1981 was a pretty exciting year for fans of werewolf cinema. Not only did we get John Landis' masterful An American Werewolf in London and a decent adaptation of Whitley Streiber's novel Wolfen, but there was also Joe Dante's The Howling, which is a clever little werewolf flick with a sense of humor that still holds up pretty darn well after all these years. No, the special effects aren't quite as amazing as those found in the John Landis movie, and some of the film's social commentary is stuck firmly in the late 1970s, but given how seldom we get new werewolf flicks these days, there's always something to be said for an old one that can still deliver the goods.
Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, The Howling is about a TV reporter who suffers a violent assault from a mysterious killer and then heads off to a self-improvement "Colony" to calm her jangled nerves. Unfortunately this establishment has something even worse than mysterious killers. It has werewolves. This premise gives director Joe Dante plenty of room to present sly satire, legitimate horror, and a nice old-fashioned vibe of lovable monster movie madness.
What The Howling lacks in story it more than makes up for with character. Dee Wallace is quite good as the television reporter running from stalkers and werewolves, but like with all Joe Dante movies, the true magic is in the background ensemble. Robert Picardo, Kevin McCarthy, Slim Pickens, Noble Willingham, John Carradine, Patrick Macnee, Belinda Balaski... hell, even future Adam Sandler director Dennis Dugan has some fun in Act III. Also keep your eyes peeled for cameos from Roger Corman, Joh Sayles, Dick Miller, Kenneth Tobey, Forrest Ackerman, and a few others. The friendly faces and an oddly amiable sense of humor keep The Howling afloat through some of the early slow spots, but the flick really hits a smooth stride at the start of Act III, and it culminates in a bizarre but legitimately fascinating little shock.
The Howling may have been the second-best werewolf movie of 1981, but it still holds up pretty darn well (aside from all the late-era self-help jargon), and absolutely makes for a fine set-up for An American Werewolf in London, should you be in the mood for an early-'80s lycanthrope double feature. Some of the thematic material is bit past its expiration date, but gory werewolves causing wild mayhem in a playful movie will always have a spot reserved on my DVD shelf. And this is where Shout/Scream Factory comes in. We've recently looked at their blu-ray releases for The Burning and Lifeforce, and you'll be pleased to learn that The Howling has been treated just as well. The film is prettier now than I've ever seen it, truth be told, and the supplemental materials will keep even the most ardent Howling fan happy for at least a day or two.
Ported over from the old MGM special edition DVD are some fine goodies, including a great audio commentary between Joe Dante and actors Robert Picardo, Dee Wallace, and Christopher Stone. (This is a must-listen for fans.) Other "old" supplements include a really solid 50-minute making-of piece called "Unleashing the Beast," an 8-minute archival piece, and a batch of outtakes, trailers, and photos.
The old commentary and documentary are simply excellent, so kudos to Factory for including them, but there is new stuff too. Deleted scenes (with optional Dante commentary); an episode of Horror's Hallowed Grounds in which host Sean Clark offers a quick and amusing modern glance at the exteriors used back in 1981; an audio commentary with novelist Gary Brandner (weird since virtually none of his book is actually used in the film); and some rather fascinating interviews with stop-motion animator Dave Allen, editor Mark Goldblatt, and co-writer Terence Winkless. The hardcore horror fans will probably enjoy the interview with producer Steven A. Lane, who gives us a quick recap on how and where (and why!) each of the eight Howling movies were made.
Yes, there have been eight Howling movies. Part 1 is better than parts 2 through 8 combined. Trust me, I've suffered through all of them.
Hats off (once again) to Scream Factory for giving a beloved horror film from the '80s a deluxe blu-ray treatment. I'm not sure if movies like The Howling keep finding new fans, but the older fans will have a ball with this release.