Digi-Schlock: THE HOWLING (Scream Factory Blu-Ray)

The Howling is a noteworthy example of a film whose treatment on home video improved as formats became more sophisticated: when it was issued on VHS, it suffered from a transfer with bad color timing that wrecked the film’s lighting scheme.  It was rehabilitated via a better transfer on laserdisc and then got an expanded special edition on DVD in 2003 that carried over many of the laserdisc’s special features and added even more.

Now, The Howling has made it to blu-ray with a new special edition, which begs the question: beyond a high-def transfer, what can you do for a film that has already gotten the bells-and-whistles treatment in past video formats?  The answer is simple: keep those extras and add even more.  That is what Scream Factory has done and they’ve created a special edition that will keep horror buffs fascinated for hours on end.

The thrills begin with a high-definition transfer that does pretty well with the distinctive look of The Howling.  John Hora’s cinematography offers an unusual combination of noirish interiors, periodic use of filters for a “glossy” effect, lots of smoke and some really intense primary-colored lighting in particular scenes.  That’s a lot for one transfer to cope with but this one looks pretty good.  Both mono and 5.1. stereo remix versions of the soundtrack are included.  The latter was listened to for this review and it makes excellent use of Pino Donaggio’s lush musical score.

The extensive special features section of this disc carries over the MGM extras (which included most of the Image laserdisc extras) as well as adding several new featurettes, so fans are in for a lot of bonus material to sift through.  First up is the commentary track done way back when for the Image edition, which features actors Dee Wallace Stone, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo plus director Joe Dante.

Group commentary tracks can often devolve into chaos but this one hits the right blend of affectionate joking between participants and scene-specific memories.  Dante acts as the ringleader, keeping everyone focused as he discusses the locations, the many challenges of the shoot and how different scenes were dropped or moved around in post-production.  The actors share memories from their viewpoint, with Christopher Stone discussing how difficult and unerotic it was to shoot the film’s sex scene and Picardo talking about the perils of acting under tons of prosthetic makeup.  The track is also laced with fascinating trivia: a great example is how some of the fire footage used in the finale was lifted from Zabriskie Point!  In short, this is a classic commentary track and required listening for fans.

Scream Factory also adds in a new commentary track featuring Gary Brandner, the author of the novel the film was (loosely) adapted from, with Michael Felsher serving as moderator.  Brandner had very little involvement with the film so Felsher wisely focuses the track on Brandner’s work as a novelist and the impact that the film version of The Howling had on his career.  If you’re a fan of ’70s/’80s horror novels, the track is particularly interesting as Felsher has done his research and they discuss many of Brandner’s novels.  For Howling fans, you’ll hear Brandner’s thoughts on the many oddball Howling sequels as well as a darkly funny story about his one run-in with Joe Dante.

Other laserdisc-era extras included here include a variety of deleted scenes, along with optional commentary from Dante.  A look at these scenes will reveal Dante’s savvy as an editor, with his commentary explaining the motivations behind their removal.  There is also a set of “outtakes” that is essentially a blooper reel.  It’s fun stuff, particularly a moment where a frustrated Patrick Macnee curses after flubbing a line.  The effective trailer is included, plus an extensive image gallery.

Best of all, this disc includes a variety of interviews and featurettes, both new and old.  On the older tip, there is a 1981 EPK piece by future director Mick Garris (who also makes a cameo in the film) called “Making Of A Monster.”  It’s brief but packs in plenty of fun, intelligent quips from Dante, Macnee and FX artist Rob Bottin.  There is also a short interview with stop motion effects whiz David Allen that is devoted to explaining why so little of his work appears in the finished film.  His comments illustrate what a struggle it was for the filmmakers to come up with the right blend of effects and also includes some tantalizing snippets of his unused work.

The biggest of the vintage featurettes is “Unleashing The Beast,” an epic 48 minute piece that dates back to the special edition DVD.  As the length suggests, this is an extensive piece that covers all phases of production and incorporates new interviews with Dante, producer Mike Finnell, screenwriter John Sayles, stars Dee Wallace Stone and Dick Miller and many more.  It covers all the bases as the commentators explain the whys and wherefores of how they updated the werewolf subgenre for a modern audience.  It moves at a steady clip and is packed full of fun anecdotes, perhaps the best being Miller’s touching account of how his role in The Howling ended up becoming his all-time favorite.

“Unleashing The Beast” might cover all the info the layman is curious about but Scream Factory takes things a step further for the hardcore fans by adding a new set of featurettes.  “Howlings Eternal” is an interview with producer Steven Lane, who discovered the novel and made the film adaptation possible by picking up the rights.  He walks the viewer through the strange, often funny history of the oddball Howling sequels.  “Cut To Shreds” is an interview with editor Mark Goldblatt, the unsung hero of The Howling‘s success, and he discusses his working relationship with Dante and how they approached editing the tricky FX sequences.  A particularly interesting inclusion is an interview with Terence Winkless, who was the original screenwriter on the film before John Sayles was brought in.  He is witty and fast-talking as he lays out how he got the gig, what his working relationship with Dante was like and the changes he came up with for translating the novel to screen.

The new featurettes are rounded out by a segment of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds devoted to The Howling.  As is usually the case with this series, it offers a blend of interesting facts about the film’s locations – complete with visits to the different sites, some of which are radically different – along with some endearingly goofball humor, including a fun recreation of one of Christopher Stone’s scenes from the film.

In short, this mega-edition of The Howling is worth it for fans, offering a solid transfer and an exhaustive bevy of extras that take the viewer deep into the film’s history and legacy.  It’s well worth the upgrade for anyone who loves the film.

To read Schlockmania’s film review of The Howling, click here.

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