Sunday, October 30, 2011

October 28th: Howling V: The Rebirth (1989)

It's 1489 in Budapest, Hungary, and in a secluded castle, three generations of families have committed mass suicide, leaving the Prince and his wife, who informs the Prince that the baby is dead. The Prince kills his wife and then himself; but as he dies, the Prince hears the cries of the baby and screams out that they have all died in vain.
500 years later in 1989, Count Istvan (Philip Davis), attempting to attract tourist business to Hungary, invites nine strangers to attend the re-opening of the castle: model Gail Cameron (Stephanie Faulkner), photographer David Gillespie (Ben Cole), tennis player Jonathan Lane (Mark Sivertsen), bimbo actress Mary Lou Summers (Elizabeth She), author Ray Price (Clive Turner), Dr. Catherine Peake (Victoria Catlin), millionaire Richard Hamilton (William Shockley), beloved European actress Anna Spencer (Mary Stavin), and Professor Dorsen (Nigel Triffitt).
Once at the castle, the Count informs his guests that an unexpected blizzard has hit, meaning that they'll have to stay for the night; Gail, well aware that a blizzard was expected, grows suspicious of the Count's motives. When the Professor, convinced there's a reason the castle's been closed for 500 years, disappears while exploring, Gail fears someone else is in the castle and when the other guests start disappearing, the Count reveals why he's brought them all together; one of them is a Werewolf.
I love The Howling, but I must say I can't think of another great movie to spawn so many terrible sequels; Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf is unbelievably awful, Howling III: The Marsupials is downright unwatchable and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare, though slightly easier to endure, was dreadful on its own. And there's still FOUR MORE sequels to go!!
Let's start the latter half of the series with Howling V: The Rebirth. Suffice it to say, things aren't looking good from the onset. Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe, the men who ruined the previous film, are handling screenwriting duties once again. As with Howling IV, Turner and Rowe branch away from the original film in favor of another standalone entry. Worse yet, the director is Neal Sundstrom, the co-director of Space Mutiny, featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and starring Howling II's Reb Brown and Howling IV's Norman Anstey. May I remind you Clive Turner is involved?
What. The. Fuck. I'm in shock. As I sit here and write this, I can't believe what I'm typing. It's not possible; it's scientific fact this can't happen. Hold on to your asses, because what I'm about to say makes no sense, but is surprisingly true; Howling V isn't terrible. There, I said it. This fifth Howling is not a bad movie. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that believe it or not, this is actually a well made, mildly entertaining sequel that was relatively easy to sit through. How did this happen?
For starters, it was nice to see a Howling sequel with good production values; It helps that Howling IV was shot on location in Budapest. In his first and only time as a Production Designer, Nigel Triffitt has done his job quite well, producing an appropriately creepy castle, which reminds me of the gothic castles I love seeing in the Hammer Horror films of the '50s and '60s. Cinematographer Arledge Armenaki bathes the film in gorgeous blue lighting, giving it a cold, steely look that works well with the dark, somber tone of the story.
I also want to give credit to Sundstrom; his resume didn't inspire much confidence, but he does a very respectable job here. It's nothing groundbreaking, but the man knows how to make a horror movie. There's some very good use of shadows and lighting to create some atmosphere and though it's overused, he's in the right mindset to prefer ambiguity and suspense rather than overabundant blood spilling. One wonders what this guy could've done with more money and a better script.
Speaking of which, Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe did nothing with Howling IV but make me curse whoever gave them careers. In Howling V, they've made some improvements, primarily with the setup; I love a good murder mystery, so this plot kept me intrigued throughout the film. Furthermore, I found it refreshing to see some twists on the typical character stereotypes of horror films; the creepy old guy turns out to be an anti-hero, the obvious final girl bites it early on and the people you expect to drop dead first are the last standing.
It's too bad the actors fail miserably to make these decent characters work. As the illustrious Count, Philip Davis is dull rather than menacing and while I think he was aiming for aloofness, he comes off as bored. Elizabeth She's cheerful bimbo Mary Lou is right up there with Halloween 5's Tina in terms of inspiring intense hatred from me. Cliver Turner's performance as Ray Price gives me another reason to despise this man, while Nigel Triffitt steps in front of the camera for the brief role of the Professor. Victoria Caitlin (Bruce Campbell's wife in Maniac Cop) and Ben Cole are nothing more than adequate in the lead roles, while the rest of the cast is best forgotten.
While I'll admit their script is better, Turner and Rowe have not yet redeemed themselves for the horrors of Howling IV. The 1489 opening scene is rather perplexing and what information we learn later on doesn't do much to clear it up. This cast of characters is overstuffed; we got two preppy guys with medium-length blond hair and two actresses, not to mention it's awfully convenient some of the characters know each other. Furthermore, I'd like to know exactly how Count Istvan knew these were the right people to pick; am I wrong to assume Visa applications don't require you to list all birth marks?
In addition, I feel these guys missed an opportunity when crafting the character dynamics. Think about this; you have nine people (mostly strangers) trapped in a castle during a snowstorm. As someone who loves The Shining and The Thing, there was a great opportunity to create a sense of paranoia among the characters; let them know early on one of them is a Werewolf. They'll be at each other's throats the whole time, distrusting each other and backstabbing at a moment's notice. It would've fit perfectly; instead, they just sit around and talk relationships, careers and history and for the most part, they get along too calmly given the circumstances. The word "werewolf" isn't even uttered until the last third of the film. I appreciate trying to develop characters, but there's a fine line between having good characters in a horror movie and having a horror movie about people talking about their lives and loves; Howling V crosses that boundary.
This being a Werewolf movie, I was expecting some gripping terror to occur, yet surprisingly most of the horror is never shown, probably due to the budget. Of the 12 deaths, eight of them occur offscreen, almost all of them having their throats ripped out; the four deaths that you do see are of minor characters and none of them die at the hands of a Werewolf. The most onscreen brutality we get is someone accidentally chopping a head off. Like Howling IV, the actual onscreen appearance of a Werewolf is strangely curtailed; the best shot we get of the Werewolf is very darkly lit and quick. While I prefer implied violence, there comes a time and a place in most horror movies to put the red stuff on display and this film holds back way too much, resulting in neutered scares and zero tension.
Given that Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf, Howling III: The Marsupials and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare rank among the worst films I've ever seen, I am truly impressed that Howling V: The Rebirth is relatively good. Now by no means am I saying that I fully approve of what's been done here; we're a long ways off from what Joe Dante created. There's a lot of missed opportunities with this setup, there's too many characters running around the castle, the acting is pretty atrocious, and the scares are too few and ineffective. But thanks to a clever setup, impressive production values and a fun murder mystery angle, I can't say I regret watching this and for a Howling sequel, that's a tremendous accomplishment. 2.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 29th: The Mummy's Shroud (1967)

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