Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Halloween Havoc: HOWLING VI (1991) and THE HOWLING: NEW MOON RISING (1995)

In just five short years, producer Steven Lane had pumped out four HOWLING sequels with each successive one getting cheaper and cheaper. One would think that would be a bad sign for the sixth entry, but a small miracle occurred in the HOWLING universe. The producers returned to the United States and – gasp – actually waited a few years to properly develop a film that features more than just a werewolf costume in the shadows. The end result is HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS, a marked improvement over the previous sequels in nearly every department. While the end result still has some problems, it is interesting to see some filmmakers try to restore a bit of bite to the howling (it didn’t last long, trust me).

Following a prologue of a young girl being murdered by a mysterious beast, Brit Ian Richards (Brendan Hughes) wanders into the dying drought-town of Canton Bluff. Initially hassled by the sheriff for being a stranger ‘round these parts, Richards soon endears himself to the community by helping Reverend Dewey (Jered Barclay) restore his church. He even starts a relationship with Elizabeth (Michele Matheson), the reverend’s daughter. All of this stranger’s new life ends when R.B. Harker (Bruce Payne) and his carnival World of Wonders roll into town. You see, Richards just happens to be a werewolf and, once his hairy secret is revealed, he is captured by Harker in order to be displayed among his freaks including three-armed Toones (Deep Roy) and Winston Salem the Alligator Boy (Sean Sullivan). Of course, everyone has their secrets and Richards and Harker are no exception. Seems Richards wanted to be caught by Harker to enact some personal revenge and Harker – like all bosses – just happens to be a blood sucking vampire.

This is by far the best HOWLING sequel. Now before I get lynched for that statement, I should explain that it in no way reaches the level of the original THE HOWLING. It is the best of the sequels, which is like singling out the smartest person in a group of dumb people. Debuting director Hope Perello got her start at Charles Band’s Empire Pictures and perhaps this exploitation upbringing bestowed upon her the importance of actually showing the monsters. It was either that or just plain logic. Neophyte screenwriter Kevin Rock also ups the ante by making the werewolf a sympathetic figure (something only briefly attempted in the first and third films). In addition, Rock provides a worthy adversary with Harker’s vampire character. Thankfully, both leads are well trained enough to pull it off. The script still has some major problems. The romantic subplot between werewolf Richards and the preacher’s daughter seems to go nowhere and the town’s folks don’t seem too disturbed to have a werewolf in their midst. Even funnier is a werewolf falling asleep and forgetting a full moon, only to wake up in a panic.

Perhaps the biggest asset to the film is the make-up effects. After HOWLING V’s disappointing “werewolf gets 10 seconds screen time” swindle, the filmmakers put a little bit of faith back in the FX. Two groups, Todd Masters Company and Steve Johnson’s FX, worked on this one and their work is top notch for a low budget production. Johnson’s team handled the werewolf and vampire stuff and it is the best of the sequels. Yes, we actually get a werewolf transformation this time! Another nice touch is they have the werewolf walking on leg extensions, creating a more canine look. Perhaps the most impressive work in the film is the design of vampire Harker. Resembling a sunburned Barlow (of SALEM’S LOT), it is one of the more original vampire designs of the 1990s and Perello holds it off screen for the proper amount of time. The final vampire disintegration and alligator boy are also very well done.

You have to admire the producers for actually attempting something with a slight up tick in quality. They really didn’t have to and the extra effort is appreciated. The producers even got a little cute by having HOWLING V’s werewolf Mary Lou (Elizabeth Shé) pop up in a cameo. She can be seen during the carnival’s werewolf show when Harker is doing his carny spiel on the crowd (“he could even be your son” he says as they cut to her). They even bring her back for HOWLING VII (more on that later). Producer Lane was obviously pleased with the results and was giddy at the prospect of direct sequel HOWLING VII when he spoke to Gorezone in 1991. Screenwriter Rock originally wrote a continuous follow up which would follow the exploits of werewolf Ian and his alligator boy pal as they travel through Romania (ah, back to Eastern Europe I see). However, LIVE Home Video squashed the idea and it would be several years before the eventual HOWLING VII came to life at the hands of series regular Clive Turner (HOWLING IV & V). And that was a very, very bad thing.

“I hope you really present this film in a positive light. It is really, completely, utterly unique.” – writer-producer-director-actor-singer Clive Turner to Fangoria

With HOWLING VI establishing some lycanthropic capital with horror fans, it seemed like the series was on the upswing. Well, not so fast there, mister. LIVE Home Video squashed the idea of a direct follow-up and then decided the best cost-cutting measure would be to do an entry that used footage from the previous films. That is always a great sign of quality if you ask me. Even worse, they handed the creative reigns over to Aussie Clive Turner, who had co-written, co-produced and co-starred in parts IV and V. With the relatively good part VI pissing on his territory, Turner set about to do what any filmmaker would do – he burned the series to the ground with a HOWLING entry so bad that it killed the profitable direct-to-video series.

The story revolves around Ted Smith (Turner) coming to Pioneertown, CA, Land of the Linedance. He quickly secures a job (by walking into a bar) and becomes real tight with the yokels who have names like Pappy. About the same time he arrives, someone (or something) starts chewing up some of the locals. Naturally, they suspect a werewolf and you can guess who the main suspect is. Not so hot on the heels of this werewolf are Inspector Kester (John Ramsden) and occult investigating priest Father John (Jack Huff). This deadly duo likes to sit around and talk about what is going on. Seems Ted Smith is the lone survivor of the HOWLING V castle massacre (even though Turner’s character in that was named Ray Price) and werewolf villainess Mary Lou might have possessed someone in town. Country music montage follows country music montage until the true identity of the werewolf is revealed, resulting in one of the worst werewolf films ever made.

Technically I shouldn’t even refer to this as a werewolf movie as the creature doesn’t appear until the last 5 minutes of the film. Think about that: a werewolf movie without a werewolf. What a concept. Even worse are the morphing effects on display during the monster’s scant 30 second screen time. I challenge you to find me a worse werewolf transformation on a film that came out on a major label (New Line Home Video slummed for this one). Seriously, look at this CGI on display. No joke, there is better computer animation work in the two studio logos that open the film.

Even funnier is Turner’s attempt to do some werewolf-o-vision ala WOLFEN. He slathers the screen with red to the point that you can’t tell what his happening 90% of the time. Turner was raving to Fangoria about how awesome this process would look. Wow, the man is easily thrilled. $50 to anyone who can tell me what is happening in this framegrab/Rorschach test:

Perhaps the worst thing with this sequel is that Turner tries to connect the unrelated parts IV, V and VI all together (via the priest’s talks with the cop). Now I’m not going to complain about attempts to bring some sort of chronology to this disjointed series, but at least try to do it right. I could have done a better job of connecting BAMBI (1942) to DEBBIE DOES DALLAS (1978). The major villain they are looking for is Mary Lou, and they did bring back original actress Elizabeth Shé. However, according to Fangoria, her scene was cut out (really!) so they go for a “she is hiding because a werewolf can possess someone” mystery storyline. Huh? The lead cop even throws in a tape of HOWLING VI to show her cameo and describes it as “home video footage shot at the carnival.” Wow, apparently someone shot their home video footage on film. Ugh. Even more bizarre is Turner brings back Marie Adams (Romy Windsor) from HOWLING IV and he actually gives her screen time so she can recount her story. It gives him a chance to show even more footage to pad out his running time. In total, about 10 minutes of footage from the other films is used.

The fact that the script is a disjointed mess is actually the least of its problems. The screenplay features perhaps the worst table talk ever committed to paper. Turner fancies himself a bit of a funnyman and nearly every line he has is some joke or bad pun. Here is how he wins over the odd assortment of characters at the bar during his first scene.

Jim the Bartender: Come right from Australia?
Ted: Right, but I flew most of the way.
Brock: Are your arms tired?
Ted: Only when I flap them.
Jim the Bartender: That could give you arm-ritis.
Ted: That’s alright. I just had a bout of (grabs hip) hip-atitis.
Jim the Bartender: Yeah, a little bit further down your leg you might get knee-monia.
Brock: Hell, I’d be more worried about small cocks.
Ted: Well, I’m pretty luck there. I’ve already had dick-theria.

Jesus, make it stop! I mentally stopped aging at 15-years-old and even I find that dialogue embarrassing. I did, however, get a laugh out of the priest telling the story of HOWLING V to the cop and saying of Turner’s character, “Ted, the only Australian, became the fall guy.” Yeah, because when times get tough, I always blame the Australian.

Truthfully, all of those things seem petty when you realize that nearly every major character in this film is either shown singing or dancing to a nauseating country song. No joke, there are fourteen (!) different country music montages over this films 89 minute running time. How can you not be riveted by songs like “Nobody Tells Amy What to Do” and “Prescription Beer” on the soundtrack? Turner, who now sports a beard and fancies himself a cowboy, goes balls out in trying to secure that coveted “werewolf movie fans who love line dancing” demographic. No joke, there are three (!) separate instances of line dancing on screen. I believe that is a criminal offense. At the end of the day, the only impressive things about this HOWLING entry is that they managed to put the “The” back in the title and avoid using a roman numeral. It tarnished the series forever and it would be a full 15 years before anyone tired to do anything HOWLING related.

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