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HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE (1988)

“Sister Ruth was found in Drago. She was almost incoherent, babbling on about finding the devil, and the sound of the bells, and....and then the howling....”





  Director:
 
John Hough

  Starring: 
Romy Windsor, Michael T. Weiss, Susanne Severeid, Antony Hamilton, Lamya Derval, Norman Anstey, Kate Edwards, Anthony James, Dennis Folbigge, Megan Kruskal, Dennis Smith, Clive Turner

  Screenplay: 
Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe, based upon a story by Clive Turner and the novels of Gary Brandner

Synopsis:  After experiencing visions of a nun, author Marie Adams (Romy Windsor) is in the middle of a meeting with her agent, Tom Billings (Antony Hamilton), when she has another vision of a wolf-like creature lunging from a fire, and begins to scream hysterically.... Marie’s husband, Richard (Michael T. Weiss), discusses her condition with her doctor, agreeing that Marie’s overactive imagination is leading her into some dangerous territory. The doctor advises Richard to take Marie away from the pressures of her life for a few weeks. Richard locates a cottage in the small town of Drago, some hours from Los Angeles. Tom drives Marie there, but then departs quickly in the face of Richard’s unconcealed hostility. Marie looks around the cottage and declares it to be perfect; but that night, while she and Richard are making love, Marie is disturbed by the sound of howling out in the woods.... The next day, Marie and Richard look around Drago, where they meet the mysterious Eleanor (Lamya Derval), a local artist who owns a shop of antiques and knick-knacks, and the Ormsteads, who run the local store. Marie takes her dog for a walk, and becomes distressed when he runs off. That night, Marie dreams of wolves, of herself running through the woods, and of the same nun of whom she had visions.... Richard drives into L.A. for a meeting, and Marie spends time chatting with Mrs Ormstead, who tells her about the previous couple to occupy the cottage, and that they left town without a word. Marie is walking home through the woods when, suddenly, she sees before her the nun of her visions. She runs after her – but it turns out to be Eleanor in a dark cape. Eleanor points out a short-cut to the cottage, which Marie takes. On the way she discovers a cave....and what’s left of her dog. In horror, Marie runs through the woods, suddenly aware that she is being pursued. At the cottage, Richard quiets his hysterical wife and checks outside, but sees nothing; not even the dark figure nearby.... The next morning, Marie witnesses a strange apparition: an elderly man and woman who appear in her living-room and who warn her to go away. Marie is momentarily distracted by a car pulling up outside, and the next instant her ghostly visitors are gone. The newcomer is Janice Hatch (Susanne Severeid), who is holidaying in the area and is a fan of Marie’s writing. Marie invites her in and, as they are talking, mentions the howling that she hears at night. After some hesitation, Janice reveals that she used to be a nun, and that her closest friend, Sister Ruth (Megan Kruskal), disappeared over a year ago, only to be found in Drago speaking incoherently of the devil, and a bell, and the sound of howling. After a long illness, Ruth died without ever being able to explain what happened to her; and Janice, determined to discover the truth, left the convent. Marie is disturbed by the mention of a nun, and becomes even more so when Janice shows her a photograph of Sister Ruth: it is the nun from her visions....

Comments:  It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.... It isn’t unusual for more than one film to be based upon the same novel, of course, but it is unusual for two of those films to be part of the same franchise. While John Sayles kept just the bare bones of Gary Brandner’s novel when writing the screenplay for The Howling, building upon them his own wittily skewed tale of modern-day lycanthropy, there are still enough general similarities between that film and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare to make watching the latter a weird kind of déjà vu experience....although not in a good way. Basically, what we have here is The Howling all over again, only without Joe Dante and John Sayles. And without a clever script. And a talented cast. And quality special effects. And a sense of humour. And what it gives us in their place is boredom, and plenty of it. It is incredible, and rather sad, to think that this rubbish was the work of John Hough, who once upon a time gave us Twins Of Evil and The Legend Of Hell House. (It is not quite so hard to believe that the infamous Harry Alan Towers and Avi Lerner, these days the head of Nu Image, were also involved in its production.)

 

"Oh, how quaint! They built the whole town to look like a cheap movie set!"

A great deal – although certainly not all – that is wrong with The Original Nightmare should be evident from the synopsis. Marie walks. Marie talks. Marie shops. Marie runs. Marie dreams. This might be all very fascinating for Marie herself, but for the rest of us it’s an exercise in tedium almost unrelieved by any of the usual saviours of crappy, low-budget film-making, like bad special effects or an inadvertently funny screenplay. Of course, the real joke here – however unintended – is that Marie has come to Drago because it’s a place where nothing ever happens, and where there’s nothing to stimulate her imagination. Yeah, you and the rest of us, sister! However, it is Richard who is actually responsible for locating “Wilderness Cottage” (yes, that’s what it’s called, all right; says so right over the door) in the town of Drago, supposedly three hours’ drive from Los Angeles, a proximity made necessary by Richard’s need to commute in pursuit of an important “design job”. There’s a vague hint of some sort of A Star Is Born situation here, with Marie finding fame while Richard struggles, but – like pretty much everything else in this film – it is never made clear, nor is anything done with it. Richard’s behaviour around Marie is hardly calculated to help her get over her breakdown. He refuses to take her visions seriously, getting angry when she is adamant that what she has seen is more than “just a dream”; he denies that he hears the howling out in the woods; and he spends most of his spare time making goo-goo eyes at Eleanor over at the art shop (this film’s stand-in for Elisabeth Brooks’ Marsha). Richard is, in short – as is so often the case in female-centric horror films – behaving like an insensitive bastard, so that his heroine-wife’s vindication will eventually be all the greater. Moreover, Richard’s explanation for how he found Wilderness Cottage – when someone eventually thinks to ask – is lame in the extreme (“I lucked out. I ran into the developer that owns the place.”), raising the possibility of unseen motivations.... 

 

"Sure, it's a small town, but we get by on the passing tourist trade. And the product placement."

As Richard, Michael T. Weiss puts me in mind of the Stomp Tokyo guys’ summation of Pia Zadora’s performance in The Lonely Lady: dull surprise. Does Richard hear mysterious howling in the woods? Dull surprise. Does he come home to find his hysterical wife waving a rifle around? Dull surprise. Does his lover turn into a werewolf and bite him while they’re having sex? Dull surprise. Does he himself turn into a werewolf after undergoing a full-scale meltdown and reconstruction? Dull surprise. Actually, I’m not sure that reading into Weiss’ performance so strong an emotion as “surprise”, even the dull kind, mightn’t be giving him too much credit. He is so wooden here, so completely without energy or charisma of any kind, it’s astonishing to think that he would go on to become the star of a TV series lasting a full five seasons. (On the other hand, we may have put our finger on the reason why he spent all of that show pretending to be somebody else.)

So we spend about two-thirds of this film watching Richard lurk on the periphery of the action, waiting for a Rosemary’s Baby-type explanation of his behaviour; the revelation that he is part of what’s going on in Drago, that he has brought Marie there deliberately for some reason or another (and I can’t actually think what he might get out of such a deal: immortality of a sort, I guess). It never comes. Instead it turns out that that there is no connection between Richard and the residents of Drago, that he did just “run into the developer”, and that Marie’s presence in the town is just a coincidence.

 

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just going to lie here and pretend to be a good actor."

All of which rather begs the question, why did Sister Ruth appear to Marie? This, truly, is The Original Nightmare’s elephant in the living-room, and it is a pachyderm of quite startling dimensions. Even allowing for a dead nun communicating with the living via ghostly manifestations, why pick a complete stranger? The only way this makes any sense is if Ruth somehow “knew” that her appearing to Marie would drive her into a breakdown, that her doctor would advise her getting out of town, that Richard would “run into the developer”, and that Marie would end up in Drago. And even then Marie makes no headway in solving the mystery of Drago, such as it is. It takes Janice turning up in pursuit of the truth about her friend for Marie, and this film, to get anywhere. So why didn’t Ruth just appear to Janice in the first place?? 

If I like anything about The Original Nightmare, it is Susanne Severeid’s rather sweet performance as Janice, and the film does pick up just a bit with her arrival – but don’t expect the questions to stop coming. Even if we accept that Marie is particularly “sensitive”, that the hyper-imagination that drives both her literary career and her nervous breakdown is acting as come kind of spiritual conduit, and that’s why Sister Ruth chose her (this doesn’t explain the other “coincidences”, of course), why is she so erratic in her reaction to those visions? She is bewildered but calm upon seeing Sister Ruth appear and disappear twice; goes completely hysterical when a snarling lupine head appears in the flames of the chef’s grill at the restaurant where she is lunching with her agent, and when her living-room poltergeists itself one night; but is so entirely unfazed by a ghostly couple materialising in Wilderness Cottage and warning her frantically to leave that the sound of a car pulling up outside actually distracts her from the sight. But the questions surrounding Marie’s behaviour pale into insignificance beside those prompted by the film’s depiction of Drago. Even as a normal town it raises eyebrows: a sheriff, a general store, an art store, a bar, a doctor, and a nearby “county impound”....all for a visible population of eight. (No church, though....mwoo-ha-ha!) But considering Drago as a secret community of satanic werewolves – why on earth would they keep a rental property in town!? Okay, you might say, to recruit outsiders; and of the five characters with speaking parts here, three of them clearly are outsiders. Only the Ormsteads seem like probable locals, and maybe the tow-truck driver (played by writer-producer Clive Turner, who will come back to haunt this franchise in ways so horrible, we can’t as yet imagine them). The doctor has an English accent; the sheriff sounds like he wandered in from The Dukes Of Hazzard; while Eleanor is your all-purpose “exotic”. But if they are using Wilderness Cottage for recruitment purposes, why kill off its previous occupants? Or if they’re seeking, perhaps, young, virile males, why recruit Richard but kill the hiker we briefly meet?

 

"Well....that was boring."

Now of course, a lot of this is only evident after the event. While you’re actually watching a movie, you tend to go along with whatever is dished up, generously – and optimistically – assuming that either (i) they’re building up to something, or (ii) all of this will eventually be explained. In the case of The Original Nightmare, (i) no, they aren’t, and (ii) no, it won’t. This is, finally, a film that seems to exist primarily in order to give the world a lesson in the correct use of Jabootuian Jargon, specifically Ken and Andrew’s Rule of Plot Holes. The one outstanding feature of The Original Nightmare is its inability to do anything right. There isn’t a single turn of the story or a plot point here that works out as it should – not, unfortunately, in a clever, outwit-the-viewer way, but rather in a way that ensures a furrowed brow and constant exclamations of, “Huh?” and  “But---” and “What the - !?”

And in this respect, the biggest clanger of all is yet to come. Janice, the former nun, turns up in Drago and introduces herself to Marie as a big fan of her books. Marie invites her in, and it is while the two are chatting that Marie mentions “the howling”, which in turn prompts Janice to start confiding in her about Sister Ruth, who “used those same words”. (We assume at first that Janice is using Marie’s writing as a pretext to hang around Drago, but no: it turns out that she is just taking time out from investigating the tragic illness and death of her close friend to fawn over a favourite author, and that the meeting of these two women, who will eventually solve the mystery of Drago is, yup, just a coincidence.) Another of Sister Ruth’s rambling remarks, about “the sound of bells”, ties in with what Marie has learnt from her brief encounter with two hikers: that the Drago bell-tower is a replica of one from a sixteenth-century European town, and that the bell is original. The bell (or so “an old copy of National Geographic” assures us) was used to summon the residents of the town into the tower, whereupon it was set on fire and they were burned to death. Janice’s research subsequently reveals the fact that one of the residents of that town in Romania was believed to be – gasp! – a werewolf.

This nugget of information turns up at about the same time that Richard’s woodland tryst with Eleanor turns into something else, and he comes staggering back to the cottage with a bloody chunk bitten out of his shoulder. By the time the doctor has departed, however, that bite-mark has devolved into a few scratches; and that, plus Richard’s blank-eyed, robotic recitation of the line, “I-fell-down-the-gull-y”, are enough to convince Marie that everything that she has seen and heard and done so far was all in her mind. Janice tries to win Marie over to her theory of demonic werewolves – and one of the few interesting things about this film is its straight-faced religious interpretation of events – but by now Marie has had enough and gives Janice the cold shoulder. Fortunately – well, not fortunately for him, as it turns out, or for Janice – Marie’s agent, Tom, has shown up to check on her. He and Janice join forces, and Tom reveals that the New York licence plates that Marie discovered hidden in the town garage and asked him to use his contacts to investigate belonged not to the hikers, as she suspected, but to someone called “Brooks”. This is the final point in Janice’s joining of the dots: “Brooks” was Sister Ruth’s surname; and a visit to the offices of the county seat reveals that the elderly couple that previously occupied the cottage, who everyone has assured Marie returned to New York, and who in ghostly form tried to warn her away from Drago, were Sister Ruth’s parents. (Another of this film’s little mysteries is why everyone who visits California from New York seems to end up in Drago.) This is enough to convince Tom that Marie is in danger; and he sends Janice to pack her things while he goes to collect Marie. Alas for Tom, it is the full moon, and Richard is feeling a bit peculiar....

 

"Guess what I'm pretending to be now---?"

The budget of The Original Nightmare only stretched to one full-on special effects sequence, and while it’s spectacular, it’s also pretty weird. Tom is driving towards the town when Richard staggers out into the road in front of him. Tom gets out of his car to check on him and is just discovering that Richard ain’t quite right when another wolf leaps out of the bushes and tears his throat out. (Again, why kill Tom but recruit Richard? Just because Eleanor’s got the hots for him?) Marie, meanwhile, has heard strange sounds coming from the woods; and for all that she was convinced a minute ago that it was “all in her mind”, she runs to investigate, arriving just in time to see her husband turning into a puddle of goo. 

I’ll give ’em this: you don’t see a scene like this in every werewolf film. Evidently, the first transformation from man to wolf in Drago requires the complete dissolution of the victim and his reassembly into lupine form. I say “the first” because while all this is going on, the townspeople – all four of them – are standing around looking like refugees from a cut-price Halloween party, part wolf, part human. But even here the film is maddeningly inconsistent. Earlier, we saw Eleanor transform instantaneously; while in a minute Marie and Janice will run into the town doctor, who will begin to transform by clawing his own face off. Also, much is made of the presence of the full moon during these climactic events, but there have been wolves running around at night ever since Richard and Marie first arrived in Drago, while the hikers are killed in broad daylight.

 

"You'll be/Wrapped around my finger...."

While Richard is having his meltdown, his fellow lycanthropes start chanting, “Satan calls you! Satan calls you!” The implication of this film – and far too many things are left to be inferred here – is that these particular werewolves are literally satanic, demons, servants of the devil. (Perhaps the explanation for the recruitment of Richard, and only Richard, is to be found here.) This again leads to some serious confusion. Marie lights out in the middle of her husband’s transformation, and runs back through the town to be menaced by a few more scraggy half-wolves, and also to give us her version of Dee Wallace’s “trapped in the car” scene (although she doesn’t get bitten). Meanwhile, Janice is also driving into town, having glimpsed Tom’s bloody body on the way. The two women join up, only to have the partly lupine sheriff shoot the tyres out of Janice’s car; so the two of them sprint for the bell-tower, where they find the town doctor re-enacting a Police music video. Janice then blurts out her theory as to how the werewolves can be stopped: she will climb up into the tower and ring the bell, summoning all the werewolves; while Marie must wait below, lock the doors when they’re all inside, and burn the tower, and the werewolves – and Janice – to the ground. At which proposition, Marie does not bat an eyelid.... 

Inferences, inferences. So the people of the neighbouring town in Romania used the bell to summon all the residents of “Dradja” and then burnt them all alive in the belief that one of them was a werewolf? If most of those people were not werewolves, why were they compelled to enter the tower? I think that the writers were trying to suggest here that the ringing of the bell exerts some kind of irresistible power over the werewolves, but if that is the case, who recovered the bell, and brought it to California, and why? It looks to me as if those helpful neighbours killed everyone but the werewolf. And if the bell is the one thing that can control the werewolves – why on earth would they bring it with them!? If the writers were going to go down that road, they should at least have suggested that the power of the bell is a two-edged sword, capable of protecting the werewolves and/or drawing victims into their vicinity, unless it is rung by someone of true faith....as it is here. Janice bravely ascends to the tower and does ring the bell, praying for strength as the werewolves pour in and as Marie sets the whole edifice ablaze. It is an act of real heroism that deserves to be in a better movie.

But heaven forbid that The Original Nightmare shouldn’t follow this fairly effective sequence with something monumentally stupid. Marie stands there staring in horror as the tower burns, and as the werewolves – all five of them – go up in flames as well. One of them suddenly flops at her feet: it is, of course, the half-transformed Richard.

“Richard! Richard!” she says.

I wish I could find the words to convey how utterly inappropriate Romy Windsor’s tone of voice is here. She does not, believe me, sound like a traumatised woman who has just seen her lycanthrope husband burn to death in front of her. Instead she sounds, and looks, rather like a woman trying to wake up a husband who is sleeping off one too many – somewhere between concerned and mildly ticked-off.

And then, from the flames, lunges a lupine face, just as one lunged at the beginning of the film. And Marie screams. And – freeze-frame.

Beats the hell outta me....

 

"Richard! Richard!"

Footnote:   I knew I was in trouble with this one from the moment I looked at the DVD case. “Special Features: Aspect Ratio 4:3”. Oh, yeah – real special. Then they misspell the name of the town as “Drakho”, and in the course of two brief descriptive sentences, manage two grammatical errors, a misplaced comma and a misused apostrophe. The opening credits then inform us in rapid succession that this film is brought to us by MRA Entertainment, Artisan Entertainment, and Allied Entertainment. When they try that hard to convince you that a film is “entertaining”....

 

 


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----03/01/2008