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Howling II (1985)

Howling 2I don’t think any of the sequels to The Howling have a good reputation, and that’s quite clear from this very first one.  You cannot take this movie seriously, which goes under either the subtitle of Your Sister is a Werewolf or Stirba Werewolf Bitch, neither of which can be taken very seriously either.  However, you can have a vastly inferior sequel that is surely not a good film still be a greatly entertaining one.  If you want to trade scares for some stupid werewolf action then Howling II might be for you.

After countless millennia of watching, waiting and stalking, the unholy creatures known as werewolves are poised to inherit the earth.  After newscaster Karen White’s shocking on-screen transformation and violent death, her brother Ben (Reb Brown) is approached by Stefan Crosscoe (Christopher Lee), a mysterious man who claims that Karen has, in fact, become a werewolf.  But this is the least of their worries as to save mankind, Stefan and Ben must travel to Transylvania to battle and destroy Stirba (Danning), the immortal queen of all werewolves, before she is restored to her full powers!

I honestly don’t know how this film was approached as a sequel to The Howling.  Practically no effort is put into making it feel or look like a natural continuation of that story in that world with those characters.  Howling II can only be described as seemingly taking place in the B-movie alternate universe of the first movie to where artistic brilliance and visionary storytelling is replaced with as much “new wave” music inspired flash and cheesy goofiness as possible.  Just how they recreate the ending of the last film as a lost piece of news broadcast footage says enough with horrendous makeup effects and an actress who bares zero resemblance to Dee Wallace.  Sadly, that’s just a taste of what’s to come.

Some of the editing in this movie is just bad.  Certain sequences are choppy, have little coherence to the action that is occurring, and frankly, just comes off like a perplexed mess at times.  The plot is much the same.  Much of it is rather laughable changing werewolf lore for silly reasons.  These werewolves apparently have no vulnerability to silver, and titanium must be used.  Of course, stakes through the heart and holy water being some of the weapons of choice here clearly reek more of a botched up vampire screenplay than a werewolf one.  So, yeah, this wasn’t a screenplay with much thought put into it, but how stupid this thing is along with some of the performances simply turns this around to being entertainingly bad.  The first movie really did, reportedly, throw out a lot of what was in Gary Brandner’s novel, and if his work on the screenplay for this film is any indication, it was likely all for the best.  The quality of this sequel is not built on its execution, but the script itself and the ideas it conjures up.  You really can’t watch Joe Danté’s original movie followed by this and see any correlation of tone, concept, or artistic quality between them.  Howling II is simply pure 1980’s cheesy entertainment value.  Scares don’t factor into it, just a lot of jovial laughs because the movie is played so straight.

As ludicrous as the film makes itself out to be, when you have Christopher Lee unloading all of this exposition it’s hard not to buy into it all.  With Lee being as stoic and imposing ever, the silliness of the movie is simply enhanced to higher levels of awesomeness.  Whether he’s Count Dracula, a Dark Lord of the Sith, Saruman, or anything else, Lee sells every role he takes on with total earnestness and theatricality.  That is no different with his performance as Stefan.  Of everyone here, he plays it the most dead straight, and is the most awesome because of it.  However, when he was cast in Gremlins 2, Christopher Lee apologized to director Joe Danté for having starred in this silly sequel to his remarkable film.  That’s some class right there.

Mostly going for broke through his enjoyably non-dimensional acting talents is Reb Brown.  His reactions to Stefan’s exposition is probably the same as the audience’s – total, eye-rolling disbelief.  It makes for some funny moments, but it’s really when Reb delves headlong into his guttural screams as he blasts away with a shotgun at this film’s sad excuses for werewolves that his base level entertainment value comes to light.  A good performance?  Not by a long shot, but like so much here, it’s all a lot of bad junk that compiles into a raucous fun time.

Of course, rounding out the cult following cast is Sybil Danning who is here simply to add a busty sexy appeal, and she surely excels at that.  However, the werewolf sex scene in this film is purely gratuitous while being entirely unappealing to look at.  Whereas the first film made it a great melding of eroticism and primal terror, this sequel just throws in a sex scene for the hell of it and decides to glue a ton of cheap furry makeup on the actors.  Aside from Danning ripping off her top, there’s nothing worth seeing in this sequence, and you can stick around for the end credits to see that bare-breasted moment repeated a total of sixteen times.

The werewolf effects in this sequel are not close to being even second rate when compared to Rob Bottin’s amazing work on the first film.  They are cheap and often cheesy.  Most times, the filmmakers try to disguise them through all the terrible rapid fire, incoherent editing, or by having people be chased by a steadicam point of view shot.  Unfortunately, there’s no real hiding substandard quality like this.  These bad makeup effects, along with a couple of cheap visual effects, are yet another thing that makes this movie as enjoyably bad as it is.

I suppose the one genuinely good thing in Howling II is the new wave rock main theme by Babel, which is repeated every few minutes.  It’s a really catchy tune, and so, it’s not at all a burden to hear again and again and again.  However, what score there is beyond that isn’t much worth noting.  I’ll also say that the movie is fairly well shot with some good production values and art direction.  So, it’s not a poor film to look at.  It really is just some of the sloppy editing that makes so much look incompetent.

Like I said, there is nothing here that is remotely scary, but when the shotgun blasting, titanium stake stabbing, and magic wielding action begins, it’s quite enjoyable in all its over-the-top cheesiness.  Seeing Christopher Lee and Reb Brown standing back-to-back gunning down crappy looking werewolves is about as much fun as it sounds.  Howling II is a terrible sequel to the visionary original, but if you take it as it is in being a film that feels like it exists in an entirely different universe than the first, you can have a lot of fun watching it.  It’s just pure B-movie indulgence.

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The Howling (1981)

The HowlingGood werewolf movies are difficult to come by.  Most just don’t find a way to make them interesting, alluring, or entertaining like vampire films are more easily able to do.  However, there are a few universally accepted classics of this subgenre, and this 1981 film from director Joe Danté based on the novel by Gary Brandner is indeed one of them.  For me, it’s a movie that’s taken some time to get into.  The first time I rented it on VHS I was working twelve hour shifts to the early morning hours, and fell asleep halfway through, same as with The Amityville Horror.  This time, I gave it my full attention and patience.

Severely shaken after a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, TV newscaster Karen White (Dee Wallace) takes some much-needed time off.  Hoping to conquer her inner demons, she heads for “the Colony,” a secluded retreat where her new neighbors are just a tad too eager to make her feel at home.  Also, there seems to be a bizarre link between her would-be attacker and this supposedly safe haven.  And when, after nights of being tormented by savage shrieks and unearthly cries, Karen ventures into the forest to find answers, she makes a terrifying discovery.  Now she must fight not only for her life, but for her very soul.

The Howling is an extremely slow burn film.  Joe Danté gives you only the vaguest of teases early on hiding his ravenous creatures in the shadows and brief glimpses, which can be effective.  The best execution of this is in the first act of the film where Karen encounters Eddie, the supposed serial killer portrayed by Robert Picardo.  The use of darkness, suspense, and subtle backlight is a brilliant work of art.  However, my suspicions from way back on first viewing were right in that we don’t see a werewolf in all its full glory until well past the halfway point in the movie.  Until then, Danté takes the time to utilize some psychological aspects as Karen is haunted by her experience with Eddie.  She is hit with nightmares and startling visions that heighten her fear and paranoia.  This film is a bit of give and take.  You certainly go into this wanting to see the werewolves reeking havoc often, but you have to wait a very, very long time to get to that point.  However, once you do, the pay-off is excellent as Danté doesn’t hold back anything.

Many would know the special make-up effects work of Rob Bottin from John Carpenter’s The Thing, but that would be another year after this picture.  Here, he creates some of the most amazing werewolf effects ever.  Everything is so lifelike with very fine details and textures in addition to very elaborate methods used in the transformation sequences.  Today, it would all be digital effects, but in 1981, you needed a practical effects master to realize something of this stunning vision of horror.  The full size werewolves are wholly frightening as they tower probably at a good seven feet tall with every ferocious quality imaginable.  What Bottin accomplished here will truly unnerve and terrify many.  How he did it on a $1.5 million budget, even in 1981 dollars, just floors me.

This is also one of the absolutely most beautifully shot horror films I’ve ever seen.  Joe Danté and his cinematographer John Hora utilize some very inspired camera angles and compositions.  However, the most gorgeous aspects are the brilliant backlighting and the use of colored gels to create a wonderful haunting atmosphere.  There are films that are simply shot in color, and then, there are films that utilize color in remarkable ways.  The Howling is truly the latter as these reds, blues, and greens highlight the creepy and eerie moments like fine brush strokes of artistic inspiration.

The Howling does more than simply give you werewolves slashing and gnawing on humans.  Firstly, it has some satire on the entire self-help movement.  Trying to aid those afflicted with being a werewolf with therapy and a push towards integration into society is handled with the right kind of wit without being comical.  Joe Danté definitely has that talent to fuse horror and humor such as with Gremlins, but he keeps things on point with the horror and barely diminishes that at all.  Furthermore, this film gives us a strange but perfectly executed mix of sensuality and terror in one sex sequence.  Once again, the artistic beauty of the film is on display as two people engage in sexual activity at a campfire, but as the act becomes more virile, the beats within are unleashed and they begin to transform.  What begins as very erotic turns into a frightening, primal act that still gets the heart pumping.  This is a very tantalizing and compelling sequence melding these two things together in a very provocative way.

The cast of this horror classic is jam packed with excellent acting talents such as Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo, Noble Willingham, Dick Miller, and several others.  Every single one of them does a solid job bringing forth the distinct qualities of their characters’ personalities.  In particular, Dee Wallace leads the film with the right level of vulnerability and traumatic unease.  The fear the audience regularly feels is channeled through her performance, and the journey her character goes through in this results in a unforgettable conclusion.  Also very notable is Robert Picardo proving yet again that I know he’s a great actor.  What he does as the supposed serial killer Eddie is tremendous and dead-on-the-mark showing a very subtle intimidation factor with his restrained charisma and clear full fledged absorption of this character into himself.  He also acts through all the wickedly good make-up with exceptional ease.  He might have only a few brief scenes, but he really becomes one of the most memorable things about this cast.

The ending of The Howling is fantastic and frightening.  First off, the entire third act is just excellent every step of the way as we finally get our full helping of werewolf awesomeness in a hair-raising escape sequence.  However, what comes after that when Karen returns to the television studio for her news report is exceptionally tragic and clever.  What she sets out to accomplish with her live report is smartly turned on its head by these filmmakers.  Almost no one believes what they see and dismiss it as a high quality fabrication.  They believe it to be spectacle instead of the raw, chilling reality that it is.  The film concludes on a very signature Joe Danté beat of wit and humor.  He has always been a unique filmmaker infusing a special, unmatched blend of the bizarre and the humorous with excellent results.

Now, is The Howling a horror movie for everyone?  Maybe not.  I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t enjoy sitting around for fifty minutes before we get a real good look at a werewolf, which I honestly had an issue with.  After Karen’s early encounter with Eddie, there’s very little horror or suspense to engage you on the horror movie level until you’re more than halfway through the movie.  The characters and performances are perfectly fine to move the plot forward in the interim, but there’s hardly anything to get your heart pounding with terror in that time.  However, I appreciate the artistic brilliance of this film, and anything that doesn’t quite work for me is possibly more attributed to just not being quite my style.  I also wholly endorse teasing us with the werewolves, much like Ridley Scott did with his creature in Alien.  Build up suspense with it, and then, once you finally reveal it, you’ve got a great, startling moment of awe.  This is a remarkably well made movie, and one that absolutely has its rabid fan base that I entirely respect.  Whether or not the slow, slow build up and reveal is to your taste, this is one of those horror essentials you need to see.  The pay-off for that build-up is definitely well worth the wait, and seeing what practical effects could achieve back in the day will show you what CGI has almost never been able to replicate.


Wolf (1994)

Good werewolf movies are very hard to come by.  That was until I came across Wolf a few years ago.  Fronted by two amazingly electric actors in Jack Nicholson and James Spader along with a very tantalizing Michelle Pfeiffer, I couldn’t love this film more.  It’s a different approach that is far more modern and character driven with these supernatural aspect slowly weaved into the plot.

Worn down and out of luck, aging publisher Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is at the end of his rope when his co-worker and protégé, Stewart Swinton (James Spader), snatches both his job and wife out from under his nose.  However, after being bit by a wolf on a snowy road, Will suddenly finds himself energized, more competitive than ever, and possessed with amazingly heightened senses.  Meanwhile, Laura Alden (Michelle Pfeiffer), the beautiful daughter of his shrewd boss, begins to fall for him – without realizing that the man she’s begun to love is gradually turning into the creature by which he was bit.

As should go without saying, Jack Nicholson is excellent in this movie.  He gives us a performance that is mostly low key with modest manner and sense of heart.  He’s a man living a less than stellar life, and that downtrodden feeling seeps into the cracks of the performance.  There’s also the increasing worry about his wolf bite that truly begins to affect Will adversely.  However, of course, Nicholson is able to turn on his mojo and even delve into a feral side that is fierce and primal.

It’s slightly humorous how the enhanced senses manifest in Will Randall.  There’s a few funny moments, like being able to smell the tequila on a co-worker early in the morning, or how he doesn’t even realize that he can read perfectly without his reading glasses.  However, it takes a more unsettling turn when he can start hearing far away voices throughout his office complex.  Still, the film is able to maintain an occasional sense of levity mostly from the charisma of Nicholson and Spader.  I love how the wolf instincts make Will more aggressive, able to take stand against his co-workers and boss.  He becomes a man of bravado and cutthroat actions instead of a weaker willed pushover that he was.  So, at first, this is all a good change in his character, but gradually, the wolf bite effects begin to take a more ferocious and bloodletting turn.

James Spader is wonderfully sleazy, as appears to be his regular strength, as Will’s apprentice / rival.  Stewart is conniving and deceitful with no ethical or moral compass.  He’s a real snake in the grass that will smile to your face while stabbing you in the back, and Spader makes it a richly enjoyable performance.  He really excels in these kinds of roles, portraying them pitch perfect to make the character detestable while still being wholly entertaining.  Awesomely, he gets the chance to just go full boar with it by the end with a very fearsome performance.  This really is all the vile, juicy Spader you could ever want.

It’s surprising how good the chemistry is between Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer.  There’s a nineteen year age difference between them, but that seems to work better for these characters.  Will Randall is a more worn out, tired career man while Laura Alden is young, vibrant, and intriguing.  Pfeiffer certainly has a seductive aura about her that creates a dangerous air to the relationship.  There’s plenty of sexual charisma to spare with both her and Nicholson.  Overall, she does a tremendous job with this character who does have a harder, jaded exterior with a more approachable, comforting core.

The supporting cast of Wolf is also stellar.  Most notably is Christopher Plummer’s gracefully egotistical, but also authoritative Raymond Alden, the owner of the publishing house.  He carries a substantial weight as this slightly ruthless boss who insincerely sugar coats things.  He has a great presence and a subtle way of acting that results in a lot of dimension coming out on screen.

The mystical ideas of the demon wolf are beautifully conveyed.  There’s a grounded sensibility from Dr. Alezais when he tells Will of the lore.  It’s not the ravings of some wild witch doctor, but of a man of science and research.  He believes in the possibility that this mystical lore is true, and he sells the dreaded reality of it very convincingly.  It comes at the right point in the film where both Will and the audience have experienced enough to believe that something supernatural is taking a hold of him.  So, we are all ripe to fully believe what he has to say.

I love the make-up effects from Rick Baker, a go-to master for werewolves from his work on The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.  While it is just some added facial hair, fangs, and yellow contact lenses, the visual of Nicholson in this make-up is frightening.  He looks like a wild animal that would stop your heart at the real life sight of.  Yet, he’s not the only one.  Although, I do not wish to spoil anything, but the make-up is extremely creepy upon the face of another actor.

Director Mike Nichols had this film shot in a way that was rather uncommon for the time it was made.  In many cases, it feels like a classic monster movie in its cinematography.  Preferring some dramatic camera zoom-ins over dolly shot push-ins, using rear screen projection during the driving scenes, and employing conservative editing resulting in some beautifully long takes, it partially feels like something from the black and white era.  Yet, it is such a brilliantly shot, composed, and executed film that it undeniably has a modern edge and beauty to it.  There’s a great sense of artistic horror and suspense to appeal to modern audiences.  There’s not much gore here, but there is a wealth of ferocious veracity that will satiate your desire for intense, horrific, primal violence.

The climax is absolutely wild.  Everything really converges in an animalistic confrontation that delivers in a hugely dramatic and savage high point.  How it all ultimately ends is tragically heartbreaking and powerful.  Yet, it still has a nice quirky and mesmerizing punch right at the end, too.  Mike Nichols’ ability to pull off these complex tones which mesh unsettling tension with a dash of quirky humor is really marvelous.  How this film progresses from a light drama about Will Randall’s inter-office politics and his developing romantic relationship with Laura to a full-on werewolf horror film is amazing.  That’s actually why this film works.  It builds these characters up into a realistic setting with convincing relationships and conflicts.  They are charismatic and entertaining characters that really invest your interest.  Then, the film gradually builds up the supernatural wolf element as it begins to affect Will’s behavior from a re-invigorated, confident man to a frightening metamorphosis that he deathly fears.  It’s a wonderful twisting arc that never loses credibility or its grounded sensibilities.  The conflicts it establishes, and the relationships it grows remain an integral part of the story all the way through.  It really is a stellar work of screenwriting by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick, and a brilliant directing job by Mike Nichols.

Add in an excellent score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and you’ve got one hell of a great film that I dearly love.  It’s a real gem I only discovered a few Octobers ago, and have really wanted to share my admiration for it for a long time.  Wolf was actually delayed into release by several months to completely re-shoot the entire third act of the movie. Whatever they did is entirely seamless.  I cannot see any deviation in quality or story to hint at what was changed.  There was no novelization, and no script available online to find out what the original third act was.  I’m certainly intrigued, but the film that was released is entirely amazing and I wouldn’t change a thing.  As I said, good werewolf movies are hard to come by, and I think Wolf is a surprising pleasure.  There was no shortage of remarkable talent behind this film, and that talent shines through in every moment.  I think it’s a great and original horror films with a lot of entertainment value to offer any audience.