HOWLING III: The Marsupials (1987)
"This has got to be the greatest scientific discovery of all time! A live alien species – a marsupial-human that has evolved in secret, simultaneously with our species…."

Director: Philippe Mora
Starring: Barry Otto, Imogen Annesley, Leigh Biolos, Ralph Cotterill, Dasha Blahova, Michael Pate, Frank Thring
Screenplay: Philippe Mora, based upon the novel by Gary Brandner

Synopsis: At the American National Intelligence Agency, two agents intercept a Russian transmission that mentions werewolves. Unsure how to proceed, the agents decide to contact Professor Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto), an Australian living in Los Angeles. Beckmeyer shows his university class footage shot by his grandfather, that shows aborigines in the far north of Australia spearing to death a strange creature that appears to be half animal, half human. When the class is over, Beckmeyer tells his students that there will be no class the next day, as he must fly to Washington. Meeting with the President of the United States (Michael Pate), Beckmeyer tries to convince him that werewolves actually exist, and can be found in the Soviet Union, and also in Australia. Returning to Sydney, Beckmeyer meets with an old friend and colleague, Professor Sharp (Ralph Cotterill), who, though deeply sceptical, agrees to help him. In an isolated part of the bush, in a small town called Flow, a girl named Jerboa (Imogen Annesley) is manhandled and threatened by her stepfather, Thylo (Max Fairchild). Jerboa runs away, escaping on a bus to Sydney, and spends her first night there on a park bench. Two drunks harass her, but flee in terror when she snarls at them and begins to transform. The next morning, a young man named Donny Martin (Leigh Biolos) spots Jerboa. He approaches her, but she runs from him. Donny chases and eventually corners her, explaining that he is an assistant director on a horror movie, and wants to offer her a small role. Warily, Jerboa agrees, allowing Donny to take her to the set. Meanwhile, three female members of Jerboa’s colony travel towards Sydney disguised as nuns. On the set of Shape Shifters 8, Jerboa sees a man being made up as a werewolf and comments that "It doesn’t look like that". As Donny explains about the shoot, Jerboa reveals that she has never seen a movie. Donny takes her to see a horror movie, and the two spend the night together. As Jerboa sleeps, Donny is disturbed when he discovers that her lower belly is covered in light hair, and traversed by a strange slit in the skin. Beckmeyer shows Sharp his grandfather’s film, and the two discuss ways of getting the help they need from the Russians. Beckmeyer says that it won’t be easy, given the current political climate – and the fact that a prima ballerina, Olga Gorki (Dasha Blahova), has just defected to Australia. Sharp says that he has been invited to Olga’s first rehearsal, and asks Beckmeyer to accompany him. On the movie set, Jerboa completes her scene, and the shoot wraps. At the party afterwards, a strobe light triggers a transformation, and Jerboa flees, Donny in pursuit. As they leave, the party is invaded by the three "nuns"…. As she runs through the city, Jerboa is hit by a car. When Donny reaches her, the police and an ambulance are in attendance. Jerboa is taken to hospital, where her anatomy and metabolism astound her doctors. Sharp is summoned, and brings Beckmeyer with him. When the men arrive, they are shown Jerboa’s pouch. One of the doctor’s remarks on her hormonal activity, and suggests that she might be pregnant. Suddenly, Jerboa wakes from a nightmare and attacks her doctors. When she has been sedated, Beckmeyer and Sharp leave. Watching them go, the "nuns" slip into the hospital…. Soon the building is littered with corpses, and Jerboa is gone….

Comments: People looking for a genuine horror movie – or for a genuine werewolf movie, for that matter – should probably steer well clear of Howling III: The Marsupials, which not only turns existing lycanthrope lore completely on its head but, having done so, proceeds to play its theme primarily for laughs. It is not difficult to understand why writer-director Philippe Mora decided to turn his second entry in the Howling franchise into a comedy: if the film’s budget could have covered the cost of printing the wrap party invitations of any given Hollywood production, I’d be mightily surprised. Consequently, the "werewolf" scenes, such as they are, tend to be conveyed by brief glimpses, lots of rapid cutting, POV shots of the "terrified" victims, and a few very very unwise close-ups of some of the dodgiest werewolf costumes this side of a kindergarten class’s dramatic interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood. Still, ultimately this doesn’t matter all that much, since the film’s focus is elsewhere, namely upon its rather intriguing central premise of a specifically Australian colony of werewolves – or rather, were-thylacines, since these are marsupial werewolves, not just your common or garden eutherian kind (although they also get a look in). Now, frankly, I’m quite prepared to go with this notion. Let’s face it, would werewolves be any more difficult to believe in than most real Australian animals? What merit Howling III has rests largely on the fact that having come up with this outlandish premise, it has the nerve to follow through on it, giving viewers the chance to learn more than they probably ever wanted to know about lycanthropian biology. In the film’s most audacious scene, Jerboa retires to a barn and strips off her clothes before giving birth to the result of her brief fling with Donny Martin. (Here we get the payoff for the puzzling moment when Jerboa refuses to remove her bra in bed: her breasts have hair on them!) As Jerboa writhes and moans, we are given a surprisingly explicit view of the emergence of her baby, and its passage through her belly hair and into her pouch. (I had to laugh at the reviewers of this film who were repulsed by the ugliness of the baby. They’ve obviously never seen a real baby marsupial, compared to which this little guy looks like something out of GQ magazine.) The movie’s other great shock scene comes when a strapped down Olga begins to transform, and we see that she has pairs of teats down the length of her abdomen!

Before all this, however, the film gives us a view of Jerboa’s "home life" that does precious little to assist its credibility. The werewolf clan (that inhabits the tiny town of – wait for it – "Flow") looks, by and large, like a group of rejects from a Pat Benatar music video. They are, indeed, a very clean and picturesquely ragged group of "ferals". Jerboa is hauled into the presence of the clan’s head, Thylo, to be mauled by him, and promised a "Sony Walkman" if she’ll "be good". (Clearly the werewolves have money, but where they get it from we never learn.) Jerboa’s response is to lift a knee into Thylo’s groin and make a run for it, and she is next seen on a coach heading for The Big Smoke. On board, a worried Catholic priest tries to convince Jerboa that running away from home is a bad idea, and asks why she’s doing it. In one of the film’s funnier moments, she responds matter-of-factly, "Because my step-father tried to rape me and he’s a werewolf" – thus killing the conversation stone dead. Arriving in Sydney, Jerboa spends the night on a bench in the Botanical Gardens, where the next morning she is spotted by Donny Martin. After an uneasy meeting and mutual introductions (amusingly, Jerboa reacts to the fact that Donny has "two first names", but he doesn’t bat an eyelid when she announces that her name is "Jerboa Jerboa"), Donny successfully recruits the girl for a bit part in the low budget horror film he is working on, and for the next few minutes, Howling III stops being a werewolf film and instead becomes a good-natured parody of itself. First of all, we meet director Jack Citron ("One of the best horror directors around", Donny assures Jerboa – which explains why he’s working on Shape Shifters 8); then we get a brief glance of two of the cast chatting together (one a werewolf, the other with an axe buried in his head); and then we have Jerboa’s critical dismissal of the werewolf make-up. This conversation reveals that Jerboa has never seen a movie, let alone a horror movie; so horror buff Donny seizes his opportunity and takes her to see – It Came From Uranus! (one for the NOWFF guys!), a crappy little horror film featuring a bladder-rich "transformation" and a busty blonde nurse who does nothing but scream directly into the camera. It also has a wonderful shot of a transforming arm which is very obviously not attached to the "monster’s" body! Actually, I really do have to pause a moment here and say how much I admire the nerve (if not necessarily the judgement) of Philippe Mora in including this scene, since the "special effects" in ICFU aren’t all that much worse than the ones in Howling III. (The bladder effects, I might also point out, are reminiscent of those in The Beast Within, Mora’s horror debut.) Anyway, Donny laughs his head off while Jerboa shakes hers disapprovingly, and finally the two end up back at Donny’s in bed together. While Jerboa sleeps, Donny makes the rather startling discovery that, not only is her belly covered with hair, but there’s this, well, opening across it. Fortunately for Jerboa, Donny has fallen for her really hard, and therefore, somewhat remarkably, he doesn’t respond to this discovery by heading for the hills. In fact, he doesn’t really respond to it at all….which is kind of – freaky….

Meanwhile, Harry Beckmeyer has flown back to Sydney on his quest to prove that there really are werewolves. Beckmeyer teams up with his old friend and colleague, Professor Sharp, who used to believe that (ahem) the truth was out there, but became disillusioned after learning that "the Browning film of a supposed UFO was a condom filled with dogshit and a flashlight". A discussion on the state of world politics leads to the story of Olga Gorki, a ballerina who has just defected to Australia. The conversation between the two men takes place near the movie set, where Jerboa is filming her Big Scene in which, clad in an evening gown, and immaculately made-up and coiffed, she is attacked from behind by a werewolf, and screams – a moment she is forced to enact again and again and again and--- (Jiminy Jillikers! Actually, this "let’s do it again" sequence contains a shot of "Jerboa" stopping, apologising and saying, "Can we do that again?" that I suspect was a genuine outtake.) Finally, director Jack Citron is satisfied, and the shoot wraps with an announcement of the fancy dress party to be held that night. There, Jerboa comes close to betraying herself when the strobe lights trigger a transformation. Desperate, she flees through the city with Donny in pursuit, only to be struck by a car and hospitalised. There, the doctors are not surprisingly flabbergasted by her anatomy and metabolism, and make the discovery that she might be pregnant. They call in Sharp, who of course has Beckmeyer in tow, the latter stunned and excited by this wholly unexpected vindication of his theory. The two men leave the hospital, discussing the implications of the situation, and it’s just as well for them that they do. The three members of Jerboa’s clan who have followed her to Sydney have tracked her to the hospital, and they snatch her from her bed, bloodily slaughtering anyone foolish or unfortunate enough to get in their way. (The budget restrictions really kick in here, as the killings all occur inexpensively off-camera.) Unaware of all this, Sharp and Beckmeyer attend Olga Gorki’s first dance rehearsal. Olga, it turns out, is no ordinary political refugee, but is actually a werewolf herself (the old-fashioned kind); and she has come to Australia not to seek asylum, but to mate and breed with Thylo, and thus strengthen both their endangered clans. Over-excited by the thought of this destined meeting, Olga begins her rehearsal, and – in perhaps the film’s funniest scene - transforms in the middle of the dance (hysterically, her partner doesn’t notice – until it’s too late….), as Sharp and Beckmeyer gawp at her in astonishment. This incident lands Olga in the hands of The Authorities. When the massacre at the hospital is discovered, the police, various government sp00ks and the two scientists descend upon the unfortunate Donny Martin, putting him through the wringer over his relationship with Jerboa. (Sharp asks if sex with Jerboa was "normal", provoking an agonised, "Oh, give me a break!" from the humiliated Donny.) Finally, Donny reveals that Jerboa was from the town of Flow, and soon The Authorities are after her, too. In fact, before long the entire focus of the film has shifted to the bush. Olga escapes and goes looking for Thylo. Heartbroken Donny goes looking for Jerboa. Beckmeyer, in fear for the werewolves, decides he has to get to them before The Authorities do; Sharp tags along to look after Beckmeyer; and The Authorities, in various shapes and sizes, all descend, one after the other, upon Flow. (My favourite moment in this section of the film comes when Beckmeyer ventures to ask the old man who is left behind in Flow when the clan flees, "Are you – ah - ?". "I’m Thylo’s cousin by marriage – once removed," he responds ambiguously.)

During the early stages of the film, its threadbare budget is cheerfully acknowledged in a way that is rather endearing. Here, however, the lack of cash becomes frankly embarrassing. The "threat to humanity" posed by the werewolves is such that the combined forces of the Australian police force and army, and the American army and secret service, are all involved in hunting them down and wiping them out. However, these "armed forces" never amount to more than two people! Even when things start to go bad, and the US President sends in the dreaded "Omega Squad", it turns out to be two guys with a bazooka! (By the way, I simply love how the Americans send their troops onto Australian soil to wipe out people who, whatever else they are, are Australian citizens, without a single peep being heard from the Australian government! How’s that for graphic realism?) Anyway, these meagre forces manage to round up all of the werewolves except Jerboa, her baby, and an aborigine named Kendi. Olga has made contact with Thylo before this, but when she is captured with the others, she and Beckmeyer begin to fall for each other. Both Thylo and Olga are questioned as to their origins, and here the film begins to falter. Up to this point, Howling III has been a fairly trivial, if amusing, exercise, but here it takes a sudden and perhaps ill-judged detour into the realm of the "message film". Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a film – even a horror film – having "something to say". On the contrary, it’s quite refreshing. In the case of Howling III, however, the film finally bites off way more than it can chew, becoming bogged down in aboriginal mysticism to such an extent that it feels as if Philippe Mora thought he was making a follow up to The Last Wave. At the same time, the explanation for the existence of the Australian werewolves is impressively imaginative. The creatures are the descendents of the last thylacine, which died in captivity in 1936 after its brethren had all been killed by white settlers. The spirit of this animal, we are told, entered Thylo, and lives on in the clan head and his offspring. As to why the thylacines were killed, the film offers a still stranger explanation: it was the result of a papal edict, which declared the thylacine a "satanic manifestation", and decreed that this "dreadful threat to humanity" be destroyed; an order put into effect via the co-operation of both Queen Victoria and President Harrison. (I was somewhat disappointed to learn that this was Benjamin Harrison, not "William Henry Harrison, who died in thirty days". By the way, I may say that the explanation offered by Howling III for the annihilation of the thylacines makes a lot more sense than the true one, which is, effectively, because they were there. Well, hell, people have got to kill something, haven’t they? – and they’d already finished exterminating the local aborigines. Guess they were just working their way down the food chain….) However, while Thylo is supposed to represent the extant spirit of the thylacine, it also (and a tad contradictorily, considering events) lives on as a mysterious being known as "The Phantom", a power for both good and evil that can be called upon to inhabit the bodies of werewolves in moments of crisis, usually with fatal results for all concerned.

This aspect of the film is shaky, to say the least. Still more alarming is the sudden dip into medical metaphor that occurs when Beckmeyer is slightly bitten by one of the werewolves. When Sharp worries that he will become "one of them", Beckmeyer insists that it must take "more than a bite", suggesting that "the exchange of bodily fluids" is necessary. Fortunately, the screenplay then backs away from these murky waters, and instead becomes a more reasonable plea for tolerance. It is clear that Philippe Mora is in sympathy with his lycanthropes, and that he wants his viewers to be so too. They are depicted throughout as victims, who have been hunted, persecuted, killed throughout history; and who are likely now to be wiped out altogether. At the same time, much of what we see of the werewolves is hardly attractive. Thylo obviously propagates his clan whether the females of the species are willing or not; while the three "nuns" who follow Jerboa to Sydney leave a trail of absolute carnage in their wake. Yet it is not this that makes The Authorities so intent on exterminating the werewolves, but simply that they are different. Ultimately, Howling III takes a fairly interesting look at just what constitutes "tolerance". After all, it isn’t difficult to be tolerant of people no different from yourself; it is when your convictions are challenged by someone else’s beliefs or behaviour that the matter is put to the test. The specific message here seems to be that people should be judged as individuals, not merely as products of their environment or background; and that they should not be punished for the transgressions of their compatriots. When Donny (who falls for Jerboa before knowing the truth about her) and Beckmeyer (who falls for Olga afterwards) simply accept their lovers’ differences, we have an effective metaphor for mixed marriages of all kinds, whether racial, religious or economic. (Donny gets a goofily charming moment when Jerboa lifts her skirt to display the were-baby nestled in her abdominal pouch. The father’s response? A delighted smile and the question, "Is it a boy or a girl?") Unfortunately, having reached this thematic point and united his star-crossed lovers, the two couples relinquishing all hope of a "normal" existence and going bush to remain in hiding, Mora clearly has no idea where to take his story next, and the film tails off into nothingness before culminating in a wincingly lame joke. (That said, I was amused by the film’s suggestion that the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences would in the future mutate into the Academy Of Laser Arts And Sciences.)

The cast of Howling III puts more effort into the film than it probably deserves, although that effort does not always translate into success. Imogen Annesley is very attractive as Jerboa, just so long as she doesn’t open her mouth; her dialogue scenes are painfully wooden. Max Fairchild goes too far over the top as Thylo; and Dasha Blahova seems to have been cast as Olga chiefly because she has way too many teeth. The majority of the bit players are fairly amateurish, their contributions not helped by the fact that most of them are forced to speak with bogus American accents. On the other hand, both Barry Otto and Ralph Cotterill give genuinely good performances, and as long as the film is focussed upon one or both of them, it is a fairly enjoyable experience. While Otto is suitably straightfaced and earnest as Harry Beckmeyer, who hides the heart of a soppy romantic beneath his scientific exterior (I’ll let you in on a little secret: most of us do), the best thing about Howling III is Ralph Cotterill’s performance as the pragmatic Professor Sharp. Cotterill does have the advantage of getting most of the film’s best lines, and he delivers them with precisely the right degree of deadpan dryness. (I was particularly taken by his explanation for why all the werewolf sightings have occurred in the Soviet Union and Australia – "They drink a lot of vodka there, and a lot of beer here" – and his thoroughly Australian defence of his friend Beckmeyer, when the army accuses him of being "one of them": "Nah, he’s just a pain in the arse.") The film’s supporting cast boasts a number of cameo appearances, although it is doubtful that overseas audiences will get much out of these in-joke castings. While most viewers will probably recognise long-time Aussie ex-pat Michael Pate as the President of the United States, and veteran character actor Frank Thring as the Hitchcock-esque horror director, Jack Citron, it is hard to imagine that the appearance of aboriginal activist Burnham Burnham as Kendi, or TV/cable movie presenter Bill Collins’ turn as the doctor who diagnoses Jerboa’s pregnancy, will mean anything to non-Australians. Then, too, the film is just a little too flush with "local colour". Jerboa’s flight to Sydney gives Philippe Mora plenty of opportunities for travelogue shots of the Harbour and its surroundings; and when the story moves into the bush in its second half, that too is given the full picture-postcard treatment. Still, I did have some fun playing spot that landmark during the film’s early scenes, all of which were shot on location in Sydney. (My favourite moment is when Jerboa’s mad dash up George St takes her past the Hoyts cinema complex, where we see that Cronenberg’s version of The Fly is playing!) If Howling III is considerably lacking as a werewolf film, and an acquired taste as a comedy, it is nevertheless a not entirely negligible effort, and at the very least represents a substantial improvement over its series predecessor, Howling II. Then again, how could it not be?