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The Howling series got howlingly bad pretty quickly

The Howling
The Howling

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Horror franchises come in two varieties: those based on existing properties (typically novels) and original creations (even if they’re not all that original in and of themselves). One that falls into the former category is the series that sprung from Gary Brandner’s The Howling, published in 1977 and billed as “A blood-chilling novel in the shocking tradition of Salem’s Lot” and “a terrifying tale of the occult” on the cover of its first paperback edition. Strange to think that a property that has become synonymous with werewolves, spawning eight movies in 35 years, was coy about their existence at the outset. But this was not the case when Brandner’s bestial creatures made the leap to the silver screen in 1981.

Directed by Joe Dante, then emerging from the trenches of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, The Howling marked his second collaboration with screenwriter John Sayles, who was brought on board to rewrite an existing script by Terence H. Winkless. (They first worked together on the 1978 Jaws knockoff Piranha.) The result was a tongue-in-cheek take on lycanthropy that took satirical swipes at the breed of self-help fads that were popular at the time. It also altered the novel’s protagonist, changing her from Karyn Beatty, a housewife who relocates to the country after being raped, to Karen White, a Los Angeles-based TV news anchor who retreats to the mountains at the behest of her therapist. In both versions, Karyn/Karen has a husband who’s frustrated by her inability to be intimate, sending him into the arms of a local woman who turns out to be part of a pack of very territorial werewolves. But only Sayles and Winkless were considerate enough to give her an identity outside of being someone’s wife (and a rape survivor to boot).

Joe Dante on the set of The Howling

Played by Dee Wallace—stepping back into the horror genre, years after her supporting turn in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes—the film’s Karen is vulnerable, but she’s not a damsel in distress. Introduced taking part in a sting operation designed to lure serial killer Eddie Quist (future Dante regular Robert Picardo) out into the open, Karen knowingly puts herself in harm’s way for the police and her TV station, getting more than she bargained for when Eddie turns out to be more than your garden-variety lunatic. In fact, their encounter—during which Eddie is shot to death by the police—so traumatizes her that her therapist, Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee, one of a number of actors playing a character named after the director of a werewolf movie), recommends a stay at the Colony, which he reserves for his “special patients.” This turns out to be code for werewolves, and in short order her husband, Bill (Christopher Stone, Wallace’s real-life husband), is bitten by one of the locals, the alluring Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), and Karen appears to be next on the list—should she prove receptive to the idea.

As he had done on Piranha, Dante plays The Howling’s scares mostly straight, keeping the in-jokes and movie references for the margins. In addition to the character names—something that would fly over the heads of most casual viewers—the props department does most of the heavy lifting in this regard, putting Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and a book by Thomas Wolfe into characters’ hands and a can of Wolf brand chili on sheriff Slim Pickens’ desk. Other genre vets in the cast include Kevin McCarthy, Kenneth Tobey, John Carradine, and Dick Miller, with more winks courtesy of cameos by the famously penny-pinching Corman and Famous Monsters Of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman. And yes, that is future Adam Sandler crony Dennis Dugan as Karen’s segment producer, who gets to play most of his scenes opposite Dante darling Belinda Balaski, who has the film’s first—and arguably most effective—encounter with special makeup effects creator Rob Bottin’s werewolves.

Innovative at the time and much-copied in the years that followed, Bottin’s work hinged on using bladders and latex appliances that took hours to apply to Picardo’s face so Eddie’s transformation from man to beast could happen in-camera. Even if the effects don’t hold up so well today—and were in fact eclipsed by the transformation engineered by Rick Baker for An American Werewolf In London, released just a few months later—the scene where Eddie wolfs out for Karen’s benefit is a literal showstopper, because as Dante points out on the commentary, it grinds the plot to a halt so Bottin can show off his stuff. At least his efforts were worth showing off, which is more than can be said for the werewolf effects in the sequel, alternately known as Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf or Howling II: Stirba—Werewolf Bitch, and a lousy way to pass 91 minutes.

Based in name only on Brandner’s 1979 novel The Howling II, 1985’s Your Sister Is A Werewolf picks up right after The Howling left off, with the funeral of Karen White, who—spoiler alert—was shot with a silver bullet on live television after turning into the most adorable werewolf imaginable. This moment gets replayed after a fashion when occult investigator Stefan Crosscoe (Christopher Lee, looking faintly embarrassed) shows the only known videotape of Karen’s last broadcast to her brother, Ben (Reb Brown, late of TV’s short-lived Captain America), and colleague Jenny (Annie McEnroe). It takes some doing to convince Ben his sister is a werewolf, but after a few run-ins with some creatures of the night, he and Jenny join Stefan on a trip to “the dark country,” a.k.a. Transylvania, to help him eradicate the 10,000-year-old werewolf queen Stirba, portrayed by B-movie siren Sybil Danning after the requisite rejuvenation ceremony at an aggressively weird occult gathering. That’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as the film’s strangeness is concerned though.

Seeing how fractured Howling II’s editing is, director Philippe Mora—who made a name for himself with the Ozploitation classic Mad Dog Morgan and the American monster movie The Beast Within—appeared to have been working with a more limited budget than the roughly $1 million Dante was allocated four years earlier. Part of this is reflected in the fact that the entire movie, save for a handful of establishing shots of the Los Angeles skyline, was filmed behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia (which unconvincingly stands in for Southern California for the first third of the movie). The good news is this gives the production a lot of local color it wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. The bad news is it saddled Mora with a host of local actors with a limited grasp of the language, which does the borderline-incoherent screenplay few favors.

Partly the work of novelist Gary Brandner, Howling II’s script goes all in on making up its own werewolf mythology, including giving Stirba the ability to cast magic spells, which Danning does while wearing uncomfortable-looking leather-and-metal outfits (that is, when she isn’t covered in a thin layer of hair for the film’s awkward orgy scenes). Meanwhile, Brown and McEnroe are stranded in a forced culture-clash comedy without Lee’s innate ability to rise above whatever foolish material he’s given. What really kills Howling II, though, are the inconsistent and cheap-looking werewolf designs—some of them decidedly apelike—and the rubbery effects, some of which Mora lingers over a lot longer than he should have. The pièce de résistance arrives during the closing-credit montage—set to the umpteenth reprise of quasi-punk band Babel’s one song, appropriately titled “Howling”—which comes complete with 17 repetitions of Danning ripping her top off during the aforementioned orgy. It’s the kind of moment that will either cement viewers’ love for the film or have them crying uncle.

Despite striking out with Howling II, Mora acquired the rights to Brandner’s 1985 novel Howling III and proceeded to ignore it entirely, making up his own story set in Australia. The result was 1987’s The Marsupials, which capitalized on the public’s interest in all things Aussie in the wake of Crocodile Dundee’s massive success by positing the existence of werewolves with pouches, a concept Mora plays straight while sending up every other aspect of the genre, up to and including its mania for sequels. Exhibit A: When a young werewolf from the sticks (a part nearly played by Nicole Kidman!) runs away to Sydney—mostly because she’d rather not mate with her pack’s odious leader—she’s almost immediately recruited to be in a low-budget horror film called Shapeshifters Part 8.

Lacking the relative star power of its predecessors and featuring no recurring characters from either of them or any of Brandner’s novels, Mora’s Howling III stands alone. Over the course of its 98 minutes, he tosses in a trio of werewolf nuns, a Russian ballerina transforming on stage at the Sydney Opera House, a marsupial werewolf birth, actual footage of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, fake footage of Aborigines killing one of its half-human relatives, a giant werewolf pig (actually, the repurposed monster from Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback), and a Los Angeles awards shows hosted by Dame Edna Everage, which brings Mora’s Howling diptych full circle. He also pokes fun at Dante’s film and his own The Beast Within with the insanely drawn-out transformation in It Came From Uranus, an amusing, over-the-top film-within-the-film. That willingness to risk looking foolish turns out to be Howling III’s greatest asset and the reason it succeeds where II fails: Freed of the expectation of following a hit, Mora set out to have some fun, and he and his cast and crew did just that. They also made the last Howling film to garner a theatrical release, for reasons that will become abundantly clear.

Not one to rest on its haunches, the series was back the following year with its first direct-to-video entry, 1988’s Howling IV: The Original Nightmare, which confusingly claims to be based on all three of Brandner’s novels (a trait it shares with the next three sequels). Dropping the self-help angle introduced by the first film and the traumatic rape that the novel is predicated on, The Original Nightmare’s screenwriters, Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe, also turn their protagonist into a best-selling author named Marie whose repeated visions of a ghostly nun and other disturbing sights eventually land her in a mental hospital. There her architect husband, Richard, is told she needs to get out of Los Angeles and go “somewhere where her imagination won’t be stimulated.” Following orders, he finds a rustic cabin in the insular town of Drago where, lo and behold, Marie starts hearing howling in the night and seeing the ghosts of its previous owners telling her to leave. Meanwhile, Richard is drawn to flirtatious shopkeeper Eleanor, with whom he embarks on a torrid affair.

For her part, Marie sets out to solve the mystery of Drago and its secretive residents with the help of a former nun who is more than happy to play Scooby-Doo with her. As much as genre vet John Hough tries to wring suspense out of this retread, he’s defeated by the limp script, tight budget (which necessitated shooting in South Africa), and shoddy makeup effects (the werewolves are alternately portrayed by obvious puppets or large dogs with red glowing eyes). Worse yet, the big transformation scene, in which the recently bitten Richard melts into a puddle of goo that then reforms into the shape of a wolf, is simultaneously gross and radically different from the instant one Eleanor undergoes before biting him. Even if it’s not surprising that the Howling’s werewolves don’t look the same from film to film, it’s especially galling when they don’t look the same within the same film.

Just as Mora saw Howling III as a way of making up for Howling II, writer-producer Turner may have come up with 1989’s Howling V: The Rebirth to atone for the redundant Howling IV. Unfortunately, the story he concocted is even more pointless and dull, and director Neal Sundstrom (co-director of the MST3K favorite Space Mutiny) does little to bring its sub-Agatha Christie mystery to life. Following a brief prologue depicting the near-wholesale slaughter of a werewolf gathering at a 15th-century Hungarian castle, the film picks up 500 years later at its grand reopening, which has attracted a group of oddballs to Budapest. This includes a freelance photographer, an investigative journalist, a tennis pro, two actresses, a pony-tailed Aussie songwriter (played by Turner, who also had a tiny role in The Original Nightmare), a historian, a doctor, and a playboy. While their host (a local count) plays detective, the guests and servants are eliminated at regular intervals—and always accompanied by the same synthesizer sting—as they try to figure out what’s going on for themselves. What’s going on, naturally, is one of them is a werewolf, descended from the lone survivor of the slaughter five centuries earlier. But the Ten Little Indians-only-with-a-werewolf concept didn’t fly when Amicus tried it in 1974’s The Beast Must Die, and it’s DOA here as well.

In need of new blood, the series’ next installment was handed to a wholly new creative team, and 1991’s Howling VI: The Freaks shows all the signs of an unrelated werewolf script that was hastily retooled to be part of the franchise. Written by Kevin Rock, whose most infamous credit is on the Roger Corman-produced The Fantastic Four from 1994, and directed by Hope Perello, a veteran of Charles Band’s low-rent Empire Pictures, The Freaks is about a traveling carnival that rolls into a drought-stricken town, where British-accented drifter Ian is hired to fix up the run-down church and takes a shine to its pastor’s daughter. In short order, though, Ian is revealed to be a werewolf, just as Mr. Harker, owner of the underwhelming “World Of Wonders,” turns out to be a vampire with metallic blue skin (because the one thing the Howling series needed was a fucking vampire). Still, when he’s ultimately defeated, Harker’s disintegration is actually a pretty neat effect, in direct contrast to Ian’s own lackluster transformations. The Freaks also pulls off the trifecta of having the boom in shot in its first dialogue scene, a boom shadow a few minutes later, and the shadow of the camera and crew in its very last scene. If it’s difficult to imagine a more technically inept production, all one has to do is continue on to the next entry, 1995’s woeful The Howling: New Moon Rising.

Returning to the fold for a third go-round, Clive Turner staked his claim to being the Howling franchise’s ultimate auteur, serving as New Moon Rising’s writer, producer, director, lead actor, and supervising editor. Moreover, he misguidedly attempts to reverse-engineer a loose continuity between the three previous sequels by having various characters tell each other the stories of The Rebirth and The Original Nightmare, occasioned by copious clips from both. (The Freaks also comes up briefly, but its connection to the plot is tenuous at best.) Turner’s most egregious sins are his weakness for corny jokes and the bountiful screen time he gives to the residents of Pioneer Town, where his biker character—a long-haired, George Jones-obsessed Aussie who may or may not be the same person he played in The Rebirth—sets up shop, giving them all a chance to sing terrible country songs while people robotically line dance, sometimes in a curiously underlit limbo. And that’s not to forget the long-delayed werewolf transformation, which is accomplished with a cheap-ass morphing effect, a harbinger of things to come.

Sixteen years after New Moon Rising limped into video stores—to date, it’s the one film in the series never to be released on DVD or Blu-ray—the trigger finally got pulled on a follow-up, optimistically titled The Howling: Reborn. Ostensibly based on the novel The Howling II, the 2011 film appears to take more of its cues from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books since it’s about a teenage werewolf who has to protect his human crush from others of his kind. (On the commentary, co-writer/director Joe Nimziki claims he wrote and registered his first draft a year before Twilight was published, but this doesn’t change the fact that by the time his much-tinkered-with script went before cameras it was in a post-Twilight world where teen paranormal romances are a veritable cottage industry.) The plot also has echoes of Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf, since it hinges on an impending “very rare blue moon” when packs of werewolves all over the world plan to rise up and take over. Reborn’s scope stays frustratingly limited, even if it does add yet another country—Canada—to the roll call of far-flung locations where Howling movies have been lensed. And at least it’s a marked improvement on New Moon Rising, the unequivocal runt of the litter, which would have been an ignominious way for the series to be put down.

Not that there’s much chance of it staying silent too long in this era of endless horror remakes. As was reported last year, a new company has acquired the rights to “reboot” The Howling, which prompted Joe Dante to ask, “Isn’t there anybody with a new idea or anybody who wants to try something different? And the answer is no, they’re afraid to do it.” So even if 2017 does bring with it a new Howling movie, fans would probably be best served by sticking with his 1981 original and Philippe Mora’s Marsupials and pretending they’re a series of two.

Final Ranking:

1. The Howling (1981)
2. Howling III: The Marsupials (1987)
3. Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf (1985)
4. Howling VI: The Freaks (1991)
5. The Howling: Reborn (2011)
6. Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988)
7. Howling V: The Rebirth (1989)
8. The Howling: New Moon Rising (1995)