The Fouling of the Howling

by Arthur B

It took just one sequel for what could have been an excellent werewolf series to be completely ruined.
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Of the various long-running horror franchises born in the 1980s, rarely has one become so thoroughly and completely derailed by its first sequel as The Howling sequence. Of the eight woofle-packed movies in the series, only the first sequel has any connection to the original. Even the later Hellraiser films, most of which are infamous for being completely unrelated spec scripts bought up and with the Cenobites parachuted in, at least have a common character tying them together in the form of Pinhead; after Howling II, it’s best to see the Howling series as a line of lycanthrope-themed self-contained stories, most of which are rather poor direct-to-video fare using the Howling name for a bit of reflected kudos.

Howling II was a legendary disaster which put paid to any future attempts to continue the original story, the original movie has a good enough reputation that no number of trashy sequels has tarnished its name enough to make it no longer worth making another entry in the series. For this article, I’m going to be looking at both.

The Howling


Our star here is TV news anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace), and as is all too often the case with television personalities she has a stalker - in this case a sleazebag called Eddie (Robert Picardo) who the police believe is connected to a string of serial murders. A combination of public-spirited duty and the professional desire for a scoop prompts Karen to help lead the cops to Eddie by agreeing to his urge to meet him at a nasty video booth in the back room of a porn shop. A few hiccups with the sting operation result in Eddie and Karen spending more time together than intended - not long enough for Eddie to attack her, but long enough for him to show her a pornographic video depicting a rape (supposedly staged, but it’s scuzzy enough to raise doubts) and ramble some strange nonsense to her, before she looks at him and sees something that causes stark, shrieking terror. The police arrive just as Eddie is bearing down on Karen, and a panicing cop riddles him with bullets through the door to the booth, putting an end to the attack.

The above could be an entire movie in itself: but this is just the first 13 minutes. Karen was so shocked by the attack - and by what she saw before the attack - that she’s suffering from amnesia, forgetting all details of the incident but troubled afterwards by nightmares about it as well as the sort of disruption to your sex life such an assault might be expected to prompt; her journalist colleagues’ discovery of Eddie’s longstanding obsession with serial murder and lycanthropy just makes the whole thing creepier, and when Karen’s due to come back to work she finds she’s just too rattled to work.

It’s clear that Karen’s going to need some therapy to process what happened, so she goes to sessions with Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee of Avengers fame), a charming gentleman who makes regular appearances on the station to talk about his therapeutic philosophy about how repression of one’s instincts is the root of so many modern neuroses. Waggner recommends that she and husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone) come up to stay at the Colony, a wilderness retreat he operates where people can play and dance to folk music, get back to nature, and indulge their passions in an accepting, non-judgemental environment.

In other words, it’s a clique of werewolves, and Waggner reckons that Karen and Bill need to be recruited in order to keep the Colony’s secrets safe…

The Howling is, if not the first, at least the earliest werewolf movie I am aware of to treat werewolves as social creatures. (The idea is also somewhat present in the novel by Gary Brandner that inspired the film, though the plot of the two are so different that they’re extremely different takes on the subject.) By far the majority of previous (and a great many subsequent) werewolf stories hinge on the idea that lycanthropes are largely solitary creatures, with one or maybe a couple here and there living on the outside of society, rather than having a society of their own.

The Colony here offers a fascinating fictional blueprint of how werewolves might come together to find common ground, community, and a shared experience of their nature, and the movie makes exploring this idea really central to proceedings. In the original novel the werewolf community was basically a spooky small town along the lines of spooky small towns in horror fiction dating back to Innsmouth and before, but the Colony is something original and different.

Director Joe Dante and scriptwriters John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless do an excellent job with it, in particular working in the idea that the Colony is not a monolith but has different points of view and approaches to the condition within it, ranging from the therapeutic approach of Dr. Waggner to the spiritual, sensual, vaguely witchy approach of Marsha Quist (Elisabeth Brooks). You also have a fantastic cameo from the late, great John Carradine as Erle Kenton, a werewolf old-timer who wants to give up on this attempt to try and learn to fit in with the human world and just wants to romp about in the wilderness killing stuff, and it’s really nice to see him in one of his more dignified of his late-career roles.

Between this and the fact that the werewolves here are not actually controlled by the moon when it comes to their transformations, The Howling provides a model for a massive swathe of subsequent depictions of werewolves, particularly those in the urban fantasy/dark romance subgenres. Werewolf: the Apocalypse, where it wasn’t cribbing from Captain Planet, pretty much directly cribbed from this movie in its depiction of werewolf society, just as they cribbed from Anne Rice, The Hunger, Near Dark and The Lost Boys for Vampire: the Masquerade.

Although it’s more of a pure horror movie than Dante’s later Gremlins or The ‘Burbs, the movie still shows flashes of a more restrained spin on his sardonic sense of humour. “George Waggner” as a name is, of course, a nod to Hollywood legend George Waggner who produced and directed the original Lon Chaney Jr. version of The Wolf Man, who was still knocking about at the ripe old age of 87 or so when this film was released; clips from The Wolf Man appear throughout the movie, in fact, along with other little snippets of wolf-related media here and there.

Dante’s dark humour is also evident in the conclusion. Karen gives a declaration of how the choice to indulge in or work against our instincts is an intrinsic and vital property of human beings, and that to take it away (as the werewolves do by infecting people with lycanthropy) is denies people their right to choose just as much as forcibly oppressing it does. This mirrors Dr. Waggner’s talk about repression at the start of the movie and acts as a counterpoint to it - but her producer is talking over it so we don’t get a lot of it. Karen also takes extreme actions to prove the existence of the menace to the world, but everyone watching at home either writes it off as a special effects stunt or just blandly goes along with it like it isn’t even a surprise to them, suggesting that despite Karen’s efforts nothing is going to change.

The movie isn’t just scares and laughs either - the script and direction is uncharacteristically deep for an early-1980s horror piece. The course of Bill’s character is particularly interesting, in that he starts out as the supportive husband to Karen but, whereas in many genre movies you’d expect him to end up usurping Karen as the main character as he rescues her from the wolves or at least being a useful ally to her, here he ends up on a downward spiral. At first, he gives at least some resistance to Marsha’s vague attempts to seduce him but - particularly once he’s nibbled - he ultimately succumbs both to Marsha’s sexual demands and the life of the werewolf they thematically denote.

I think it’s still comparatively rare in a movie, especially a genre movie, to have a married couple whose agendas end up clashing that severely and have such a strikingly different response to what’s going on; typically genre writers default to assuming that one partner is basically going to support the other, and save emotionally real-seeming depictions of marital infidelity to the realistic dramas, but here they don’t hold back on it.

The movie also stands out for the carefully judged streak of eroticism that runs through it. The rape-themed porno movie we see snippets of at the beginning is deliberately presented in as sordid and nasty a light as possible, which both heightens the intended discomfort of the scene and also means you can’t really mistake it for a sequence that endorses or glamourises rape. Conversely, you have a sex scene between Bill and Marsha which is about as explicit as a Hollywood movie could get in 1981 which is presented in about as glamourous a way as Dante can manage; you’ve got them meeting in the dead of night in the middle of a beautiful forest next to a roaring campfire, you have them naked on the ground as unseen wolves howl all around them… and then right at the climax, as it were, you have them both shifting into wolf form, and in a way which genuinely doesn’t seem daft or comical or furry porn-ish but seems like a genuinely poetic depiction of sexual rapture. With sequences like this you can see how Bill might decide to go with Marsha and the werewolves.

Though it does offer this rich tapestry, it’s still of course a horror movie at heart, and it’s a pretty great one at that. The special effects work is excellent considering its era and budget - I particularly like the part when someone’s arm gets cut off when they’re in werewolf form and it reverts to its human shape - and several aspects feel like significant precursors to later major works. The unconventional intro sequence, with random snippets of dialogue from the movie and other sources playing over flickering television static, reminds me of the television static intro to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me - which of course doesn’t include a literal, actual werewolf, though certainly BOB could qualify as the murderous hidden side of Laura’s killer’s personality and has a certain lupine look to him. Likewise, Eddie’s chat with Karen in the porn booth whilst the film is running feels like a precursor to Tom Noonan’s classic turn as Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter and his chat with Freddie Lounds.

On balance, then, The Howling entirely deserves its reputation. Annoyingly, a UK blu-ray release doesn’t seem to have materialised yet - but a region B release from Germany turned out to also be intended for the Australian market, so simply picking “Australia” from the country menu when the disc loaded allowed me to have all the menus and bonus material and the like in English and the English-language soundtrack as the default.

Oh, and it’s nearly impossible to discuss Howling II’s plot without raising a major spoiler for the ending of this one, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, here’s your spoiler space.

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Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf


So, at the end of The Howling Karen tries to expose the werewolves to the world by transforming on camera (having caught lycanthropy at the Colony), and then having one of her colleagues shoot her dead to prevent her rampaging and save her from a lycanthropic existence she refused to accept. Howling II kicks off at her funeral, where her brother Ben White (Reb Brown) meets various interesting people; there’s hitherto-unseen colleague of hers Jenny Templeton (Annie McEnroe), there’s mystery creepers Mariana (Marsha Hunt) and Erle (Ferdy Mayne), and there’s - oh my gosh! It’s Christopher Lee!

Lee seems to have been taking Van Helsinging lessons from best bud Peter Cushing, because he’s here as occult expert and werewolf hunter Stefan Crosscoe. Crosscoe warns Ben and Jenny that Karen had become a werewolf, and shows them video footage of her death to prove it. He also warns them that she’ll rise from her grave tonight, and that it’s down to them to prevent her doing so.

(Of course, the character who shot Karen was Chris, who knew full well that he’d need silver bullets to do the job, and it wouldn’t make any sense for him not to use silver bullets on her in that context because shooting her with a conventional bullet would just leave you with an upset, transformed werewolf out of her woofly mind from the pain - almost guaranteeing a full-on rampage. Perhaps Lee got some pages from Dracula shuffled into the script and everyone was too polite to correct him, so they rewrote the movie on the fly - or perhaps writers Robert Samo and Gary Brandner don’t care how obviously they riff on Stoker.)

One graveyard sequence and battle against Erle and a raised Karen later, and Ben and Jenny are fully convinced that werewolves are a thing. Crosscoe warns them that there’s only one way to rid the world of this line of vampires werewolves - to travel to Transylvania Hungary and defeat Dracula Stirba (Sybil Danning), the founder of their line. But Mariana is on the way to meet with Stirba too, for there is a grand celebration of the werewolf nation to be held at Stirba’s castle, with dwarves and magic and mayhem and Stirba strutting around in weird dominatrix armour and inviting Mariana to enjoy a threesome with the studliest werewolf dude in the castle.

So, for the most part the movie resembles a highly confused werewolf take on Dracula which is trying to go for the aesthetics of a completely unrelated genre half the time, but Bram’s bloody book isn’t the only horror classic that’s getting riffed on here. There’s a chase sequence involving the party’s dwarf helper Vasile (Jiri Krytinar), who ends up controlled by Stirba, which feels like a clumsy homage to (or shameless rip-off of) the climactic chase from Don’t Look Now, for instance. But it seems to me like Howling II most of all wants to be a werewolf take on The Hunger, pushing a punky new wave aesthetic whenever it isn’t riffing on sword and sorcery. (Hell, check out that poster art where it emphasises that it’s the “new wave” of horror.) It’s just slight a shame that it game out in 1985, when New Wave was already becoming Old Hat. In its desperation to mimic The Hunger it even includes a scene of werewolves luring people out of a gothy nightclub in order to eat them (though they don’t have a band of the status of Bauhaus to really bring the thing together - it’s some guys called Babel who so far as I can tell are only really known for their appearance here) - but it dials up the campier, sillier elements of its universe way too much to sustain the imitation.

Marsha Hunt as Mariana has the potential to be a badass werewolf equivalent to Catherine Devenue’s character from The Hunger, but she’s a secondary villain here, the main attraction being Sybil Danning’s Stirba, who comes across less like a cool as ice modern-day werewolf and more like an evil sorceress antagonist from some softcore porn rip-off of Red Sonja. Come to think of it, the actual scenes in Stirba’s castle resemble a sword and sorcery theme night at the elite sex club from Eyes Wide Shut (complete with weird backwards-sounding singing, in fact, though if this did have any influence on the later film it could only be because the backwards singing is the only thing in the scene which remotely works as being spooky rather than silly).

In keeping with the Hunger inspiration the movie really wants to be extremely erotic, which to be fair is a strand it shares with the original Howling. However, there’s important respects in which making an erotic werewolf movie is more difficult than making an erotic vampire movie. The issue is that vampires retain their human form, whereas werewolves transform into forms which the vast majority of viewers are not going to find sexy. Dogfucking is not exactly a common taste, after all, and whilst furries have put a lot of energy into making anthropomorphised wolves seem sexy, that wouldn’t work for a good chunk of the audience even if the movie had gone to that well. The original movie manage to get around this by only having Bill and Marsha transform briefly at the end of their sexual encounter, and cutting to silhouette before the transformations progressed much further than the initial bestial shift.

Here, the movie tries to have Stirba, Mariana, and their wooflehunk stay in werewolf form for more of the sex sequence, and it just shifts it into full-on absurdity and destroys any eroticism attempted. Once the werewolves have gone past a certain point in their transformation they are basically full-on grotesques - the facial transformations are especially disturbing - and director Philippe Mora seems to have recognised this, since for most of the werewolf sex scenes he has them transformed just enough to make them look very strange but not enough to make their faces look especially different. Basically, unless you have a body hair fetish so severe that you think most of us humans stopped being sexually appealing once we diverged from the chimpanzees, this movie is going to not quite work for you.

Another thing which doesn’t quite work in the movie are our supposed protagonists. One of them, Ben White, is played by Reb Brown in the midst of his career downturn following his starring roles in the 1970s Captain America TV movies. Some will know him better as David Ryder, the beefcake of many names from Space Mutiny, and he’s just as vapid here as he is there. Annie McEnroe’s performance as Jenny Templeton only rarely manages to hit the emotional notes it needs to, and in particular early on she just doesn’t sound like she’s taking the situation at all seriously.

Reb and Annie are meant to be the slightly clueless vanilla couple drawn into the sexy world of the woofles, except I don’t think anyone will be rushing to cast them as Brad and Janet in any Rocky Horror revivals any time soon. Their chemistry with each other brings out more or less the worst of all their bad acting habits; any scene which primarily involves them talking to each other in the comparative absence of other characters is outright awful.

As a result. Christopher Lee has to take up a lot of the slack on the protagonists’ side. He’s as good as he usually is, of course, but it feels like his part has been beefed up from what was originally meant to be a supporting role, though he might well have wished otherwise. According to Mora, Lee very obviously wasn’t happy with the weak performances of his co-stars during the production and seemed to wish he wasn’t there, and when Lee teamed up with Joe Dante on Gremlins 2 he was actually moved to apologise to Dante for his involvement in this. The very traditional take on the occult investigator stock character Lee offers makes the film feel a bit like a Hammer movie that got lost in the 1980s and invaded by goths and leather fetishists.

(There’s also a completely risible bit where Lee has to infiltrate the New Wave club the werewolves are using as a hunting ground and ends up looking like a complete dink, complete with a pair of super-thin 1980s sunglasses that give him the air of a <ah>shrivelled-up member of Devo.)

The movie is interesting for two reasons: firstly, it’s an enormous disaster, and secondly because Mora seems to make up for the shortcomings of the script by allowing his visual imagination to run wild. You get scenes of Danning strutting about her castle in a weird leather and metal armour ensemble, the room decorated with paper moons hanging from the ceiling and guarded by dudes in black robes toting submachine guns and wearing Knights Who Say Ni helmets. When she starts teleporting about and blasting people with red force lightning that makes their eyeballs explode, she represents perhaps the highlight of the movie’s hyper-camp approach; when she’s clearly being very, very careful about sitting down in case she cuts herself on the sharp edges of her dominatrix armour, she’s the nexus of the movie’s aesthetic confusion.

She’s also the centre of a lot of the issues with the plot, which by and large completely falls to pieces as soon as her existence is mentioned and the gear shifts from following up on Karen’s death to taking down Stirba. We’re told that Stirba’s 10,000th birthday is coming up, which is going to cause some sort of acceleration of all werewoofles’ transformations or something, but it’s not clear why that’s such a bad thing; Mora seems to take this as excuse to shoot a werewolf orgy (which true to sleazy form involves lots of lesbian couples but not many wolfmen having sex with wolfmen).

When Mora isn’t shooting a sex scene, he seems to be generally rather bored, to the point where he starts padding the movie out extensively with repeated footage. The song from Babel keeps getting recycled, often with shots of the performance, and we keep getting cuts of stuff like Stirba’s threesome with Mariana and a particular close-up transformation sequence and other random bits. The end credits involve a lot of this, including an absurdly over-repeated shot of Danning ripping off her top to reveal her bare breasts. (There’s a story here which is that Danning only agreed to go topless for that one shot, so a petulant Mora decided to loop it 17 times in the end credits in a fit of skeevy, exploitative pique.)

Bizarrely, the recycled footage here doesn’t include the video of the death of the previous movie’s protagonist, despite the fact that there must have been ample footage from the previous movie to use for that purpose. In fact Mora actually remade the scene with a different set and actors, and didn’t do a brilliant job of it at that. This is not the only part where the film weirdly seems to resent its own relationship to the original movie, as though it never occurred to Mora and the others that they could just completely cut ties and tell an original story. Mariana and her thrall Erle seems to be meant to be a rough equivalents to Marsha and Erle from the original - especially considering how Marsha’s survival is the last reveal there - except of course their actors don’t remotely resemble Elisabeth Brooks and John Carradine, and of course it’s further complicated by Stirba also filling the same “witchy wolf ringleader” niche that Marsha filled in the original, which makes Mariana seem weirdly redundant.

(To get counterfactual for a moment, I’d say that if Stirba had been written out entirely and Mariana had been presented at the big bad, with the general aesthetic about Mariana unchanged rather than trying to make Marsha Hunt wear the weird dominatrix armour, you’d have ended up with something that at least felt a bit more like a true followup to the original; Mariana feels at least rooted in something resembling reality, whereas Stirba has wandered in from a different genre entirely and would probably do better there.)

The creative decisions here are just bizarre. On the one hand, making an entirely unconnected story - as most of the other Howling sequels have been - wouldn’t have solved some of the more fundamental issues with the movie (like the fact that they thought casting Reb Brown was even remotely sensible), but it would at least have resolved the weirdnesses of its bizarrely inconsistent connection to the original. On the other hand, it clearly wants to serve as a followup, but at the same time is stuffed with so many errors and differences that it can’t help but fail at that. Either they simply had so little respect for the audience that they kidded themselves into thinking that people wouldn’t notice that the movie was entirely different in theme, tone, atmosphere, and plot details, or the production team didn’t bother to watch the original at all and simply worked off a brief synopsis scribbled down by an intern who wasn’t paying attention.

What’s particularly odd here is that the sequel is the only movie in the series where Gary Brandner, author of the original novel, had much of an input - he’s given a screenwriting credit and everything - and yet this is even further away from the novel (or any of his sequel novels) than the original movie was. Brandner wasn’t keen on the changes to the original movie (a rather short-sighted decision in my view, because it’s excellent as a standalone work and, based on the synospes of the novel I’ve been able to find, I reckon it tells a better story), but I can’t see how he’d consider this to have been an improvement on that. I can only conclude that either Gary’s ideas were rejected, or he deliberately steered this one over the cliff so as to prompt disgruntled fans to resort to the novels instead.

If the original movie is the closest thing we have to a film of Werewolf: the Apocalypse (or at least, the sort of thing Werewolf liked to think it was going for), this resembles the sort of messed up tabletop RPG campaign you get where your referee really wanted to run Vampire: the Masquerade but the gaming group wanted Werewolf instead so the referee passive-aggressively tries to run it as much like Vampire as they possibly can. (For crying out loud, even the poster art looks like it was originally prepared for a vampire movie.) In short, it’s a weird mess which greatly prefer to be a vampire story, when it wouldn’t prefer to be a barbarian fantasy movie, and as a result it sits alongside Exorcist II in the annals of “horror sequels that don’t actually show a shred of love for the thing they are being a sequel to”.

Oddly, Howling II has had a better HD release available than The Howling itself, Arrow Video having put out a blu-ray set with far better production values and quality extras than the movie deserves.
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