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HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH (1989)

“There was a survivor. A baby was smuggled from the castle; a baby whose bloodline continued through succeeding generations. One of you – is a werewolf....”





  Director:
 
Neal Sundström

  Starring: 
Philip Davis, Ben Cole, Victoria Catlin, Mary Stavin, William Shockley, Elizabeth Shé, Mark Sivertsen, Clive Turner, Stephanie Faulkner, Nigel Triffitt

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

Synopsis:  Budapest, 1489. After being assured that everyone – even the baby – is dead, a knight kills his wife, then impales himself on the same sword. But as he collapses, he hears a baby crying. He dies moaning that it has all been for nothing.... Budapest, 1989. A disparate group is gathered together as the winners of the opportunity to be present at the re-opening of an authentic Hungarian castle, untouched for five hundred years. Photographer David Gillespie (Be Cole) reconnects with song-writer Gail Cameron (Stephanie Faulkner); tennis player Jonathan Lane (Mark Sivertsen) is attracted to aspiring actress Marylou Summers (Elizabeth Shé); married playboy Richard Hamilton (William Shockley) is secretly involved with Dr Catherine Peake (Victoria Catlin). Count Istvan Vesely (Philip Davis) welcomes Scandinavian movie star Anna Stenson (Mary Stavin) as former rock star Ray Price (Clive Turner) twits the final member of the group, Professor Dawson (Nigel Triffitt), over his absent-mindedness. As the group sets out on their tour bus, Count Istvan recounts the castle’s history; how it remained untouched, almost forgotten, over the centuries. Once settled in the castle itself, the group talks over its strange history. Professor Dawson, an historian, describes the workings of the local superstitions at the time that the castle was abandoned, while Richard adds that there was a belief that werewolves roamed the nearby forests, one of them Satan himself in disguise. The Professor expresses his belief that the castle’s lack of a recorded history is directly linked to the reason for its original abandonment; and while the others prepare for lunch, he slips away to explore, hoping to uncover a clue to the mystery. Gail goes to her room to change into some warmer clothing, and suddenly becomes convinced that someone is prowling nearby. She hurries out, and finds Richard reading in the sitting-room outside; he denies that anyone else came by. Meanwhile, Professor Dawson has found his way into a maze of corridors beneath the main part of the castle. As he examines a skull, found lying in a dark corner, a door behind him suddenly swings shut. He struggles to open it, but it is locked. A strange, deep growling noise echoes through the passageways, and the Professor flees, searching desperately for another way out – only to fall victim to a huge, fanged beast that lunges from the darkness.... Over lunch, the Count goes into more detail about the castle’s history, including that its closure was due to the simultaneous deaths of all of its occupants, three generations of a family and their servants, although whether by murder or suicide could not be determined. During the conversation, Jonathan jokingly mentions that the Professor is “on the case”, and the Count reacts with what seems to the others disproportionate concern. He leaves the dining-room, returning presently to tell the others that Professor Dawson seems to have wandered off, adding that not only may he be in danger due to a growing blizzard, but the rest of them will be compelled to stay the night....

Comments:  Howling V: The Rebirth carries on the proud tradition of all the earlier Howling sequels by having nothing whatsoever to do with any of its predecessors. What minor continuity we have here lies in the conception of the werewolf as literally satanic, as posited in Howling IV: The Original Nightmare; in the claim that, once more, this story manages to be based on the novels by Gary Brandner, which must be complex and far-reaching indeed, to spawn so many unrelated histories; and in the presence of Clive Turner, who again co-wrote the screenplay, but here, as the film's producer, promotes himself out of his bit-part contribution to the previous installment into a reasonably substantial supporting role. Otherwise, it’s a clean slate, as we leave behind the Californian countryside for the wilds of Hungary, and for a story that melds Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (to give it its more acceptable movie name) with The Beast Must Die!, as the characters must figure out which of them is a werewolf before there’s no-one left to figure it out.

Made on location!

The Rebirth is a very minor film, but its complete lack of ambition serves to make it oddly likeable. If it never comes close to matching the bizarre and frequently embarrassing entertainment value of the first two Howling sequels, this entry into the franchise is at least a step-up from the dreary The Original Nightmare; and in its exceedingly modest way, isn’t such a bad little effort. There are less contrivances and “Huh!?” moments than are found in its predecessor, assuming you can swallow the circumstances that trap all of the characters in the abandoned castle in the first place; while both the acting and the writing are surprisingly competent; the latter, very surprisingly¸ considering the other professional offerings of the co-screenwriters. (We also get one of the more obscure instances of the Twin Peaks “Rule Of Two” here, with the co-casting of Victoria Catlin and Mary Stavin.) At the same time, The Rebirth does have some very substantial flaws, the main one being organic, and the other----more in the way of a personal gripe. I might as well get that one out of the way first.

It would be pre-empting things to apologise for Clive Turner’s contribution to the Howling franchise as a whole, so at the moment I’ll just confine myself to apologising for his accent in this movie. Turner is Australian, a former employee of the Australian Film Commission with a background in accountancy, whose production role in the past has chiefly been acting as liaison between film companies and investors; and how he ended up being a dominant and ultimately fatal figure in this series of films is a mystery surpassed only by the question of why, having established himself as producer, writer and actor – and therefore in all probability having some control over matters – he chose to go the whole agonising Fair-Dinkum-Stone-The-Crows-No-Wucking-Forries road. It is, in any case, an artistic [sic.] choice that for me turns the first third of The Rebirth into an exercise in wincing and teeth-clenching.

Are we detecting a theme here, Mr Turner?

And it is a choice made even odder in view of Nigel Triffitt’s presence in the cast. Apart from playing Professor Dawson, Triffitt was the film’s production designer – both of these being his only film credits. Presumably roped into this production via a personal or professional relationship with Clive Turner, the Tasmanian-born Triffitt has by far the most interesting résumé of any of this film’s participants, being a stage director, designer and writer who has worked on plays, musicals, operas and rock concerts, as well as having a hand in the arrangement of the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics. He uses his normal accent as Professor Dawson, and the contrast between that and what Clive Turner serves up could hardly be more jarring. The best I can do here is give Turner the benefit of the doubt and suggest that this juxtapositioning of accents, the real and the Hollywood variety, was intended as some kind of obscure joke. The other saving grace here is that Turner’s screenplay has his character killed off in the first half of the film, so my pain is at least finite and comparatively brief.

While we are on the subject of The Rebirth’s production design, there is good news and bad news. The film was made on location in Hungary, which contributes to the atmosphere, and the castle setting of the main action is gorgeous and foreboding, particularly when the snow starts to swirl outside. Unfortunately, the bulk of the film’s budget seems to have been blown on this setting: once the werewolf shows up, it is conveyed primarily through POV shots, with occasional glimpses of bared fangs, and of something large and hairy. This reticence may have been a deliberate choice, or it may be the result of inadequate resources. It’s not completely ineffective, but anyone looking for explicit werewolf action or spectacular transformations had better find themselves another film.

 

That's about it, gang. (And you wouldn't have that without 'pause button' and 'frame forward'.)

(Having Hungary as the site of this film’s setting, and back-story, would seem to contradict its predecessor, which has its werewolves originating in Romania; but given the unsettled history and back-and-forthing of the boundaries in that area over the time period in question, perhaps this isn’t really a contradiction.)

The film’s most significant shortcoming may also be budgetary: The Rebirth is severely padded. This is partly achieved via lengthy and numerous conversations amongst the characters; and while these aren’t too badly written or executed, the fact remains, they’re ultimately meaningless. Where this film really hurts, though, is the other tactic it employs to drag out the running-time, namely, endless sequences of people creeping around in the dark and calling each other’s names, or running from room to room only to find that the person who was there isn’t there, and running off somewhere else. It would probably be unfair to claim that three-quarters of this film is passed in these essentially pointless scenes; so I’ll simply say instead that it sure does feel like it. You’ll notice that this review is much lighter on screenshots than usual: in spite of the splendid castle setting, visually, The Rebirth just doesn’t have that much variety to offer.

(On the other hand, there will be some boobs along later on, for those of you who like that kind of thing.)

The Rebirth does begin promisingly, though, with a grimly effective opening sequence in which the camera prowls about the castle, lingering on the dead bodies of all of those within, before showing us the murder-suicide of the chatelain and his wife. The former is bleeding to death when a baby’s cry tells him, and us, that this slaughter has been in vain. Flash forward five hundred years, and the assembly in Budapest of the individuals who will comprise our soon-to-be-whittled-down characters. Joe Blow of Schmucksville is notable by his absence from this rollcall of “personalities”, who purportedly were selected randomly for the dubious honour of being the first people in five hundred years to enter the mysterious castle. This is all the more peculiar since no-one’s profession will turn out to be of any importance to the story, with the exception of Catherine, a doctor. The emphasis given to David being a photographer, in particular, including the dramatic removal and destruction of the film from his camera about halfway through, is exceedingly odd. We can only conclude that Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe are both of the school of thought that believes that “celebrities”, however minor, are automatically more interesting than any other kind of people. (And on this subject, you almost have to admire the chutzpah that leads Mr Turner to cast himself as “a former rock star”.)

You left it to the mother to kill the baby? Good going, brainiac.

It’s a matter of debate as to whether the ruse employed here to round up our potential lycanthropes and strand them in the castle is more or less credible than that originally devised by Mrs Christie herself. Personally, I’d say more: having your name drawn from a travel agency’s booking records (supposedly) seems less suspicious to me than an invitation to the middle of nowhere bearing an illegible signature. On the other hand, I think I’d rather stay on a tourist-y island than in a castle whose claim to fame is that it has lain untouched for five hundred years after the mass slaughter that led to its doors being sealed by royal proclamation in the first place. (Even allowing that “untouched” is a slight exaggeration: fortunately or unfortunately, according to taste, there’s no sign of the corpses.) Be that as it may, naturally our “contest winners” do not hesitate to take their place on the bus that is to deliver them to their destination, under the instantly suspicious guidance of Count Istvan Vesely.

Once everyone reaches the castle, it is of course time for some exposition. This inescapable evil is actually quite well handled here, with the script and the camera shifting back and forth amongst the various conversations and interspersing the important information with smatterings of small-talk, as the various characters get to know one another. Simultaneously, The Rebirth puts some effort into clueing the audience in on the fact that something is afoot while also trying to spread the suspicion around as much as possible, first by some slightly clunky writing – Gail claiming that “fate” brought her to the castle, Anna and Catherine debating “appearances” and “reality” and “deception” – and later by the piecemeal revelation that every member of the party seems to have the same birthmark, well before the significance of the mark is explained. It will also be revealed at length that all of our characters are orphans, or at least do not know their parents: Marylou’s mother and father died when she was very young, as did Anna’s; Catherine and Richard met while trying to track their birth-parents, and so on.

 

The Beast Must Die! - and so, it turns out, must most of these people.

Over drinks, the grim history of the castle is raised, as well as the region’s history of lycanthropy; and unsurprisingly, it is the historian Professor Dawson who decides he’d rather explore a bit than have lunch....and whose subsequent disappearance is put down by the Count to his wandering outside and getting lost in the growing blizzard, despite what we, the audience, have seen of his fate, which involves encountering something large and hairy in the first of this film’s many, many long dark passageways.

The blizzard also serves to trap the rest of the characters in the castle....reducing the fact that the tour bus that was supposed to drive them all back to Budapest had already left without them to something of an irrelevance. It is Gail who first becomes aware that something is seriously wrong, even aside from the Professor’s disappearance. Aware that what the Count called the “unexpected” blizzard was predicted, and noticing both the absence of the bus and that the Professor’s coat is still on the hook where he left it, Gail goes looking for an ally, and chooses Ray Price. Trying, not with much success, to make him buy into her suspicions, Gail also describes her conviction that someone managed to enter her room while she was changing, even though, overtly, no-one could have done so. Finally, Gail storms off to get the Professor’s coat as support for her story, leaving Ray to search for secret entrances into her room – which he does rather bemusedly, only to end up even more bemused when he actually finds one. Stupidly wandering into the corridor behind it without bothering to prop the door open behind him, Ray is soon trapped; and consequently, he can only look on helplessly through the narrowest of crevices as someone approaches the returning Gail....and as Gail screams in horror and disbelief....

Ray then spends the majority of his relatively brief remaining screen-time – sigh – wandering down dark passageways. He stumbles over the Professor’s body, its throat torn open, before finding a way out of the castle and into the blizzard. It isn’t the storm that gets him, though: rather, something explodes through a thin snow barrier, and Ray goes down under a combination of avalanchery and werewolfery.

 

You'll forgive me if I take a moment to enjoy this.

The next block of padding – girl-talk between Anna and Marylou about men and how to pick ’em – is interrupted when the Count comes looking for Gail and Ray. He is directed to the room they were in, a grinning Jonathan misinterpreting some of the noises that he heard issuing from behind the locked door. The Count, however, is unable to get an answer from either of the parties supposedly inside, and finally recruits David and Jonathan to help him break in the door, precipitating the three of them into an unoccupied room. His attention caught by a missing candle, the Count begins to search the room – stopping briefly to stroke a stuffed fox head in a way we are evidently meant to find Highly Suspicious – and at length discovers the same hidden spring that Ray did. The three of them go wandering down the same dark passageway as Ray did before them, where they find Ray’s dropped and bloodied watch by a canal. David also finds a button, which he will later identify as being his host’s, in spite of the Count’s declaration that he has never been in the passageway before....

Rejoining the others (mysteriously, the secret door fails to close itself this time around), the Count explains the situation; and after Richard takes the opportunity to demonstrate to all and sundry that he is a bit of a dick, there is eventual agreement that they all must split up and search the tunnels for the three missing parties.

The worst of the padding starts here in earnest. Long story short, Jonathan and Marylou get separated; her screams of his name are heard by the others, leading Anna to relieve the Count of his gun – he “forgot” he was carrying it – so that she can protect herself while he goes to investigate Marylou’s cries. She uses that gun, too. The bad news is, it’s Jonathan she shoots. The good news is, he’d already had his throat torn open before she opened fire. This section of the film – apart from removing Jonathan very decisively from the list of potential lycanthropes – ends with Marylou under sedation and Catherine and David – sigh – wandering down still more dark passageways. In doing so, they discover both Jonathan’s twice-gruesome fate, and Gail, still alive but bleeding to death from her own throat-ripping. She does manage – somewhat improbably – to gasp, “Werewolf!”, but then gets no further than a Python-esque, “It’s---!” before finally dying.

 

 

75% of Howling V: The Rebirth.

Upstairs, conversation between Anna and Richard over the fitfully sleeping Marylou reveals the orphaned state of many of the castle visitors, and although she maintains her faith in the Count – “It’s just a feeling I have” – Anna is finally forced to concede that Richard’s earlier assertion, that the whole situation is a set-up, is correct. For some reason, this prompts Anna to feel the need for a shower, allowing a peeping Richard to be startled by the sight of, among other things, the birthmark on Anna’s arm, identical to the one on his arm.

Not that he gets the chance to do anything much with this knowledge....

There is a brief but welcome hiatus in both the conversation and the wandering when the surviving characters corner the Count and demand the truth from him. Left with no choice, he explains that each one of them was carefully screened and chosen for invitation to the castle; that all of them, himself included, are of the same ancient bloodline, descendants of the baby that was smuggled away before the massacre five hundred years earlier; and that one of them is a werewolf....

 

While the men manage to show their birthmarks like this.... 

The Count further announces himself to be a member of a religious order known as “The Martyrs”, dedicated to wiping out this particular evil; and warns the others that the werewolf will inevitably track down and kill each of them, unless they identify and kill it first. By inviting all the possible suspects to the castle, the Count declares, there was a greater chance of some of them surviving.

Not surprisingly, this explanation fails to endear the Count to his fellow survivors; and much shouting and name-calling and mutual accusation later, the Count is being forced at gunpoint into a prison cell down in one of those long dark passageways, along with the two non-English-speaking servants who have been lurking on the periphery of the action up until now, exchanging significant glances with the Count and saying panicky things that don't get subtitled. Of course, having secured the three suspects, the big question becomes – now what? While not believing in werewolves, David and Catherine agree that the Count, and possibly the other two as well, are quite mad, and that the only way they, the survivors, can be safe is to get rid of all three of them. Anna protests violently, and when her plea for them to “call the authorities” is waved away, she insists upon the sleeping Marylou being woken up so that she can have a vote on their next step, given that she, too, will have to live with the consequences of their actions. Reluctantly, Catherine goes to wake Marylou, while David goes hunting for more physical evidence against the Count. Anna, left alone, immediately slips down into the cellar to release the three prisoners – only to end up in the cell herself, the Count assuring her that she will be much safer there. Meanwhile, Catherine is discovering that Marylou is missing....

 

....for some strange reason, the women can only show theirs like this.

The Rebirth doesn’t have a “werewolf break” like its model, but in truth, it hardly needs one: if you haven’t figured out who the werewolf is by now, in fact, if you don’t figure it out by about halfway through the film at worst, well, you should hand in your horror-watcher’s licence. In any case, let’s hope that you do better than the Count himself, this individual trained almost from birth to find and kill the werewolf, who produces an “ancient Hungarian proverb” said to lead directly to the werewolf – and then applies it in a manner so obviously wrong as to be perfectly humiliating....not to mention deadly. The film ends in a flurry of bloodshed and bodies and, this being the cynical eighties, with the werewolf surviving to commit more bloody mayhem further along in the franchise. That, however, would not be until the film after next, at which point the entire Howling franchise would crash and burn in a manner unanticipated, and very nearly unprecedented.
 
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----27/12/2008