Howling II: ...Your Sister is a Werewolf
Howling II: Stirba - Werewolf Bitch
***/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras A
starring Christopher Lee, Annie McEnroe, Reb Brown, Sybil Danning
screenplay by Robert Sarno and Gary Brandner, based on the novel Howling II by Brandner
directed by Philippe Mora
by Sydney Wegner Let's get this out of the way first: Howling II--a.k.a. Howling II: ...Your Sister is a Werewolf, a.k.a. Howling II: Stirba - Werewolf Bitch--is a mess, an entity that refuses to be judged on any conventional, objective scale. Though originally intended as a comedy, the studio sliced it up to come across as more of a horror movie, and the bizarre result is a tone that changes with each scene. Half new-wave werewolf erotica, half Hammer horror, Howling II's themes of grief and rebirth and female sexual empowerment swirl together in a campy, indecipherable whirlwind. Just as things begin to approach being scary, they're kicked right back down with a novelty wipe effect or a cartoonish facial expression. Christopher Lee, playing werewolf hunter Stefan Crosscoe, was allegedly so appalled by the acting of his co-stars that he spent much of his time offscreen trying to flee the planet using only the power of his mind. You can feel the ennui behind his eyes with every line delivery, yet the attention he commands is undeniable. In a way, his performance is a microcosm of the entire film. The opening shot finds Lee suspended in a sea of stars, reciting werewolf legend from a book, and that is probably the most normal thing that happens in Howling II. It's ridiculous, it's stupid; it's occasionally embarrassing and endlessly fascinating.
Picking up where The Howling left off, the sequel opens at the funeral for Dee Wallace's Karen, the heroine of the first film. In attendance are her reporter co-worker Jenny (Annie McEnroe), Karen's brother Ben (Reb Brown), and the aforementioned Stefan. The three reconvene at Stefan's home, where Stefan delivers a stern lecture on lycanthropy and shows a tape proving that Karen was shot after transforming into a werewolf. Jenny needs a good story and Ben needs revenge, so they decide to accompany Stefan to Transylvania to battle immortal wolf queen Stirba, who's turned a small cobblestone village into a hotbed of supernatural depravity.
The werewolves make a splashy entrance with the introduction of Mariana (Marsha A. Hunt), who will unwittingly lead Stefan and crew straight to Stirba's hideout. Hunt's fierce presence is so compelling that her lithe movements and edgy '80s fashion set the vibe for the entire film. She appears at a punk club where Babel, a band assembled by musician Stephen W. Parsons specially for the movie, plays the catchy "Howling" theme. (If you hate this song you're out of luck, because it will be repeated many times between cues of Parsons's own John Carpenter-esque score.) Mariana seductively lures a few hooligans to an abandoned building and pounces, and it's in this scene that some of French-Australian director Philippe Mora's low-budget tricks are first displayed to great effect. Instead of depicting elaborate transformations or attacks, Mora and his editors opt for a medley of blood-spattered faces and rubber dog masks, the images cross-fading and quickly alternating to create the mood of a gory slaughter without actually staging one. The camera chases the screaming punks, but we get only brief glimpses of the werewolves. Obviously, it's cheaper to do P.O.V. shots than it is to show the attack as a spectator, but that's where the magic lies: Asking us to imagine what's on the other side of the camera, reflected in those scared faces, is the closest Howling II comes to eliciting terror.
To use shortcuts in a way that enhances the experience rather than making it more transparent that the costumes are cheap (in fact, they're ape suits--the wrong shipment was sent, and the way the script was altered to explain their peculiar look is hilarious) requires a special cleverness. Another wonderful example of this kind of low-budget MacGyver-ing occurs about halfway through the film with a legendary three-way wolf-transformation sex scene. This is the point at which most jaws will drop, if they haven't already. Queen Stirba (Sybil Danning) and her sidekick Vlad (Judd Omen) get it on in Stirba's bedroom as a nice little welcoming ceremony for new recruit Mariana. The actors twist themselves into outlandish contortions that are nowhere near canine or human, all the while never actually making contact. It fits in perfectly with the surreal atmosphere of the rest of the movie, as it's at once disturbing and uproarious. It wasn't, however, a calculated stylistic decision on the part of the actors: As Mora reveals in his Blu-ray commentary, they simply couldn't touch or grab each other, because if they did, their glued-on wolf hair would fall off. Often, it's the obstacles that make a movie great, because they push the filmmakers to their creative limit. In Howling II, these work-arounds become a style, an aesthetic, something dynamic and energetic, albeit wildly corny.
While this animal-mating is going on, Christopher Lee and the Milquetoast Twins arrive in Transylvania and team up with some rough guys upset with how the wolves have slowly taken over their small community. "Transylvania" (Prague in real life) is filled with crumbly buildings and rustic people in the midst of a colourful town fair, a setting that could be interchanged with the villages from hundreds of other horror films--right down to the sinister natives giggling maniacally at the rubes, who have no clue what they've stumbled into. It's when the good guys plot to storm the castle that everything flies off the rails, and what began as a relatively generic, old-school creature-feature reveals itself to be something closer to a supernatural erotic nightmare. Jenny and Ben, strangers before this trip, begin to feel some chemistry, as if the pull of wolf pheromones is exerting itself on each other. Our first glimpse into the castle is of a circle of werewolves in human form, dressed in S&M-style leather and howling in chorus. The incorporation of witchcraft-inspired rituals and mystical elements (since it's the '80s, Stirba uses some weird magical animated lasers) is what delights me most. It introduces a thread of female sexual empowerment that is more fun than the "man wrestles with his demons" metaphors in other wolf tales.
Sybil Danning is entirely devoted to the fantasy in her performance as Queen Stirba, strutting around with such passion and confidence that you hardly notice her sexy leather bodysuit looks a little like the armour of a steampunk beetle. Mariana is equally vampy, her mane of hair and blazing eyes doing more for her feral image than any costume. They're both so magnetic that I imagine most viewers wouldn't even mind being murdered by them. Set alongside the dull "heroes" sent to destroy the royal den, these women overpower any identification we might have for those on the side of what is good and wholesome. Although they suck the lifeforce from virgins and rip out the throats of innocents by night, their freedom to revel in pleasure and their irresistible cool makes them into the antiheroes of the film. There's something about the way the movie regards women: more a feeling of awe or enchantment than outright lust, they are left to their own devices in the frame. The camera doesn't encourage ogling by travelling up and down their bodies and objectifying their individual parts.
Still, Howling II is no manifesto on social norms or the restrictions of femininity. It never claims or attempts to be anything but pure entertainment, and any grand themes would fall apart under careful scrutiny. The fact that this punk-rock monster world exists at all feels important, though, even if the boundaries it starts to push just sort of drop off a cliff. There's a playful approach to the lore and to the preceding films in the genre that renders the shoddy dialogue irrelevant, as the movie seems to admire horror schlock of the past too much for the satire to turn mean. The sloppy F/X are thankfully overpowered by rich lighting and spectacular interior set designs, full of the detail that many of the makeup effects lack. Stefan's home--Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, whose famous edifice was first popularized by House on Haunted Hill--is a particular treat, a living room that could be the Egyptian wing of a museum, covered in ancient artifacts and taxidermied animals. The castle is beautiful as well, and it's that gothic atmosphere of skulls and fur rugs and walls painted with wolf imagery that most fondly recalls the familiar old Hammer productions. (A lot of this is organically grown from the castle itself, particularly a third-act scene in a room made of real human bones.) Keeping in line with the Hammer theme, the photography is more careful and lovely than the content probably deserves. The outdoor scenes are foggy and cold while the interior scenes are illuminated by hundreds of candles, their warm glow bouncing off Stirba's lair and the metal fittings on her leather armour enticingly, unsettlingly. As a new twist on old legends, Howling II is a success, mostly due to a willingness to blend fresh, trendy costuming and music choices into this medieval world--as opposed to the slobbering devotion to recreate familiar classics that has dominated in recent years. (I'm looking at you, every modern indie director who grew up idolizing the masters of the Eighties.) If this movie is anything, it's bold and unafraid, daring to throw around whatever looked cool or interesting with a clear passion for moviemaking in addition to a fiendish humour.
In our arguably dire modern cinematic landscape, it's impossible to comprehend something as wild as Howling II being released today. It's too messy, too devoted to its women, too tacky and cheap, too full of the "who gives a shit" spirit that frustrates critics and hypnotizes more sinful audiences. When is the last time you walked out of the theatre in stunned silence, unable to wrap your head around what in God's name you just watched? Here's a motion-picture monument to cognitive dissonance. (A clue to this backward adventure? A couple of scenes shot in Prague are intended to be Los Angeles.) That soft lighting is so often unearthly, and once the first boob leaps out from the infamously-tasteless end-credits sequence, it does feel like you must have dreamed what came before. Howling II is trash, absolutely, but it's utterly spellbinding trash.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The hefty chunk of special features on Scream Factory's Blu-ray provides a wealth of background info on the production. There are two audio commentaries and three interview segments, along with a 4-minute compilation of behind-the-scenes footage (shot on film and given a HiDef transfer), an attractively-presented stills gallery, the theatrical trailer, and both an alternate ending and opening--neither of which is much different from what you see in the final cut. The commentary with director Mora is the best of the supplements, as he's an engaging storyteller with plenty of bizarre anecdotes. The movie was shot behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, and many of the extras and various crew members were Czech, creating some amusing miscommunication mishaps. Mora appears to have enjoyed making the movie very much, hardships and all, and is happy to talk about it in a way that is proud while fully acknowledging the silliness of it all. The other track consists of a 30-minute phone chat with composer Parsons, followed by an interview with editor Charles Bornstein. Parsons seems happy with the finished product, whereas Bornstein begins his interview by saying Howling II is one of the worst movies ever made.
In the same vein, "A Monkey Phase" (15 mins., HD), the interview featurette with makeup artists Steve Johnson and Scott Wheeler, is cleverly edited to juxtapose the fond memories of Wheeler with the frankly condescending attitude of Johnson. Wheeler is carefully sensitive to the issues with costumes and makeup, never admitting that they're flat-out bad but speaking in a humble "we tried our best and we had fun" sort of way. Johnson, on the other hand, opens with a list of the much better movies he's worked on, as if to excuse the fact that he agreed to slum it on this one. He does have some outrageous stories, but his barely-disguised disdain is unpleasant. Also included are a fine sit-down with Reb Brown ("Leading Man" (14 mins., HD)) and a lovely one-on-one with Sybil Danning ("Queen of the Werewolves" (17 mins., HD)), who looks incredible in an outfit that could have come straight out of the movie. She loved playing the character and, despite her frustration over her passionate topless scene having been repeated seventeen times in the closing titles as a joke, says she would gladly bring the character back to life for several more sequels. Can someone please make this happen?
As for the film itself, the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is predictably handsome. The only real flaw is the visible dirt and scratches from the source print, but in general I personally have a hard time seeing details like that as a negative. The grain and specks of dirt are to me how a sleazy horror picture should be enjoyed, like crackling on a vinyl record. There are one or two scenes that look a little blown-out, though that could be due to the cinematography. In any case, the colours and contrast are very well rendered, miles above the prior muddy VHS and DVD releases. The mono sound, offered in 2.0 DTS-HD MA, is wonderful, showcasing a careful layering of ambient noise and music that creates an immersive atmosphere, especially in the outdoor scenes. Chirping crickets and other nature noises are balanced nicely against the score and dialogue. The live music is properly loud and Lee's singular voice resonates powerfully, despite the absence of stereo. Note that the film bears the onscreen title of Howling II: ...Your Sister is a Werewolf here.