Scream Factory Catch-Up, Part 2: The Howling (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

We have another somewhat early Scream Factory release, but by point, they had about 15-20 discs behind them.  It's Joe Dante's The Howling, and I was already on board for this release just because it's a bit of a horror classic, and this was our chance to finally get it in HD, with all the old extras, plus a bunch of new ones.  So I didn't bother reading updates or reviews for this disc, I just bought it on faith.  And it wound up not only to living up to my expectations, but it was a nice little surprise.
The Howling's always a pleasant surprise for me every time I revisit it anyway.  Some time goes by and I forget all the details, and I start to think of it as an okayish werewolf movie that was overshadowed by An American Werewolf In London and spawned some of the worst follow-ups in horror franchise history.  But then I rewatch it and I'm hit by it all again.  On the one hand, it's a quirky, fun play on all the traditional motifs with Dante's usual sense of humor, from Forrest Ackerman's appearance to the old Hollywood references, as if he'd made Piranha 2: This Time They're Werewolves (the less said about the actual Piranha 2 the better).  But this time it's based on the Gary Brandner novel, which gives it a serious heft to it, a dark side to take seriously.  Even when Paul Bartel was getting attacked by the killer fish and his life was really in danger, everything felt like it was all in fun.  But when Robert Picardo comes creeping after Dee Wallace, there's a real threatening vibe there.  It's a real roller coaster ride, diving from cute to disturbing and then rising back up to charming but never completely safe.
It isn't quite on Gremlins' level yet, but Dante's got a real studio budget behind him, and it shows.  It has a variety of great effects, and a killer cast including Patrick Macnee, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Slim Pickens, and fun cameos by Dick Miller, John Sayles (who also worked on this screenplay) and Roger Corman.  It isn't 100% faithful to the novel, but honestly, I think it's better for it.  I never read the book, but I read Howling II as a kid and I just remember being really bored, like when is a werewolf ever going to attack somebody?  Plus, Howling 4 went back and did a completely faithful adaptation, and look how that turned out.  So I think this is a case of both creators lifting the other up to be better than they'd be on their own.  Or maybe John Sayles carried the pair of them.  Both theories are equally plausible to me.  But the point is, something really clicked in The Howling.
So The Howling was originally released on DVD by MGM in 2000, but their 2003 special edition reissue has been pretty much the default Howling DVD for years and years. DVD of course being standard def, though, so it was only a matter of time until it hit blu-ray and HD, and in the US, that came to us via Scream Factory's 2013 special edition.  Now, we all know the drill with Scream Factory and MGM.  They've been going through their whole horror catalog, licensing a ton of great titles and using MGM's HD master without doing additional restoration, regardless of the original master's quality - that's what led to the Ravenous disappointment.  Usually MGM's masters are a little better, so it's not a problem every time, though.  We've seen it time and time again, and yeah, now they sometimes do fresh scans and have done some sweet upgrades, like Return Of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.  But for the most part, they've always look exactly like the previous MGM DVDs but in HD, so just that extra bit cleaner and clearer.  And this being an older Scream title, that's absolutely what I was expecting here.  But actually...
MGM widescreen DVD top; MGM fullscreen DVD mid; Scream Factory blu bottom.
Okay, well first of all, I forgot to mention: MGM's DVD was a flipper disc, with an open matte fullscreen version on the back.  So that's kind of fun to look at.  But don't let that distract you now; check out the widescreen DVD and the blu shots.  That's a totally different master!  The DVD is redder and the blu is greener, for a start.  But more compelling than that, check out the extra information on the blu-ray's sides.  The blu-ray is at the proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but the DVD's just at a weird 1.80.  I think what they did was just take the 1.33:1 fullscreen version, which has exactly the same horizontal information, and matted it down.  But the fullscreen version wasn't 100% an open matte transfer of the widescreen version, so it's the wrong AR.  Whatever the reason, the blu's framing is definitely correct and looks better.
MGM widescreen DVD left; Scream Factory blu right.
And of course, that's in addition to the expected benefit of boosting the picture to HD.  Look how much more readable those magazine covers are now.  Would you have ever been able to make out "Fingers Become Claws" on the DVD?  Heck, the difference is even more extreme on his hand.  it actually looks like they might've used a little sharpening or something when you get in this close, but not to the point where it's an issue.  Overall, it's definitely a bigger upgrade than I was expecting.

Audio-wise, both releases do it right, giving you the choice between a 5.1 mix and the original mono (the blu in DTS-HD).  And both discs have optional English subtitles (plus French and Spanish on the DVD).
And like I was saying, the MGM was already pretty nicely decked out with extras.  It has the old laserdisc commentary with Dante, Picardo, Stone and actor Christopher Stone.  They joke around a lot, but still manage to get in a good deal of memories and insight.  There's a substantial, almost hour-long 'making of' documentary which interviews almost everybody, including Dante, Sayles, Stone, Picardo, Miller, Belinda Belaski, producer Mike Finnell and DOP John Hora, plus Macnee is included by way of a vintage television interview And it's also got fifteen minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes, the vintage promo featurette, 2 galleries, 2 trailers, some bonus trailers, and an insert with liner notes.  Plus, hidden away as an easter egg, is a brief bonus interview with Dick Miller.
So it really didn't seem like The Howling could use anymore special features, but Scream Factory proved that idea wrong.  First of all, everything from the MGM special edition is carried over, even the easter egg Miller interview (making this one of the very few Scream Factory releases with easter eggs).  But then, Scream Factory went and recorded a new, second audio commentary with author Gary Brandner!  He's one of the most important voices that had always been absent from Howling stuff until now, and it's great to hear from him, even though they do unfortunately spend a lot of time covering the general "career overview" ground rather than Howling-specific talk.  They also do new, on-camera voices with pretty much everybody else the documentary missed: effects artist David Allen, co-writer Terrance Winkles, editor Mark Goldblatt and executive producer Steven A. Lane.And last but certainly not least, there's another great episode of Horror's Hallowed Grounds.  It has reversible cover art so you can replace their goofy comic book art with the original poster and a slipcover, though again, it's too bad no one's figured out a way to make reversible slips.
So yeah, The Howling was a no-brainer for Scream Factory right from the initial announcement.  They would've had to really screw things up to not make this an essential release.  But they went above and beyond all they needed to do to make this a great release, with a better transfer, both audio tracks and a sweet collection of legacy and additional features.  And unlike Halloween 3, this time they remembered subs.

Bonus video: see inside a Howling DVD... literally!
video

3 comments:

  1. It's worth bearing in mind that Arrow are also releasing this on Blu soon, so it will be interesting to see how it differs from the Scream disc (which it almost certainly will, even if only in the extras department).

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    1. Really? Interesting! I hadn't seen that.

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    2. Yeah, John, November 14th. Crazy film, haven't seen it for years, but will certainly be considering the Arrow when it comes out: http://www.zavvi.com/blu-ray/howling-ii-your-sister-is-a-werewolf-dual-format-includes-dvd/11329579.html

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