Wednesday, July 15, 2015

HOWLING II (1985) Blu-ray Review

Howling II (1985) d. Philippe Mora (USA/UK)

Certain movies are so misguided that they nearly defy description. Howling II (aka Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf and Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch), while not technically an experimental film, feels like it started as an attempt to fuse art-house sensibilities to a cash-in sequel. While the director, Philippe Mora, is far from a hack, he had neither the chops nor the budget to pull off the goofy, pretentious tone and style he apparently intended. The results go beyond terrible to a circle of filmmaking Hell so staggeringly bone-headed that my brain physically hurt by time the last werewolf bit the dust.

Howling II picks up just after the end of 1981’s The Howling. (NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the first film, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading and go watch it because it’s terrific.) At the funeral for investigative journalist Karen White (Hana Ludvikova, taking over for Dee Wallace), our three heroes are introduced: Stefan Crosscoe (Christopher Lee), Ben White (Reb Brown), and Jenny Templeton (Annie McEnroe). Ben is Karen’s brother, a sheriff from Montana. Understandably upset by his sister’s violent death, Ben doesn’t take kindly to Stefan’s suggestion that Karen had been transformed into a werewolf and had set up her own killing on her news broadcast. Stefan, calling himself a paranormal investigator, gravely warns Ben and Jenny (a journalist who worked with Karen) that since the silver bullets used to kill Karen were removed from her body during an autopsy, she will come back to life.

Despite a TV studio videotape showing Karen as a fully changed werewolf before being gunned down, Ben refuses to believe Stefan’s wild tale. Jenny, on the other hand, is immediately convinced. Despite Stefan all but laying out his entire plan of what needs to be done, it takes until later that night for Ben to realize that plan involves driving a silver stake into Karen’s body. Determined to stop his sister’s corpse from being desecrated, Ben grabs a rifle and heads to Karen’s tomb with Jenny right behind him, insisting he take some silver bullets that Stefan had conveniently given her. But before Ben can gun down Stefan, they are ambushed by several werewolves which Ben wipes out in a hail of bullets and his apparent war cry of “YEAH!” each time he pulls the trigger – which is a lot. With Stefan’s claims validated, Ben and Jenny travel with him to Transylvania to hunt Stirba (Sybil Danning), the nearly immortal leader of the worldwide werewolf community.

Once the film shifts to Transylvania (with Cold War-era Czechoslovakia filling in for Romania), any hope that Howling II will right the ship from its slapdash first act is dashed. Stirba is revealed to be as much an evil sorceress as a werewolf, which allows Mora and the screenwriters, Robert Sarno and Gary Brandner, to introduce any bit of mystical foolishness they like to move the plot along. With this final cutting of ties to plausibility, Mora embraces the seemingly inadvertent campiness the film has shown until that point. Werewolf orgies, repeated shots of Danning tearing off her top to reveal her breasts, and cheap special effects become the crutches used to hobble toward an incoherent ending that feels like the production simply ran out of money.

Making a sequel to a great movie is a tricky business. That job becomes even more difficult when the creative team behind the original is absent. The Howling was a creative and commercial success due to Rob Bottin’s game-changing werewolf transformations (every bit the equal to Rick Baker’s work in An American Werewolf in London), a solid cast, stylish direction by Joe Dante, and a witty script co-written by John Sayles. It feels like the folks behind Howling II looked at what made the first film successful and the potentially interesting story directions set up by its ending... then steered hard in the opposite direction.

The most obvious issue lies in how the low budget hampered the effects work. The werewolves are never shown transforming completely. Instead, individual body parts are featured shifting from human to wolf. But even just showing these bits and pieces to save money, the effects are cheap and phony, with bladders pulsating and extending basic rubber masks and gloves. For the most part, Mora tries to hide these effects with quick cuts and dark lighting. But he never shies away from showing the fully transformed werewolves, which is a huge mistake. The obvious masks and cheaply crafted prosthetics look no better –and, in some cases, worse – than what can be bought at one of those temporary costume shops that spring up around Halloween. And the less said about the ape suits (see the bonus features paragraphs below) used in certain scenes, the better.

But to single out the cheap effects is unfair. Howling II is one of those rare films where nearly everything went wrong.

Let’s start with the performances. Usually the one actor able to rise above the terrible material in which he was often trapped, Lee looks visibly uncomfortable with his dialogue. While his sonorous voice is intact, giving the illusion of gravity to his dialogue, not even this most accomplished of screen actors is able to get away with saying, “Your sister is a werewolf,” without it coming off as a deleted laugh line from Full Moon High. But Lee’s apparent embarrassment is a welcome distraction from Reb Brown’s mumbling hunk of wood performance punctuated with jarring, gleeful whoops when pumping werewolves full of silver. And then there is Danning, reading her lines as though they have been phonetically written on cue cards in between scenes of baring her breasts and wearing a blonde werewolf getup that makes her look like she rolled around in the lint trap of a dryer.

But it’s unfair to keep kicking the actors. They had to go in front of the cameras with the schlock they were given. Mora, Sarno, and Brandner are the ones in charge of coming up with a story worth telling, and they fail miserably at their jobs. Brandner, the novelist behind the Howling series of  novels, was so disgusted with how the films turned out, he had basically disowned them by the time of his passing in 2013. This was a smart move on his part.

Matt halfway through the film....

To his credit, Mora does seem to attempt to shift the tone of the film to satirical horror. But the intentionally campy directions taken are less entertaining than the scenes that come off as clueless attempts to inject atmosphere. A scene set at a club where composer Steve Parsons performs a song entitled “Howling” is actually a lot of fun, not only because of how dated it is, but because the song is goofy and Parsons hams up the performance. But inserting a shot of the great, stoic Christopher Lee donning a pair of wrap-around sunglasses to fit in at the club is a stupid and unnecessary grab for a cheap laugh.

The film is full of these kinds of overkill moments: the repeated use of Parsons’ song for every other scene starts out as funny, becomes annoying, becomes funny again, and finally inspired hostility from me with its overuse.

The random twists of the plot provided by giving Stirba apparently unlimited magical powers initially provide some silly “what the hell was that?” moments, but by the third act, Brandner and Sarno have so thoroughly mixed werewolf mythos with vampire lore and a grab bag of sorcery, I was fatigued by the sheer silliness and could no longer be bothered to try and make sense of what was going on; and the finale, filled with sad werewolf costumes and Brown’s ear-splitting exaltations as he blasts away at the creatures is simply chaos giving way to a shrug of the shoulders ending meant to be funny, but comes off as a labored, obvious joke that falls flat.

There is entertainment value to be had with Howling II, but it comes in the form of mocking a movie that veers from unconsciously bad to self-parodying attempts at camp. The best that can be said about it is that it offers up many creative opportunities for drinking games and serves as a useful comparison model. From here on, whenever I watch a misguided, poorly made film, I’ll be able to take some comfort in knowing that it (hopefully) isn’t as bad as Howling II.

The Blu-ray from Shout! Factory is the very definition of polishing a turd. But to their credit, they did polish that sucker to a mirror shine. The HD image is surprisingly kind, showing that at least cinematographer Geoffrey Stephenson was capable of providing a solid, professional sheen. The Czechoslovakian locations also look great in this transfer, giving some class and production value to a venture that really didn’t deserve either.

There are two commentary tracks: A solo one with Mora, and another with musician Parsons and editor Charles Bornstein. The Mora track is by far the better of the two. The director is an entertaining storyteller and he clearly relishes the tales he amassed shooting what he knew was, at best, a goofy script. In his best anecdote, he explains how the werewolf costumes the producers sent him were actually leftover ape suits from the Planet of the Apes movies and how Lee came up with the scene to explain the discrepancy. The rest of his commentary is wide-ranging and self-effacing, covering everything from Lee’s disapproval of the gratuitous sex and violence to the problems that came with shooting werewolf sex scenes where the hair was prone to fall off the actor’s bodies if they touched each other. While I wonder if his claim that he was trying to make a comedy is simply an attempt to revise history, I will give him the benefit of the doubt for providing such a light, fun retrospective.

There are also new interviews with Brown and Danning, both of whom have good stories about being spied on by the Communist government while filming, but are otherwise not of very much interest (though Danning’s claim of being the first blonde werewolf is incorrect—see Dee Wallace’s transformation at the end of the first Howling for proof). An interview with special effects artists Steve Johnson and Scott Wheeler is of slightly more interest just for their stories of working with such limited funds and trying to create the dozens of werewolves needed for the big third act battle. An alternate opening and ending are almost exactly the same as what wound up in the finished product. A trailer, behind-the-scenes footage, and a still gallery make up the rest of the bonus features.

The Howling II Blu-ray is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:

--Review by Matt Wedge

Check out Matt’s other reviews at his blog:



  1. Michael Felsher did moderate the director commentary. Just giving credit where credit is due. ;-)