Personally, I don’t think they make enough werewolf flicks. Sadly I can kind of understand why. You need to have a healthy FX budget to pull off a good one, especially if you plan to do a four-legged monster, but nevertheless in the last couple of years lycans have been getting a little more love from filmmakers than usual. There were three last year that hit disc: WolfCop, Late Phases and Blood Moon, and this year we’ve gotten three more: Uncaged, Howl and Crying Wolf, all three having coming out within months of each other. In the case of the first two only a month apart.
The Howling (1981) not withstanding, Howl continues to show us that the most vicious werewolves continue to reside in the deep dark woods of the United Kingdom. Since the plot revolves around passengers stranded on a train it started off reminding me of Doctor Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965), Horror Express (1972), The Midnight Meat Train (2008) and for some reason a horror novel I never finished in seventh grade called Creepers by Robert Craig, but once the train becomes stranded it reminded me of the final act of Mimic (1997), where the leads are trapped in that rail car. These are all very good reminders since I love all those films and now that I’ve reminded myself of Creepers I think I need to seek that book out and actually finish it.
With the tendency for movies these days to hit us over the head in the first few minutes and never let up seeing an actual build-up to the monsters in Howl was refreshing, but I suspect it’ll bore those viewers who have attention problems. Build-ups are essential in some cases, and preferred in others. At least they are with me, especially if you dealing with a monster movie or a creature feature. At any rate the werewolf action doesn’t really kick in until the thirty-minute mark.
Thornton Forest appears to have a “history,” specifically linked to the infamous Thornton Forest Rail Crash of 1963. The late night express derailed in the area and by the time the emergency crews got to it there were no survivors, what was found was just a lot of mutilated bodies. No explanation has ever been given as to what the hell happened. Cut to present day 2015 and another late night express is on its way through Thornton Forest, and history is about to repeat itself.
Before we get there, though, we meet Alpha Trax train guard, Joe Griffin (Ed Speleers), who’s dead tired coming off a long shift. His night gets worse when he gets a letter stating that supervisor job he was going for didn’t come through. And piling on even more he now has to work the red eye. There’s a girl he fancies that works with him, Ellen (Holly Weston) who hands out food and tea to passengers. She’s working the same shift as him, so maybe that’s not so bad, but it’s clear from his demeanor he believes he’s in a dead end job, with passengers he would rather punch in the face than ask for their tickets. I noticed whenever there’s a movie about a group of people stuck anywhere there always has to be that one backstabbing douchebag among them who’s ultimately responsible for the death of a character we end up liking. In Howl this role is handed to a rich corporate type by the name of Adrian (Elliot Cowan). I pegged him early on as a potential troublemaker and I just hate it when I’m right.
I liked how we meet all the main characters as Joe walks through the cars asking to see everyone’s ticket and most of them come off as assholes, until the werewolf shit hits the fan and a lot of them become relatable with the exception of Adrian. There are basically four characters you end up liking—Joe, Ellen, Kate (Shauna Macdonald), and Billy (Sam Gittins)—and hope to shit they live, but four? In a movie like this that’s too many and asking way too much of the film to deliver on some happy endings. I knew this, but dammit it didn’t stop me from hoping. I will tell you out of all these characters only ONE makes it out alive, having walked all the way to the next station, looking like the aftermath of a wartime massacre.
At first I found it odd no one pays any attention to this person but the more I thought about it the more sense that makes. That’s exactly what would happen if you walked into a train station covered in blood and torn clothing. I’ve come to the conclusion that it takes a certain amount of denial to get a person through an average day not to mention life in general.
Joe isn’t a hero but as the movie goes on he gets better and better at helping others and combating werewolves. There’s only one problem, not only are the lycans eager to get in but an old woman gets bitten in the leg. And for a while the movie makes you think their “derailment” is an accident. In a very brief cameo Sean Pertwee playing, Tony, the driver gets out to see what caused it to stop. He finds a dear, a pretty big buck, crunched in between the wheels. At first I thought, well, that’s odd. Are you telling me a buck did not see a massive train barreling down on him? Okay, yeah, I guess, but the radio in the driver’s compartment is shit now. Staticy and then finally useless. A camera pan up to the top outside reveals it’s been deliberately disabled. And know you’re left with the impression this accident may have been premeditated.
Joe is finally badgered by all the passengers into letting them out and allowing them to just walk to the next station once they learn it’ll be another four hours before actual help arrives. They don’t get too far. Noises in the woods following them set off Joe’s spidey sense and a little walk in reveals why he couldn’t find Tony. Tony now looks like he fell into a meat grinder. As he gets them all back to the train an old lady who wasn’t fast enough gets her leg bitten. And we all know what happens to people bitten by a thrope, don’t we?
I think it’s about time to delve into Howl’s brand of lycanthrope. Like The Howling and An American Werewolf In London where the werewolf myth was tweaked, Director Paul Hyett tweaks it here for his own use too. Once bitten the disease doesn’t allow you to turn back and forth from man to beast, once infected that’s it. You turn into a werewolf and that’s how you stay and the design here is part Howling (from the waist down) and part “wolfman” (waist up), but not the conventional “wolfman” we’ve seen before. There are three types of lycans in this movie. My assumption is that you’re seeing the lycanthrope disease at various stages. The one that manages to get into the train and attack everyone looks like a mutant animalistic body builder. There’s one seen at the end that gives you the impression the disease has been coursing through this poor fucker’s body for a long, long time, and two others seen with it are somewhere between the mutant body builder and the “elder wolf.” All of them have glowing eyes and it doesn’t take silver bullets to bring these motherscratchers down. You can ice these fuckers with a crowbar, an ax or even a fire extinguisher, which is exactly what happens when the passengers have no other recourse but to fight back or die when that werewolf gets into the car and in their faces. And I mean literally in their faces. A shot made famous in Alien 3 that I see a lot more than I care to in monster movies, but I digress.
The effects are an excellent combination of CGI and practical, a good example of how computer effects can be used to augment a practical monster, which I don’t see enough of in movies, but, again, I digress. Obviously, when the werewolves are seen from the waist down it’s CGI and from the waist up practical except for some jaw action on the mutant thrope. I believe that was a CGI effect, but a damn good one. The snarl may have been one too. I won’t know for sure until I check out some of the featurettes later. There is a very brief full CGI werewolf seen at the end and some others seen throughout the movie, but the computer effects for those others were cleverly executed since those wolves are only glimpsed through moonlit foggy conditions.
Gore-wise, yeah, it’s gory but still not as much as I would have predicted for a werewolf movie. In fact The Howling and An American Werewolf In London are gorier in comparison. Having just come off of a Deathgasm review where the gore was wall-to-wall I may be a bit jaded at the moment though.
There is a big continuity error in Howl. There are clearly a lot more passengers on this train than our core actors but when the werewolves siege the car they’re no where to be seen. I can only assume the movie only focused on this portion of the train being attacked but that doesn’t quite hold up in the scene where Joe lets out all these characters to walk to the next station. Why didn’t he do that for everyone else? I guess you could reason they made a few more stops that were never shown and this small group was all that was left before the “accident” happened.
Howl does have something in common with Uncaged. The werewolf on the cover does not represent the werewolves in the movie. The long hair is the only thing that’s accurate, but in a reverse “bait and switch” the werewolves in the movie are better than the one on the cover. In fact the UK DVD and blu-ray cover (below right) has a better representation of them (it’s even a shot from the movie), aside from just being a better cover overall.
May I now direct your attention to the blurb at the bottom of the UK blu-ray where it states, “The Greatest Werewolf Since American Werewolf In London.” Uh, no. Don’t get me wrong I loved this movie, but in my humble opinion The Howling and An American Werewolf In London (1981) are the two best werewolf movies ever made. To date no one has managed to even equal them and if you’re going to throw Howl up against one of these classics, I’m sorry, I have to be honest, it’s going to lose. But it’s also an unfair comparison. Sure they’re both about werewolves in the UK, but it’s still comparing apples and oranges. The only plausible comparison you can make with a classic is the remake of that classic.
Back on January 12th Alchemy (formerly Millennium Entertainment) released Howl on separate DVD and blu-ray editions with the same extra features as are featured on the UK discs.
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 2.35:1 high definition widescreen—English TrueHD, 2.0 English Stereo—English SDH, Spanish subs only
Extras included . . .
- The Werewolves (6:10)
- The Humans (6;18)
- The Train (5:36)
- The Sound (5:31)
- The Grade (4:08)
All the extras are good but my favorite was ‘The Werewolves’ as FX Artist/Director Peter Hayett explains it they didn’t want a hairy werewolf. They wanted something “plausible,” as in what would werewolves really look like if they existed. I’m personally more partial to Rick Baker and Rob Bottin’s designs but as something “mutational” I liked Howl’s. And something of a revelation to me when I was scanning the end credits was there were female werewolves in the movie. You can see the tits on the suits in the behind-the-scenes stuff but I never noticed them in the movie itself. It’s also revealed the entire head on the “body builder” thrope was CGI and there were some other landscape elements created in the computer I never really took into account until seeing these extras.
In closing the best of these new crop of wereflicks I’ve seen rank in this order: #1 Howl, #2 Late Phases, #3 Blood Moon, #4 WolfCop and #5 Uncaged.