Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cult Classics: Howling II

"It's not over yet," but you'll wish it was

The Howling is one of the best horror films of the 1980s and, alongside An American Werewolf in London, set an extremely high bar for the werewolf genre, one that's rarely been met since. It was directed by an energetic and creative filmmaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of horror and genre films, Joe Dante, and its script was rewritten and improved by a young John Sayles. The Howling has a fine pedigree. It's sequel, 1985's Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf, is another story altogether. It's a hot mess, composed of poorly executed horror, atrocious acting (with one notable exception), and utterly forgettable werewolf effects. It lacks the original's intelligence, humor, and a willingness to poke fun at horror genre tropes and conventions. However, while The Howling will always be one of my favorite horror films, there is something so endearing about the sequel's steadfast pursuit of ineptitude that it'll always hold a place in my heart too. It's a perfect b-movie to watch, and laugh at, late at night. In fact, that's how I first stumbled across it as a freshman in high school: it was the featured flick of the night on USA Up All Night, a show I watched religiously on Friday and Saturday nights. As a high school freshman with a social life practically on life support, I instead had Up All Night's host Rhonda Shear and the channel's deep vault of bad movies to fill the void.

Let's go back to the title for a minute, because I kind of buried the lead here. Look at that subtitle again: Your Sister Is a Werewolf. I challenge you to say that aloud without bursting into uncontrollable laughter. Whereas Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo is the most gloriously goofy movie sequel title of all time, Howling II might take the prize for most unforgettable. It's so ludicrous you can't help but love it, plus it's telling you in no uncertain terms what you're in store for. Things are gonna get weird and things are also gonna get stupid. I remember being floored by the name when I tuned into Up All Night that evening. Here was a movie with absolutely no pretense to greatness. It was a true b-movie, one designed for late-night cable viewings where its, shall we say, unsubtle charms would be most appreciated by an audience of bad movie aficionados.

Christopher Lee, not only a horror movie icon but also a new wave fan

So, you might be wondering, what's the plot? Honestly, it's irrelevant. All you need to know is that it stars b-movie legend Sybil Danning as Stirba, bisexual witch queen of the werewolves, and horror icon Christopher Lee as the mysterious werewolf hunter who drives what little plot their is here. Lee also utters the film's subtitle early on, while accosting the brother of Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone's character from The Howling) at the cemetery after the man just buried his sister. Dude, give the guy some time to grieve first. Lee delivers the line in a deadpan monotone that must have taken him dozens of takes to nail after cracking up over and over. Reb Brown ostensibly stars in the lead role as Ben White, bringing all of the charisma of a doorknob to his performance. With this movie, I tuned in for the title but stuck around to witness Danning and Lee turning scenery chewing into a form of high art. They both understand the key to a good b-movie performance: never take this shit seriously. Lee seems less than enthused for most of the running time--he was probably distracted by thoughts of firing his agent for bringing this role to his attention. It's endlessly entertaining to watch him slum it through this traiwreck. Danning, on the other hand, absolutely brings it. You haven't lived until you've watched Sybil Danning paw at other actors while all involved are covered in shag carpet werewolf hair and makeup. Danning imbues Stirba with an intensity and a gleeful malice that make it impossible for you ignore her. She and her portrayal of the immortal queen of the werewolves deserved better than this film, frankly. Still, she's such a star that she practically carries the entire movie on her impressively toned shoulders. There's a scene where Danning dramatically and impressively rips off her dress, which led b-movie champion Joe Bob Briggs to declare her the "Rip-Away Bra Queen." The scene is practically otherworldly and such a showstopper that the producers wisely chose to replay it—repeatedly, mind you—during the end credits. Danning is a Scream Queen for a reason, and you need look no further than Howling II to understand why.

The scene that launched a thousand school boy crushes

As I said, the plot is negligible. The film is basically a series of strange scenes strung together in an attempt to pass it off as something coherent. When our heroes travel to Transylvania to kill the queen of the werewolves, we're treated to a scene set in what is supposed to be a creepy ethnic folk festival but instead looks like a leftover set from your local middle school's severely underfunded theater department. The scenes of Stirba plotting against Lee and company in her medieval castle—with exterior shots that are intended to be ominous but in reality are nothing more than bad special effects drawings—provide Danning with some of her finest moments as she blends witchcraft and lacanthropy in one hell of an unholy union. Did I mention her iconic dress-ripping scene? Oh yeah, I did. Sorry but clearly it left quite the impression on fourteen-year old me. Danning scared the bejesus out of young me, another in a line of scary/sexy women on film who both frightened and attracted me. These were not women I encountered in daily life, that's for sure. She could have kicked my ass, but if you'd asked me back then if I'd mind that, I'm pretty sure I would have responded, "Absolutely not, sounds like fun!" I remember looking up Roger Ebert's review of the film in my copy of his mammoth book of movie reviews (this was my movie bible, which I often carried around with me in those early teen years, and yes, I'm aware of how incredibly dorky that sounds). Ebert, like me, found this one to be a wee bit lacking in most everything necessary for a good film—except for Sybil Danning's performance. Of Danning, Ebert wrote,
"I have to concede that no one presides over a ritual quite as well as Sybil Danning, especially when she is savagely ripping open the bodice of her dress. She rips the dress so dramatically, in fact, that the shot is repeated twice during the closing credits, providing the movie with its second and third interesting moments."
The bodice ripping scene is, by all accounts, the highlight of the film and also one of the signature moments in Danning's long and impressive career as a b-movie queen. And a slight correction to Ebert's review: that scene runs far more than twice in the closing credits; it's closer to ten to twelve times. My friends at school and I were not quite sure what we'd witnessed there—did she really just do that??—but we were pretty sure we liked it.

Remember when I said things were going to get weird?

Howling II deserves some respect for being exactly what it says it is on the tin: a tone-deaf sequel with only the slightest thread connecting it to another, infinitely better horror movie. You have the shared name, the fact that both films feature werewolves, and the early graveyard scene at the funeral for The Howling's Karen White (Stone's character). That's about it. Howling II is so absurd, so blissfully clueless about frivolous things like plot and character motivation, that you can't help but be drawn to it, mostly to see if it can possibly get any goofier than its title would suggest. Guess what? It can, and it does. With gusto. If you're a horror and b-movie nerd, check it out. As the saying goes, it's so bad that it's almost good. Almost.

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