Considering the propensity of vampire and zombie movies these days, it is still a surprise to me that there aren’t more werewolves hitting screens both small and silver. Those that do come along are generally a disappointment in some way, but I continue to live in hope.
Nimziki is no Joe Dante
Shortly before he’s due to finish high school, eighteen-year-old Will Kendal starts to learn some uncomfortable truths about the death of his mother and his own nature. Combine this with his new relationship with the girl he has loved from afar for years and you get a humdinger of a graduation.
Let’s get this out of the way first: The Howling Reborn is not what you would objectively call a good movie. Just so there is no misunderstanding later, it’s quite bad in a lot of ways. But did I enjoy it? Well, kinda, yeah. There are probably spoilers below. Consider yourself warned.
In 1981 John Sayles and Joe Dante wrote and directed (respectively) The Howling, a deconstructive, almost-parody werewolf movie based loosely on the novel of the same name by Gary Brandner. It was a really clever, witty film that far too few people have seen. Over the next fifteen years, there were six sequels bearing the Howling name, each more risible than the last, and only one of which bore any connection to the first. In 2011, the 30th anniversary of Dante’s film, writer/director Joe Nimziki (whose only other credit on the IMDb is an episode of The Outer Limits from 1997) has resurrected the label and slapped it on this.
Nimziki has created a film that seems to want to be everything, from high school soap to family drama to monster movie, and it doesn’t really pull off any one of them. And I don’t just mean that he borrows the basic story tenets from these genres; no, he outright steals from their prime examples. His characters go to Shermer High School, for example. Will’s only friend in school just happens to be an expert on werewolf lore, and is a film geek who talks in sub-Kevin Williamson dialogue. Will’s beastly nature is inherited from the monster that killed his mother while pregnant with him. Near the climax, our hero Ripleys up a couple of impromptu flamethrowers in the science lab to go into the bowels of the beast’s lair to destroy the queen and all her offspring. Even his big finish is a rip-off of Joe Dante’s original televised transformation ending, except Nimziki takes that idea as a starting point and runs wild with it over the end credits, where it actually becomes something original (not to mention one hell of a sequel hook).
Based on Brandner’s sequel novel, Howling 2 – the same way The Expendables was based on Pride and Prejudice – Nimziki’s script has more problems than just being derivative. The pacing never seems to get into a good rhythm, and there is a major and rather startling personality change involving the leading lady at about the halfway point, not to mention some odd questions that came up over the course of the film (which I won’t get into here but feel free to debate them in the comments if you’ve seen the flick).
If you are looking for wall-to-wall werewolf action, you may as well fastforward the entire first hour, as that’s how long it takes for the beasties to make an appearance. I suppose you could applaud Nimziki’s restraint and desire to spend time building his characters and their relationships before resorting to the tooth and claw, but admit it: you don’t come to a flick called The Howling for deep and meaningful social interactions.
Personally, I think his limiting of the lycanthropes could have been as much of a budgetary decision than a strictly artistic one. When they do show up, they are clearly a man-in-a-suit affair (a choice the old-school horror nerd in me wholeheartedly applauds*) and the suits do not stand up very well to close-ups. The transformations are worse though, consisting of nothing but cheap, digital morphing inserts, no better than that app you can get for your iPhone to see what you’d look like in 50 years.
Watching this flick today, the one thought that kept popping up in my head was that even with all its flaws and logic gaps, this would have made an okay series pilot instead of a standalone movie. A lot of the issues I had could have been ironed out over a long-form serial, and the way Nimziki leaves the world at the end is undeniably intriguing. Ultimately The Howling Reborn ends up in my “flawed but fun” pile, thanks to the occasional flash of honest-to-God originality amongst the homage and thievery, as well as a couple of committed central performances by Lindsey Shaw and Landon Liboiron.
*When it comes to horror movies in particular, even an inexpensive man-in-a-suit monster will always trump a CGI creation provided it has been lit and shot with a modicum of skill. Compare Dog Soldiers and An American Werewolf in Paris if you don’t believe me.