I love and appreciate Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING. It’s a genuine classic, a film that melds horror and humor with an ease that few in cinema’s history have. It’s easily among the top five werewolf movies ever made.
But my heart? My heart belongs to HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH.
I’d like to say that I don’t know exactly why or how I became oddly captivated by the fourth sequel to the 1981 classic, made in 1989 and sliding straight to VHS via IVE Home Video. However, I know the truth, and it’s a pretty obvious one – HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH just managed to hit several buttons on the “movies I’m automatically going to at least watch” list.
- It features a bunch of strangers in an isolated location.
- That location is a creepy old castle.
- They get killed off one by one.
- You can tell the characters apart. (Mostly)
- It was on Cinemax a lot in 1990-1992.
Now, there are a few other films that also fit these carefully-molded specifications. There’s the Charles Band-produced SPELLCASTER with Adam Ant, Traci Lin and William Butler, and while I like SPELLCASTER and have watched it several times, it’s a little messy in the plot department even if it’s goofy as hell. There’s the mostly-forgotten Manny Coto flick PLAYROOM (which aired as SCHIZO) written by Jackie Earle Haley (!), but there honestly aren’t enough victims involved and they’re not strangers. There’s also a bunch of Harry Alan Towers-produced films based (loosely) on literature like MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, TEN LITTLE INDIANS, and HOUSE OF USHER, but they never quite aired frequently enough to catch my undivided admiration.
HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH, on the other hand, seemed to hit the sweet spot in terms of cable availability that made it a film I’ll inexplicably go back to more often than genuine classics of the horror film. It’s definitely the werewolf movie I’ve seen the most often, and I will, honestly, spend some evenings with analysis paralysis in choosing from the endless options on streaming or on my DVD shelves only to wind up watching HOWLING V again.
After a prologue set in 1489 in which the sole survivor of a massacre in a Budapest castle is a screaming infant, we’re taken to Budapest five centuries where a group of assorted folks have gathered in order to be escorted to the castle for its reopening. It’s a little vague as to how or why these specific people have all ended up here (some mention being “chosen” or answering an ad, but many of the visitors don’t seem the type to be entering essay contests), but they all bond in a quickly expository style before being whisked off by a bus directed by Count Istvan (ALIEN3’s Phil Davis).
The problems with HOWLING V really come into fruition once they reach the castle, because there’s no actual reason for any of them to be there, save for wandering around the castle aimlessly. From a purely audience perspective, this is fine, as wandering around the castle, pairing up and getting killed off one by one is exactly what we want them to do, but with no motivation to actually do anything, it’s basically up to the more action-inclined characters to search for missing people to drive the plot.
The reasoning behind all of these disparate folks being invited to the castle, natch, is obvious to anyone who’s seen 1974’s THE BEAST MUST DIE (or, y’know, any other movie, really) – one of them is a werewolf, descended from the baby in the prologue, and they need to figure out who it is before they’re all picked off. Unfortunately, this isn’t revealed to the characters (or audience) until two-thirds of the way through the movie, and while there are some bloodless deaths in the meantime, there’s not a whole lot of dramatic tension to any of it. It’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, but without the clever clues, and with a half-conceived werewolf.
On the plus side, the film does a fine job with using the castle itself, utilizing secret passages, dark corridors and cavernous chambers to fine effect, and the score by “The Factory” (probably not the Swedish psychedelic band) is above-average, lending significantly more drama than any of the action in the film itself. In addition, the characters on hand are easy to tell apart (with the exception of a couple of bland, shaggy-haired white guys I always get mixed up), with a range of distinct personalities and appearances. There’s the aging foreign film star, played by Mary Stavin. There’s the condescending bitch, played by Victoria Catlin, best known for playing madam Blackie O’Reilly on Twin Peaks. There’s Mary Lou (Elizabeth Shé), the bubble-brained actress who delivers accidental snark in a blissfully unaware package. (In a meta moment, she comments that “It’s not easy pretending to be stupid,” and one apropos to the highly intelligent Shé) There’s the Professor, who is a professor.
While the characters are distinct, the performances have such an odd cadence to the dialogue that you’d think the actors had gotten their scripts about a minute before their scenes were shot – which may have actually been the case. HOWLING V was a notably troubled production, with director Michael Fischa (DEATH SPA), the production designer and the lead actor being fired within the first week of production. Assistant director Neal Sundstrom (the South African filmmaker who co-directed SPACE MUTINY) was moved into the director’s chair and did the best with what he could, but so much of the film is problematic on a basic storyline level that it was never going to be great without starting from scratch.1
It’s then no wonder that critics at the time basically dismissed the movie, though remarking that it was at least a minor improvement from previous entries by not being actively bad. When reviewed by Dr. Cyclops (the pseudonym of several writers over the years) in Fangoria, the film was bashed for its poor pacing, though the reviewer does mistakenly refer to Fischa and Sundstrom as the same person.2 Michael Weldon’s “Psychotronic” review gives it an even more blunt-than-usual assessment, comparing it to THE BEAST MUST DIE, mentioning its setting and moving on to the next (and admittedly) better HOWLING entry.
Like a majority of HOWLING sequels, HOWLING V has minimal connection with any previous entry – in this case, the sole connection is actor/writer/producer Clive Turner, who returns from HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE in a different role. (Side note: I have no recollection at all about HOWLING IV, other than it stars the guy from The Pretender.) Shé returned for the next two films in brief cameos, and Turner returned (as a new character) in HOWLING: NEW MOON RISING, but other than these tiny threads, the film’s story vanished into the same oblivion of the previous plot lines.
I can’t defend HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH for the life of me, and there’s no reason I should find it as comforting as I do. It may actually be the flaws that many found in the film – the lack of blood, the relatively languid pacing, the complete disregard for any real motivation for what’s going on – that have caused me to reach for it like a warm, z-grade blanket in times of cinematic need. I know what I’m getting in HOWLING V, and I’m totally fine with it, as it allows me to sink back into the feeling of lying on the couch as a teenager, drinking Mountain Dew and frozen pizza while staying up late to watch the Cinemax horror offerings of the month. It makes sense that Joe Dante described the film as “the one where a lot of people run around in a castle and nothing happens”1, but for me, that’s what gives HOWLING V its charms.
1 – The Howling Chronicles, Marc Shapiro, Gorezone #19, 1991
2 – The Video Eye of Dr. Cyclops, Fangoria No. 94, July 1990
Tags: Ben Cole, Budapest, Cinemax, Clive J. Turner, Clive Turner, Elizabeth She, Freddie Rowe, Horror, Hungary, Mark Sivertsen, Mary Stavin, Neal Sundstrom, Phil Davis, Philip Davis, Sequels, Stephanie Faulkner, The Howling, The Howling V: The Rebirth, VHS, Victoria Catlin, Werewolves, William Shockley