FILM TORMENTS’ next instalment for Halloween Month is a film with two amazing titles, one of which was used for the headline. Have a guess why.
The Howling was a semi-humorous, Roger Corman-referencing, werewolf-filled celebration of campy schlock, directed by an up-and-coming Joe Dante and released in the same year as An American Werewolf in London. It’s since had about 15 sequels and is probably most remembered for a lycanthropic sex scene where the beasts transform mid-coitus. It’s hardly a masterpiece of the genre, but it’s at the very least coherent, with a killer shock ending and some glorious 80s mullets.
Howling II: Stirba Werewolf Bitch (for that is the title) – A.K.A. Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf in America – retains the hairdos and the werewolves and that’s about it. Coherence, direction, editing chops are all in absentia, with thinly-drawn characters and terrible performances adding to the broth of unintelligible, so-bad-it’s-good joy. Drafting in the late great Christopher Lee and B-movie siren Sybil Danning for gravitas and breasts respectively, director Phillipe Mora also managed to bring in schlock captain extraordinaire – Yor, Hunter from the Future himself – Reb Brown. A largely forgotten action-exploitation actor, Brown was a dabbler in numerous genre epics – mostly Vietnam war-related – but also managed to find himself as the very first actor to play (Steve Rogers’) Captain America in two made-for-TV films, around the same time as Lou Ferrigno striking out in The Incredible Hulk.
Mora apparently knew his audience: Cheap thrills, blood orgies and awful New Wave music are chock-a-block in his sequel, which also happened to be the single Howling film to receive input from the original novelist, Gary Brandner. Whether Brandner suggested the opening to be Christopher Lee reading the Book of Revelations in front of a starry backdrop with a pound shop skeleton super-imposed next to him is, alas, a mystery.
What this has to do with werewolves is uncertain. The script doesn’t seem to understand its subject matter either, since much of the internal mythology surrounding our lupine friends seems to have been drawn almost exclusively from vampire lore. Lee’s “character”, Stefan Crosscoe, implores Reb Brown to drive a stake through his dead sister’s heart; Jenny Templeton (Annie McEnroe) buys a clove of garlic to ward them off, and the climax of the film is set in the heart of the beastly coven – that most infamous of werewolf hideouts – Transylvania.
The plot revolves around Ben White (Brown) avenging the death/turning of his sister Karen, the protagonist of the original film. Stefan’s ulterior motive is to destroy his “sister”, Stirba (Danning), the titular bitch who happens to be celebrating her ten-thousandth birthday on the set of a Meat Loaf video in “Transylvania” (actually Czechoslovakia). Along the way, White screams at werewolves as he explodes their faces with a shotgun, Stefan literally uses a holy hand grenade and Sybil Danning rips off her top. This shot in particular is revisited – and I’m not joking here – 17 times in the credits, much to Danning’s chagrin.
Mora’s apparent goal was to marry the aesthetics of New Wave – which apparently translated to leather, sunglasses and dominatrix armour – with overt eroticism, meaning we get endless shots of pre-transformation werewolves licking and pawing each other while Danning looks on, occasionally murmuring incantations. It’s really only erotic in the gawping, titillating sense; whereas, say, The Hunger channelled the latent eroticism of vampirism in a more sensual, surreal and frightening manner, Howling II is content to revel in brazenly explicit shagging, drawing on the primal animalism of lycanthropy rather than its more seductive qualities, making it all the more baffling that the internal lore steals so liberally from Dracula and its ilk.
But let’s not divert attention from the appalling performances by Brown and especially McEnroe, whose intonation and delivery is, without fail, excruciatingly wrong. “Drive a stake through a werewolf’s heart,” she monotones, as if she’s reading a surprisingly graphic Dilbert strip, and every other line is phrased as if it were a question, her cadence leading ever up.
Brown’s impressive bulk is matched only by his peerless ability to scream while exploding shit with buckshot, which will never fail to be unbelievably entertaining. On the other hand, tell him that three innocent women have been murdered and he’ll look mildly apathetic. Let’s not even discuss the budding romance between their characters that comes out of nowhere and goes approximately backwards.
Lee looks utterly mortified to be here, later apologising to Joe Dante when he appeared in Gremlins II: The New Batch and considering this to be the worst film he ever made. Danning is the only actor to treat the material exactly as it should be treated: with big shoulder pads, bigger hair and gratuitous cleavage. She knows exactly what she’s doing and she doesn’t even have to suffer the indignity of speaking non-sequiturs like, “Do you see that dwarf over there? Should we follow him?” My other favourite character is the random Transylvanian native who sounds like Yakov Smirnoff passing a kidney stone.
Beyond Danning’s breasts, Mora gives the most attention in the film to Babel, a terrible New Wave band who feature in no less than three pivotal scenes, singing the same (theme) song, sounding like a budget Human League on ket. One of the members went on to compose the theme for Catchphrase. The more you know. The rest is lost in a miasma of awkward cuts, horrific screen-wipes, wolf discos, pointless dialogue and hilarious effects work. The wolves in Howling II are essentially re-purposed gorilla suits, and the mid-transformation effects consist entirely of glued-on fuzz.
The centrepiece sex scene – one-upping the original by making it a threesome – involves the participants spasming violently at every lifting finger, almost as if Stirba is literally conducting their cum-faces. The one moment that might qualify as ‘horror’ is when a random peon gets what I can only describe as gruesomely throat-fucked by Stirba’s cackling gargoyle demon puppet thing. It’s a very unsettling image which, in a way, makes it even creepier given what it’s surrounded by.
But the rest of the thing is hilarious; from the baffling vampire/werewolf cross-over lore to the central performances to the punks that get clattered by out-of-shot steel pipes, Howling II is a laugh-riot from start to finish. It’s the kind of film where the main characters literally stay in Room 666 in a hotel without so much as a raised eyebrow, where Christopher Lee says, with a straight face, “Your sister is a werewolf.” If that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.