Full Moon Features: The Howling series, Part Two

When last we left the Howling series, director Phillipe Mora had just made a complete hash of the first sequel, 1985’s Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf, yet somehow felt qualified to take a crack at another one. How he was able to convince novelist Gary Brandner that he was the man for the job I have no idea, but once he had secured the sequel rights Mora set about writing a script that had no connection whatsoever to the earlier films and, in fact, took place in Australia, the land of kangaroos, koala bears and a once-thriving exploitation film industry (lovingly eulogized in the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood). And that, for better or worse, is how 1987’s mind-bogglingly bizarre Howling III: The Marsupials came to be.

I knew going into it that Howling III wasn’t exactly going to be a work of high art. (As one of the interview subjects in Not Quite Hollywood put it, “We all knew it was rubbish. We knew everything was a joke.”) In this regard, it helps that Mora always intended it to be a comedy, as evidenced by the over-the-top characters and dialogue, but that still doesn’t excuse how slapdash the whole enterprise feels pretty much from the word dingo. And even if there are no actual dingoes in the film, its lycanthropes are descended from an extinct species of Tasmanian wolf, which explains why they have pouches. (Unsurprisingly, this is the only Howling film where this is the case.)

In an odd way, the film suffers from an overabundance of ideas. For starters, there’s the story of a rebellious young werewolf (Imogen Annesley) who leaves her tribe and resettles in Sydney, where she almost immediately meets an ambitious assistant director (Leigh Biolos) who casts her in a horror film called Shape Shifters, Part 8 (a joke that the series has actually caught up with thanks to this year’s The Howling: Reborn). To this, Mora adds a subplot about a Russian ballerina (Dasha Blahova) who defects to Australia in order to find her werewolf mate. (Her transformation in the middle of a rehearsal provides one of the film’s highlights.) Then there’s the college professor (Barry Otto) who’s eager to study the creatures and eventually develops something of an affinity for them. If only people could understand them, he believes, we wouldn’t be so afraid of them.

Even if the whole thing falls apart well before the climax (at a tacky-looking awards show hosted by Dame Edna Everage, of all people), Howling III is almost worth seeing for the early scene where Biolos takes Annesley to her first horror film (she’s lived a sheltered life in her remote hometown of Flow — yes, that is “Wolf” backwards) and she is decidedly unimpressed by the lengthy transformation sequence. Of course, since it was done for the movie within the movie, Mora and his crew deliberately set out to make it look as ridiculous as possible, which is not a claim that the makers of the next sequel can make — at least, not credibly.

Having reached a narrative dead end in the Australian outback, the Howling series was given a pointless reboot with 1988’s Howling IV: The Original Nightmare, which harkened back to Gary Brandner’s source novel. Actually, according to the opening credits, it’s based on all three of the Howling books, but for the most part the screenwriters stick to the story of the first one, save for the fact that the main character is no longer the victim of a savage rape. Instead, Marie (Romy Windsor) is a bestselling novelist who’s having such disturbing dreams and visions that her doctor prescribes a liberal dose of rest and relaxation. This prompts her bearded husband Richard (Michael T. Weiss) to rent a rustic cabin up in the mountains so she can get away from the big, bad city, but the peace and quiet is shattered their first night there when Marie hears a wolf howling nearby and stupidly asks, “What was that noise?” (Just once I’d like a character to hear a wolf howl in a movie and immediately know what it is.)

To his credit, director John Hough manages to bring a sense a menace to the scenes that take place in the nearby town of Drago, but his efforts are hampered somewhat by the barely passable American accents on most of the townspeople (not much of a surprise considering the film was shot in South Africa). This problem also extends to Marie’s agent, who mostly exists so Richard can have someone to be jealous of after he’s been seduced and bitten by she-wolf Eleanor (Lamya Derval), an artist who runs the local knickknack shop. The other major character is an ex-nun named Janice (Susanne Severeid) who helps Marie investigate the strange goings on in town, but their sleuthing skills are amateurish at best. In fact, it takes them so long to put things together that nearly an hour elapses before somebody says the word “werewolf” — and that’s a hell of a long time to keep your monster off-screen.

Then again, that was probably entirely by design because the werewolves in Howling IV are pretty pathetic. The main problem appears to be the makeup department’s inability to pick one design and run with it. Instead, there are at least half a dozen werewolf concepts ranging from ordinary wolves with glowing red eyes to an upright wolf man on two legs. Then there’s the matter of Richard’s ludicrous transformation, during which he dissolves into a puddle of goo and then reforms as a wolf-like thing. Meanwhile, all the other werewolves just sort of tease their hair out and glue on fangs and claws so they can swipe at Marie when she attempts to escape their clutches. It’s all pretty half-assed, which is why it’s not too surprising that the filmmakers can’t even be bothered to stick a proper ending on the thing.

Given its tiny budget and poor production values, it’s not surprising that Howling IV was the first sequel to go direct to video. And it was soon joined on the shelves by the likes of Howling V: The Rebirth (1989), Howling VI: The Freaks (1991) and Howling: New Moon Rising (1995). The last one even tried to tie together the events of the previous three, and topped Howling III‘s marsupial werewolves by adding line dancing into the mix. More an act of desperation than a legitimate film, New Moon Rising sounded the death knell for a series that had been thoroughly run into the ground in the space of a decade and a half. No wonder it took just as long before the time was ripe for it to be Reborn. (The fact that a little something called Twilight came out in the interim may have something to do with that, but that’s a discussion for another time.)