The Howling

The Howling (1980)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Christopher Stone
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

The early 1980s saw the brief revival of the werewolf film with the release of both ’An American Werewolf in London’ and ’The Howling.’ The special effects craft had finally reached a point where it was feasible to depict the step-by-step transformation of man into beast without coming across as comical or amateurish. The debate over which film is better continues to rage but at long last both are available on DVD with director Joe Dante’s ’The Howling’ being the first out of the gate.

’The Howling’ opens with television news anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) agreeing to meet with Eddie the Mangler (Robert Picardo), a serial killer with whom she’s been corresponding. The meeting takes place in a peepshow booth at the back of a sleazy adult bookstore and the intercutting of a violent pornographic film, Eddie transforming, and the terrified look on Karen’s face makes for a very memorable and unsettling opening sequence.

When this encounter ends in a hail of police gunfire, Karen is too shook up to return to work and, on the advice pop psychologist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), she and her husband Bill Neil (Christopher Stone) head off for some much needed rest at Waggner’s rural retreat, The Colony. Upon their arrival they’re immediately struck by the odd behavior of their fellow guests — especially the overt sexual come-ons by the sultry Marsha Quist (Elisabeth Brooks).

Back in L.A., investigative reporters Terry (Belinda Balaski) and Chris (Dennis Dugan) begin to uncover the truth behind Eddie and it isn’t long before their research leads them directly to The Colony and its terrible secret.

’The Howling’ is widely hailed as one of the great werewolf films for a number of reasons. The combination of outright horror and subtle comedy makes for a film that is full of surprises and unexpected twists and turns. The werewolves here also take on many of the characteristics that have made vampires so appealing to horror fans. They’re sensual beasts bent on converting the humans they desire and destroying the rest and they aren’t tied down by the classic strictures of werewolf mythology such as needing a full moon to transform or remaining unaware of their dark activities. These are vicious creatures who retain their unique personalities whether they are in human or beast shape.

’The Howling’ is also acclaimed for the fine special effects work of Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, and crew. The transformation effects still hold up quite well and were a definite eye-opener in 1980. Some of the animation and stop-motion effects certainly show their age but there’s no denying that this was a ground-breaking special effects film.

MGM has released ’The Howling’ in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> framed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. While the DVD is watchable, that’s about the only good thing to be said for this transfer. The overall image is soft with uneven colors and weak black levels. The film elements are in poor shape as well with frequent blemishes marring the image. The transfer also exhibits a bit of wavering from registration problems and some strange blocking effects that resemble compression artifacts. The video can be watched and enjoyed, but it’s clear that sadly no restoration or clean-up work was done whatsoever for this new <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer.

Audio comes in an English <$DD,Dolby Digital> Mono mix split between the two front speakers. This track sounds quite dated and there is, of course, little dynamic range and no surround or LFE activity. But the soundtrack is relatively clean and clear and I wouldn’t expect much more without a new surround mix being created.

The only extra on the disc is the film’s theatrical trailer. This lack of bonus features is a real shame given the importance of the film to the horror genre and the wealth of extras available on the previous laserdisc edition. Of course there are already rumors that a special edition DVD is in the works for next year. Such is life for DVD fans.

’The Howling’ is a great horror film that has now been around long enough that it can safely be called a classic. As much fun now as it was in 1980, the film itself is above reproach. MGM’s new DVD is, unfortunately, a whole other matter. Poor video, barely adequate audio, no real extras, and the promise of a full-blown SE on the horizon all make it difficult to recommend this bare-bones disc. The fact that it can be had for less than ten bucks softens the blow somewhat and I’m personally glad to have the movie to enjoy until a better edition comes along. Others will need to decide for themselves whether to pay a bit now for a subpar DVD or wait for the rumored special edition in the far-off future.