The Howling On 35mm

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Joe Dante’s film The Howling (1981) remains one of the seminal horror films of the eighties whose critical reputation has only grown since its initial release. It’s the film that saw Joe Dante leave the scrappy world of Roger Corman productions for the glossy production values of Steven Spielberg and mainstream success. The Howling is the film that bridges the worlds of Piranha (1978) and Gremlins (1984). For The Howling, Dante reunited with Piranha screenwriter John Sayles (who has hilarious cameos in both films) to create a horror film that not only delivered genuine scares, but possessed all of the intertextual wit that came to define Dante’s style.

Few filmmakers possess Dante’s encyclopedic knowledge of Warner Bros. animations and classic B-Movies. These singular interests and irreverent humor make Joe Dante the heir apparent to Frank Tashlin’s unique brand of comedy even though Dante’s films are largely rooted in the horror genre. The Howling is so unique because only Joe Dante could have made that werewolf picture. Who besides Joe Dante would think to open the film like a De Palma thriller only to jettison that aesthetic for a post-modernist take on folk horror? The Howling is equal parts gross, sleazy, frightening, and hilarious without there ever being a hiccup in the pacing. All of this is what makes The Howling a bonafide classic, which is why seeing the film on 35mm was such an essential experience.

On the evening of September eighth at 9:45 PM the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania screened The Howling on 35mm. The film was introduced by director Joe Dante himself by way of a pre-recorded video message. The video was only one shot of Dante seated on a sofa with a giant dog half in his lap. Dante ran through some anecdotes and expressed his opinion regarding the sequels to The Howling then wished us a goodnight. In his brief appearance Dante’s exuberance and enthusiasm for sharing his work as it was meant to be seen was contagious.

But, despite what Dante said, the 35mm print of The Howling that was shown was not freshly printed. The Howling was exhibited on an old, scratched up and slightly faded print. From the moment the projector began rolling the film and the images appeared on screen it was evident that this specific print of The Howling must have been exhibited at least two-dozen times. While this may bother some movie going enthusiasts I found it delightful. For starters, a horror movie from the eighties always feels more authentic on old film prints and well-worn VHS tapes. This has as much to do with nostalgia as it does with hiding the limitations of certain special effects of the day. But what is even more essential is that feeling that while watching this battered print of The Howling one is becoming a part of the history of the film.

The print of The Howling shown that Friday night had been screened and seen by numerous people since the print was first struck back in the early eighties. On that September evening I and a host of others joined those anonymous spectators of yesteryear in consuming Joe Dante’s unique cinema as it was meant to be seen. Kids who saw this print of The Howling in 1981 and were terrified have long since become adults but in that instant that I too watched this print I engaged with them, via this cinematic experience, as they once were. Of course, this extends both ways, creating a community of the various spectators who have watched this specific copy of The Howling over the years. Seeing a movie this way connects an audience to the past, transcending linear time and thought. The Howling is timeless and even more so when consumed in this fashion.

Digital screenings can never show the passage of time nor convey it materially. A digital screening in a theater is closer to watching a film on disc than watching a film on 35mm could ever be. A 35mm print of a film is like an old book that has passed from one owner to another, one reader to another, over many decades just waiting to be discovered by a new generation.