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You Can't Tame What's Meant to Be Wild: The Howling on Blu-ray

  The debate will probably never end as to which werewolf movie of the very early nineteen-eighties was the better, The Howling or An American Werewolf in London (The Wolfen doesn't usually get a look in these arguments). But in 1981, they were two of the big movies for horror fans to watch, having enjoyed a boom in the genre after the advances in special effects improved the setpieces and makeup for horror by leaps and bounds, and had been so since the late seventies. Indeed, the eighties was the decade when the makeup expert was king, and names like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and even Screaming Mad George were lauded as masters of their art.

As luck would have it, the director of The Howling, Joe Dante, had the benefit of both Baker's experience and Bottin's skill on his picture, though Baker left it at some point to work on John Landis's An American Werewolf in London. Werewolf transformation sequences had not been much updated since Lon Chaney Jr played Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man back in 1941; in that, Jack Pierce's designs relied on time lapse photography to offer the illusion of changing form, but now, in the eighties, a movie could depict all manner of ingenious warping of human into beast. In the intervening years, the majority of horrors had not bothered with a transformation effect at all.

But, as mentioned, now those effects were a big draw, and a good director knew how to use them to their advantage as gore became the overriding attraction in a shocker, and the more elaborate the demises the better, giving rise to fan culture revolving around magazines like Fangoria. Of course, this emphasis on over the top violence became an issue when moralists began decrying the films as a bad influence on society, yet for the aficionados that merely lent them an outlaw glamour while the attraction of seeing a movie uncut, with all the effects intact, was only increased by the rise of the VHS tape market. Before long bootleg culture was as important as cinema visits to fans.

The Howling was, curiously, never bothered with cuts, despite some fairly strong ideas about what to do with its characters once the moon was full. Taking its cue from Curt Siodmak's rules of werewolf movies set out in the Chaney hit forty years before was a possible reason for that, as no matter how up to date it was in its plot and production, there was something weirdly quaint about how indebted Dante was to what had gone before, paying tribute to a past that rarely was blessed with the innovations he had at his disposal. For instance, this was probably the first horror to name characters after horror movie directors - werewolf movies, here - a la Night of the Creeps (1985).

Not only that, but Chaney showed up in clips of The Wolf Man on TV, and there was an old Looney Tunes cartoon featuring the Big Bad Wolf there as well, as always with Dante, hyper-aware of the history of his medium and keen to display connections from that to his current project - this was the man who had directed Matinee in 1993 which was as loving a tribute to a filmmaker's childhood as Federico Fellini's Amarcord had been in 1973, and that didn't have John Goodman doing an impression of exploitation movie mogul William Castle. Similarly, in The Howling Dante had grown up with vintage horror on TV, and the then-new horrors from all over the world, from Hammer to Paul Naschy's werewolf specialities.

Both of which were respectfully referenced in The Howling, among many other things, very different from the sleazy Gary Brandner book it was based on. The Dante trademarks extended to his use of the same supporting cast, most visibly the great "Hey, it's that guy!" character actor Dick Miller, who here played the owner of an occult bookshop that happens to sell silver bullets almost casually (perhaps anticipating Miller's gun shop owner in The Terminator three years later). But also here peppering the cast were the likes of Belinda Balaski, as the reporter who does most of the digging, Kevin McCarthy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame as the TV news producer, and Kenneth Tobey of numerous fifties science fiction flicks as a cop who finds our heroine about to be mauled by Robert Picardo, the killer who starts the main plot.

That plot was part broad examination of how trauma can inhibit its victims, the trauma being a brush with a werewolf, and part satire of the self-help boom that had California in its grip at the turn of the eighties, in this led by guru Patrick Macnee who has his own retreat up the coast from Los Angeles. He invites newscaster on a report Dee Wallace there after Picardo terrifies her in a porno loop booth, and deciding she needs some kind of break she agrees, travelling there with her husband Christopher Stone (who would become the star's husband in real life - they went on to Cujo later in the decade). The community there seems friendly enough, but the movie is called The Howling for goodness' sake, so what do you think they are hiding? With a strong cast from veterans Slim Pickens and John Carradine to relative unknown Elisabeth Brooks (making quite an impression but failing to capitalise on it before her untimely death), this is as much a general film buff's idea of a horror as it is a horror buff's, and while it is ruthless in its treatment of its characters, it's worth it for an all-time great final sequence of sick humour.

[Studio Canal's 4K 40th Anniversary restoration is available in a three-disc set with these special features:

4K UHD - Feature Only
Inside the Career of Joe Dante - Brand new featurette that celebrates the incredible career of Joe Dante
Welcome to Werewolfland - A lookback into the special effects of The Howling
Deleted Scenes
Outtakes - These outtakes will leave you howling!

UHD & Blu Ray
DVD Disc
5 Artcards
20 page booklet - Includes original press kit, new stills and essay,]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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