Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Discount Bin Movie Club: THE HOWLING!

I'm taking a bit of a break from my usually ranting in the wilderness about the inequities of bad business management, I going to take a dip into the discount bin, and since it's October, the month of Halloween, I'm doing a horror movie, specifically, Joe Dante's The Howling whose special edition from MGM DVD I found for $4.99 in the discount bin.

The film begins like it was one of those "anchorwoman in peril" flicks where Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a local TV news-anchor that's caught in the middle of a serial killer case. The killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo with hair) is obsessed with her, and wants her to "get to know him." She meets him, but things go bad, and she barely escapes, thanks to the intervention of a rookie cop with an itchy trigger finger.

All of this, usually an entire TV movie's worth of story, is told in a matter of minutes, thanks to a carefully constructed screenplay by John Sayles, and Terence H. Winkless, and Dante's direction, and once it's all settled, it's time for the real plot to begin.

Emotionally traumatized from her experience, Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) are invited by psychiatrist and self-help guru Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) to spend some time at The Colony, a rustic retreat in the California woods. Once there she's haunted not only by the nightmares of her experience with Eddie Quist, but by mysterious howling coming from the woods at night. Plus Karen's husband's spending too much time with Marcia (Elisabeth Brooks) the local seductress who has her own definition of "doggy style."

Meanwhile, her producers Chris (Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski) investigate Eddie's origins, taking them to some very weird places. And the icing on top is a supporting part by the underrated legend Slim Pickens, as the Sheriff, and the Dante-mandatory cameo by stalwart thespian Dick Miller as Walter Paisley, cynical proprietor of an occult bookstore.

In case you don't know, it involves the dangerous mix of werewolves and self-help pop-psychology.

Trust me, it's really dangerous.

The film itself can be used to teach aspiring filmmakers how to make a good, entertaining horror film on a budget. The special effects by Rob Bottin, are still pretty damn good, even in this age of CG overload, thanks to their carefully shot appearances. The fully rendered, fully lit CGI monsters of today, lack that, because when the studio is paying millions for realistic monsters, they're going to make you see every inch. Hence their mystery is gone, and with that, a great deal of their power. So in a way, the dark shadows, used to hide the strings and tubes needed to make the old-school physical effects work, are a benefit, not a problem. Dante makes that work to the film's advantage, carefully parsing out the werewolf action, so that it's satisfying, without overwhelming you with fur and fangs.

As I said before, the screenplay is very well constructed, and with Dante's direction, blends elements of satire and dark humour. There are little visual gags planted throughout the film, in keeping with Dante's philosophy that if you don't deliberately put something funny into a horror film, the audience will start laughing at things they're not supposed to. I won't ruin them for you if you haven't seen the film yet, finding them is half the fun, and you find more with every viewing.

The acting is also well handled, the moment where Erle Kenton (John Carradine) looks at the shadows of two lovers on the beach, and decides to kill himself... well, let's just say that there's a lot going on with that heavily lined and battered face in those few seconds. Good actors doing a good job, make any movie better, even more so with horror films, because it helps the audience make that all important emotional connection with the film, beyond just snickering at the body count.

As for the DVD, it's a revelation to see a pristine widescreen print after over 2 decades of watching the washed out pan & scan VHS version. The colours are rich and vibrant, the lighting sharp with deep shadows, where all sorts of dangers lurk, the way a good horror film should look.

The DVD also has a whole side of extras, including audio commentary and two "making of docs" though my only complaint with the DVD is that two sections of the retrospective documentary were plagued with glitches that caused everything to skip and scramble. There's even an "easter egg" of Dick Miller: Thespian hidden behind the smiley face on the menu screen.

But, if you want a damn good horror movie to scare the crap out of you as part of the warm up for Halloween, then you can't go wrong with this special edition of The Howling.

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