Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Halloween Havoc: HOWLING II (1985) and HOWLING III (1987)

It’s hard to believe that Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING (1981) turned 30 years old this year.  Adapted from Gary Brandner’s 1977 werewolf novel, the film set a new standard for the werewolf creature feature thanks to both John Sayles and Terence Winkless’ smart script and Rob Bottin’s jaw dropping werewolf special effects.  For my money, it is still the werewolf movie standard and better than John Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON of the same year due to the virtue of actually having a plot (yes, LONDON basically has no plot).  THE HOWLING proved to be a success at the box office, taking in over $17 million (on a $1 million budget) and being Embassy’s third highest grosser that year (behind good company TIME BANDITS and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK).  A successful horror film in the 1980s can only mean one thing – sequel! Unfortunately, the only returning production member for the sequels was Steven A. Lane, who must have been the guy who originally bought the Brandner book rights as he curses the credits of each successive sequel with an executive producer credit.  And let's just say they were definitely aiming for the quantity over quality standard when it came to the seven subsequent sequels (!) that have cursed audiences ever since.

Before we dive into HOWLING II, let me tell you a little true story.  My father used to be a VHS maniac (so that’s where it came from) and would fill our home with whatever he saw on sale.  Ultimately oblivious to the taste of me and my sister, he would grab anything that looked like a horror movie as long as it was $19.95 or cheaper.  This resulted in some truly odd viewing (HOBGOBLINS!) but we always were appreciative of his efforts.  Well, except for one time. The only film we’ve ever told our father to return unopened was HOWLING II.  I specifically remember scolding my dad like Tom Atkins did to his son in the opening of CREEPSHOW (1982): “The next time, buddy boy, I see you with a worthless piece of shit like this again, young man, you won't sit down for a week.”  Okay, I wasn’t that hard on him, but I should have been because HOWLING II is just awful.  It was an instrumental learning experience from my childhood: it taught me that all horror films featured in Fangoria ain’t going to be good, that horror legends just might not have integrity, and that there is truth in the saying “there’s a sucker born every minute.”  Sadly, this sucker kept going.

HOWLING II opens with a shot that immediately said “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” to my 11-year-old brain.  We open on a shot of space with a superimposed Christopher Lee babbling some nonsense about abominations on Earth.  Uh, what?  The film proper starts with the funeral of the original film’s heroine Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone wisely chose not to return) in Los Angeles.  In attendance are her brother Ben (Reb Brown), co-worker Jenny Templeton (Annie McEnroe) and mysterious Stefan Crosscoe (Christopher Lee).  Hey, at least it is a direct sequel I’m thinking.  Crosscoe breaks funeral etiquette by offering Ben his card and telling Jenny that Karen is a werewolf.  Despite such lunacy, Ben and Jenny visit him at his home and he elaborates on the werewolf legend while showing Ben a videotape of his sister turning into a werewolf during a television news broadcast (in a laughable recreation of the original film’s ending).  Karen will be coming back and Stefan plans to end her misery by stabbing her with a titanium spike. Ben thinks he is nuts, but he and Jenny show up that night to try and stop him.  As expected, Karen comes back and the group is attacked by werewolves.  They survive and Ben and Jenny pledge to help Stefan eradicate these shaggy shapeshifters.  Apparently they are off to a bad start as they forgot to kill Karen and put her out of her misery.  Nice.  Anyway, the trio head to Transylvania in order to find the location of werewolf queen Stirba (Sybil Danning), who fornicates with her followers while using the life source of virgins to stay young.

To say HOWLING II…YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF (full title) is a disappointment would be a huge understatement.  It is as if director Philippe Mora watched the original THE HOWLING and said, “I’m going to do everything exactly opposite of this flick.” To give you an idea of how confused this production is one need only look at the screenplay.  Author Gary Brandner actually wrote a direct sequel to his HOWLING novel in 1979, but this sequel completely ignores all of that.  No big deal, right?  Films always deviate from the source material.  The problem is Brandner was a co-writer (alongside Robert Sarno) on this film’s screenplay!  How wrong headed is a production when they get an author to abandon his own source material? And there is some howling-ly bad dialogue to boot.  Who can forget this classic exchange?

Jenny: “You see that dwarf staring at us?”
Ben: “Yeah.”
Jenny: “Should we follow him?”
Ben: “Why not?”

Now lines like that are funny by themselves, but now imagine muscle head Reb Brown saying them.  Bad dialogue can be forgiven though if we get some good werewolf transformation effects though.  Nah, Mora can’t be bothered there either as a majority of the effects consists of superimposing growing hair over tensed fingers and cutting to shot of a really bad werewolf mask randomly (see pic).

Revisiting this flick after 25 years did offer some positive things though.  Viewing it through 36-year-old eyes that have been exposed to tons of bad movies, the first HOWLING sequel is hilarious due to all the unintentional comedy.  I can completely understand my disappointment as a kid viewing this and the film totally deserved that scorn, but now it is a riot.  From Reb Brown’s acting style to Mora’s decision to put Lee in a punk club to the production trying to pass off eastern Europe for parts of L.A. to female lead McEnroe being a dead ringer for Eric Stoltz, the film is comical from nearly start to finish.  You'll get so much joy from the absurd display that your eyeballs might pop out of your head.  I should also point out that HOWLING II is significant in that it was the first time I saw Danning in a film and a lifelong lust was born.  Mora definitely knew she was the film’s highlight as he repeats the shot of her ripping off her top EIGHTEEN TIMES (!) over the film’s closing credits.  It’s like he is saying to the paying audience, “Sorry about the film, how ‘bout some titties to make up for it?”  I’ll save you an hour and half and just give you this Danning nude shot.  For more of Danning nude, check out her Playboy spread here.

Sybil Danning topless:


And me after seeing that Danning pic:


Mora sensed the public backlash to his inferior sequel and promised to do right this time with the next sequel, HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS. Speaking to Variety about the third HOWLING entry, Mora said in August 1986, “I want to set the record straight with HOWLING III.  It will be a better film, commercially and artistically.” Returning to his adopted homeland of Australia (I’d like to think he was banned from the U.S. due to HOWLING II), Mora set about setting the record straight alright – straight into the dumpster.  Having the luxury of unintentional laughs didn’t extend to my revisit of Mora’s second sequel as the third film is pure misery from start to finish.  Amazingly, Mora manages to no only top the lackluster werewolf effects of HOWLING II (an incredible feat, believe me), but he also manages to make a bad Australian film (I can see Tom’s blood pressuring rising).  That takes a special kind of talent.

HOWLING III bears no relation to the previous two films outside of it being about werewolves.  Prof. Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto) travels from the U.S. back to his homeland of Australia because of a report of a werewolf in Russia (huh?).  Meanwhile (you’ll be seeing that word a lot), werewolf Jerboa (Imogen Annesley) runs away from her incestuous father Thylo (Max Fairchild) to the big city of Sydney.  She immediately catches the eye of film casting agent Donny Marten (Lee Biolos) and is cast in the lead of the horror film SHAPE SHIFTER PART 8.  She and Donny have known each other for a full day so, naturally, they fall in love and he never asks why she has hair extending up to her bellybutton and a marsupial pouch (!).  Young love is fleeting though as strobe lights at a wrap party almost make Jerboa wolf out and, after being hit by a car, she ends up in a hospital under Government watch.  Meanwhile, three of her sisters have traveled to the big city dressed as nuns to bring her home. Oh, and a Russian ballerina named Olga, who is also a werewolf, has defected to Australia.  You still with me?

Kidnapped by her sisters, Jerboa is dragged back home with Government types in pursuit.  Also following them is Donny, who has found out that she is carrying his baby.  Jerboa gives birth to a “cute” little werewolf before the Feds arrive and take everyone back to study.  Jerboa escapes into the outback, finds Donny and they are soon on the run from some hunters who are hell-bent on catching them (why they are even after them is never explained).  Meanwhile, back in the lab, Beckmeyer quizzes Thylo and Olga about their lycanthropic nature.  When an order is given to destroy the werewolves, Beckmeyer takes sympathy on them and breaks them out (yeah, you are suddenly supposed to feel sorry for rapist psycho Thylo).  This on-the-lam trio returns to the outback, where they are quickly reunited with Jerboa and Donny.  Hunting our werewolf family now is a team of Government mercenaries (which consists of two guys).  Thylo suddenly turns bad again and leaves the group to kill the guys following them (he turns into some kind of huge wild boar looking thing).  This allows Beckmeyer and Olga to fall in love and – in the span of 5 minutes – we see 15 years pass as they have children.  Jerboa and Donny also leave with their were-son and move to Hollywood to become a famous actress-director couple.  The whole thing ends with Jerboa winning an award for best actress and turning into a werewolf during her acceptance speech.

Me during HOWLING III re-visit
Kuuuuuuuuuuuuuh-rice-stahhh!  If you thought HOWLING II was bad, you won’t be able to handle HOWLING III.  Returning director Philippe Mora promised something better and actually managed to deliver something 50 times worse.  Picking up the screenwriting credit all by himself, Mora actually tries to inject humor into this scenario and fails miserably.  And maybe it is just me, but having a director who has just made a terrible horror sequel try to get all cutesy in his next film by including a subplot about inept filmmakers making a horror sequel just rubs me the wrong way.  New cinematic rule: you’re not allowed to make fun of low-budget horror filmmakers while being seemingly incapable of making a good low-budget horror film.  Even worse is the sheer brainpower one needs to keep up with Mora’s convoluted script.  We’re here, now we’re there, now we’re back here again.  I figure the producer meetings went something like, “Does it have werewolves in it?  Good.  Here’s your money.”

And, my God, the werewolves on display in this one are a sight to behold.  I’m starting to wonder if Rob Bottin stole Mora’s girlfriend or something as the director seems intent on completely ruining the special effects legacy of THE HOWLING.  Don’t let that colorful cover fool you as you’ll get nothing like that in this film.  Instead, the werewolves end up looking like some sort of warped combination of a Tex Avery wolf drawn by 8-year-old using their teeth.  Seriously, look at those pics and tell me a FX factory missing its supply of silly putty and fake hair.  To add insult to injury, Mora makes this one completely bloodless during werewolf attacks.  Believe it or not, this sucker actually played in theaters and one would think it would have been the silver bullet to the heart of this franchise. Yet, despite earning a paltry $500,000 at the box office, the film went on to be a huge success on home video. According to Variety in 1988, the film sold 84,000 tapes in the U.S. and 10,000 in Japan, enjoying “vid sales of about $4,000,000.”  Even I will admit that I was suckered as my 13-year-old brain went into a tizzy when I saw this video on the shelf for the first time. Hell, I even asked the video store clerk to hold the tape before I could return with my parents 5 hours later to rent it.  Did I learn my lesson?  Helllll no!  I’m a horror fan and we never learn our lesson.  “The next one will be better,” I convinced myself with the shadow of P.T. Barnum over my shoulder.  Parts IV and V up next!

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