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The Series Project: The Howling (Part 2)

The second half of Witney Seibold's look at a werewolf franchise that only makes sense if a topless ghost werewolf possesses half the characters in the series. Which is what happens.

Welcome back, werewolf aficionados, to the second half of the latest installment of The Series Project here at CraveOnline, where I have been discussing the eight Howling movies. To remind you, as I iterated in last week's article on the first four, The Howling probably has the least amount of inter-film continuity of any horror franchise I have seen. Each film seems to reinvent the werewolf mythology afresh, and no common characters seem to exist. I also alluded to the importance for the seventh Howling film as being some sort of vital crux. Well, the time has come to get to that crux, and explore the films leading into it and away from it.

When we last left the series, we had just burned a bunch of werewolves to death in a bell tower fire, and our gentle heroine sauntered away to her home in Los Angeles. As we pick up the story again, the series moves back to the big screen (which I don't need to say is very rare; leaving aside remakes, this has only happened once or twice in the history of franchises) only one year after the straight-to-video Howling IV. Let us to the hills of Hungary for…

 

HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH (1989)
Directed by: Neal Sundstrom

Howling V does indeed have werewolves in it, but more resembles a whodunnit than anything. The setup is so efficient that I actually found myself enjoying the film, however sloppy it may have been. It also liked the exotic location, as, just like in The Howling III, somebody actually bothered to go to a faraway land to shoot it. We are in Budapest now, and we have a whole rogue's gallery of new characters… and one familiar face.

In a prologue, we see a castle full of dead people. They have just been slaughtered wholesale by a desperate knight, who believes at least one of them (and perhaps all of them) to be a clan of werewolves. He kills his wife in a tragic piece of Shakespearean weeping, and then himself. As he lays dying, we hear a baby crying! Oh no! There might be a werewolf baby!

Fast-forward 500 years to 1989, and the stern, Roddy-McDowell-looking Count Istvan (Philip Davis) has decided to open the castle to human beings for the first time since its sealing 500 years ago. The castle has, supposedly, not seen any human contact in the intervening centuries. Istvan has invited a group of carefully selected people to take the first tour. There's a concerned professor (Nigel Triffit), a handsome tennis star (Sen Cole), some reporters, some photographers, an ex-model (Mary Stavin), a famous Swedish superstar (Stephanie Faulkner), and a ditzy would-be actress (Elizabeth Shé). There's also an Australian fellow there, played by Clive Turner, who played the mute tow truck driver in a few scenes of Howling IV. Is it the same character? Hm…
 


Anyway, Istvan has gathered them together to explore the castle, but, as per his shifty eyebrows, clearly has something insidious planned. There is a lot of broody Dracula-like foreboding as they wend their way up the hills to the remote location. The castle is supposed to have been closed off for centuries, but there is still an operating kitchen, prepared meals, and all the hallways are well illuminated by recently lit torches. These details are not so much spooky, haunted house elements as they are shoddy production values and gaping plot holes. But whatever. The castle still looks really cool, and the characters, like in an Altman film, all talk at once, and seem to have real personality; we don't necessarily get the feeling that they'll eventually be picked off one-by-one.

Once dinner is done, though, and the people split up to begin exploring, we descend into a typical – but pretty good – stalk and slash movie. People wander down long dark hallways only to be rent to pieces by an unseen beastie, clearly a werewolf. There is no ambiguity as to when people die; thankfully for us, each kill is accompanied by a little vocal fanfare on the soundtrack. It made me giggle. The Clive Turner character is not killed by the werewolf, but gets lost in the snow outside. Did he die? Hmm…

Eventually, the remaining survivors become savvy to what's going down, and Istvan reveals what's happening here: He invited all of these people because of a triangular birthmark they all have on their arms, as they are all descendants of the baby we heard in the prologue, and he wants to kill them all as to wipe out that particular line of werewolves once and for all. This mad, centuries-long hunt for a single werewolf implies – to me at least – that there are no other werewolves in the world, and he hunting for the last one. But what about all the other movies? Well, in this regard, The Howling stays true to its habits, and ignores them entirely. Except for Clive Turner. Accusations begin flying, of course, and we're eventually going back into the castle’s subterranean catacombs to do battle with the wolf, or perhaps trick the werewolf into revealing his or herself.



Eventually, there are only three survivors left, and two of them fight, while a third is entreated to “Shoot him! Hethe werewolf!” Is the right man shot? Of course not. At least not according to a final penetrating look at the shooter's eyes, and a wolf's howl on the soundtrack.

Okay. The story is stupid, and the acting is just as clunky as ever, but Howling V is a lot more skilled than many of its predecessors. It has a definite direction, and doesn't do any of the plot padding or meandering that parts II through IV did. The characters are just well drawn enough, and I liked the natural dialogue. The genuine location shooting didn't hurt either, making for a real spooky classicism. It's not my favorite of the series, but it's a step up.

My favorite is coming next, as, even when taking that weird-ass marsupial chapter into account, it's probably the strangest of the series. Let's take a look at…

 

HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS (1991)
Directed by: Hope Perello

We're back to straight-to-video world here, and we're somehow skewing the werewolf story into the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, which had, for anyone who was a teenager in the early 1990s, become a hugely popular mix of grunge rock, self-mutilation, and joyous weirdness. Add to that a bunch of bad acting, a clunky werewolf plot, and some truly bizarre makeup, and you might get a good idea of how Howling VI feels. It's a bad movie to be sure, but it's way better than many of the other sequels, and has a bugnuts crazy nuttiness that I just adored. If it had skewed just a bit more comical, it may have resembled something like Alex Winter's oddball cult classic Freaked.

So we're in a small town in the middle of America somewhere. A British drifter named Ian (Brendan Hughes) has come into town on a search for a friend of his (or sister, or mother, or relative of some kind) who had been killed 'round these parts years before. Ian looks like a cross between Keanu Reeves and James DuVall, but with a kind of dumbness that neither possesses. I imagine he's supposed to be a hunky guy, but he comes across as an ignorant weirdo. He immediately is liked by the town's local preacher (Jared Barclay), and gets a job fixing up the old church. During Ian's wiry, shirtless grunting sessions, the preacher's teenage daughter Elizabeth (Michele Matheson) falls hard in lust with him. But Ian is a mysterious stranger! That's not appropriate.

Rolling through town at the same time is a traveling circus sideshow, run by the cadaverous R.B. Harker (Bruce Martyn Payne). The show is not your typical circus, as there is a pretentious nightmarish sheen of Gothiness dripping from it. There is a geek who bites the heads off chickens (Antonio Fargas), a dwarf (Deep Roy), a half-man-half-woman with one breast (Christopher Morley), and a new addition: an ignorant hick alligator man named Lester (Jeremy West). The subplot with Lester is weird, in that he is talked into joining the circus by Harker's suaveness. He explains that he is family here, and it's only inside that he'll be “normal.” Even though the man-woman and the dwarf (who have a weird, sexual relationship) spend all their free time abusing him openly.



Anyway Ian and Elizabeth go on a date to the circus together, and almost kiss at one point. We see the weirdo acts within the circus, and there's a really neat scene where a chicken gets its head bitten off, and its bloody corpse wiggles around on the floor. The makeup on Lester is awesome, too. I like his gator face. Lester is kind of a tragic figure, actually. Always an outsider. I wish the movie could have been about him.



Thanks to a coinciding full moon, Ian turns into a wolfman back in his room one night, and charges about through the night, spotted by most of the main characters, including Harker. Yes, I said “wolfman” and not werewolf. His makeup is not as wolfish as what we've seen so far. He gets the fangs and the sideburns and the evil eyes, as well as the matching animal appetite, but he doesn't look like a half-man, half-wolf. He looks like a one-eighth wolf. This is the only werewolf in the film that doesn't seem capable of completely wolfing out. He also seems to lose his memory when he goes wolfy, as Harker tells him lies about what happened when he was rampaging. Harker, by the way, kidnaps Ian and tries to convince him to join the circus as his latest freak. He is abused by Deep Roy and Morley as well, and befriended by Lester. This is an odd way to approach a newly discovered werewolf. If Harker were a blustering P.T. Barnum type, this might make sense, but he's more like Lestat; broody and vampiric. Elizabeth, meanwhile, leads a charge to rescue Ian.



In is forced to turn into a wolf during the next night. Harker seems to know a magical spell that can wolf him even when it's not a full moon. What is his deal? When Ian won't kill a cat in front of an audience, Harker nearly fires him.



Harker? His deal? He's actually a vampire. That's right. A vampire has invaded the Howling movies. This feels like he's an interloper to me. Like we were fine with our werewolves, thank you very much, and we don't need your stupid vampires getting in the way. But a vampire we get. To the film's credit, Harker's vampire face is a black, leathery monster face that looks more like fetishwear than an actual monster. Eventually there's a big showdown where Ian in wolf form (transformed by Lester's magic words) and Harker in vampire form wail on each other. It's a monster mash battle royale of epic proportions. I liked the fight. And when Harker is killed (by sunlight), the vampire death scene is as goofy and as weird as the melting scene in Howling IV. The skeleton screams and wiggles and flaps its jaw. Ian says goodbye to his new human friends, and heads out into the desert with Lester as his sidekick.



I wish the seventh film had picked up where that left off. The adventures of a wolfman and an alligator boy meting out justice in the old west… Well, that's a TV series waiting to happen.

But it's time to get to the ultimate crux of the series. The one film that tries to tie it all together. It's finally time for…
 

NEXT: Get ready for the Howling franchise to make sense. Oh, and suck. More.


THE HOWLING: NEW MOON RISING (1995)
Directed by: Clive Turner

So, yeah, Clive Turner. He was the tow truck driver in Howling IV, and the lost Aussie guy from Howling V. Now he's the main character of this seventh film, New Moon Rising, which he also wrote and directed. This is easily the worst of the series, as its story is all over the map but strangely fascinating, as it incorporates over a solid hour's worth of documentary footage of a real-life small town outside of Barstow, CA. The camera unspools endlessly, watching sixtysomething drunks and bikers sing songs, tell jokes, and basically live their lives in this small dusty town. For long portions, The Howling: New Moon Rising feels like a Werner Herzog documentary.

So Clive Turner plays a character named Ted who drifts into this small town outside of Barstow, CA looking for work. Ted is an Aussie, but seems perfectly comfortable amongst the fat, drunken American barflies. Looking through the cast of characters, you'll find that they're all named after the actors who play them. My guess is that Turner arrived in this town years ago, mildly notorious for having been in those werewolf movies a few years ago, and became a minor local legend with the Harley Davidson crowd. He became a good friend to people with names like Pappy Allen (a real local country singer), and would tell easy and friendly stories about his days on set. Eventually it dawned on him to make a sequel himself, but to cast all his new biker friends in it. The result is The Howling VII.
 


Ted jokes with the locals, drinks beers, and generally becomes an old charming fella. I wanted to hang out with these guys. I wanted to hear their stories. I didn't want to see them in a werewolf film. I've mentioned in reviews before that bad acting can be more charming than professional acting, as it at least has the whiff of verisimilitude to it. Every single one of these actors is bad, but you can tell they're just being themselves. Then, I guess just for fun, Turner would throw in a few incidental scenes of people drinking in unison, or sweeping out a bar while wearing sombreros (!). There is a werewolf plot, yes, but the vast bulk of the film is devoted to scenes like these. An extended sequence starts with the phrase “I bet I can drink this beer under my hat without touching my hat.” That's another seven minutes eaten up right there. There's also a kind of sweet, age-appropriate romance. Having been raised on slasher films that are completely peopled with teenagers, it was actually kind of nice to see older folks having their day.

The werewolf plot (however incidental it might be): The local unnamed lawman (John Ramsden) is approached by the local holy man (Jack Huff), and they discuss that a werewolf is on the loose in these parts. The priest tells us the events of Howling V, and we see stock footage. They talk throughout the film, and each time, we see more stock footage from a previous film. Yes, The Howling has stooped to becoming a clip show. They eventually connect that Clive Turner was on site for a few of the previous werewolf incidents, and they begin to follow him. They also bring to light a character named Mary Lou (Elisabeth Shé), who played the same character in parts V, VI, and VII. However, unlike Clive Turner, I didn't recognize her. She also had little bearing on the plot. But that she's finally brought back in only strengths what tenuous connection this film has to the others.

I admire that Turner tried to make them all of a piece, and tried to actually create some continuity here. I mean, after seven films, it's about f**king time. But it sucks that he had to rely on old clips to do it. Clip shows NEVER WORK EVER. And when they do it in a feature film, it's even cheaper. I'd much rather just have exposition, wouldn't you? Here's something cool, anyway: Marie from Howling IV (Romy Windsor, now named Romy Walthall) returns to have a few words with our detective. At least there's some original footage in the re-cap.
 


So the werewolf story: There's a werewolf at large, and it's been killing incidental characters. We see this through a red-tinted wolfcam POV. The deaths seem to have little bearing on the rest of the country western film we’ve been watching, but whatever. The cop and the priest come to the conclusion that the werewolf is the spirit of one of the werewolves from one of the previous films, who has possessed the body of one of the locals. Wait, what? Can werewolves do that? Well, now they can. They can possess people and make them werewolves as well. Now it's a matter of finding who the werewolf is. There's also a twist about Ted: It turns out he's an investigative reporter, and not an honest-to-goodness barfly like we previously thought. That's why we saw him in the other werewolf movies: He was in disguise.

They shoot the werewolf. There are no transformation scenes. Then there's an extensive country western musical number performed live by Pappy Allen in his very own bar. Here's some interesting trivia I learned about the bar: Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace is a real-life bar that was built in the 1950s as a cantina for actors who went to the area to shoot cowboy movies. It's still standing as a well-reviewed steakhouse and honky-tonk. They have live music almost every night. For the Howling completist, this must be a stop on your tour. There are Howling completists, right? Oh wait. It may be just me.

The Howling: New Moon Rising is clunky and bad and weird, and doesn't necessarily do a good job of tying the series together. I admire its attempt, and by merely attempting, the seventh film becomes the default center of the series. Odd that it should take this long.

It would be 16 years before anyone would try again. But try they did. Still straight-to-video, we have the slick reboot…

 

THE HOWLING REBORN (2011)
Directed by: Joe Nimziki

I've already written about The Howling Reborn in the pages of CraveOnline before, so I'll try to be brief. I'll just say that this reboot is less an attempt to breathe new life into the largely forgotten and lifeless Howling series as it is an attempt to use a recognizable franchise name to bring in some angsty, sexed-up, post-Twilight teenage drama to a different monster. The film is slicker and higher budget than a lot of the previous movies, but it's so drowning in Aaron Spelling-level soap opera dynamics that it's hard to take it seriously as a horror film.
 


The story follows a Peter-Parker-type nerd boy Will (Landon Liboiron), who is trying to land the fickle affections of the school's olive-skinned hot chick Eliana (Lindsey Shaw). Also, his dad is a single dad, working hard to keep him happy. Also there's a AV-club best friend. Also there's some dumb dialogue (“Wikipedia: The God with answers.”). Also his mom (Ivana Milicivic) is secretly alive, and heads up a werewolf pack. The werewolf pack is a bunch of shirtless guys in long coats and frosted hair who beat him up, and flash their abs a lot. The wolfing is still unclear, although the full moon is back. Mom wants Will to join the werewolf pack and be a werewolf, which he's slowly becoming.



The werewolves in this movie all look about the same. No matter the size or the gender of the person transforming, they always look like a nine-foot-tall, wolf-headed wrestler. I guess they only had one or two wolf suits. Way too much of the film is devoted to Will and Eliana's pseudo-romantic interplay, and there's a lot of finger pointing and accusations about their respective willingness to open up about how they feel, and yadda yadda yadda. I imagine this kind of dialogue might seem deep to a dumb 14-year-old girl who wants more romantic angst from their monsters, but as a 33-year-old man who likes scary monsters, it's all kind of insufferable.



Let’s see. The evil mom has a plan to infiltrate the entire world with werewolves, but Will and Eliana stop her using a flamethrower and some werewolf fightin' moves, but not before first stopping in an abandoned classroom to have rough sex and “let out their true natures.” I guess that makes the film rough-sex-positive, and I appreciate that, but it's still kinda dumb. During their rough sex session on a desk, Will scratches Eliana and turns her into a werewolf.

Over the credits, there's a montage of hurried events that implies the werewolf apocalypse is going down. It would be neat if the inevitable Howling IX actually traced the events of a werewolf apocalypse (vampires and zombies have had their apocalypses; it's time werewolves got their due), but, given the schizophrenic nature of the series at large, ignoring the apocalypse would be par for the course.

 

SERIES OVERVIEW:

Since there's no continuity, there's no real overview I can give, except to postulate on the following:


In New Moon Rising, it was implied that werewolves don't infect you they way they do like zombies or vampires, but could instead be spiritual beings that can float freely through the ether, choosing to possess anyone they choose. If that's the case, one can come up with an unspoken story about one or two werewolf souls that seem to drift freely through the events of all eight movies, possessing people as we go. We know, for instance, that Stirba (Sybil Danning from The Howling II) was around for millennia, but was killed in the early 1980s. We know that Karen White (Dee Wallace from part one) was infected and killed in the events of Part IIPart III has me guessing that Jerboa's son was a reincarnation of Karen's werewolf soul. He didn't die until the distant future, though, so Stirba was the one who was drifting around causing havoc. She was the one who possessed the evil gypsy in Howling IV, the one who survived the attack in Howling V, the one who made Ian go weird in Part VI, and was finally killed in Part VII. Will's mom in Part VIII was the werewolf soul of Michael T. Weiss, who was created by the reincarnated Stirba. In my mind, Stirba is the one responsible for all the werewolf mayhem in all the films, either through reincarnation, or infection.

Perhaps that's how Howling IX will tie everything together. Using a dumb conceit from Part VII to link up all the films. It's the only way, I think, things can be made to make sense. It would also give us an excuse to sex up the series again, as we'd have to contend with the eternally topless soul of Sybil Danning. Incidentally “The Eternally Topless Soul of Sybil Danning” would be a great band name.

Otherwise, it's a rocky road, these Howling movies. They're all pretty low quality, but they differ in tone and quality so wildly, it's hard to tell where the center is supposed to be. Part VII is the only film with any continuity, and it's the worst of the lot. Of the films, Part VI was my favorite, but largely for it's nutty elements and wacky makeup, and I recommend Part II for its sex and insanity. Part III is also a fun one, but only for its off-the-wall werewolf nuns and wacky birth scenes. Howling V and, of course, the original, are the two best made and best-looking. If you want to skip around, go right ahead. See the ones that sound interesting, and skip the ones that sound boring. It's truly a free-for-all. There will be no aesthetics violated if you enter the series late and work your way backwards.