The Howling
U.S.A. / 1981
Directed by Joe Dante
Starring
Dee Wallace
Patrick McNee
John Carradine
Color / 91 Minutes / R
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
MGM Home Entertainment
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2003 Special Edition

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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
6
    5   10 = Highest Rating  
Joe Dante (Piranha, Gremlins) directed this tongue-in-cheek horror flick, which beat its early '80s contemporary, An American Werewolf in London, into theaters by nearly six months. Both feature elaborate transformation scenes and treat the subject of lycanthropy with less than solemn reverence.
    Los Angeles TV reporter Karen White (E.T.'s Dee Wallace) is contacted by a brutal serial killer who's been terrorizing the city. Having somehow become enamored of her, the killer wishes to meet Karen for a private chat. Wired with a radio-microphone, she goes to meet him in a dingy porno shop; the cops have a patrol car discreetly tailing her. Naturally the mike fails, the news techs listening in lose her, and Karen is nearly killed before the police shoot the subject dead. Traumatized, she mentally blocks out most of her encounter with the killer. During her return to the airwaves she freaks out, unable to function in front of the camera. Therapy, rest and relaxation seem to be in order.
    That's the prescription of kindly Dr. Waggner (A View to a Kill's Patrick McNee), New Age shrink and on-air psychologist for the TV station. He advises Karen to spend some time at the Colony, an "alternative living" community which he supervises, located on a beautiful point of forested land up the coast. As Karen's co-workers, reporter Terry (Belinda Balaski) and producer Chris (Dennis Dugan), follow up on the serial killer case, Karen arrives at Waggner's woodland resort accompanied by her husband Bill (Christopher Stone). Some of the residents they meet there, while friendly enough, are a bit odd. One of them, raven-haired biker-type chick Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), also happens to be a sexy nymphomaniac who immediately propositions Bill. Karen has other problems to deal with. She continues to be plagued by nightmares of her encounter with the killer. In therapy sessions with Waggner she attempts to pierce the veil of amnesia but only disjointed fragments emerge. In the meantime Bill is attacked and bitten by some kind of wild animal when strolling through the woods. Soon thereafter he begins acting strangely a vegetarian, he now enjoys meat with gusto. Back in L.A., Terry and Chris have learned the deceased killer's identity... and that his body is missing from the morgue.
    Once a staple of late night cable TV, The Howling ended up spawning at least five sequels (that we know of); all of them combined are nowhere near as good as the original. The movie's only weak points are the vacuous lead performance by Wallace who isn't terribly convincing as a television reporter and the main transformation scene, which goes on much too long. (Again with the "I'll just stand here and watch this instead of running" routine by the soon-to-be victim.) Though a bit slow to get going the pace really picks up in the final half hour, with plenty of monster action to slake the thirsts of werewolf junkies. The gore and creature effects, designed by Rob Bottin, hold up very well today, as do brief uses of conventional and stop-motion animation. (Besides, we dig werewolves with really big, pointy ears.) The true joy here for cult movie aficionados are all the cameos, bit parts and walk-ons by a host of familiar faces: Kenneth Tobey (The Thing, Billy Jack) as a veteran patrol cop; John Carradine as a crotchety old denizen of the Colony; Howling screenwriter (and director in his own right) John Sayles, playing a morgue attendant; Kevin McCarthy as the TV station manager; Slim Pickens as the local sheriff; and Roger Corman regular Dick Miller as a cranky bookstore proprietor. Keep a lookout, too, or you might miss Corman himself as the man waiting outside a phone booth, or the one and only Forrest J Ackerman as a customer in the bookshop (clutching copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, no less). The in-jokes don't stop with the casting, either. Some of the characters' names might ring a bell, such as "Freddie Francis", "Erle Kenton", "Sam Newfield", "Jerry Warren" and "Walter Paisley". In a tribute to Universal's original The Wolf Man (1941), scenes from that film are shown on a TV watched by Chris and Terry; a poster bearing the face of Lon Chaney Jr. is also glimpsed. (Note: Though we rated The Howling as worthy of a "Blood 'n' Guts" icon, it was only by a [wolf's] whisker.)

A budget DVD release from MGM, The Howling contains no extras save the original theatrical trailer. The print used is relatively blemish-free and enhanced for 16x9 TVs; sound quality is adequate. This would've been a perfect title to release as part of the company's terrific Midnite Movie line, but it was not. (Because it wasn't originally an AIP release, apparently.) 10/01/01
UPDATE In August 2003 MGM issued a remastered special edition which includes an audio commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes.
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