werewolves sound more menacing then ever with their screams underwritten by the subwoofer signal.  Very, very nicely done.

Features ****

Side one of the disc, in addition to the film, includes an enjoyable commentary track by director Joe Dante and actors Dee Wallace, the late Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo.  Despite an occasional lapse, this is generally a warm and funny listen, with lots of little tidbits exposed along the way and plenty of chuckles.  Horror movie reunions are almost always a hoot on DVD!

Side two features everything else, startling with the new five part documentary "Unleashing The Beast".  There is also an older documentary "Making a Monster Movie", plus outtakes, two photo galleries, trailers, deleted scenes (not indexed), looks at other MGM releases and some fairly easy to find Easter eggs.  A solid package all around!

Summary:

Once in a blue moon does a quality werewolf pic come along.  We haven't had one in a long time, but now, thanks to this solid Special Edition DVD, we can go back and revisit The Howling to our hearts' content.  This is one of the best films of its kind; one that thrills, entertains, and satisfies.