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Howl [FrightFest Review]

Special effects maestro turned horror director Paul Hyett (The Seasoning House) returns to the genre with Howl, essentially An American Werewolf In London crossed with Stalled. The flick takes place, rather ingeniously, aboard an all-night commuter train (laid out more like a Tube, for whatever reason) on which Downton Abbey‘s own Ed Speelers’ unlucky ticket inspector finds himself trapped with such well-known British talent as Hollyoaks‘ Holly Weston, The Descent‘s Shauna MacDonald and Rosie Day, of Hyett’s debut feature, The Seasoning House.

The coach grinds to a halt suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, due to the ominous “something in the road”, with a stormy night battering against the windows and a vast forest on either side. It’s then up to Speelers’ decent sort Joe to rally everyone together before simmering tensions lead to unnecessary casualties. The problem is, it’s a full moon and a tribe of hungry werewolves is circling, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Will Joe be able to keep everyone safe? Will he get that promotion he’s been after? Will he find the courage to ask out his pretty colleague before the night is through?

Howl is an interesting follow-up to Hyett’s nasty, uncompromising début. Much like Stalled, which confined the action to a men’s toilet and brought the scares and the laughs in equal measure, Howl is a lot of fun in spite of its limiting setting. Creep attempted to make late-night trains scary a few years back, but fumbled thanks to a monster that looked a bit too much like Gollum and a protagonist we didn’t care about. Hyett’s host of characters aren’t the nicest people in the world, but they’re all defined enough for us to get a sense of who’s who, and to root for their survival/demise accordingly.

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Ed Speelers in Howl

Although a couple seem like clichés at first (asshole businessman, bratty teenager), they don’t perish in the expected order, which gives the film a nice touch of unpredictability. Nor does it follow the typical trajectory for this kind of movie, establishing its own, rather fascinating mythology for the werewolves and allowing the audience to fill in the blanks accordingly. Hyett teases the creatures’ reveal for quite some time, showing just a pair of beastly legs during the first attack. Sound is used to establish threat, too, claws scarping against the train’s exterior and, as the title suggests, a fair amount of howling.

Hyett is most well-known for his special effects work, with credits on The Descent and The Woman In Black, among others. He opts for (very tall) guys in suits to portray his werewolves, with just a dash of CGI here and there to give them a bit more oomph. The effect is staggering, giving us yet another argument in favour of practical over computer effects. The design on the creatures is incredible, and although the director does it Jaws style for the most part, and rightly so, what we do get to see gets the point across wonderfully.

Hyett has discussed how he imagined the wolves’ aesthetic as evolving over time, as opposed to just changing instantaneously, and this is communicated very effectively, particularly during a couple of surprisingly nasty tussles in the woods. Although Howl is very funny throughout, it’s also gory and bloody and often quite frightening, at the same time. A couple of well-placed dog scares (as opposed to cat scares) are well-executed and clever, while the overwhelming sense of foreboding once it becomes clear there’s more than one of these creatures out there waiting to strike is great.

Amit Shah in Howl

The film’s score, by Paul E. Francis, is used sparingly but its throbbing beat is the perfect accompaniment to the carnage. The set-up is a bit like Jeepers Creepers 2, except the threat is real and the idea behind it is communicated effectively. Hyett demands quite a lot from a small enough cast, with much of the shoot taking place on a sound-stage outside of London. The atmosphere created is testament to how frightening the performers must have been, looming over everyone in their massive, hairy suits, and how committed the actors are to getting us to care about their plight.

Howl packs quite a lot into its 89 minute run-time and, for the most part, its cast of miscreants are quite fun to be around–the fate of one or two of them is even kind of sad, in a way. As werewolf movies go, it isn’t exactly An American Werewolf In London, or even Late Phases, but the creatures look great, they inspire genuine fear and Hyett should be applauded for doing something different with the formula.

Director(s): Paul Hyett
Writer(s): Mark Huckerby, Nick Ostler
Stars: Ed Speelers, Holly Weston, Shauna MacDonald, Rosie Day
Year: 2015
Studio/ Production Co: Starchild Pictures
Language: English
Length: 89 minutes
Sub-Genre: Werewolves

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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