The Howling Blu-ray Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 22, 2011 at 9:38 PM

  • Movies review


    The Howling Blu-ray Review


    This German hi-def presentation has The Howling encoded via AVC, and it looks mighty fine, too.

    Let's get one thing straight. The Howling, filmed in 1981 and on a low budget, has always looked soft and hazy. And it still does. But this is still miles better in terms of clarity and detail than you've ever seen it before. And don't tell me that you remember how it looked on the cinema screen way back then, when Hartley Hare (check back to the film review!) had only just ceased playing on TV screens at school dinnertimes. Dante's film retains a very film-like texture and depth, but this is faithfully reproduced with that same diffused and low-contrasted aesthetic that the film is the unfortunate recipient of. I say “unfortunate” because this is not a pretty look. Yellows are accentuated, contrast is hampered, the spectral haze is exaggerated and, as authentic to the original negative as it is, the resulting image makes you wish that Dante and DOP had opted for a much less dream-like quality. There is grain and it is consistent and natural-looking. There has been no untoward noise reduction applied to this 1.85:1 image, and edges have not been nastily enhanced, although objectivity does seem suitably sharper.

    It is worth stating that this transfer retains the film's original colour-timing, just like the previous Special Edition DVD, and unlike all the home video versions that came before. We get a more vibrant colour palette, though this is not a gorgeously hued movie in any way, that hazy sheen deliberately misting over all but the most garish delights. Reds can be bright and beaming, but scenes set in subdued light are naturally faint and indistinct. The greens of the forest can be great, but they can also be rather muted at times – again, purposely. The orange glow that suffuses the screen during the "rutting" scene is nicely reproduced too. Skin tones are more than reasonable and, given the style of photography, quite natural-looking too. The grey of the werewolf fur during the cabin-attack is less smudgy than it has appeared before, the blackened muzzle of the Eddie-beast yields more subtleties and shading, as do the faces on the pack that peer in through the car windows. The image is dark during the more pivotal sequences, but there is more detail on offer within the murk than we could see in the Special Edition DVD. Outdoor shots of characters moving through the woods are cleaner and more finite. Leaves and branches, texture of bark and wafting fronds etc, all look appreciably better. The drawings on the wall in Eddie's apartment and adorning the Quist cabin are better resolved and easier to make out, as are the press-clippings and comic-book covers. Drool and mucus during the big transformation are clearer, as are the popping flesh and elongating jaws.

    Black levels are quite good and hold their ground against the soft-filtered imagery that sometimes intrudes. A couple of shots reveal ghastly faces peering through the shadows, and you can plainly see that they hold more definition and clarity now than they have before. Midnight blues play a strong part in many of the pivotal sequences, and the transfer handles them reliably.

    What I was most enamoured with, and something that has not been quite this visible on any other version, is the colour and clarity of the eyes when people make that big change. Eddie's are now much more apparent as they alter and begin to glow, as are everyone's once the primal instinct takes over. But have a look at Belinda Balaski's eyes once Karen uncovers her ravaged body – man, they have always been bloodshot, though never as intrinsically and unpleasantly apparent as they appear now. Plus, the wounds inflicted are revealed a starker, more clinical clarity. The glistening blood from a gouged throat, or the exposed viscera shining in the half-light of the barn during the climactic confrontation in the barn, for instance, show that the hi-def image is more than capable of coming up with the gory goods.

    Finally, I noticed no pixelation, banding or any unsightly elements of noise or aliasing taking place. You wouldn't reach for this in an effort to impress your friends, and the overall results bear out how good the previous SD incarnation actually was, but this transfer will more than please any Howling fans out there. I'm awarding this a 8 out of 10. It makes no mistakes and presents a problematic and dated image with accuracy, rather than glitz.

    The Howling Picture


    This German disc contains lossless stereo tracks in English, German, French and Spanish.

    Well, we would have liked a full lossless surround mix for The Howling because, done discretely, there is lots of scope for blood-sapping ambience with this sort of film. Growling, snarling and howling plays a huge part of the sound-design, and we hear it emanating from all over the place. Dante and his sound engineer, Ken King, definitely wanted to create a freakish mix that would be unpredictable and startling. The previous SD release had a DD 5.1 makeover that attempted to widen the soundfield and add depth. However, how can you really complain when the DTS-HD MA 2-channel mix that we experience here is faithful to the source and, despite its wraparound limitations, still delivers the creepy goods with excellent fidelity (for the most part) and certainly has your heart lurching on a good couple of occasions?

    The score benefits well from this presentation, with warmth, range and energy.That church organ really picks up during the moment when Terry realises that she could well be standing in the middle of Eddie Quist’s territory. The score, elsewhere, does its best to deliver those searing strings and overly luxurious orchestrations. The many synthesised stingers benefit from some extra clout too.

    The wolf howls and snarls are effectively rendered across a wide and robust frontal array but, as I said earlier, this was a chance when a surround remix would surely have done the film a few favours. The crazy effect for the growling during the attack scenes, especially when Terry is forced to flee the Quist house, comes over well, and if the sound is somewhat dislocated, this is totally down to the way that the original mix was put together. It does mean that the more aggressive snarls and howls have a more distant and surreal quality to them than the close-up nature of the encounter would seem to demand. But this is how The Howling has always sounded. And it still sounds good.

    Dialogue is okay, but no great shakes in terms of clarity and discernibility. There are occasional moments when it can drop down a bit too low, such as during Christopher's encounter with the acid-burned Eddie, but then this has always been something of a problem for the film, in every version of it that I have seen. It is not a major distraction, just one of the foibles that is inherent to the source. Other exchanges and deliveries come over with gusto, such as all of Dick Miller's cynical blurb. Gunshots don't pack an awful lot of impact, and nor does the exploding Mazda, but I liked the dramatic weight of the werewolf tearing the cabin apart, the clatter of equipment in Waggner's office, and the sudden pounding on the hood of the car and, especially, the smashing of the window when Eddie rams his arm through it. Even the little sound of the lid being snapped shut on the box of silver bullets has a nice, sharply rendered clack! All of this aids the mood of the film and adds to the experience.

    Overall, this is a fine and punchy track that does the original audio source justice. I still want a full surround option though!

    The Howling Sound


    Well, at least we get some, folks!

    But you may as well forget about the great joint commentary from Dante, the two Stones and Picardo, the extensive making-of, deleted scenes and the featurettes that adorned the 2-disc Special Edition DVD from a many moons ago. All we get here from Kinowelt is a teaser and a theatrical trailer, and a 26-minute mini-doc that looks back at the film from a special FX standpoint.

    Entitled The Werewolf Effect, this is a new production from Studio Canal, that features comprehensive contributions from Pascal Pineau, who has made a study of the evolution of special makeup effects and written a book about it, Joe Dante, himself, and, quite unbelievably and sadly all-too irreverently, Guilliaume Castagne and Olivier Afonso, whose ongoing struggle to speak English and make any coherent sense becomes purely comical to the point of pain. According to Afonso, the changes in makeup-FX technology is like the evolution of mankind … or something. No, I don’t mean to mock the sentiments made by these two gifted makeup-FX artists, who have La Horde, Inside and Transporter 3 to their credit, but their inclusion here is rendered null and void from an informative point of view. Dante is his usual garrulous and perpetually amused self, although his dialogue sounds a little too muted for comfort, and both he and Pintau manage to address he change-over from Baker to Bottin and go into a surprising amount of depth about the big transformation and the look of the werewolves.

    To be fair, this little featurette was, at least, something that I hadn’t seen before, even if the information that it delivers is not exactly fresh news to fans.

    The Howling Extras


    With no sign of a release for The Howling in the US or the UK, as yet, fans will have their appetites satisfied with this German Blu-ray offering of the classic werewolf yarn. There is nothing particularly special to be hunted down in the supplements, but the AV transfer is faithful and film-like, and looks accurate to the source. I would have liked a full surround option, and I feel sure that, some day, we will have that. But this DTS-HD MA stereo track still packs a punch and helps to create lots of spooky atmosphere. The image was never going to be an award-winner, or possess anything that would make it demo-material, but I don't that anyone could complain about this video transfer. The film benefits from greater detail and more stability in the black levels. The print looks fine, and there is definitely more clarity with regards to the film's infamously soft appearance.

    Joe Dante has been one of the more consistent genre directors to come out of seventies. Whereas the more prolific John Carpenter dropped the ball, and hasn't been able to find it since the mid-eighties, Wes Craven has, in my opinion, only sold-out since he made A Nightmare On Elm Street, Tobe Hooper has vanished and Dario Argento, sadly, hasn't, Dante has turned out some great stuff over an intermittent career, including Gremlins 1 & 2, Innerspace, Matinee, Small Soldiers and the much more recent supernatural foray in The Hole. It would be prudent to note that both John Landis, his head-to-head rival back in 1981, and John Carpenter have also made something of a comeback lately, with the comedy horror Burke & Hare and The Ward, respectively. But it is Dante who has maintained his original sense of style, wry humour, exuberance and flair the best. All traits that can be found in abundance here.

    This German release of The Howling, which I obtained via Amazon for a very reasonable price, comes highly recommended for those who cannot wait for MGM to sort themselves out for a US or UK Blu-ray presentation.

    The Rundown



    Picture Quality


    Sound Quality






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