Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Joe Dante

Howl Play

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Joe Dante movies on DVD

Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Matinee) comes from the 1970s school of film fans-turned filmmakers, except that Dante has always and forever remained true to his boyhood love of both cartoons and horror films. This consistent strain in his work has caused him to be overlooked by American critics but adored by European critics, who see him as an auteur.

Dante recently took time out from editing his upcoming film Looney Tunes: Back in Action to speak about the long overdue definitive home video version of The Howling (1981), now out on DVD from MGM/UA. It makes a perfect Halloween night event.

JMA: On the new DVD, MGM used a commentary track that you recorded in 1995 with yourself and actors Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo just before Christopher Stone passed away. Is there anything you would say today that you didn't say back then?

JD: That commentary was perfectly good and I was happy they wanted to put it on there. I wanted to remaster the film, but they had already done it. They remastered an old digital transfer, which was kind of green. And that led to this one, which I'm very happy with. I'm also happy that they left the pan-and-scan and the letterbox.

JMA: John Landis's film An American Werewolf in London came out the same year. Was there any kind of war between the two films? How did they do compared to one another?

JD: John had talked about it for years. We started working on ours with [make-up expert] Rick Baker and John said, 'you can't do that!' Rick did some preliminary work that he handed over to Rob Bottin and then went to work on John's picture. It worked out fine.

JMA: The new movie Underworld uses CG effects to transform the werewolves, but the actual transformation looked just like you and Rob Bottin did it in The Howling.

JD: I think CG is great -- when you use it right. Mostly it's not real enough. Obviously a guy in a suit is a minimal technology, but if you use it right it looks great. That's when we came up with the idea of the puppets that Rick made. By showing pieces of them instead of the whole monster, we pulled it off. Alien was kind of like that. I thought Alien was great until they showed that it was a guy in a suit. Once you saw a person's body, it lost its power.

JMA: By the 1970s and 80s, John Carradine was acting in an endless string of bad horror flicks like Frankenstein Island. But he's really very good in The Howling.

JD: He's a really good actor. He's even good in bad movies. He'd just started to age to a point where he couldn't remember everything letter perfect. He showed up once on one picture where he'd learned the wrong part. He was playing the judge and he'd learned the part of the witness. But he went off in the corner with the script and came back a few minutes later and he was ready.

JMA: What about Slim Pickens?

JD: He was a great guy. Ordinarily the director doesn't get to chat in-between takes and hear all the good stories. I did the slates on The Howling so I could hear the stories.

JMA: It seems like the attitude in Hollywood in the early 80s was a lot friendlier than now, more based on gut decisions than on numbers.

JD: You weren't as closely monitored. You are today partly because pictures cost so much money. You can't offend anybody. They don't go with their guts; they don't have any.

JMA: Is it true you threw away the original novel by Gary Brandner?

JD: One guy tried to adapt the book and it really wasn't working. That's when I hired John Sayles. He wrote this picture after Pirahna (1978). He wrote Alligator (1980) and The Howling together at the same time in the same hotel room. You'd knock on the door, and he'd ask who it was, and you'd tell him either The Howling or Alligator and he'd slip the appropriate pages under the door.

JMA: Would you say that you were among the first post-modern filmmakers whose characters watch and are aware of films?

JD: That's because the genre was so overworked at the time. If you're going to make a vampire picture, what do you do that's different? You can plunder at will from old movies, but everything that has been done has been done. The trick is, this picture takes place in the same world we live in now, where people have seen horror films. But we know the monsters are real.

The Howling Special Edition DVD comes with a commentary track, a multi-part documentary, Unleashing the Beast: Making The Howling, deleted scenes, outtakes, another documentary, Making a Monster Movie, a photo gallery, trailers, newly enhanced 5.1 surround sound, and a choice between letterboxed and pan-and-scan versions. It retails for $19.98.

This story also appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.

September 30, 2003

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