The Howling franchise sounds great on paper. It really seems like common sense for there to be a long-lived and successful werewolf series. Add in an anthology format and it’s almost a no-brainer. Then there’s the fact that there’s a great trilogy of source material to mine in the Howling novels by Gary Brandner. Yet, the Howling films sadly just don’t work out this way. As a series, it’s just a complete mess.
Some of these films have merit. Some of them don’t. Most of them do not connect with one another other in any way, shape or form. And the few attempts to connect the films only make things worse. I’ll be up front, it’s not a great series to marathon your way through. However, horror fans are a masochistic bunch, as evidenced by the rabid fan-base for Troll 2. If you’re going to watch your way through the series, make sure not to do it alone. With a group of friends, watching through the Howling flicks will at least result in a night of so-bad-it’s-at-least-mildly-funny entertainment. Watching them alone can result in an existential crisis. Regardless, here’s a guide to get you through it, so you know what you’re in for.
There’s no way around it, The Howling is one of the best werewolf movies ever made. It stands on a pedestal beside An American Werewolf in London. It’s got strong characters, great effects by Rob Bottin and an intense central mystery at the heart of the film. Dee Wallace gives one of her best performances as believably frightened Karen White, who moves to a colony inhabited by werewolves in order to recover from a trauma. In terms of a franchise, however, it’s a Trojan Horse. The original film is so good that you may be tricked into thinking that the seven films that follow it are also good. In fact, the merit of the first installment is probably the only reason anyone would consider going all the way through the series. If this one is such a fantastic film, then the sequels must have something to offer. Right?
Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf
It’s a sequel to The Howling and it stars Christopher Lee. Sure, the subtitle is a little awkward – it’s oddly specific and vaguely insulting, but there’s no apparent red flag right off the bat. It even has original author Gary Brandner as a credited screenwriter! From just about the time the opening credits start, though, you can tell that this is something very different. Reb Brown, of the 1978 made-for-TV Captain America stars as Karen’s brother. The first scene is apparently Karen’s funeral and that’s the end of any and all connection to the previous film. This time, it’s about a trip to Transylvania to stop a werewolf queen named Stirba (Sybil Danning) from taking over the Earth. In between the action, which is mostly repeated shots of the one werewolf mask sculpted for the film, there are numerous scenes of werewolf orgies. These don’t help the pacing of the picture nor do they benefit the comfort level of the viewer in any way. At least it can’t get any weirder.
Howling III: The Marsupials
A fun science fact about wolves: they are not marsupials. This film retcons in a nonexistent form of marsupial wolf so that there can naturally be a breed of marsupial werewolf living in the Australian outback. This one plays a lot more like a docudrama than a horror film. Lengthy portions at the beginning and end focus on the native werewolf tribe, while the middle section zeroes in on a young woman from that tribe trying to integrate herself into human society. By becoming a famous actress, of course. There’s a weird sort of charm to The Marsupials, I have to admit. It knows exactly what it is. There are even more werewolf effects this time. They don’t touch the phenomenal effects of the original, but by this point that movie is already a memory from another, better life.
Howling IV: The Original Nightmare
Every horror franchise tries to bring things around to the original eventually. You have to pay respect to what has come before. The Howling movies tried to do that by remaking the first film and slapping a number four on it. Sure, this is a much, much closer adaptation of the original novel. It is also a great reminder why most of that material was cut out in the first place. The structure is close enough to that of the first film that it feels like an awkward rehash with not even a tenth of the budget. It’s kind of like the Bollywood version of The Howling. It plays out some iconic scenes from the first movie, despite knowing it can’t possibly pull them off, which is almost admirable. There is a shot of a cool looking werewolf suit glimpsed at the end of the film, but the rest of the werewolves are dogs with their eyes colored red so it’s not an entirely fair trade.
Howling V: The Rebirth
At this point, Stockholm Syndrome sets in and we find a Howling sequel that we can actually enjoy. Other than the fact that nothing much happens, there’s nothing terrible about Howling V at the onset. Sure, it’s may be lacking in the werewolf action and gore to be but it’s a pretty decent as compared to an episode of Dark Shadows. In this one, a bunch of people are taken into a castle where they are snowed in and picked off by a werewolf. One of castle’s inhabitants is the werewolf and the whole movie is spent trying to determine who. There are some inventive twists and turns. Even if almost none of the violence occurs onscreen and the werewolf is rarely ever shown, it can at least hold your attention for surprising periods of time. What we can see of the werewolf has a neat design and the score is actually pretty good.
Howling VI: The Freaks
The slight rise that began in The Rebirth continues. The Freaks is even better and the closest we’ve come to a good Howling sequel. The actors do their best with the material and the material does its best with the budget. The werewolf is seen a lot more this time around as he is actually the film’s main character. As a result, it’s some of the worst werewolf makeup in the entire series. It harkens back to films like The Wolf Man instead of the much more expensive original Howling that its predecessors tried to emulate. In The Freaks, a werewolf who has come to a small town to find work is captured by a circus where his curse is exploited for an eager audience night after night. The owner of this carnival is a vampire and that alone could sell any young horror fan on this film. It’s vampires vs. werewolves, like Underworld fifteen years earlier and with arguably more substance. The vampire makeup outdoes the werewolf makeup by leaps and bounds, as do most of the other members of the freak show. It’s almost as if the werewolf was added as an afterthought to his own movie. Either way, this is an entertaining one and if you wanted to just skip to it nobody would blame you.
Howling VII: New Moon Rising
By this point, after two unexpectedly entertaining entries, you’ve started to trust the Howling series again. It’s made small steps, but they were steps in the right direction. That brings you to New Moon Rising and creates brand new trust issues for you to be haunted by. The seventh entry in the series is not only the worst of an already bad franchise, but one of the worst movies ever made. I’ve seen a lot of films and still feel perfectly comfortable saying that. Clive Turner, who owned the series at this point, felt obliged to make a sequel but was far more interested in making a documentary about a small western town he’d fallen in love with. Naturally he decided to do both. The major focus is on these people (all non actors, playing themselves) while a detective investigating werewolf killings is the B-plot of the film. If you feel like you’ve invested a bunch of time for nothing, this movie hilariously tries to fix that for you by attempting to tie together the whole series. By that, I mean the third, fourth and fifth films – all of the entries Clive Turner was involved with. The rest were ignored completely. There is a single shot of a werewolf, ending the film, and it feels completely out of place.
The Howling Reborn
Despite its title, The Howling Reborn has nothing whatsoever to do with any Howling film before it, even the original. It was made in 2011, sixteen years after the seventh feature. Tonally, it feels like a pilot to Teen Wolf. If this actually was originally conceived as a pilot for a Howling TV series I would not be remotely surprised. What does surprise me, however, is that it is a competently made film. Compared to the earlier sequels, reboots and country/western ballads in this series it has actual production value. It even has some semblance of a plot. The werewolf effects themselves are not bad and if it’s the note the series has to end on (and let us all hope that it is) the six films before it prove that it could be a lot worse. If you’ve decided to marathon your way through all eight films, then that realization might be a small comfort. That, however, is just part of the fun of discovery.