The Series Project: The Howling (Part 1)
I’ve always preferred werewolves over vampires. Can’t really explain why. I just liked the transformation-into-an-animal part. Sadly, the number of truly great werewolf films can be counted on one hand, whereas vampires get royal treatment all the time. I guess a full werewolf suit is more difficult to create and film and a simple pair of porcelain fangs, so werewolf films are made less frequently.
This is my 11th essay in The Series Project, and my third for CraveOnline. The function of these essays has been to explore, at least in a cursory fashion, the continuity between movies, and how an entire long-running series of films functions as a unit (It’s also a fun way to get my masochistic yuks, as well as my pop culture kicks, all in one couch-surfing go). Sadly, these theses are reduced to churlish, quivering masses in the face of my latest endeavor: all eight of the movies in The Howling series. The Howling movies have some of the least connective tissue of any series of films I have encountered. There are some attempts at linking the films together (mostly lumped into the 7th film), but the films are so unconnected and random that they may be viewed, perhaps, as an anthology series.
Which I would be content to do, had not the films gone out of their way to make themselves look like a proper horror franchise in the vein of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th.
You see, the first of The Howling movies was based on a 1977 novel by Gary Brandner. Brandner went on to write two sequel novels called, naturally The Howling II, and The Howling III: Echoes, and while Brandner is credited as the inspiration on the first seven of The Howling movies, the similarities between his books and the films are flimsy at best. The movie sequels are entities unto themselves.
Let’s see if I can sum up the similarities, such as they are, throughout the series:
Well, they all have werewolves in them. I can say that for sure. Sometimes they are a species with scientific qualities, although sometimes they are demonically possessed. Sometimes they transform under controlled conditions (full moons, flickering lights, etc.), although sometimes they seem able to transform on their own. In each film (with the exception of part 7), there is a secret pack of werewolves that live sequestered away from the big city. The werewolf packs seem to have a kinship or cult of some kind, although the nature of the cult varies. Most of the films take place in California, although we also go to Australia and Hungary too. The old rule that a werewolf bite transforms you into a werewolf seems to be steadily in place throughout all of the films. Also, silver bullets seem to be deadly to werewolves in every film.
And that’s all I can say for sure. With that bit of vague devotion under our belts, let’s delve into the eight Howling movies and see what it does to us.
THE HOWLING (1981)
Directed by: Joe Dante
The first of The Howling movies is something of a minor horror classic, as it was from Joe Dante, the man who would go on to make Gremlins, Explorers, and Innerspace. It was co-written by John Sayles. The film is well paced, well lit and has something of a commentary on the insufferable self-help culture that sprang up in the early 1980s. I have an adage I’m trying to coin, but I feel that a werewolf movie is only as good as its transformation scene. By that measure, The Howling is one of the better werewolf movies. Despite all this, however, the film is not as dark, weird, fun or penetrating as some of its peers, and I will do nothing to shake it from its second-tier pop culture status.
The film follows an investigative reporter named Karen (Dee Wallace from E.T.) who is on the trail of a Zodiac-like serial killer named Eddie, who, for his own twisted reasons, will only engage with the public through phone calls with Karen. Eddie lures Karen into a porn booth, forces her to watch a rape film, and attacks her. Cops rescue her, but poor Karen seems to have blanked out, and cannot remember the attack. Her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) is understandably concerned, her boss (Kevin McCarthy) is upset that her job may be interrupted, and her shrink (an ultra-smarmy Patrick Macnee from The Avengers) elects that she needs to leave town to heal.
Karen, with Bill in tow, is sent to stay at The Colony, which is a kind of New Age woodland resort in the mountains of California. The place is a little creepy, as it has John Carradine stalking about. There is also a minxy nymphomaniac named Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) who is clearly hellbent on boinking Bill as soon as she gets a chance. The Carradine character, by the way, has a mild suicidal flip-out the night our heroes arrive. Everyone else just coos and rolls their eyes that this is normal…Suicidal flip-outs are normal. Sweet Jesus, your retreat sucks. The filmmakers don’t seem to think much of New Age-y healing retreats. Indeed, if there is any central theme to The Howling, it’s the cautionary bent against the cult-like attitudes of such touchy-feely therapy orgies. In 1981, mind you, there was a boom in pop psychotherapy, and an equally staunch backlash to them. Keep in mind, this was only one year after Devo’s hit “Whip It” attacked the same sort of thing.
Tee hee. “When a werewolf comes along, you must whip it.”
Anyway Karen seems to relax a bit, while Bill goes on hunting trips, where he gets bitten by a wolf. Aw crap. We all know what that means. He is also, just as promptly, seduced by Marsha, and, while they have sex, they seem to transform. Karen seems kind of nonplussed by Bill’s infidelity (indeed, infidelity will play a large part in these werewolf movies), and catches wise to the whole werewolf thing pretty quick. Well, she doesn’t immediately suspect werewolves; her first instinct is that we’re embroiled in a Rosemary’s Baby-like satanic cult. It takes her summoning her investigator friend Terri (Brenda Balaski) to figure it out. Terri spreads word to her own boyfriend Chris (comedy director Dennis Dugan, the man behind Brain Donors and several of Adam Sandler’s movies), and Chris is the one who appears with the silver bullets.
Then comes the coolest scene in the film: Karen is confronted by Eddie, the serial killer from the beginning. Eddie is played by Robert Picardo from Star Trek: Voyager and Gremlins 2. Eddie reveals that Karen blacked out because he turned into a werewolf and it scared her. He turns into a werewolf again, and the transformation scene is FLIPPING TERRIFYING. Aside from An American Werewolf in London, and the original 1941 The Wolf Man, this film has one of the coolest werewolf transformation scenes in cinema. Picardo stretches and grunts and strains. His face elongates. His hair grows. It's a marvel of special effects. Karen flees, and learns that all of the members of The Colony are also werewolves. Her husband is a werewolf. Everyone can turn into a wolf at will; the full moon aspect is missing. Dennis Dugan shoots Eddie, and Karen and he burn the place down.
Karen, however, was bitten in the fracas, and she knows that she'll become a werewolf soon. In order to get word out, she decides to go back on the air of her news program, and transform live on the air. That's a pretty neat idea, and it ties into her actual job. The only problem with the big transformation-on-TV conceit is that Karen turns into a werewolf that looks like one of those annoying little flat-faced purse dogs you see rich women toting on Rodeo Drive. Karen is them shot to death. Viewers think it was special effects. It's a weirdly tragic ending to an intense little flick.
As I say, The Howling is a solid B-grade monster film from the golden age of horror movies. I know some people – mostly readers of Fangoria magazine – that consider it to be just as important a classic as Gremlins and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's good looking, well paced, tense, and has that really, really awesome transformation scene. But settle in, Mousketeers, 'cause this is the last time we'll see something cogent from this series. Right away the series flies way off the rails, as we'll see in…
THE HOWLING II: … YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF (1985)
Directed by: Philippe Mora
The director of this film, Philippe Mora, is an old-school Ozploitation filmmaker (that is: Australian exploitation movies) who made some awesome genre obscurities like Mad Dog Morgan, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, and the underrated bizarro musical The Return of Captain Invincible. He would go on to make a movie called Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills, which is one of the better film titles this side of Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.
And yes, this sequel to The Howling does have that awkward ellipsis in the title. I prefer the originally planned subtitle: Stirba, Werewolf Bitch. Again Gary Brandner is given credit for the novel, but this film has nothing at all to do with his book, and indeed has very little to do with the first film. Which is odd, as he actually had a hand in co-writing the screenplay for this film. There is a tenuous connection, and Karen does have a few scenes, but they are all from within her coffin. The blasting away live on air has been dismissed, but also covered up by the TV station. Word of werewolves has not gotten out. The film follows Karen's milquetoast brother Ben (Reb Brown), his would-be sweetheart Jenny (Annie McEnroe), and a gaunt werewolf hunter named Stefan Crosscoe (Christopher Lee).
I hear tell that Lee only agreed to be in this film as he had never been in a werewolf movie before. Plenty of vampires in his life, but no werewolves. Story goes that Lee, when he agreed to be in Gremlins 2, went to Joe Dante and apologized for The Howling II.
A special note on the acting in these movies: Pretty much across the board, with a few mild exceptions here and there, the acting is pretty miserable. We have stilted line readings, odd ways of expressing panic, and romances that feel sterile and awkward. Our two leads here are both bland and bad. The only ones who seem to be having fun are Lee and Sybil Danning. I'll get to her.
Stefan appears at Karen's funeral to announce that she is a werewolf and her corpse needs to be destroyed. They actually use the line of dialogue “Your sister is a werewolf.” Evidently the silver bullets at the end of the last film didn't do the trick, and she must also be staked, vampire style, in order to be truly destroyed. Stefan does lay out some rules for werewolf destruction, but I didn't bother to memorize them, as the rules are ignored in the rest of this film, and in any of the following sequels.
We also see footage of a New Wave band called Babel performing at a nightclub. They have a big, neon-lit wall behind them which, you would think, was the wall of the nightclub. But later in the film Babel performs for a werewolf orgy, and they have the same wall behind them. Do they tour with the wall? Is it a part of their act? My guess is that the same concert footage was cut into the werewolf orgy, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Lurking about the Babel concert is Mariana (Marsha A. Hunt) a sexy black punk rock babe who lures some New Wave punkers into a warehouse where she and some werewolves rip them apart. Then they howl. When they howl, Karen wakes up in her coffin, which is, for some reason, still in the church. (A bit of trivia: The Rolling Stones wrote the song “Brown Sugar” about Marsha Hunt.)
Anyway, Stefan sneaks into a church late at night to stake Karen (now played by Hana Ludvikola), Ben and Jenny show up to stop him, but witness what's really going on. Ben, I think out of revenge, agrees to go to Transylvania (!) with Stefan and kill the Head Werewolf Queen, Stirba. Stirba, you see, is the queen of an antediluvian werewolf cult that stretches back 10,000 years. She and her followers gather in musty, candle-lined halls and sacrifice people. We get to see a ritual where Stirba kills a young woman and, I guess, steals her youth, as she turns from a withered old hag into Sybil Danning.
Sybil Danning elevates this film from a dumb werewolf flick into a completely bonkers and batsh*t insane werewolf flick. She feathers her hair, wears sunglasses, and puts on this pointy metal and leather outfit that looks like something out of a Grace Jones music video. The first thing she does after becoming young is feel on her boobs. She then watches Marsha Hunt and another werewolf have sex, mid-wolf transformation, while she whips off her leather top and paws her own body. The brief moment where she whips off her top is well remembered by many a young boy as one of the sexiest moments of their adolescence. The filmmakers seemed to know well that this was the best shot in the movie, for, over the credits, during the Babel musical number, they replay the clip in rapid succession 17 times. Yes 17 times. I counted.
Anyway Ben and Jenny get to Transylvania where they also have sex (they were previously kind of chaste). Stefan gathers up a team of werewolf hunters (including the prerequisite weapons experts and dwarfs). Then there's a really, really, reeeaaallly long and boring and poorly edited sequence where they break into Stirba's castle, fighting werewolves in the woods. These scenes are so shoddily put together you can't tell where anyone is at any given moment. Eventually, though, our heroes break into the castle, rescue Jenny (oh, did I forget to mention earlier that she was kidnapped? Yeah, she was kidnapped), and Stefan and Stirba get to have a face-to-face showdown where both are killed. The special effects are really cool for that scene.
Odd, though, that a werewolf movie doesn't have one outstanding transformation sequence. I guess that werewolf threesome is what we'll get instead. Like the wussy, ab-obsessed pseudo-monsters of Twilight, these werewolves seem to be able to pop in and out of wolfiness on a whim. Except when they're given crinkly foreheads and sharp teeth. That's another thing that's common throughout these movies. When someone reveals they're a werewolf, their foreheads get all wrinkly, and they grow sideburns and fangs. It's like the 1/8th wolf approach.
In an epilogue, Ben and Jenny are now living together, confident that all werewolves are dead. They feed a trick-or-treater with awesome werewolf makeup. Or is it makeup? Dunh dunh DUNH! Then there's that awesome music video to feature 34 of Sybil Danning's breasts.
And that's all we'll get in terms of actual continuity. Strap in for the beginning of the rocky parts.
NEXT: Screw it, it's time for marsupials, and 'The Howling' makes the perilous journey to Straight-to-Video…
THE MARSUPIALS: THE HOWLING III (1987)
Directed by: Philippe Mora
There was once a species of wolf on this planet called the thylacine. Thylacines were a marsupial wolf that went extinct sometime in the early 20th century. They had stripes and long snouts. There is some early film of these beasts, shot about 1906, which we get to see in The Howling III. I mention this because the werewolves in the film are evidently a human hybrid with this creature.
Philippe Mora returns to his homeland of Australia to film The Howling III, and makes the only entry in the series that is rated PG-13. This is another oddball entry, as the film's story seems to shift tones dramatically, and the mystic nature of the werewolves is jettisoned in favor of a scientific approach. What's more, the tone of the film is decidedly comic, despite weirdo scenes like the one where a human-shaped woman with a furry crotchular region gives birth to a little, mewling wolf monster, and lets it climb up her body to her pouch. This is one of the highlights of the film.
The story follows a pretty young marsupial werewolf babe named Jerboa Jerboa (Imogen Annesley from Farscape) who escapes her outback cult of weirdos, led by a bald yobbo tyrant (Max Fairchild). She's flip and forthcoming about her werewolf status. Early in the film, she tells a stranger “I ran away because my stepfather tried to kill me, and he's a werewolf.” Well, no mystery here. No spooks. No secrets. She ventures into Sydney, where she meets up with the handsome Donny (Lee Biolos) who is working on a feature film called Shape-Shifters, Part 8. Jerboa is charming, but doesn't know what a movie is. Despite this, she's immediately hired by the Hitchcock-like director, and forced to scream as a rubbery wolf man strangles her. Donny also takes her to a werewolf movie (the film-within-a-film is another highlight), and has sex with her. She's a werewolf mind you, and has a great deal of hair on her body, but Donny either doesn't notice, or doesn't care. He notices she has a pouch, too, but thinks nothing of it.
In pursuit of Jerboa is a trio of werewolves disguised as nuns. You read that correctly. There's also a nerdy scientist type (Ralph Cotterill) who is looking for scientific evidence of werewolves, who ventures to Australia under the auspices of the President (Michael Pate). Of the U.S., I suppose. Cotterill is a warm-hearted fellow. He's the one who eventually captures the werewolf lord by trailing a defected Russian dancer named Olga (Dasha Blahova) who was once his lover… I think. Perhaps Olga is just following some sort of mating impulse. That seems to be a theme of the film: werewolves are sexual beings who are following pheromone trails that stretch across the planet. Ogla and yobbo eventually meet up and instantly fall in love. Donny, meanwhile, impregnates Jerboa at a party.
Something we learn in this film: werewolves can transform when exposed to strobe lights. In one scene, Cotterill forces yobbo to transform. In another, Jerboa begins to transform at a party, but flees before she gets all the way there. Olga, while dancing, transforms. This strobe light conceit is not mentioned in any of the previous films, and will not be mentioned again. I suppose this specific breed of werewolf is unique. Like all the films, this one stands kind of alone.
Eventually, to flee the police and the wicked scientists who would dissect them, Olga, yobbo, Jerboa and Donny flee into the outback. That's pretty much the end of the film, except there's a full 20 minutes of epilogue, wherein we get to see the two couples grow up, make a home in the bush, and raise their kids in a sort of blissful, halcyon idyll. Eventually Jerboa and Donny return to civilization in disguise, and she becomes a famous movie star. Cotterill catches up with them, but is now a friend. Everything is so damned happy. About 20 years tick by. Eventually (and I'm guessing this is around 2017), the Pope recognizes that werewolves exist, and that they have souls and are worthy of salvation. It's odd how such a momentous detail is just glossed over.
Then, in a mismatched ending, Jerboa wins an Academy Award. The flashbulbs in all the cameras force to transform, and one of the last shots of the film is Donny screaming “NOOOOO!!” But the pope just said that werewolves are people too. What does it matter if Jerboa is one as well, even if she has been in disguise of the past 20 years?
The Howling III, even though it purports to be a horror film, is surprisingly bright and fun. The acting is just as bad as ever, but there's something wonderfully weird about the whole thing. It's off-the-wall, and the plot meanders, but it's fun to watch. Even though we hear nothing from the werewolf nuns after the first few times we see them, there's still a fun scene where we see their wolf faces sticking out of their habits. For a werewolf movie, though, it's disappointingly low on actual werewolves. The transformations are all achieved through quick edits, and the wolf suits look particularly ratty. The only wolf scene of real note is that fantastic birth scene. If it's werewolf mayhem you seek, go elsewhere.
I guess the producers felt that The Howling III was too far afield of the rest of the series, though, and went for something more familiar in…
Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988)
Directed by: John Hough
This was the first of the straight-to-video Howling movies, and, from what I could tell, had the second-lowest budget of the series (after part 7). It had a spare cast and an efficient story that resembled part one in many ways. It was back to an R-rating, and it's predicated on danger, gore and monsters. It's a usual, predictable '80s monster flick.
This always happens in The Series Project, and it started to happen to me about part IV in The Howling. Eventually, through a marathon, your mind reaches this odd state of acceptance. Where you're living so close to the characters, it's harder to look at the series objectively anymore. If I seem positive on parts four, five and six, that would be why. I am now on the same wavelength as The Howling. They are me, and I am them.
Howling IV (dropping the “The”) follows a cherub-faced, Los Angeles-based author named Marie (Romy Windsor) who, after some unspecified workplace stress, is assigned to a cabin in the woods to decompress. She brings along her douchey boyfriend Richard (Michael T. Weiss from The Pretender), who wears a denim jacket, and is saddled with one of the single most unfortunate mullets in all cinema history. Of course, the small, remote California town where they go is entirely populated by werewolves. Well, I kind of get that impression; we only ever see four other people in town. There's the friendly shop-owners the Ormsteads (Kate Edwards and Dennis Smith), a bitter sheriff (Norman Anstey), and a willowy gypsy type (Lamya Derval) with big hair and huge eye makeup that will, to be sure, seduce Richard at some point. Oh, yes, and there's the local tow truck driver (Clive Turner).
Keep an eye on that tow truck driver. He'll be coming back. Part 7 approacheth.
Marie appears to be psychic as well, as she seems to be having visions of her cabin's previous owners, now dead. The gypsy woman makes her suspicious, her dog goes tragically missing, and she fears it's just her paranoia. There's even some question as to whether or not she's hallucinating it all. Windsor does fine in the role, but she seems too fragile for this screenplay.
Here's an interesting detail. Marie is visited by a fan named Janice (Susanne Severeid), who loves chatting with her idol, but is also investigating a disappearance. Janice is an ex-nun who is seeking another nun who once stayed in Marie's cabin. Janice, it is established, may not be a nun anymore, but she still has her faith. She seems awfully concerned with her good nun friend. Perhaps I'm reading into this too much, but it occurred to me that Janice may be a lesbian who wanted to leave the order to be with her girlfriend, only to have her relationship stymied by werewolves. That means we have a character whose sexuality is never openly mentioned. This is very forward thinking. Of course, since most gay characters end up dying in movies, Janice also has to die by the film's end. But for a while, her unspoken backstory makes her seem more interesting.
Otherwise, the story is kind of predictable, and makes Howling IV's 94 minutes seem much longer. Marie investigates. Janice finds some stuff out. Eventually they uncover werewolves. They also discover that the bell tower in town (its only tourist draw) is enchanted, and the bell can attract werewolves. Richard is also seduced by the gypsy woman, and is transformed.
If my adage is true (the one about the quality of a werewolf film being directly proportional to its first transformation scene) than Howling IV is pretty awesome. When Richard becomes a wolf for the first time, the special effects are gooey and weird and amazing. Rather than simply growing hair and mutating, Richard melts into a pile of glop, his flesh sliding off his bones in a steaming stream of jelly. Then, once his still-screaming skeleton is totally liquefied, a fully formed wolf rises up out of the puddle. It's gross, it takes a long time, and it's way, way cool.
Janice and Marie team up to kill the wolves. Janice rings the bell, the wolves all come running into the tower, and Marie sets it on fire. Too bad about Janice, but the wolves all die. Hooray. Marie moves back to L.A. with her boyfriend Tom (Anthony Hamilton). Wait. Who's Tom? It turns out Tom was around this whole time, and Marie may have been having an affair. Whatever. The film is over, and Tom will never be seen again.
Marie will, though, in… you guessed it: Part 7.
Four Howling movies is quite enough for this week, but be sure to join me next week with parts 5-8, where we'll have the classiest chapter (in a castle in Hungary), the coolest chapter (in a Jim Rose circus sideshow), and the chapter that tries to tie things together (in a real-life biker bar). We'll also have a sloppy and insufferable reboot in there, which I've already reviewed in the pages of CraveOnline. But that's getting a little ahead of ourselves.
If you're not yet werewolved out, be sure to come back. I'll be here. You should be too.