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Blu-Ray Review - THE HOWLING (1981)

the howling review
A journalist uncovers a secret pack of werewolves living on the California coast.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Joe Dante

Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Belinda Belaski, John Carradine, Dennis Dugan, Kevin McCarthy, Slim Pickens, Christopher Stone

the howling studiocanal blu-ray

Hollywood went howling mad in 1981 with a trio of werewolf themed movies. By far the best of the bunch was John Landis's masterpiece An American Werewolf in London, to this day still the ultimate blending of humour and horror. Not so memorable is Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen, which starred a laughably miscast Albert Finney as a New York cop hunting Native American werewolves in the Big Apple. Falling somewhere in between is Joe Dante's The Howling, a movie that isn't half as witty as it believes itself to be, but offers enough to keep fang fans amused.

Dee Wallace stars as Karen White, a TV news anchor who takes part in a police sting to trap Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), the serial killer who has been stalking her. Following a close call, the cops shoot Quist, but Karen suffers a bout of amnesia. At the behest of her therapist (Patrick Macnee), Karen heads off for some R&R at 'The Colony', a retreat on the California coast.

the howling

Once at The Colony, Karen begins to suspect the place may not be as geared towards the well-being of its guests as it claims, and when her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) is attacked by a wolf and begins getting jiggy with the resident nympho (Elisabeth Brooks) in the local woods, she embarks on an investigation to uncover the truth about the retreat.

Much is made of how nostalgia-obsessed modern Hollywood is, with every 1980s property being mined for reboots and shows like Stranger Things running on sentimental fumes, looking back at '80s culture through rose tinted mirror shades. The irony is that the '80s was a decade fuelled itself by nostalgia, with blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future drawing on the youthful memories of their creators. For the first time, Hollywood was populated by filmmakers who were for all intents and purposes, geeks. None more so than Joe Dante, a man who lives and breathes cinema and pop culture. His magnum opus, 1984's Gremlins, draws on all his obsessions, but in a way that makes its hodge podge of b-movie monsters and It's a Wonderful Life style small town serenity feel completely fresh.

the howling

With The Howling however, Dante's infatuations feel forced and contrived, and are often annoyingly distracting, from characters eating tins of 'Wolf Chili' and reading Allen Ginsberg's Howl, to every other character being named after directors of previous werewolf movies.

Despite a script co-written by arch b-movie satirist John Sayles, reteaming with Dante after 1978's Piranha, the satire of The Howling falls largely flat. The movie attempts to make a point about the self help craze that swept America during the era, but never finds a compelling or humourous way of commenting on this subject.

the howling

Remove the half-baked satire and the geeky references and there's a decent little monster movie hidden in The Howling. It's a masterclass in practical effects, with a variety of techniques on display. Werewolf transformations are rendered through 2D animation; with stop-motion models; and in the movie's most memorable sequence, through the incredibly tactile work of Rob Bottin (who would create the outstanding FX of John Carpenter's The Thing the following year) as Dante regular Picardo goes from man to beast under unflattering fluorescent lights. Studiocanal's razor sharp blu-ray transfer provides a great showcase for Bottin's work.

The Howling inspired a host of sequels. Most were awful, but some embraced the madness, none more so than The Howling III: The Marsupials, which transferred the action to Australia and gave us killer kangaroos. Had Dante gone for broke in this regard and delivered a madcap comedy, or fashioned a straightforward horror movie, The Howling might now be held in the same regard as Gremlins. As it is, it's a schizophrenic comedy horror in which the comedy considerably detracts from the horror.
Extras:

Informative and amusing interviews with producer Steven A Lane, editor Mark Goldblatt, writer Terence Winkless and stop-motion animator David Allen; feature commentary by Gary Brandner, author of the original novel; and a location featurette.

The Howling comes to DVD, blu-ray and digital download October 9th from Studiocanal.

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