HOWLING - DVD review

By the time The Howling finally gets howling, it's pretty much over.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Pity the poor wolf. The creature has continually gotten a bad name in superstition, literature, and movies despite its naturally convivial disposition and non-aggressive attitude toward Man. Must be the animal's fangs and its penchant for hunting at night. Of course, it could also be the howl, a cry now thought to be a form of wolf sociability and communication and not feared by any other animal except Man. But on a dark night in a primative culture, you can imagine the fear it must have fixed in people. Still does.

"The Howling," a 1981 tongue-in-cheek send-up of werewolf movies from director Joe Dante and screenwriters John Sayles and Terence Winkless, pushes every button it can to make us laugh and shiver at the same time. Still and all, if the movie hadn't tried so hard in the comic category and spent a little more time in the fright department, it might have worked better.

In another of those monumental Hollywood coincidences I've mentioned before, the ones where we've gotten "A Bug's Life" and "Ants" or "Sudden Impact" and "Armageddon" in the same year, "The Howling" came out at about the same time as John Landis's "An American Werewolf in London." Both movies attempted the same things: comedy and horror with werewolves as their subject. You'd think somebody was looking over somebody else's shoulder. Unfortunately for "The Howling," the Landis film earned about twice as much money at the box office and rather overshadowed it critically as well. Can't blame the reviewers, actually. "An American Werewolf" has been one of my favorite horror comedies since I first saw it, and "The Howling" has been just another movie.

Now, why is it that the Landis film tends to eclipse its rival? Perhaps it's because "An American Werewolf" doesn't force its humor as much. In "An American Werewolf" we find the gags outrageous yet slyly mischievous, while in "The Howling" the jokes are insistent and sometimes mean spirited. "The Howling" is campy fun, to be sure, but not as rewarding upon subsequent viewing as "An American Werewolf." The irony of the whole thing, however, is that "The Howling" spawned a half a dozen sequels, while the closest thing to come after "An American Werewolf in London" was "An American Werewolf in Paris." In fairness, the sequels to both flicks were pretty bad.

Dee Wallace stars in "The Howling" as an investigative TV reporter named Karen White, who makes the mistake of offering herself as bait to trap a serial killer. Little does she know that the killer is not your ordinary psycho but a werewolf in disguise. After she gets the guy shot to death by police, she begins having terrible nightmares, forcing her into therapy with a psychiatrist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), who suggests that she and her husband, Bill Neill (Christopher Stone), spend a week or two at his retreat in the mountains, the "Colony" Waggner calls it. Needless to say, it's more than a retreat for normal maladjusted humans; it's a colony for abnormal maladjusted werewolves.

Karen should have known something was up when the first person she meets at the Colony is a crazy old coot played by John Carradine. Carradine's credentials in horror flicks go back to "The Invisible Man," "The Black Cat," and "The Bride of Frankenstein" in the early thirties. But it takes Karen the next three-quarters of the movie to figure out there might be something suspicious about these folks.

Indeed, the movie takes quite a long time to get started. The whole first half proceeds at a snail's pace, with little tension or suspense. Eventually, though, we get some respectably eerie shots of moonlight through backlit trees and fog, a couple of mildly chilling moments, and finally some effective transformation scenes that rival those in "American Werewolf."

Along the way we get to meet Belinda Balaski and Dennis Dugan as a pair of Karen's fellow TV reporters; Margie Impert as a fellow patient at the Colony; good-ol'-boy actor Slim Pickins as a local good-ol'-boy sheriff; director Dante's good-luck charm, Dick Miller, as the owner of an occult book shop; Kevin McCarthy as Karen's TV station boss; Robert Picardo as the killer who wants to give Karen a piece of his mind, literally; and Elisabeth Brooks as a truly sexy beast. Even Roger Corman, the godfather of everyone currently working in Hollywood, shows up in a cameo role at a phone booth.

The problem as I see it is that the film never decides if it wants to be an outright horror movie with comedic overtones, like "The Bride of Frankenstein" or "Alien"; an outright comedy with horror overtones, like "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" or "Ghostbusters"; or something in the middle like "American Werewolf." Instead, it ends up being not very funny and not very scary.

I suppose "The Howling" is basically a satire, using the werewolf as a symbol for what Dr. Waggner calls "the beast within us," the id, the subconscious source of instinctual impulses and demands that we try to keep at bay. It's a theme that Robert Louis Stevenson treated more seriously in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and what "The Howling" merely toys with.

In fact, what "The Howling" is mostly about is referencing as many previous werewolf or just-plain-wolf subjects as possible, sometimes allusions so obscure they can only be appreciated by a handful of viewers. For instance, poet Allen Ginsberg's book "Howl" is prominently sitting on the doctor's desk; "The Big Bad Wolf" and "The Wolf Man" are playing on TV; a can of "Wolf" brand chili and a bottle of "Wolfe's" elixir are seen on various tables; a song, "Howling Chicken," is heard; and so on. In addition, many of the characters in the movie are named after the directors of old movies associated with wolves; for example, George Waggner directed "Wolf Call" (1939) and "The Wolf Man" (1941), and William "Bill" Neill directed "The Lone Wolf Returns" (1936) and "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943). But who would know?

The film also parodies every old horror-movie cliché one can think of, from doors and windows that won't open when someone is being chased by a monster, to cars that won't start, flashlights that go dead when you need them most, and ominously spooky organ music playing behind every other scene. Toss in some gross gags, like the juxtaposition in a coroner's autopsy room of human brains in a pan next to a half-eaten hamburger, and you get a few too many attempts at humor that seem more desperate than funny.

In any case, the absolute best part of the film comes at the very end. It's a great, classic closing scene, punctuated by elements of genuine humor and pathos. Whether it's worth waiting through the rest of the film to reach, however, is open to question.

The movie is rated R for violence, nudity, and werewolf sex.

MGM studios continue their practice of including both a widescreen and a fullscreen version of their movie on the same disc. This time, though, rather than put each version on flip sides, they put both versions on the same side, along with five tracks of sound and an audio commentary. The result is that the picture quality suffers from too much compression. First, I checked out a dozen different spots in both formats to see if the fullscreen was a pan-and-scan affair. It's not. The 1.33:1 ratio fullscreen version appears to be very close to the original camera aspect ratio from which the 1.74:1 anamorphic widescreen was matted. Interestingly, the theatrical exhibition size was supposedly 1.66:1; go figure. Anyway, it means that you will not see any more material left or right in the widescreen presentation than in the full-frame, but you will have a good portion of the top and bottom of the screen cut off. I hate to say it, but with this disc you might want to go with the fullscreen.

Secondly, I found the picture quality to be mediocre. The image is somewhat soft and blurry throughout most of the movie. Colors are not the brightest or the most natural, and darker shots exhibit more faintly visible grain than I would have liked. Pixilation, edge enhancement, and moiré effects are at a minimum, but it's not saying much.

The audio options are Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or Dolby Digital mono. While the 5.1 sonics are good in terms of cleanness, they do not exhibit the strongest dynamics or the widest stereo spread. A dash of surround information can be heard in the noise of crickets, cows, the howling of werewolves, some weird voices, and a good deal of musical ambiance reinforcement. Oddly, there is also some rushing, rumbling noise from time to time in the rear speakers. I was also disappointed that deepest bass was absent, giving the overall balance a tilt toward the treble. At least it aids clarity.

You'll get no complaints from me about the extras. They don't take long to get through, but they're entertaining. The first is the imperative audio commentary that no self-respecting DVD can be without anymore. This one is with director Joe Dante and stars Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo. Next is a new, fifty-two minute documentary, "Unleashing the Beast: Making the Howling." It's divided into five chapters that can be viewed separately or all at once and features reminiscences by the cast and crew on the filmmaking, the history of this specific film, and the history of monster movies in general. Next, there's an eight-minute featurette, "Making a Monster Movie: Inside the Howling," that was created as a promotional item at the time of the movie's production. Then there are nine minutes of deleted scenes; five minutes of outtakes; two still galleries, one of publicity posters and one of production photos; thirty-two scene selections; and two widescreen theatrical trailers. English is the only spoken language provided, but there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Finally, the keep case is housed in an attractively embossed cardboard slip cover; and MGM returns to their old policy of including a four-page booklet insert with cast credits, trivia, and a chapter index.

Parting Shots:
I'd rank "The Howling" among those fun little action-comedies like "Big Trouble in Little China," "Army of Darkness," and "Gremlins" that have attracted huge cult followings; but such films are for my taste a bit too cute.

As I say, if "The Howling" hadn't tried so hard to be cool and hip, it probably would have been a better film. The moviemakers got so carried away thinking up wolf jokes, they forgot that a good monster movie needs to have requisite thrills, too. By the time "The Howling" finally gets howling, it's pretty much over. Oh, well, there are still some good things to be found in it, particularly that ending to consider.


Film Value