“Ultimately, Howl has to be considered a disappointment.”
Howl (not to be confused with the Allen Ginsburg biopic starring James Franco, although a werewolf Allen Ginsburg movie might be fun…) is the second film directed by Paul Hyett, who made 2012’s divisive The Seasoning House. It’s mostly been described (accurately) as “werewolves on a train”, although its Twitter feed uses the phrase “a psychological werewolf creature feature”, which means pretty much nothing at all but presumably sounds impressive. The question is, does this new British horror deliver?
Well, there’s lots to be happy about when watching Howl. It is, for the most part, well-acted (especially by leading man Ed Speelers, who manages to be both likeable and believable in an underwritten part) and it makes good use of a single claustrophobic set to generate tension. Hyett knows how to orchestrate a good jump scare and there are several scenes in which he generates genuine tension. Sean Pertwee (who seems, rather wonderfully, to be happy to lend his considerable talents to any number of low budget horror movies) brings a warmth to his slight part that makes you want to see more of him and to care more about his character’s fate than any other in the movie, and it’s always good to see Duncan Preston (the baffled caretaker from Dinnerladies) on screen, especially when he’s squaring up to werewolves. The shame of it is, none of these positives can elevate Howl to anything other than a cheerful B-movie averageness.
Whilst this cheerful averageness means Howl isn’t a bad film, it does have a couple of problems, the primary one being with its script, which takes obvious routes for most of the movie rather than trying anything risky or unusual. It doesn’t, for example, spend any time trying to explain the undiscovered presence of werewolves in the British countryside except for an unconvincing passing discussion of an earlier train crash and the state of the bodies afterwards that isn’t referred to again for the rest of the movie. The shame of it is, there’s something interesting to be made of how the werewolves have survived and kept themselves hidden that might have made a more interesting and creative story, and could at least have been used to up the eeriness of the movie’s opening scenes. This willingness to take the easy road extends, more damagingly, to the characters, who are uniformly picked from the cupboard of horror film character clichés (the sturdy everyman hero trying to make something of his life, the fat bloke unaware of what’s going on, the girl who uses the threat of the accusation of sexual impropriety to get her own way, the arrogant businessman, the list goes on), all of them frequently recurring in films, not uninteresting exactly but simply well-worn. Even the various scenes in which they argue about how to proceed (and the dialogue is, to give it its due, fairly natural and well-paced) feel like something you’ve seen before in movies both superior and inferior; indeed, the whole film seems beset with this feeling, a sense that you’ve seen everything you’re watching before. It’s as though, when you’re watching Howl, you’re watching a movie you seen before but that’s made a slight effort by changing its outfit and hairstyle just before meeting you, rather than having anything truly different at its heart. This even extends to the film’s poster, which apes, consciously or otherwise, the advertising for an earlier movie, in this case Christopher Smith’s interesting if flawed Creep. It’s frustrating because there’s palpable skill lurking somewhere in the background that feels like it’s being sold short by the laziness of the plotting and story and when the action kicks in, despite the familiarity of what’s unfolding, there’s genuine scares and shocks and fun to be had.
The other problem with Howl is, unfortunately, the one thing above all other they needed to get right: the werewolves. Whilst the movie should probably be applauded for trying something a little different with the physical appearance of the creatures, they simply don’t work. They’re too pale and…well…hairless to be scary or awe-inspiring or even particularly wolf-like. They look (to this viewer’s jaundiced eye at least) like one of the vampires from the original Fright Night. Sure, the reversed knees are a nice touch (and nicely achieved), but the plain fact is these werewolves look like creatures that the beasts from The Howling or An American Werewolf in London or Dog Soldiers would point and laugh at before tearing them into small pieces.
Ultimately, Howl has to be considered a disappointment, especially given the obvious talent on display here. It’ll fill a couple of hours without forcing you to think, and if you remember it all it’ll be as a comfortable diversion.
Director: Paul Hyett
Starring: Ed Speelers, Duncan Preston, Sean Pertwee
Release date: DVD 26 October 2015 (UK), 12 January 2016 (USA)
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