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The Howling Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review

There’s plenty of meat to chew on here!

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review

The Howling Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
SRP: £19.99

Picture

“Ya can’t tame what’s meant to be wild, Doc.”

This US disc from Scream Factory appears to feature the same transfer as the German hi-def presentation from Kinowelt. Although not struck from a new master and not the recipient of any further restoration, The Howling, encoded via AVC, still looks mighty fine, all things considered.

What I said about the Euro disc applies here too, but I’ve made a few more observations.

Right, so let's get one thing straight. The Howling, filmed in 1981 and on a low budget, has always looked soft and hazy. And that hasn’t changed with this 1080p image. 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 lurid production retains a very film-like texture and depth, but this is faithfully reproduced with that same diffused, hazy and dreamy-like aesthetic that the film is the unfortunate recipient of. I say “unfortunate” because this is not always a pretty look. Yellows are accentuated, as are greens and browns, the spectral haze is exaggerated and, as authentic to the original negative as it is, the resulting image might make you wish that Dante and his DOP John Hora had opted for a much less dream-like quality. There is grain and it is consistent and natural-looking. I wouldn’t say that any 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 the German disc, 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 of delights. Dante and Hora used gels and filters to attain a very deliberate look that becomes most apparent in the mean and moody interiors during the last third. Reds can be bright and beaming, but scenes set in subdued light are naturally faint and rather more indistinct, favouring spectral yellow and orange, almost a burnished veneer, seen especially when Terry meets Eddie (and not in a romantic way), and a sleazy yellow and ruddy complexion for the porno-store. And there’s the burning orange, sweat-dripping fire-glow of the rutting sequence. 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. The grey of the werewolf fur during the cabin-attack is considerably 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, even the eyes and ear-tufts are more apparent. 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, that’s for sure. 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 and more vivid. 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. You can easily spot that Rick Baker Nazi-Wolf design from American Werewolf, and read the hideous details of the murders he has culled from newspapers. Drool and mucus during the big transformation are clearer, as are the popping flesh and elongating jaws.
While the image is inherently soft and dream-like, contrast is actually very good. Look at the faces of the colonists around the fires on the beach during the BBQ, the flickering hues and shades could have become wishy-washy and bland but they remain smoothly modulated and natural. Scenes set in the half-light and often assailed with eerie mist also look just fine, shading nicely delineated and highlights – eyes, pale skin, etc – finely balanced. 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. There is no crushing of detail taking place within the darker areas of the frame. Look at the standout sequence when Terry is hiding down in the cabin-alcove and the werewolf is trying to haul her out – the colours (Balaski’s brunette locks, the blue of her jacket and the blood on her torn arm), the contrast (daylight penetrating the gloom), and the black levels all work tremendously well together. We can clearly see the detail of the raggedy grey fur on the beast even as it reaches out from the deep, dark shadows.

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 mutilated body – man, they have always been bloodshot in this scene, 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, even if Dante’s film is substantially less grisly than Landis’ feral cousin over in London.
Detail is excellent. Barring a handful of shots that have some unfocussed elements – the picnic on the cliff-top, for instance – you should really notice a huge improvement. There are great facial close-ups (look at the first shot we see of Picardo’s serial killer licking his lips!) , lots of eye and hair clarity, and frequently rewarding location imagery that boasts more visual information than you will have seen before, and far better appreciation of depth and dimensionality. But, of course, you will savour the extra detail afforded the makeup FX. Awesome. ‘nuff said.

Finally, I noticed no clumpy noise, no banding and no unsightly elements of DNR 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 an 8 out of 10. It makes no mistakes and presents a problematic and dated image with film-like accuracy, rather than unnecessary glitz.

The Howling Collector

Sound

“Silver bullets, my ass!”

Well, I rued the fact that the Kinowelt release didn’t have a full lossless surround mix for The Howling as an option because, done discretely, there is lots of scope for blood-sapping ambience with this sort of film. And, thankfully, Scream have just offered up just such a track with an enjoyable DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. 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, and this expands smartly upon that.

And the purists can’t complain too much ... because there is also a DTS-HD MA 2-channel mix that is available as an option. This 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.

But for the purposes of this review, I went with the full surround track.

Immediately, the opening title sequence makes good use of the extended environment. The scratches that form the words The Howling are crisp and savagely rendered. They don’t emanate from all the different channels, but there is definitely some spatiality afforded them. The exploding TV screen has some organic weight to it, and the snippets of dialogue that we hear (literally soundbites ... geddit?) that hail from elsewhere in the film, like mysterious and ghostly echoes, filter around the soundscape to quite hypnotic effect. So, as you can gather, the added audio depth really does make the film more cleverly atmospheric and enjoyable. Well, I think so, anyway.

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. As she witnesses a severed paw transform into a human hand, the high violins and organ really penetrate the soundscape with clarity. The score, elsewhere, does its best to deliver those searing strings and often overly (though typical for Pino Donaggio) luxurious orchestrations. The many synthesised stingers benefit from some extra clout too, really reaching out with some sizzling intensity. I think the score elements and these stingers have been awarded some justifiable extra weight and clout.

The wolf howls and snarls are effectively rendered across a wide and robust frontal array and there are a couple of occasions when these are carried further out and distributed through the rears. 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. Added to this is the frequent use of modulated, synthesised and processed vocal effects for when Eddie and his brother T.C. taunt their intended victims. These sound tremendously weird and have some definite movement within the soundfield, as well as warbling echo that advances and recedes with fearsome aural dexterity.

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, but the moment of Christopher's encounter with the acid-burned Eddie, which has usually been something of a problem for the film, in every version of it that I have seen, is no longer an issue. Once a minor distraction, and just one of the foibles that are inherent to the source, it is now more evenly presented. Another little verbal aside that often got submerged comes when the detective in the TV station excitedly informs his partner about Bill Neill’s sporting background. Here, this is clearly audible without sounding forced or embellished. (It is perfectly clear in the 2-channel, also.) Other exchanges and deliveries come over with gusto, such as all of Dick Miller's cynical “making a buck” 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, with timbers really splintering under the impact, the clatter of equipment in Waggner's office during a trio of standout sequences , and the sudden pounding on the hood of the car as Karen is captured. The smashing of the window when Eddie rams his arm through it is particularly effective. Even the little sound of the lid being snapped shut on the box of silver bullets has a nice, sharply rendered clack! Plus, it is nice to note that the bolt-action of the hunting rifle that Christopher uses makes a realistic click-clack that has not been exaggerated in the manner that almost all other movies would have seen fit to employ. I’ve fired these things and the working parts are actually very quiet and rather wimpish – not at all macho or as mighty-sounding as you would think. All of this aids the mood of the film, I think, and adds to the experience.

Overall, this is a fine and excitingly punchy surround track that does the original audio source justice whilst embracing the imaginative capabilities that a film of this nature inspires. Both tracks are real good fun, in fact.

A solid 8 out of 10.

The Howling Collector

Extras

“Come on outta there now, Miss. We’ve been waiting for you.”

The German BD only managed a tiny little featurette that really didn’t sit well alongside the movie all that well, but Scream Factory are able to really deliver the goods for this lycanthropic classic. All the material from the DVD Special Edition is present, but some new predators have now joined the already exhaustive pack for this excellent BD.

The group commentary makes a welcome return, with Joe Dante catching up with his stars Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo. This excellent. Lively, detailed, good-natured and vastly informative. Dante is definitely on-form and provides a brilliant delivery of trivia and production minutia. We learn that the ripped-up bodies we see in the TV footage are real dead bodies, the material culled from the coroner, and that he shot the rape-video footage, himself, in his own garage. Ahhh ... that doesn’t sound right, does it? But you know what I mean. And this is just the opening few minutes of what proves to be a fantastic commentary. You can really sense the love between Dee Wallace and Chris Stone, who sadly passed away in 1995. Admittedly, the actors play mutual second-fiddle to the director, but this is wonderful stuff. It’s a howl, in fact!

A brand new commentary lets us hear from Gary Brandner, himself, the man who created the original pulp novel. This is fair, with Brandner (moderated by Michael Felsher) mainly discussing his career up to, around, and after the film in-question. As such, this is not in the least scene-specific and really doesn’t convey a great deal of information regarding the film that took his idea and ran wild with it. Still, it’s nice that he could be brought onboard.

One of the better retrospective film documentaries comes in the form of the multi-part chronicle Unleashing the Beast: The Making of The Howling. Pretty much everybody involved with the picture gets a look-in, and practically every aspect of the production is discussed and dissected with frankness, honesty and a whole lot of fondness.The background of the werewolf myth, and the whole psychological aspect of it all, as well as the films that have sprung up around it are quite comprehensively discussed in relation to how The Howling opted to turn the clichés on their head. Great run-through of the casting and the characters, and a fine appreciation of the location work. The lighting and camerawork is appreciated, as is the wry and satirical nature of Dante’s work, and we see some more footage from the mock rape-video that Dante shot, actually involving a rather unsettling act committed with a sink-plunger that we don’t see in the film. Naturally, we hear about the transformations and the look of the werewolves, which was based on the old medieval woodcuts of bipedal wolf-men, and it is fascinating. They do seem to admire that trashy original poster art which, to be honest, I have no time for.

We have some interesting interviews with a slew of behind-the-scenes personalities. There’s Howlings Eternal with Steven A. Lane, executive producer on the film. Some great little tricks and techniques are discussed in Cut to Shreds with Editor Mark Goldblatt. The evolution of the screenplay gets chronicled in an Interview with Co-writer Terence Winkless. And, very enjoyably, we get to see some of the more inventive creature effects that, perhaps, didn’t make it into the final film for various reasons in an Interview with Stop Motion Animator David Allenin which their creator reminiscences about all the hard work he put into the film, only to have a couple of second’s worth of footage remain during the enigmatic montage-dissolve near the end. As great as his stuff is, it really wouldn’t have gelled too well with the big guys.

There’s a vintage featurette on the audacious genre-spin in Making a Monster Movie: Inside The Howling. Dante, Bottin and even Macnee make an appearance to discuss the relevance and the genre credentials of the movie. Macnee actually nails the crucial majesty of what makes Dante’s films work by likening his style to the skewed world slant that also made the cult TV show The Avengers so memorable. Bottin, sporting a very similar beard and hairdo to Kurt Russell’s Macready in The Thing, is also quite focussed and not nearly as off-the-wall as we’ve seen him in interviews before. COME BACK ROB BOTTIN, I SAY!!!!

There is another great entry from the Horror’s Hallowed Grounds series that finds us running with the irascible Sean Clark as he seeks out the locations seen in the film. From the seedy streets of LA (the porn district intro and the occult bookshop) to the beautiful woods, coves and beaches of Northern California. Like Terry, in the film, we foolishly enter that spooky Quist cabin in the woods and discover that it has remained pretty much as we saw it over thirty years ago. I can appreciate that some people don’t like Clark’s rather anarchic approach, but he’s a real big fan and at least he’s able to find some of these places. I’ve done a pilgrimage to the locations from American Werewolf ... and I’d love to do the same for this, The Fog and Halloween III. I really adore the coastline of Northern California.
As well as the Theatrical Trailer and a great Photo Gallery, we are also blessed to have the Deleted Scenes and Outtakes.

The infamous hot-tub sequence is here, as well as a raft of stuff that was wisely excised. Some of it is character-based, some of it totally incidental, and some even threatens to give the game away a little too early. You can watch these with their original audio or with an explanatory commentary from Joe Dante. The Outtakes are actually really good fun, with line-fluffings (Patrick Macnee drops the F-bomb!), miscues and bizarre adlibs, an over-inflated air bladder that comically pops on camera, false fangs falling out, and even a severed hand that flips us the bird well before that delinquent five-fingered fiend in Evil Dead II did the trick.

Scream Factory gets some flack for its customised package artwork. Like Arrow Video, the imagery sometimes just doesn’t work. However, I like what they’ve come up with here. The Karen White figure looks nothing at all like Dee Wallace, and I wish we were able to see Marsha Quist appear in the film as she does in this lupine pre-pounce stance, but the depiction of the wolves and Eddie’s acid-scarred visage, as well as the little smiley-face badge, makes for a far more evocative and eye-catching statement than the rather mundane original poster art that can be found on the reverse. To be honest, I’ve never liked the original artwork. Nor the tagline, for that matter.

This is one of the best overall packages put together for a low-budget early 80’s werewolf picture that just happens to be one of the best werewolf pictures of all-time. I’m giving it a 9 out of 10 for its extras although, between you and me, I doubt that we could actually get anything else crammed in here. So, really speaking, this should be a 10. Ahhh ... you decide.

The Howling Collector
So, finally we get a full-on, full-moon, full-fur version of The Howling on US Blu-ray. The German release, whilst a nice filler in the meantime, is well and truly eclipsed by this. Fans will have their appetites more than satisfied with this offering of the classic werewolf yarn from Scream Factory. There are plenty of specials to be hunted down in the supplements, and the AV transfer is faithful and film-like, and looks accurate to the source. I wished for a full surround option when I covered the earlier Euro release, as this is a film that simply cries out for wicked aural ambience and roaring ferocity, and the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track 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 believe that anyone could complain about this video transfer with any conviction. 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. You only have to peruse the fur and the wounds to see that.

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 again 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 (Jeez, DO NOT bother with his Dracula lunacy!), 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. Although I liked The Ward, the whole story and its twist were painfully obvious right from the very start, and Landis really isn’t a good director, I’m afraid, with only American Werewolf standing proud from a very slapdash and messy oeuvre. But it is Dante who has maintained his original sense of style, wry humour, playful exuberance and imaginative flair the best. All of which are traits that can be found in abundance here.

Scream Factory have delivered the film with an excellent and accurate transfer of, admittedly, difficult and highly stylised material. The extras are fabulous and pretty much all that a fur-fan could ask for.

If you have the capability to play Region A, then this release should be on your list.

The Howling on Blu comes very strongly recommended indeed.

The Howling Collector

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