Credit widespread jealousy of Taylor Lautner’s washboard abs for staving off a full-fledged werewolf revival, as body hair has never been as conspicuously in vogue as it is right now since the aftermath of the 1970s—not coincidentally the last time lycanthropy served as one of the horror genre’s foremost fashion statements. The trend’s failure to re-launch makes some sense, though, as Lautner’s Jacob marks perhaps the first time a shape-shifting pup conspicuously sent more hearts aflutter in human form than he did as a snarling, insatiable beast. It could be that the Scruff generation’s affiliation with hirsuteness is truly only follicle deep, and that peach fuzz remains the bridge too far. Or it could be that those who live according to the gospel of Stephenie Meyer have been conditioned to reject irony and keep their radars tuned to the New Sincerity.
But back in the dark, clone-drone Me Generation, irony was what separated the men from the boys, and though John Landis’s overtly self-deprecating An American Werewolf in London ultimately made the bigger splash (largely due to Rick Baker’s legendary transformation sequences), Joe Dante’s The Howling, which beat the Landis film into theaters by a few months, is a lot more conspicuously attuned to, and critical of, the genre’s undertones of sexual violence.
From the very first scene, The Howling plays around with the notion of vulnerability as a role-playing exercise, a pseudo-sex game. Dee Wallace plays Karen White, a news anchor whose producers (foremost among them Kevin McCarthy’s seedy, Max Schumaker-ish E.P.) have seemingly forced her to serve as bait for the LAPD as they run a sting on a high profile serial killer, who has eyes on the glamorous TV personality. Karen’s station is all too willing to exploit the situation to their exclusive advantage, to the noted ambivalence of her rugged husband Bill (Christopher Stone, Wallace’s real-life husband). It all goes south, though, when all the neon lights in Los Angeles’s somehow interfere with her apparently GPS-equipped microphone feed. She goes into a porn loop booth as directed by the killer, unaware that she’s no longer being secretly tracked by the authorities, and is saved by a matter of seconds after an observant prostitute informs police of Karen’s whereabouts.
Recovery from the assault doesn’t come quickly, despite Karen’s doomed effort to appear in front of TV cameras to share her experience, another attempted ratings grab that ends when she freezes in the glare of the studio lights. So she’s urged by her therapist to attend his coastal retreat called The Colony, where he promises more primal forms of psychological release. As written by John Sayles, Dante’s Piranha collaborator, The Howling hardly keeps the true nature of the remote haven a mystery. On the very first night Karen starts hearing howls from the forest, and her husband starts locking eyes with Marsha, one of the Colony’s other patients, a fur and loincloth-wearing nymphomaniac who comes on to him by baring her teeth like Edy Williams.
Dante, with the same sense of subtlety (cough, cough) that would later see him depicting zombie soldiers coming back to life not to eat brains but instead cast their votes, foregrounds his werewolves’ cartoon carnality by any means necessary, often finding endearingly clumsy parallels between mastication and copulation. Bill shoots a rabbit and Marsha offers to cook it up for him, chopping the critter’s head off with a cleaver before tossing the carcass aside and suggesting they make hay. Bill arrives back in Karen’s room the next day with scratches all over his back. (The signals get especially crossed when another character is seen paging through a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl.) And so when Karen returns to the newsroom to tell her story, the movie’s final punchline sees an entire room full of sloppy men presuming one woman’s public, gender-bending exorcism of her own violated form is just another special effect.
Another tic mark in the win column for Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory offshoot. The 1080p display on their Blu-ray presentation of The Howling looks good enough to see just how ropey some of the special effects actually are in retrospect. The balloons inflating beneath ripping shirts are one thing, but an insert shot of blatant animation and another of stop motion are just a bit much. The transfer bears the Studio Canal logo, which suggests borrowed goods, but the focus is sharp and there’s more than enough era-appropriate grain in the image. The sound comes in both 5.1 and 2.0 master audio mixes, which emphasize Pino Donaggio’s synth and pipe organ cues at the expense of the dialogue.
All stops are out and the film’s fans will probably sprout a few extra hairs over this set’s bonus offerings. There are two complete commentary tracks. The first is obviously a few decades old, as it features actor Christopher Stone, who died of a heart attack in 1995. Stone gabs with his wife Dee Wallace, actor Robert Picardo, and Joe Dante, and the track is giggly enough to suggest the assistance of mood-altering substances. Or else they just really enjoy each other’s company and have nothing but fond memories of the shoot. On the other track, author Gary Brandner talks about his original Howling novel, which as it turns out bears very little resemblance to the finished film. Rounding out the behind-the-scenes perspective is about a half-dozen featurettes and documentaries, both vintage as well as newly produced. The meatiest one, "Unleashing the Beast," is recycled from a previous special edition DVD from a decade ago. There’s also an encore presentation of outtakes and deleted scenes that the movie’s fans will no doubt already be familiar with. But the new interviews with producer Steven A. Lane and editor Mark Goldblatt, as well as a tour of the movie’s locations with a notably horror-tatted host, should keep them extra sweet.
Electrolysis is probably here to stay, but the wealth of extras attached to Scream! Factory’s The Howling Blu-ray would outlast even Rob Bottin’s own leg-shaving party.