HOWLING II (1985)
[aka The Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf aka The Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch]

"These creatures have a leader – a woman called Stirba. At the next full moon, it will be the tenth millennium of Stirba’s birth. At midnight on that day, all werewolves will reveal themselves…."

Director: Philippe Mora
Starring: Christopher Lee, Reb Brown, Annie McEnroe, Sybil Danning, Marsha Hunt, Ferdy Mayne, Judd Omen
Screenplay: Gary Brandner and Robert Sarno, based upon the novel by Gary Brandner

Synopsis: After the funeral of news anchorwoman Karen White, her brother, Ben (Reb Brown), is approached by a stranger, Stefan Crosscoe (Christopher Lee), who makes disturbing insinuations about Karen’s death. Ben angrily orders him away, but a colleague of Karen’s, Jenny Templeton (Annie McEnroe), runs after him and asks him what he knows. Crosscoe tells her that Karen White is a werewolf…. A woman named Mariana (Marsha Hunt) picks up the members of a gang in a bar and takes them to an abandoned warehouse. There, she throws back her head, howling, and begins to transform…. Ben and Jenny discuss Karen before visiting Crosscoe’s house. Crosscoe gives Jenny the silver bullets that were removed from Karen’s body during the autopsy. When Ben still refuses to listen, Crosscoe shows the videotape of Karen’s last broadcast, during which she transformed before being shot by a colleague. Ben insists that it’s fake, but Jenny recognises the people in it. Crosscoe warns them that Karen is undead and must be destroyed. He then shows them photographs of Mariana, who they recognise from the funeral. He warns them that she will not let Karen lie in consecrated ground, and that she is doubly dangerous because she is immune to the effects of silver, and can only be killed by titanium. Crosscoe goes on to explain that there are werewolves worldwide, and that their leader is a woman called Stirba. At midnight on the tenth millennial anniversary of Stirba’s birth, all werewolves will transform. Crosscoe swears to kill Stirba before that can happen. Later, Jenny tells Ben that she believes what Crosscoe has said, but he is still in denial, deciding to go to the cemetery to defend his sister’s body. Jenny goes with him, insisting that he load his gun with the silver bullets. As they approach Karen’s grave, they hear howling, and something rushes at them through the woods. Ben shoots it, and the pair runs into the chapel, where they find Crosscoe by Karen’s coffin. Ben threatens him with his gun, but at that moment Karen awakes, transforming, and Ben must shoot her. More werewolves attack, including Erle (Ferdy Mayne), Mariana’s servant. Ben kills the other creatures and wounds Erle. Crosscoe tells Erle that if he will tell them Stirba’s whereabouts, he will "release" him. Erle moans that she is in "the Dark Country", and Crosscoe kills him with a silver stake. Nearby, the enraged Mariana watches. Crosscoe tells Ben and Jenny that he must go to "the Dark Country" – Transylvania – and they insist on going with him. Mariana, however, beats them there, and is greeted by Vlad (Judd Omen), Stirba’s servant. At a hidden castle, werewolves in human form perform a ritual in which a young girl has blood poured all over her. An old woman approaches and literally sucks the life force from the girl, which rejuvenates her. The woman then straightens to reveal herself as Stirba (Sybil Danning). Stirba has Vlad bring Mariana to her room. There, she orders the pair to mate. They obey, transforming as they do so. Also transforming, Stirba joins in…. Crosscoe, Ben and Jenny are driving towards a local village when their way is barred by an accident. Hearing that an old woman has been hit by a car, they try to help, but recoil when the woman bares her fangs. Crosscoe stakes her, and then tells the others that he must go on alone, and will meet them in the village later. Ben and Jenny drive on, but suddenly find themselves in mortal danger when a werewolf lunges from the back seat of their car….

Comments: As I recently confessed over at the discussion board at Jabootu’s, I am completely anal when it comes to watching films "in order" – even if we are talking about sequels with as little in common as, say, Halloween II and Halloween III. In practical terms, this means that I have dozens of tapes sitting around that I can’t watch/review/wipe because I haven’t done the earlier films in the series. So when I found myself reviewing Amityville 4 last week, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to start working my way through some of the backlog, and to do a "sequels binge". My opinion of sequels in general being what it is, I did recognise that this was likely to entail a great deal more pain than gain; but hell (to mix a cliché), a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do. So, my dear readers, be warned: over the next few weeks, the reviews at this site are likely to cover a higher proportion than usual of Utter Crap; and if you decide that this might be a good time to go see what they’re doing over at the other B-Movie sites, well, I wouldn’t blame you one little bit.

(Of course, this masochistic programme will – thankfully – shortly be interrupted by the next B-Masters’ Roundtable. Coming soon to an elitist clique near you!)

One of the more amusing things about sequels is watching them attempt to deal with the events of the previous installment. Of course, sometimes they choose to ignore the previous film entirely. Sometimes they acknowledge it and then completely re-write it. And sometimes, as in Howling II, they stick reasonably close to the facts while altering one or two salient points. The film opens with the funeral of news anchorwoman Karen White who, at the conclusion of The Howling, chose to prove her story by transforming into The World’s Cutest Werewolf live on air, before having herself shot with silver bullets. This being the case, it was somewhat of a surprise to hear the minister performing the service to refer to the "senseless killing" of Karen White, this being a result of the "anonymous violence" plaguing society, and her death being "for no reason at all". At least one person in the audience knows better, however, and reporter Jenny Templeton corners Stefan Crosscoe after the service, demanding to know what he knows about Karen. "That she’s a werewolf," he responds without hesitation, and departs. (Well, why not? Can you think of a better exit line?) Jenny looks only mildly perturbed by this announcement, and devotes herself (in yet another of filmdom’s helpful expository moments) to trying to get Ben White to "go back to your sheriff’s office in Montana". ("Montana!?" I exclaimed, instantly kicking into full Bad Movie Smartarse mode. "Ha! Guess that means he’s good with a gun!" Joke was on me. The very next instant, Ben pulls a gun; and in fact, rarely has one out of his hand for the rest of the movie.)

The film’s revisionist agenda continues when Stefan Crosscoe proves to have the videotape of Karen’s demise in his possession; a tape that, Jenny announces, disappeared after Karen’s death, and that no-one ever saw. To prove his assertions about Karen, Crosscoe plays the tape for Ben and Jenny, and our expectations for the film (assuming we had any) plummet, as instead of Dee Wallace’s cute-as-a-puppy make-up job, we see something that looks more like Paula the Ape Girl in Captive Wild Woman, except that the make-up here isn’t nearly so convincing. In fact, it looks distinctly like a crappy Halloween mask – not least of all because it stops at the neckline! It is hardly surprising that Ben declares the video to be a fake. Jenny, however, argues that it cannot be, as she recognised the other people on the tape. (What happened to those people, why they have [presumably] kept quiet about Karen’s fate, and what, if anything, happened to the person who shot her are issues that are simply ignored.) Earlier, Stefan showed Ben and Jenny a pair of silver bullets that were taken from Karen’s body during her autopsy (the modern equivalent of pulling a stake from a vampire’s heart), implying that their removal means that she is still undead. As the infuriated Ben hauls Jenny away, Stefan gives her the bullets – both of them – and she later gives them to Ben. I stress this for two reasons: (i) I know diddly squat about firearms, but even so, I know that ammunition isn’t interchangeable; what were the odds of Ben having the same make of gun as Karen’s killer?; and (ii) about a hundred werewolves get shot dead in the course of this film. Either they are mysteriously susceptible to ordinary bullets (making even more of a mockery of the idiotic "immune to silver" plot thread, with which nothing is done anyway), or our protagonists got a job lot of silver bullets (for all makes of guns!) from – God knows where. Maybe an offscreen trip to Walter Paisley’s occult shop. (No Dick Miller in this film [*sniff*].)

Knowing that Stefan intends to dispose of the undead Karen, Ben finally announces, "I’m going to kill the son of a bitch!" - a line that I don’t think the writers even realised might be played for a joke. He charges out of Jenny’s house in broad daylight, but doesn’t arrive at the cemetery until it’s pitch black. That LA traffic just gets worse and worse, doesn’t it? Oh, did I mention that this portion of the film takes place in LA? It does, you know. In fact, it opens with a caption stating "Los Angeles, California, USA", and follows that up with another stating "City Of The Angels", which is either an attempt at irony, or a ploy to convince us that this part of the film really and truly was shot in California and not in Czechoslovakia, honestly – despite what we might conclude from the design of the church, and the impenetrable forest that surrounds it. Ben loads his rifle with Jenny’s silver bullets (both of them) and the two hike through the woods to the church. (Why they don’t use the main road is left to our imaginations.) Ominous howlings are heard nearby, and the pair is attacked by something that Ben dispatches with five shots from his rifle. They then make a run for the church, where Stefan is preparing to take care of Karen with a silver stake dipped in holy water. Ben points his gun at him, but just then, Karen awakes and transforms instantaneously (no ten minutes of writhing in agony for this girl) and attacks Stefan. Ben puts a bullet in her (an ordinary bullet, mind you), and the three of them slam the lid back on her coffin. More werewolves pour into the church, but Ben finishes them all off (do I have to keep saying it?), except for one. This is Erle, the servant of the werewolf Mariana. Stefan promises to "release" Erle if he will tell them where he can find Stirba, leader of the werewolves. Erle mutters "the Dark Country", and Stefan stakes him, allowing him to die and, of course, to un-transform. (By the way, Ferdy Mayne is, for no apparent reason, made up to look exactly like Peter Cushing in Tales From The Crypt.) Finally convinced, Ben announces that he is ready to accompany Stefan to "the Dark Country" – wherever that is. (I guess they don’t have TV in Montana.) Stefan patiently explains that it is Transylvania, and that they must leave immediately – which they do. Passports, visas, vaccinations – HA!!

Intercut with all of this, the film has been detailing the activities of Mariana (you remember – the one who’s "immune to silver" [*rolls eyes*]). For no other reason than to get some gore onscreen, we follow her as she picks up and slaughters some very annoying gang members. Later, we see her lurking nearby as Erle is killed, and despite Stefan’s insistence on immediately, she beats our protagonists to "the Dark Country". She is met at the train station by Vlad, another werewolf who proves to be Stirba’s right hand, ah, man, and taken to Stirba’s hidden castle. There, the film takes an abrupt trip down the exploitation film slippery-dip in its depiction of the danger that is supposed to be posing such a threat to all mankind. The concept of the werewolf society being matriarchal in structure is a nice one, but unfortunately nothing at all is done with it beyond using it as an excuse to get lots of T&A, and women in bondage gear, in front of the cameras. You see, this is the problem with being a female horror film watcher – or at any rate, with being a heterosexual female horror film watcher. I find breasts neither interesting nor distracting; and the more a film attempts me to divert my attention from its shortcomings by putting breasts onscreen, the more unforgiving of those shortcomings I am likely to become. Now, granted, I knew before I went in that this was "a Sybil Danning film", so I wasn’t totally unprepared for mammary action (and they do, in fact, give Sybil a nude scene that is actually funny; more on that later); but the way in which endless numbers of anonymous, near-naked women are used as set dressing here is really sleazy. But as it happens, the only alternative to "sleazy" is silly. First of all, we get the regeneration of Stirba, in which a young girl has the life force sucked out of her via a crappy animation effect. (Most of Stirba’s "awesome" powers are conveyed via crappy animation effects.) The "old woman" then tosses off several layers of clothes to reveal – Stirba, in all her glory. (Well, actually, not quite all of it – that comes a bit later.) Stirba meets Mariana and praises her, proclaiming that she is "a huntress" and will bear "many fierce daughters and sons". (The notion that werewolves are born, not made, is no sooner raised than it is discarded – as interesting notions in exploitation films are wont to be….) Stirba then carries Vlad and Mariana off to her bedchamber, where she orders Vlad to "take her!" Nothing loath, he complies, and we get a lengthy sex scene during which both participants transform. Watching, Stirba gets turned on enough to rip her top off, and then she transforms and joins in, the three thrashing and growling and howling in an idiotic sequence that seems to go on forever. All I could think of by the end of it was how long the three of them must have spent in the make-up department – and how damned uncomfortable they must have been. (Cripes! – talk about itchy….)

Meanwhile, Stefan, Ben and Jenny are chugging towards "the village" in a hire car which the latter is driving. The reason for this soon becomes apparent when, upon Jenny worrying that they’re driving around in circles, Ben guffaws and says, of course they are – because she’s driving! Somewhat improbably, Jenny finds this remark both hilarious and endearing. (Nothing says "I love you" like laughing at a man’s unfunny sexist remarks.) This comic interlude is brought to an end when the trio comes across an accident that has left an elderly woman lying in the middle of the road, with a crowd of "typical peasants" milling around her. (The "peasants" are shot using weird camera angles, just to make sure we get that Something Is Up.) Our protagonists try to help, but the woman pulls back her lips to reveal – gasp! – fangs, and Stefan must stake her. The other "peasants" mysteriously vanish. "They’re here," says Stefan ominously. "They’re here, and – not here." (Like my attention.) He then announces that he must go on alone, and that he will meet them in "the village".

You know, try as I might, I can’t think of what the point of that scene might have been, other than to separate Stefan from the other two, and thus allow another sex scene to be shoehorned into the film. In any case, Ben and Jenny drive on. To no-one’s surprise, a werewolf lunges from the back seat, and Ben dispatches it (insert Standard Complaint here). He and Jenny arrive at "the village", check into the hotel, and are given – wait for it – Room 666. "This place doesn’t look like it has six floors," observes Ben. The manager shrugs, "I know. Funny, isn’t it?" and then we are introduced to his obviously loony-tunes nephew, Tondo, in whom Ben and Jenny will later put an inexplicable degree of trust. The two are shown to their room, where Jenny confesses to being all upset. "Hold me?" she suggests, and one thing leads to another, and---we get a bit more skin onscreen. Yawn. Afterwards, the two go out to look around, and find themselves being waved at by "a dwarf", who they follow without a second thought. As you would. But as it happens, Vasile is, in fact, one of The Good Guys, and leads Ben and Jenny to Stefan, who is at the local church with the priest, Father Florin, and two other "sworn werewolf fighters", Luca and Konstantin. Ben is eager for action, but Stefan tells him they must "wait – and watch", an indication that the film will now be padded out with some "local colour". Before the intrepid band separates, Stefan gives Ben and Jenny a charm each for "protection", which will later prove no protection at all, but will let Our Heroes know that – they’ve got Jenny.

And then it is indeed time for "local colour", as the peasantry celebrates "the Festival of the New Full Moon". (They do this once a month!?) Here we get one of those idiotic scenes where the major players on both teams stand around glowering at one another. Finally, Vlad and Mariana leave to tell Stirba that they’ve seen Stefan; Vasile follows Vlad and Mariana; and Ben follows Vasile, telling Tondo he’s going to buy a gift for Jenny. When Jenny finally notices his absence, Tondo tells her that Ben has gone to a local "gypsy camp", where he will now guide her. Incredibly, she agrees to go with him. Meanwhile, Ben and Vasile see Vlad and Mariana enter Stirba’s "hidden" castle, which is guarded by someone who looks amazingly like one of the Knights who say "Ni!" – only shorter. Vasile gives Ben earplugs made out of Sacred Candles (no, I’m not kidding), and the two take care of the guard. Inside, Stirba is being alerted to Stefan’s presence. (An aside here: none of Sybil Danning’s outfits looks precisely comfortable, but this one looks excruciating. Thigh boots are one thing, but these are---well, groin boots!) To the surprise of Vlad and Mariana, Stirba seems pleased by their news. "You know him?" Stirba smiles, and we get The Big Revelation: "He is my brother."

So – this makes Stefan – what? A werewolf himself? Or just your everyday immortal? Who knows? Having come up with this outrageous twist, the film-makers proceed to do with it –absolutely nothing.

At that moment, Vasile is spotted peeking in the window. Vlad and Mariana go after him and Ben, while Stirba does this weird ritual. I’ll be honest: I don’t what is actually going on in this next bit. Anyway, Stirba makes gestures at the fire (she looks like she should have Whooshing Powder) which seems to trigger the transformation of Vlad (who we already know can transform spontaneously). By the way, the budget didn’t stretch to any full transformation scenes; and what we get here are a few detached close-ups that look to me suspiciously like they might have been pinched from An American Werewolf In London. As Ben and Vasile run away, Vasile trips and loses his Sacred Earplugs. This proves fatal when the werewolves being howling (hey! I said the title!) and Vasile’s various cranial orifices explode bloodily, in what I would call the worst prosthetic head effect I’ve seen in ages, except there’s another one later on that’s even worse. Meanwhile, bright spark Jenny has finally figured out that Loony Tondo is Up To No Good. (It’s now after dark, so Lord knows how long it took her to figure it out.) She tries to escape but is knocked out. Just as it looks like The End, Jenny is rescued by Stirba, who has Other Plans for her – and removes the "protective charm" from about her neck.

In the village, Stefan (who has been enjoying the "local colour" all this time, mind you), has his attention caught by a small person with a high-pitched laugh who is wearing a mask and Jenny’s charm. Without a second thought, he follows this person through deserted side streets and into an empty house. (For someone who has lived over ten thousand years, you are unwise, Stefan Crosscoe!) The "small person" turns out to be the undead Vasile, who attacks. However, luckily for Stefan, Ben saw what was happening and followed him, and at this moment bursts into the room and tosses Vasile through the window. Stefan then gathers his band of werewolf hunters, and they divvy up the weapons. (Stefan claims that they have "the chalice that held the sacred blood of Christ". This, too, is never mentioned again.) We notice that Ben, who asks warily for "conventional weapons", chooses a rifle, and a rifle only. The band sets out, and we cut to Stirba’s castle – and immediately wish we hadn’t, as it’s time for more sleaze, and we have about five minutes of people in skimpy leather clothes and fishnet stockings pretending to have an orgy, but mostly just rolling around growling and moaning. Stirba watches approvingly until she senses the approach of her enemies, whereupon she sends her followers on the attack. The more faceless werewolf hunters are picked off one by one, until only Stefan, Ben and Father Florin are left. (Given how thoroughly outnumbered by werewolves they are, how could any of them be left?) The three separate. Father Florin is unlucky enough to find Stirba, who sicks this----oh, hell, I don’t know what’s going on here, either! Anyway, this thing that might be meant to be something out of Alien, or the parasite-alien from The Hidden, or God knows what, attacks the priest by sticking most of itself down his throat and – I dunno, eating him? In any case, this is where we get the worst prosthetic head effect. (An afterthought: damn if that thing doesn’t look like the squirmy rat monster in Captain America! Could that have copied this!?) Mariana is cornered by Ben, who – lo and behold! – pulls out a titanium dagger and stabs her to death before rescuing Jenny. Finally, Stefan confronts his sister. She tries to seduce him to the Dark Side, exerting all of her Evil Powers (indicated by yet more crappy animation effects), and it seems as if she has succeeded when he takes her in his arms. "You could never resist me, Stefan!" she gloats. (I tell you, having only just watched The Holcroft Covenant, this is one scene I really didn’t need.) But no! Stefan drives another titanium knife into his sister’s body. Then (somehow) the two of them catch fire and are consumed by flames….

This should be the end, of course, but what would a modern horror film be without a completely moronic kicker ending? (That’s right – better.) Back in LA, it’s Halloween. Ben and Jenny open the door, and who should be there but a kid in a werewolf mask! The two rather nervously dispense candy, then try to work out where the kid came from. Ben suggests the apartment over the way, Jenny protests that it’s empty, Ben counters that someone moved in while they were away. Deciding that it would be neighbourly to invite the new tenants over for a drink, Jenny taps on the door, which is opened by a priest. (It’s – gasp! – the priest from the "vanishing peasants" scene!) Not recognising him, Jenny blathers on about "your child". "But I have no child!" responds the priest. "I am not married! I am a bachelor and live alone!" Suddenly, the priest gets this straa-aa-aa-aange look on his face as he invites them in. "Maybe later," Jenny says nervously, and the priest shuts the door. "Much later!" says Ben, and the two scuttle away. The End. Wow – are your ribs aching, too?

I’m very attached to The Howling, so I confess that I went into this film predisposed against it. Even so, I don’t think that it was merely prejudice that made me dislike it so much. For one thing, the film’s predominant tone is sleazy; and yet, when it stops being sleazy things get even worse, with attempts by the director to – God help us! – create "art". Somehow I get the feeling that Philippe Mora prepared for this shoot by watching The Hunger in an endless loop. In any case, there is an unmistakable, if nebulously motivated, attempt to link the secret werewolf society with the underground music scene. This isn’t just thematically irritating; it also means that the film is padded out by scenes shot in a "punk club" (so-called) featuring a "punk band". (I dunno – do "punk bands" really use electric keyboards and synthesisers?) Between these two extremes of tone are long stretches of unhorrific horror and unfunny comedy, both so lacklustre that it’s hard to know what to make of it – except that this is yet another example of my least favourite kind of horror movie, one that wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. This is bad enough in itself, but intolerable in a sequel to a film that is one of the textbook examples of how to mix humour and horror without compromising either. More annoying still is that occasionally – just every now and then – there is a scene, even just a shot, that indicates that this film could have been much better. For instance, there is the skillful integration of a wolf-themed puppet show, which leaves us wondering about the local children, who squeal delightedly as they watch its horrors; are they part of the pack, or are they just behaving like normal children – i.e. sadistic little bastards? Or the scene in which Ben and Jenny are having sex, while out in the street all the werewolves in the vicinity sense – or scent – the fact. Or the perpetually grinning men who seem to live in the hotel lobby. Also, much as I might sneer at the use of "local colour" for padding, there is in fact some nice use of the Czechoslovakian settings; while occasionally the production design shows some welcome imagination, as in Jenny’s skull and bone-lined prison. Unfortunately, these moments come and go too swiftly to have any lasting impact. As our supposed identification figures, Reb Brown and Annie McEnroe are completely colourless and uninteresting. Not that it really matters, since the audience’s attention is likely to be fixed upon the improbable pairing of Christopher Lee and Sybil Danning. The former’s presence in the film is discomforting. Unlike his friend and colleague, Peter Cushing, Lee does not have the ability to lift a film to his own level, but rather tends to be dragged down to its; and watching him in dreck such as this is not a pleasant experience. Sybil Danning, on the other hand, is right at home – and I don’t mean that in a nasty way. You always get the feeling with Danning that she sees her involvement in films like this as a huge joke – a healthy and sensible attitude. In the end, she is, after all, being paid not to act, but to strut around in ridiculous costumes and take her clothes off, and if she’s happy with that, more power to her. Which brings us to the one unforgettable aspect of Howling II: its end credits, which play over "highlights" from the film, most, ah, prominently a single shot of Sybil Danning, that in which Stirba, becoming aroused while watching Vlad and Mariana, rips off her top to bare her breasts. This one shot is repeated no less than seventeen times as the credits roll, with a brief clip of the film’s other characters cut in after each repeat like a reaction shot. Ultimately, it is impossible to respond to this barrage of boobs with anything but laughter; and in fact, the film-makers show a great deal more wit and lightness of touch here than they do anywhere else in the movie. In this way, Howling II at least manages to leave its audience laughing; pity about the preceding ninety minutes.