Written by: Guy Brandner and Robert Sarno
Directed by: Philippe Mora
Starring: Christopher Lee, Sybil Danning, and Reb Brown
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"For it is written: the inhabitants of the Earth have been made drunk with her blood. And I saw her sent upon a hairy beast and she held forth a golden chalice full of the filthiness of fornications. And upon her forehead was written: 'Behold I am the great mother of harlots and all abominations of the Earth.'"
These days, the Howling franchise is practically synonymous with disappointment and z-grade junk. Ever since Joe Dante’s original, the series has endured returns so diminishing that the seventh entry, New Moon Rising, has apparently been kept under lock and key, lest anyone be subjected to its bizarre mixture of beer-swilling honky-tonk and werewolves. To watch this franchise unfold is to witness something that cannot be: a major franchise based off of a classic original should not be this horrible. And yet, it wasn’t always like this, as the series has had its moments, almost all of them belonging exclusively to The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (original subtitle: Stirba—Werewolf Bitch).
Now, I’m not about to argue that Howling II is a worthy follow-up to the original, but I will submit that any film that can sport two of the greatest subtitles ever merits some sort of consideration. If nothing else, nobody could see either nom-de-guerre and miss the clear implication that anyone involved was about to do whatever they goddamn wanted to with The Howling, which would be rendered more and more unrecognizable over the next decade.
Granted, this one at least tries to connect with Dante’s film. It begins shortly thereafter, with Karen White’s funeral (Hana Ludvikova sits in for Dee Wallace), where her brother Ben (Reb Brown) meets his sister’s colleague Jenny (Annie McEnroe) and a strange visitor (Christopher Lee, playing the classiest funeral crasher in history). The uninvited guest wastes little timing in letting Ben know the bad news about his sister (Lee uttering the film’s subtitle is chief among the pleasures here) before going a step further: this is only the beginning of an impending werewolf apocalypse, as the world’s lycanthropes have convened in Transylvania to resurrect bisexual queen Stirba (Sybil Danning).
After a brief stay in LA (where a coven of punk wolves hangs out in a club and listens to a band belt out one song the entire movie), the scene shifts to the “dark country.” As the entirety of the plot has been revealed before our trio lands in Transylvania, there’s not much in the way of developments for the next hour outside of gore and sex displays. Stirba deploys wolves in her service to counterattack her nemesis, presumably because she’s too busy presiding over Caligulan orgies and ordering the abduction of girls for sacrifices. What these scenes lack in advancing a threadbare plot, they make up for with eyeballs popping out of people’s faces and werewolf threesomes. It's a win-win, all things considered.
Like many of the Howling sequels, this one is a collection of absurdities—it just so happens that it can claim the most. Whether it’s Lee donning some absurd sunglasses or leather clad punk lycanthropes jamming to the incessant beat of Babel’s incessant theme song, The Howling II features plenty of moments that have helped it earn its notorious reputation. Director Phillippe Mora (who would later take the franchise Down Under, even further away from the original) and novelist Guy Brandner only use Dante’s film as sort of a suggestion and swiftly move in a different direction: where Dante's wry humor bubbled beneath the surface, it boils over into ridiculous camp here, with the New Age undertones morphing into a New Wave anthem that returns to the credits, where Sybill Danning’s topless reveal is repeated seventeen times. Surely, Howling II owns some kind of record for getting the most mileage out of its female star baring her breasts.
With such an abundance of batshit insanity (I mean, at one point, a bat claws through a guy’s face), it’s a shame that the direction and performances are nearly uniformly flat. Mora seems content to capture the outlandish proceedings without injecting much of a pulse—even the climactic showdown between Lee and Danning peters out despite the former being surrounded by an ethereal glow for some damn reason. Anything that works in the film is of this arbitrary, bizarre sort, and it does so in spite of the languid direction (the only real energy comes from a preponderance of flashy transitions), somewhat shoddy effects, and actors that may as well not even exist.
Brown and McEnroe have all the presence of a soggy bowl of cereal, and Lee must have been so disheartened that he seems to have checked out. Just as he apologized to Joe Dante for starring in this film, I feel I should atone since this is the first of his films I’ve reviewed since his death last month. The stalwart actor—who only came aboard because he had never done a werewolf movie—considered The Howling II to be the worst film he ever did, which lends credence to the theory that he didn’t even know he was in Meatcleaver Massacre.* He only asked to star in a werewolf film; what he got was a lunatic sideshow where the dwarf tossing ends in impalements.
But at least the film will always be able to boast Danning; quote possibly decked out with more ridiculous outfits than she has lines to deliver, she lords over it like a boss. In a film where everyone has decided to just do whatever the hell came to mind, she essentially transforms a werewolf goddess into a vamp queen draped in leather and shades. You wish the film had more for her to do, and you especially with the homoeroticism were more than just sheer titillation, but the image of Danning’s head basically superimposed on a full-body werewolf suit is perhaps enough.
Stirba is an extension of the film’s other boon: its marvelous set design yields quite possibly the most cliché vision of Transylvania imaginable, but it goes all-in with dungeons constructed out of human skulls, gypsies wandering the streets, and skeletal decorations ringing church bells. This sequel could not be further removed from its predecessor’s fascination with werewolves living among the modern world (at least until its gag ending set on a suburban Halloween)—instead, it perhaps offers a glimpse of what a Hammer film may have looked like had the studio survived into the 80s. It feels as though someone took those classic, gothic locales and trashed them up with orgies and exploding heads. Also, the torch-wielding locals now carry shotguns.
Obviously, Your Sister is a Werewolf doesn’t live up to that sort of legacy, nor is it the most worthy sequel to Dante’s film—hell, I’m not even sure it deserves an opening scene that sets Lee against the cosmos and has him spout portentous nonsense. It is, however, quite deserving of the new Blu-ray treatment Scream Factory has bestowed upon it. A high definition upgrade over a now decade-old DVD, the disc also adds a ton of special features, including two commentaries (one features Mora, while other pairs composer Steve Parsons with editor Charles Bornstein). Separate interviews with Brown and Danning allow fans to catch up with those two stars, while another featurette gives the effects artists Steve Johnson and Scott Wheeler the floor. Both an alternate opening and an alternate ending appear alongside some behind-the-scenes footage, and the usual litany of trailers and stills appears as well. Truly, it is more than anyone has ever dared to dream for The Howling II.
This is usually the part where I’d appeal to Scream Factory to do the same for further sequels, especially one that never even made it to DVD, but I’m afraid “New Moon Rising on Blu-ray” translates to an incantation that may raise Cthulhu in some languages.
*And can you blame him? I’m not even sure a bookending sequence that has him reading from a book of spells even counts as participation.
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