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MGM Studios DVD presents
The Howling: SE (1981)

"Repression is the father of neurosis."
- Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: August 25, 2003

Stars: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan
Other Stars: Christopher Stone, Elisabeth Brooks, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo, Belinda Balaski Slim Pickens
Director: Joe Dante

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: R for (violence and sexuality)
Run Time: 01h:30m:29s
Release Date: August 26, 2003
UPC: 027616888471
Genre: horror


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- B+B-B B+

DVD Review

Back in 1981, An American Werewolf in London (directed by John Landis) and The Howling (directed by Joe Dante) initiated a brief resurgence in the werewolf genre, and while the two films were dramatically and thematically different, both featured technically advanced monster transformations. In 2001, Landis' film received a nicely packaged DVD release (5.1 remix, commentary, etc.), while Dante's film had a remarkably lackluster barebones issue. Now, two years later, MGM has attempted to smooth the choppy fan waters by issuing this smart-looking special edition of The Howling.

Dante, working from a fun, pop-culture-laced screenplay by writer/director John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Matewan, Lone Star), tells the story of Karen White (a pre-E.T. Dee Wallace), an L.A. news anchor suffering from a debilitating amnesia-shaded breakdown after a botched undercover encounter with a creepy serial killer named Eddie (Robert Picardo). In the self-help era of 1981, the nightmare-plagued Karen and her caring husband Bill (the late Christopher Stone) head off to The Colony, a rural experimental living community run by pseudo self-help guru Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee). The Colony, it turns out, is anything but a safe haven for Karen, and she finds herself knee-deep in furry shapeshifters as she tries to work through her mental block and amnesia.

Dante and Sayles pepper The Howling with all sorts of hip and sly werewolf references, some incredibly subtle (a can of Wolf Chili on a desk or the photo of Lon Chaney, Jr. in Dr. Waggner's office), some amusing (naming characters after directors of other werewolf films), especially if you're a film fan. Aside from poking fun at the flavor-of-the-month self-help fad of the era, the film offers a satirical variation on the hazards of repressing our inner self, even if that inner self is a fangy werewolf.

Besides an effective performance by Wallace as the troubled Karen, Dante has packed this movie with a marvelous secondary cast of players. Classic film vets John Carradine, Slim Pickens, and Kevin McCarthy have supporting roles, as does Dante fixture Dick Miller. The late Elisabeth Brooks, here in her film debut, is without a doubt the sexiest werewolf ever and gets the film's single best line of dialogue. Dante also includes quickie cameos by low-budget horror king Roger Corman and Famous Monsters of Filmland's Forest J. Ackerman, in addition to an appearance by Sayles as a jaded morgue attendant.

Unlike CG films of today, where viewers are constantly pummeled by dazzling effects from the opening credits, Dante holds off our first partial glimpse of a werewolf transformation until 49 minutes into film, and the signature sequence doesn't occur until almost 68 minutes in. That's a long time to wait by today's standards, and though Rob Bottin's impressive (for the time) effects look a bit dated (plenty of air bladders and pulsing flesh), they are still fun to watch, though they never looked as strong as Rick Baker's incredible work on the Landis film, from the same time period.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 OneTwo
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyesno
Anamorphicyesno


Image Transfer Review: The Howling is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 open-matte full frame, both on the same side of the disc. The earlier DVD release was grainy, with excessive nicks, scratches, and blemishes, and it doesn't appear that any major restoration has been done this time around. I did notice some minor improvements (the nicks at 39m:52s are gone on this edition) while some remain (the vertical scratch at 01h:15m:05s is still there), so I'm not certain if any restorative work was done, or simply that a better source print was found. I did a number of scene-to-scene comparisons, and while most of them look the same, I did find improvements here and there, at least in terms of dirt and debris. Regardless, colors are reproduced well, with what appears to be a noticeable improvement in shadow delineation over the earlier release (or am I hallucinating?). Grain is also evident in a number of sequences. This was a low-budget film, and being over twenty years old has not helped it age any better, so I suspect this is as good as it gets.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: When the barebones release came out with just an English mono track, I briefly fantasized about a 5.1 remix, especially in light of the nice job done on the Landis film disc. Well, this special edition does include a 5.1 remix, but it is not nearly as aggressive as I would have hoped, and at times sounds like nothing more than a moderately beefed up mono track. Minimal rear-channel cues are evident, with the bulk of the mix spread evenly across the front channels. Don't get me wrong, this is an improvement of sorts over mono, but a bit anti-climactic when all is said and done.

Also provided is the original English mono track, that while not particularly expansive, is clear, hiss-free and audible, though a little on the flat side.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Fog, Christine, Jeepers Creepers
12 Deleted Scenes
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Joe Dante, Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, Robert Picardo
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: DVD-18

Extra Extras:
  1. Outtakes
  2. Production Photos
  3. Easter Egg
Extras Review: After lamenting the shoddy barebones release two years ago, there isn't much room for me to be anything but immensely pleased with what MGM has done this time around. First, they have reinstated the original poster art, both on the cover and on the nicely embossed slipcover, which is a major improvement over the tacky work on the previous release.

The disc itself is two-sided, with the feature (and commentary track) on one side, and the extras on the other. On the extras side, the anchor is the highly enlightening Unleashing the Beast (54m:03s), a spiffy new documentary that is available in five standalone chunks, or as one long piece via the Play All option. Featuring just about all of the principal cast crew, including Joe Dante, Dee Wallace, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, and John Sayles, this docu is divided into neat, easily digestible little sections, covering such things as casting, effects, werewolf lore and marketing. This is far superior to the chopped up commentary track (more on that in a moment), and rates up there with the way these types of features should be done; I really dug Joe Dante's genuinely unflappable cool demeanor and Dee Wallace's shaky-voiced modest recollections. This is a treat.

Slightly less enjoyable (ok, a lot less enjoyable, but curious nonetheless) is Making a Monster: Inside the Howling (09m:02s), a hokey 1981 promo featurette showcasing not just bad fashion (Dante), but bad hair (effects wiz Rob Bottin). Patrick Macnee offers some pithy British comments about film gore, but when Bottin talkes about being just 21 years old when he created the werewolf effects made me feel like a loser. When I was 21, my big accomplishment was drinking large quantities of beer and quoting Monty Python episodes.

Also included are 12 Deleted Scenes (09m:27s), available in one big block. The scenes themselves are not much more than extensions of existing scenes, and like most excised footage, offers little in the way of significant substance. Likewise with the Outtakes (05m:14s), your usual garden variety of flubbed lines, but this does include clips from the "flying werewolf" sequences.

The Theatrical Publicity Campaign and Production Photos sections provide over 50 images, in both black-and-white and color. Concluding the special features side of the disc are a pair of theatrical trailers for The Howling, as well as for three additional horror titles.

A slightly less-than-satisfying commentary track from Joe Dante, Dee Wallace, the late Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo is ported over from the early 1995 laserdisc release, and while not awful, is not great. The tone is pretty light, and Dante dominates the track, rightfully so; he is chatty, likable, and covers a lot of production tidbits (where or when a particular scene was shot), but I personally I found the material on the new Unleashing the Beast documentary to be more cohesive.

The film is cut into a healthy 32 chapters (twice as many as were on the previous release), and includes subtitles (English, French, Spanish) and a two-page insert booklet with trivia and cinematic werewolf history.

As an added bonus, there is an easy-to-find easter egg entitled Dick Miller: Thespian (03m:27s) on the feature side, where Dante's favorite character expounds on his acting style.

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

The Howling has held up well, and though it was one of Dante's early works, it still shows his trademark layers of in-jokes and cameos amidst the horror and pop culture commentary.

MGM has finally come through with a deserving special edition for Joe Dante's werewolf classic.

Recommended.

 


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