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Severely shaken after a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, TV newscaster Karen White takes some much- needed time off. Hoping to conquer her inner demons, she heads for "the Colony," a secluded retreat where her new neighbors are just a tad too eager to make her feel at home. Also, there seems to be a bizarre link between her would-be attacker and this supposedly safe haven. And when, after nights of being tormented by savage shrieks and unearthly cries, Karen ventures into the forest to find answers, she makes a terrifying discovery. Now she must fight not only for her life... but for her very soul!
For more about The Howling and the The Howling Blu-ray release, see the The Howling Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on June 10, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Dee Wallace, Dick Miller, Christopher Stone, Dennis Dugan, Patrick Macnee, Kevin McCarthy
Director: Joe Dante
» See full cast & crew
The Howling Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, June 10, 2013
People want to trust their medical professionals, they really do, but maybe there's something inherently suspicious about a man or woman who can enter a room and presume to know what's going on inside of a patient, sometimes in direct contradiction to what the patient himself or herself is experiencing. This perhaps understandable distrust is probably nowhere more pronounced than in matters of the mind. While "physical" doctors can point to x- rays, MRIs, CAT scans, charts, data and other representations of what's occurring with a patient's body, psychiatrists and psychologists tread a much more unstable (no pun intended) territory. The mysteries of the mind are still being unraveled, even as physical scientists have largely demystified DNA with the Human Genome Project. There is a very active subset in humankind that doesn't just distrust psychoanalysts (of any stripe), they actually fight against the practice of supposedly peering into the inner workings of the mind. When I debunked years of myths that had sprung up about classic actress Frances Farmer, including rampant allegations that she had been abused (even lobotomized) by mental health professionals, I reported an undeniable link between those myths and a certain anti-psychiatry group that has connections to a rather infamous "religion" founded by a man some say is parodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master. I soon found myself on the receiving end of a hate email campaign that was truly unbelievable (years later, a trickle of these types of emails still intermittently arrives in my in box), with adherents of these anti-psychiatry beliefs accusing me of being willfully blind, ignorant or just too damn stupid to see "the truth", despite the fact that those making the allegations did so largely on the basis of unfounded rumor and outright prevarication, while my research featured (hopefully) fairly meticulous citing of medical and legal records. But even those without a quasi-"religious" objection to psychiatry may feel that professionals who attempt to "mind meld" with their patients are, well, quacks. And so we come to The Howling, a film which pretty much evenly divided critics when it was released in 1981. While the medical trust issue was certainly not the only problem some people had with the film, those who perhaps weren't able to swallow the idea of a nefarious therapist dealing in an underhanded way with a troubled patient probably found the film downright silly and ridiculous. Those who either had an innate understanding of the kind of suspicion that sometimes creeps into a doctor-patient relationship or who were at least willing to suspend disbelief for a moment or two found The Howling to be a rather funny and frightening take on the werewolf genre, wrapped up in a bunch of psychobabble that only made things seem somehow weirdly endearing.
Probably the best filmic example of the nagging distrust of medical professionals, at least in the horror genre, is undoubtedly Roman Polanski's brilliant adaptation of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby. This is an interesting film anyway in terms of the disparity between physical and mental ailments, for the none too subtle subtext of the plot is whether or not Rosemary is imagining all the nefarious goings on around her. But for many the single most chilling moment in the film is not the infamous coven scene or even the shocking sight of Rosemary eating raw meat, but the late appearance of Charles Grodin as an obstetrician whom Rosemary goes to for a "reality check" of her pregnancy, and to whom she reveals nearly nine months of increasing fears and suspicions. And what does the good doctor do? Why, turn her right back over to the Satanists, of course, sure that he's dealing with a crazy woman.
Much like Rosemary's Baby, The Howling posits a female character who becomes increasingly suspicious and who may be the victim of the machinations of an apparently benign doctor. Unlike Rosemary's Baby, The Howling lets the audience in relatively quickly on the fact that Karen White (Dee Wallace) is not in fact crazy, and that she, for reasons which are perhaps never quite explained well enough, has become the focal point for a secretive pack of werewolves. Much like the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (is it mere coincidence that original Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy shows up in a featured role here?), The Howling dresses a well worn horror trope up in some nascent New Age verbiage, with these particular werewolves part of a kind of quasi- spiritual retreat that seems weirdly reminiscent of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. The film starts out with Karen, a news anchor, almost getting killed by a serial killer who's been stalking her (again, never really totally explained). Though Karen survives the attack, she's rather traumatized, suffering from amnesia, and is sent to a therapist named Waggner (Patrick Macnee) for help. Waggner advises Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) to take a healing "vacation" of sorts at The Colony, his tony resort for people who need to get away and confront their neuroses head on (no pun intended).
Once Karen and Bill arrive at The Colony, they're met by a gaggle of decidedly odd folks, including the voluptuous Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) and a bizarre elder named Erle Kenton (John Carradine). Karen is ill at ease almost from the get go, but Bill seems more willing to let the "magic" of the environment heal his wife. When Bill is attacked by a wolf late one night, that would seem to give the couple a ready made excuse to leave, but Waggner helps mend Bill's wound and calms Karen's jittery nerves. In one of the film's big reveals, Bill is seemingly called telepathically to a bonfire where Marsha is waiting, and the two engage in some decidedly carnal activities, though their carnality is marked by a rather startling transformation.
Karen becomes more isolated from Bill, as well as Waggner and the rest of the Colony, but she invites one of her news crew, a young reporter named Terry (Belinda Balaski), to come to The Colony to help figure out what's really going on. Terry has already been trying to look into some odd mysteries surrounding Eddie (Robert Picardo), the serial killer who had been stalking Karen and whose body has disappeared from the city morgue. With her boyfriend Chris (Dennis Dugan), they've begun looking into cult activity, as well as the strange fact that Eddie was evidently interested in lycanthropy and may in fact have had some kind of connection to The Colony.
The final act of The Howling plays out with typical hyperbole, as a number of major characters meet their doom and the full extent of The Colony's werewolfism becomes clear. The film loses a little steam here, especially in a patently ridiculous scene that has Karen and Chris trapped in a car that won't start (of course) while a pack of marauding werewolves surround them. But this is a rare misstep for a film that is often slyly humorous (keep track of all the little wolf references that pop up in both props and things like television shows characters are watching) as well as self-referential without being coy or arch. Waggner's repeated psychobabble about living with "the beast within" is hilarious for those who tend to roll their eyes when tele-analysts preach their gospel to an adoring public, many of whom wouldn't recognize a werewolf if it up and bit them in their behinds.
The Howling Blu-ray, Video Quality
While The Howling is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory's Scream Factory imprint with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.86:1, it seems fairly obvious that Shout! has simply ported over the Studio Canal master that was released on Blu-ray in Europe a couple of years ago, since this version still features the Studio Canal logo. For the most part, this is a significant upgrade from the previous DVD edition, with better clarity, improved contrast and more robust color. There are some niggling problems, however. It appears that some digital tweaking in both the sharpening and noise reduction areas have been applied to this release. Things are not horrible, however, and those who tend to react with horror at the mere thought of these techniques being applied may actually be in for a pleasant surprise that whatever has been done here has been done relatively gracefully. There are also some issues with mosquito noise in some of the blue tinged forest scenes, but generally speaking, this is a really nice looking high definition presentation that makes a few minor missteps, none of them fatal.
The Howling Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Howling features a repurposed lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track as well as the film's original mono track repurposed in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo (purists may have preferred the original mono track presented in mono). The 5.1 track has some nicely inventive surround activity, noticeable right up front with the "clawing" that creates the film's title—listen, and you'll clearly hear each "scratch" emanating from a different channel. The best surround moments are in the transformation scenes, as well as some of the spooky forest sequences. Things aren't pushed to unnatural levels here, so a lot of the activity is still anchored in the front channels, leaving Pino Donaggio's nice score to spill into the side and rear channels. Dialogue is very clean, though there's just a bit of haziness in the midrange at times, perhaps endemic to the source stems. Fidelity is excellent and dynamic range is quite wide.
The Howling Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Howling Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Howling isn't your father's werewolf movie, unless your father is an erstwhile hippie who liked to swallow lots of drugs and commune with nature and his inner animal. The film is perhaps a bit too wry for its own good, since many people didn't seem to get that it was making fun of the werewolf trope while at the same time exploiting it (how anyone could have failed to see the humor in the portenous news anchor rehearsing his report in sonorous tones and then lapsing into his "real" Gomer Pyle-esque voice during a conversation is beyond me, but I digress). Perhaps now in this more cynical era people will feel more of a connection to The Howling's post-modern take on the genre. The then state of the art special effects hold up reasonably well, and the film's piquant sense of humor is still entirely intact. This Blu- ray offers generally excellent video and audio, and comes jam packed with excellent supplemental material. Highly recommended.
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