The Howling is arguably the first really great Joe Dante film. I would also make the case that it’s the only really great werewolf film ever made.
It was Dante’s first film post his work in the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, where he came of age as a movie maker. At the same time, John Sayles was also working with Corman. Given that both Dante and Sayles were 60s counterculture characters to some extent, their films always reflect that in some way. It’s technically based on a book by Gary Brandner, but they took the barest plot from the book and added details of their own.
There’s been a series of murders by a serial killer, and the lead character Karen White, a newscaster played by Dee Wallace. The killer has been preying on homeless people but his one channel of communication with the outside world has been through White. She then goes to a mountain resort where the residents are in a sort of weird werewolf cult. Of course it all ends up with White being chased by werewolves.
Given the filmmakers background there is lots of political material from the time, including a bit about the Sandinistas. There’s also a New Age self-help sub-plot involving the residents of The Colony. It has a fantastic transformation sequence that was supposed to be done by Rick Baker, but Baker left to do the much inferior American Werewolf in London. He was replaced with Rob Bottin, who is one of the greats in the field of special effects, having worked on The Thing, RoboCop and many more. The film has a very paranoid feel to it, and is very playful with werewolf folklore as you would expect from Joe Dante. To some extent he probably wasn’t that into doing a werewolf film but of course he had grown up on monster movies and it just kind of happened. Dante wanted to play around with the werewolf-as-adolescent thing that is typical of the genre, and he is pretty successful with that.
In the end it’s a very off-kilter take on the werewolf genre—but unfortunately there were several awful sequels made. In fact, Christopher Lee actually apologised to Dante during the making of Gremlins 2 for appearing in The Howling 2. Some horror fanzines were not pleased with the original either, finding that it took too many liberties.
The disc is packed with extras. First, there’s a new restoration of the film. Then there are interviews with the producer Steven A. Lane, editor Mark Goldblatt, and co-screenwriter Terence Winkless. There is also information about the film’s locations and an interview with the stop-motion animator David Allen. Film author Gary Brandner supplies a commentary. Of course, what you really want is to hear from Joe Dante and John Sayles, but they were not involved with this release. It’s a shame that they didn’t license the special features from the Scream Factory release, so fans of the film may want to seek that out as well.