Release Date(s)1981 (October 25, 2021)
Studio(s)Embassy Pictures/MGM (StudioCanal UK)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor's Note: While the 4K Ultra HD disc in this release is REGION FREE, the Blu-ray disc is REGION B Locked and the DVD is REGION 2 Locked.]
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 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 Stone, 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 which don’t quite mesh with that tone... but that’s Joe Dante, through and through. He has 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. For this StudioCanal Ultra HD 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 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.
Primary audio is available in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio or English 2.0 LPCM, the latter of which is the matrixed surround remix that was first created for the LaserDisc release. Not that the theatrical mono track is not included. Between the two, the 5.1 track is preferable, though it’s still 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. Other audio options include French 2.0 LPCM and German 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English, French, and German subtitles.
StudioCanal’s Ultra HD release for The Howling is a 3-disc set that includes a UHD, a Blu-ray, and a DVD. Note that the Blu-ray is Region B, while the DVD is Region 2 and in PAL format. It played fine on an Oppo UDP-205 even when set to Region A, but it could create issues for some combinations of players and displays. The UHD and the Blu-ray both include the film and the same extras, while the DVD contains a separate feature called Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex, which has extras of its own. Everything is housed in a keep case that includes a fold-out poster with the restoration artwork and five lobby cards. There’s also a 20-page booklet featuring a statement from Joe Dante, production notes, biographies, and reproductions from the original press kit.
DISCS ONE AND TWO: FILM AND EXTRAS (UHD AND BD)
- Inside the Career of Joe Dante (HD – 20:46)
- Welcome to Werewolfland (Upscaled HD – 51:17)
- Deleted Scenes (HD – 11:05)
- Outtakes (HD – 12:56)
- Trailer (HD – 1:28)
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 Stone, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, and Robert Picardo. (Some of the same interview material was used for the 2003 documentary Unleashing the Beast: Making 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.
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. The optional commentary from Joe Dante is missing from this version. While the outtakes are well-worn at this point, there’s still some amusing stuff here, including my favorite moment when Dante refuses to call “cut,” forcing Belinda Balaski to improvise.
DISC THREE: BONUS FILM (DVD)
- 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)
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. The disc carries its own raft of extras, the most noteworthy of which is the Guillermo del Toro Masterclass, which is actually a Q&A with the director that took place after a screening of Creature Designers at the 2016 Fantasia in Montreal. While it’s disappointing that the disc is a DVD rather than a Blu-ray, it’s still a solid addition to the package.
The following features from the Scream Factory Collector’s Edition and Steelbook Blu-ray releases are not included here: the interviews with executive producer Stephen A. Lane, editor Mark Goldblatt, and co-writer Terrence Winkless; the Horror’s Hallowed Grounds episode; the vintage production featurette and the interview with the late great David Allen; the Unleashing the Beast documentary; the original theatrical trailer; and a photo gallery. The two commentary tracks are also not included, though in the case of one of them, that’s a mixed blessing at this point. The group commentary with Joe Dante, Dee Wallace Stone, Christopher Stone, and Bob Picardo was originally recorded for the Image Entertainment LaserDisc, and 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 was 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. So while it’s a shame to lose the commentary track entirely, it’s been mutilated enough by now that maybe it’s best just to let it go.
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. StudioCanal’s UHD is unquestionably the best way to experience it on home video. A more comprehensive collection of extras would have been nice, but the film’s quality is the main thing, and it looks strikingly beautiful here.
- Stephen Bjork
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