Release Date(s)1981 (February 15, 2022)
Studio(s)AVCO Embassy Pictures/MGM (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
[Editor’s Note: This a co-review by Stephen Bjork and Tim Salmons, but the majority of it was written by Stephen for his review of the StudioCanal UK Ultra HD release, which you can read here.]
The Howling and An American Werewolf in London were landmark films in the history of makeup effects work, both visualizing transformations in a way that had never been accomplished previously. The Howling was the first out of the gate in March of 1981, and it was moderately successful for an extremely low-budget picture. However, An American Werewolf in London drew far more attention when it was released a few months later, making substantially more money at the box office, and winning the first-ever Oscar for Best Makeup. Rick Baker’s work on that film was indeed impressive, but Rob Bottin had already achieved equally noteworthy results for significantly less money. While much of the conversation surrounding the two films has always centered on their dueling makeup effects, each of them is arguably more interesting when considered from the standpoint of the different approaches taken by their respective directors. Both films center around werewolves, and both combine horror with humor, but An American Werewolf in London is unmistakably a John Landis film, and The Howling is pure Joe Dante from the first frame to the last.
The Howling is a nominal adaptation of the novel by Gary Brandner, but the first script by Terrence H. Winkless was heavily rewritten by John Sayles, who added much of the humor. He also added the central concept of The Colony, turning the film into a satire of pop psychology. That took the story in somewhat different directions than the book—enough so that the third sequel, The Howling IV: The Original Nightmare, was able to return to it for source material. But there’s little doubt that Dante also had a heavy influence on the script that Sayles wrote, as the film is filled with all of the in-jokes and references that have always been prominent in Dante’s films.
While the lead roles were capably filled by Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, Dennis Dugan, Belinda Balaski, Patrick Macnee, and Robert Picardo, it’s the small roles and cameo appearances that are the most memorable. Some of the more substantial parts were filled by the likes of John Carradine, Slim Pickens, and Kevin McCarthy, but there are appearances by Sayles, Dick Miller, Kenneth Tobey, Roger Corman, Jonathan Kaplan, Mick Garris, and Forrest J. Ackerman. Even the cameos have cameos—watch carefully for what Forry is carrying during his brief scene.
The horror and the humor in The Howling do sometimes co-exist a bit uneasily, and the tonal shifts can feel a little awkward. The entire opening sequence is quite dark, and with the Pino Donaggio score, it almost feels like something out of a Brian De Palma film. On the other hand, there are some deliberately campy elements later that don’t quite mesh with that tone... but that’s Joe Dante, through and through. He’s always been perfectly happy to veer from horror to slapstick, with a few sick jokes thrown in along the way. (Vide the Santa Claus story in Gremlins.) The humor that Landis brought to An American Werewolf in London is typically a bit broader, but the satire, non-stop references, and even self-referential humor in The Howling all bear Dante’s stamp—the occasional nastiness, as well. Despite all of the sequels and imitators that followed, The Howling still has a unique flavor that no other werewolf film has quite matched.
Cinematographer John Hora shot The Howling on 35 mm film with Arriflex cameras and spherical lenses, framed at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for its theatrical release. Scream Factory brings the film to Ultra HD for the first time in the US utilizing the same master as the StudioCanal UK UHD release. Restoration work was performed by VDM in France, under the supervision of Joe Dante. The original negative was scanned at 4K resolution and then carefully cleaned of any damage or other defects. The entire workflow maintained a 16-bit color depth, from start to finish. The film was calibrated on a 1000 nit P3/D65, ST.2084 display, and graded for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision.
The results are outstanding, within the limitations of the original production. Hora used diffusion filters frequently, especially on Dee Wallace Stone, meaning that those shots (as well as any optical work) are a bit softer. Aside from that, the image is surprisingly detailed, sometimes even more so than may immediately meet the eye. Textures are well-resolved, but some are subtle enough that they aren’t always visible from normal viewing distances. For example, when Lew Landers is practicing his newscast in the bathroom near the beginning of the film, his suit coat has a very fine pattern that isn’t fully discernible at a distance, but it’s clear when viewed up close. This is one film where it’s fun to walk up to the screen just to drink in all of the fine detail like that. The grain is generally tight and even, though it’s a bit more prominent in any dupe footage. But given the nature of the practical effects work, there’s not a lot of opticals, with most confined to transitions and the multilayered dream sequences. There’s one shot (at 01:13:41) that was optically zoomed-in to crop out a production mistake, and while it’s always been there, it’s more noticeable now due to how much more detailed the surrounding shots are. The HDR grade provides gentle enhancement without altering the film’s look. The contrast range is improved, with very deep black levels, though diffused shots still retain their original slightly flatter character. Colors aren’t so much enhanced as they are expanded—they’re not necessarily brighter or more saturated, but every last possible bit of color information has been extracted from the negative. There’s more detail to them now, especially in the early scenes shot in the red-light district, though the rest of the film benefits as well. The Howling may never be absolute reference material, but it couldn’t possibly look any better than it does here.
Audio options include English 2.0 Mono, 2.0 Stereo, and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional subtitles in English SDH. The 5.1 track is largely focused on the front channels, with the surrounds primarily used for ambience, and some extra reverberations for Pino Donaggio’s score. Still, there are specific surround effects throughout the film, such as the sequences set in the forest. The dialogue is intelligible, but can sound a tiny bit muffled—that’s just how it was recorded. The original mono track is nicely balanced with good fidelity for all of the various elements, but obviously loses those aforementioned multi-channel effects. The StudioCanal UK release features an English 2.0 LPCM track, which is a matrixed surround remix that was first created for the film’s LaserDisc release, which hasn’t been included here. That release also contains other audio options, including French 2.0 LPCM and German 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English, French, and German subtitles.
Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Ultra HD release of The Howling is a 2-Disc set that includes a UHD and a Blu-ray, the latter featuring the same 4K restoration of the film in 1080p. Both discs sit inside a black amaray case with the film’s original US poster artwork. Each disc includes the following extras:
DISC ONE (UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Joe Dante, Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo
- Audio Commentary with Gary Brandner and Michael Felsher
DISC TWO (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Joe Dante, Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo
- Audio Commentary with Gary Brandner and Michael Felsher
- Fun. Fir. Film. A Look Back at The Howling with Dee Wallace (HD – 17:58)
- Howlings Eternal with Executive Producer Steven A. Lane (HD – 18:49)
- Cut to Shreds with Editor Mark Goldblatt (HD – 11:20)
- Horror’s Hallowed Grounds (HD – 12:15)
- Making a Monster Movie: Inside The Howling (Upscaled SD – 8:01)
- Unleashing the Beast: The Making of The Howling (SD – 48:33)
- Interview with Stop Motion Animator David Allen (SD – 8:48)
- Interview with Co-Writer Terence H. Winkless (SD – 12:32)
- Deleted Scenes (SD – 13 in all – 11:29)
- Deleted Scenes with Commentary (SD – 13 in all – 11:29)
- Outtakes (Upscaled SD – 7:03)
- Trailers from Hell with Josh Olson (HD and Upscaled SD – 2:22)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 1:28)
- Still Gallery (HD – 84 in all – 7:40)
The first audio commentary, which was originally recorded for the 1995 Image Entertainment LaserDisc release, features Joe Dante, Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, and Robert Picardo. It’s always been one of the most entertaining commentary tracks available. However, it’s also been repeatedly censored over the years, first for the DVD release, and again for the Blu-ray editions. There are frequent gaps where material has been removed. For instance, when Picardo tells his story about sitting in the makeup chair for hours and having Dennis Dugan tell him, “Next time, Bob, read the script,” Dante originally responded, “That says a lot coming from the director of Problem Child.” That’s been edited out, along with many other comments along the way. It manages to offer some of the same spontaneous repartee, but it’s best not to think about what you’re missing. The second audio commentary is far less controversial. It was recorded in 2013 for Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of the film and features writer Gary Brandner, moderated by Michael Felsher. Felsher asks Brandner many questions about his career and his work as an author, including his work on the original novel of The Howling. It’s an interesting listen as it’s the only extra devoted to speaking to the original author.
In the newly-produced Fun. Fir. Film., Dee Wallace discusses her career at the time she was offered The Howling, her fiance Chris Stone being cast as her husband and the hiccups it caused with the crew along the way, the shooting schedule, having a “no nudity” clause in her contract and originally not wanting to turn into a werewolf, and her heart-felt feelings on the film today. In Howlings Eternal, executive producer Steven A. Lane talks about becoming a theater owner, discovering the book and going through the process of getting it made into a film, his involvement in the sequels, working with Christopher Lee and Sybil Danning, Philippe Mora’s take on the series, basing the fourth film solely on the original book, problems arising during the making of Howling IV and Howling V, making the sixth film and losing out on proper distribution, his lack of involvement in the seventh film, and rebooting the series with the eighth film. In Cut to Shreds, editor Mark Goldblatt discusses getting into filmmaking as a kid, working at New World Pictures, meeting and working with Joe Dante, making the film work and maintaining a tone, properly shooting and editing the werewolf effects, and his feelings about the film today.
In Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, Sean Clark takes us on a tour of the filming locations. Making a Monster Movie is a vintage promotional behind-the-scenes featurette—directed by Mick Garris—featuring interviews with Joe Dante, Rob Bottin, and Patrick Macnee. Unleashing the Beast is a 5-part documentary made by Automat Pictures for the 2003 MGM Special Edition DVD release of the film, featuring interviews with Michael Finnell, Joe Dante, John Sayles, Dee Wallace, Robert Picardo, Belinda Balaski, John Hora, and Dick Miller. In the interview with stop motion animator David Allen, he talks about his involvement with the film and shows us one of the models used for the stop motion animated werewolf sequence that was deleted from the final cut. In the interview with co-writer Terence H. Winkless, he discusses his experiences working on the film. The deleted scenes and outtakes are the same two reels that were first included on the Image Entertainment Collector’s Edition LaserDisc in 1995. There are 13 deleted scenes in all, some of which are missing audio. While the outtakes are well-worn at this point, there’s still some amusing stuff here, including when Dante refuses to call “cut,” forcing Belinda Balaski to improvise. Interestingly, that outtake was an Easter egg of sorts on the LaserDisc and featured commentary from Joe Dante, which hasn’t been replicated here. Last is the classic Trailers from Hell commentary with Josh Olson, one of the film’s trailers, and a Still Gallery featuring 84 images of on-set stills, behind-the-scenes photos, lobby cards, posters, and promotional slides.
Not carried over from StudioCanal UK Ultra HD release are the following extras:
- Inside the Career of Joe Dante (HD – 20:46)
- Welcome to Werewolfland (Upscaled HD – 51:17)
- Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex (SD – 102:30)
- The Soundtrack (SD – 58:47)
- Designing the Opening Credits (SD – 2:11)
- A Conversation with John Landis and Joe Dante (SD – 5:53)
- A Conversation with Steve Johnson and John Vulich (SD – 6:39)
- Guillermo del Toro Masterclass (SD – 68:20)
- Stills Gallery (SD – 2:40)
Inside the Career of Joe Dante is an interview with the man himself, where he first talks about his own experiences growing up and watching monster movies in the theatre, then covers his entry into the film business, starting with his apprenticeship as an editor. Most of the time is spent on the subject of The Howling, which he calls his most straightforward horror feature film, despite the fact that it’s still filled with satire and humor. He briefly discusses his career after that time, including his challenges trying to get new projects off the ground. Welcome to Werewolfland is a making-of documentary that was originally produced for the German DVD release in 2004. It includes interviews with Dante, John Hora, Producer Michael Finnell, Dee Wallace, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, and Robert Picardo. (Some of the same interview material was used for the 2003 documentary Unleashing the Beast: The Making of the Howling.) It covers the origins of the project, writing the script, casting, shooting, the makeup effects, the music, the release, and the sequels. The best moment occurs when Miller describes it as his favorite part that he ever played, but he’s still mad that it was so short.
Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex is a 2015 documentary about the art of creating cinematic monsters. Written, produced, and directed by Alexandre Poncet and Gilles Penso, it contains interviews with an impressive roster of artists: Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, John Landis, Kevin Smith, Rick Baker, Phil Tippett, Steve Johnson, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, Jr., Matt Winston, the Chiodo Brothers, Dennis Muren, Chris Walas, Greg Nicotero, Mick Garris, Christophe Gans, Mike Elizalde, Richard Taylor, Steve Williams, Hal Hickel, Joe Letteri, John Rosengrant, John Howe, Ed Neumeier, Jordu Schell, and Randall William Cook. Whew! The film covers the design process including drawing and sculpting, as well as prosthetic makeup, stop-motion animation, animatronics, and CGI. It’s possible that Sideshow Collectibles may have had some involvement in the production, as their figurines are featured prominently. Guillermo del Toro Masterclass is actually a Q&A with the director that took place after a screening of Creature Designers at the 2016 Fantasia in Montreal.
In addition, the StudioCanal release contains a fold-out poster with the restoration artwork, five lobby cards, and a 20-page booklet featuring a statement from Joe Dante, production notes, biographies, and reproductions from the original press kit. Also not included from Scream Factory’s previous Collector’s Edition Blu-ray and DVD releases is a Dick Miller interview Easter egg. Still missing in action are the film’s additional trailers, TV and radio spots, and the entire faux snuff film that Joe Dante and company shot for the film (which can be easily found with the aid of a search engine—we’re not telling you where to look though).
The Howling is far from perfect—like An American Werewolf in London or The Thing, it’s guilty of letting the effects sequences bog down the momentum—but it’s more than earned its place in the annals of film history. Between StudioCanal and Scream Factory UHD releases, there’s very little to complain about. Die-hard fans will want everything, but the more comprehensive packages of the two is definitely the Scream Factory release. Either way, both releases contain superior picture quality and are well worth picking up again.
- Stephen Bjork and Tim Salmons
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