Friday, January 25, 2019

Retro Review: HOWLING III (1987)

(Australia - 1987)

Written and directed by Philippe Mora. Cast: Barry Otto, Max Fairchild, Imogen Annesley, Dasha Blahova, Leigh Biolos, Ralph Cotterill, Barry Humphries, Frank Thring, Michael Pate, Jon Ewing, Burnham Burnham, Carole Skinner, Jenny Vuletic, Glenda Linscott, Pieter Van Der Stolk, Andreas Bayonas. (PG-13, 98 mins)

Few horror franchises went as far off the rails and down the shitter as the HOWLING series. One of the three big werewolf movies of 1981 (along with AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and WOLFEN), Joe Dante's classic THE HOWLING, with its marvelous cast of character actors, Rob Bottin's trailblazing transformation effects, and its sly sense of humor, found critical acclaim and has endured as a fan favorite for nearly 40 years, even if it almost completely deviated from Gary Brandner's 1977 source novel. When a sequel finally arrived in the form of 1985's HOWLING II, alternately subtitled YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF in the US and STIRBA: WEREWOLF BITCH overseas, fans of the 1981 film were appalled. It was instantly hailed as one of the worst sequels of all time, despite the presence of horror icon Christopher Lee giving it some much-needed gravitas, B-movie goddess Sybil Danning frequently baring all, and Reb Brown yelling. It remains one of the most astonishingly terrible horror movies of the 1980s, though its awfulness is strangely endearing if you're in the right mood. It's become a cult favorite for a variety of reasons: the numerous werewolf orgies, the werewolf new wave club with an earworm of a song that will remain stuck in your head 30 years later, or a shot of Danning ripping off her top repeated about 20 times in the closing credits. Looked at in retrospect, it's difficult to defend HOWLING II, but with a proper amount of distance, it has its charms. Considering the justifiably toxic response it got in theaters, it's hard to believe its director, Philippe Mora (MAD DOG MORGAN, THE BEAST WITHIN), was brought back for 1987's unrelated sequel HOWLING III, just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory because physical media is dead.

From the opening shot of a Tasmanian tiger used to spoof the MGM lion logo, it's instantly clear that HOWLING III isn't taking itself very seriously. Anthropologist Dr. Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto, the star of BLISS, a 1985 Australian film and Cannes Palme d'Or nominee that became a minor arthouse hit in the US) has been obsessed with uncovering the secret world of werewolves since his grandfather disappeared in 1905 after recording an aboriginal tribe killing a wolf-like creature that walked like a human. Currently teaching in the States, Beckmeyer is summoned to the White House for a meeting with the President (Michael Pate) after the US government gets intel detailing a werewolf sighting in Siberia. Believing this creature may have originated from the region where his grandfather vanished, Beckmeyer returns to his native Australia at the same time Jerboa (Imogen Annesley) leaves her insulated werewolf tribe in the desolate Outback village of Flow (clever!) and makes her way to Sydney ("My stepfather tried to rape me and he's a werewolf," she tells a disbelieving bus passenger). She's discovered sleeping on a park bench by Donny Martin (Leigh Biolos), a production assistant on SHAPESHIFTERS PART 8, a horror film being shot nearby by pretentious, Hitchcockian director Jack Citron (Frank Thring, best known as The Collector in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME). Citron casts her in the film on the spot and she hooks up with Donny, who doesn't seem too alarmed when he post-coitally discovers she has fur on her belly and a sewn pouch. Jerboa comes from a tribe of human/wolf/marsupial hybrids living in secrecy in the Outback. Her sexually abusive stepfather, pack leader Thylo (Max Fairchild, Benno in MAD MAX), sends her three sisters to track her down and return her to Flow, but she's pregnant with Donny's child, eventually born a marsupial creature and kept in her kangaroo-type pouch. Beckmeyer crosses paths with Russian ballet diva Olga Gorki (Dasha Blahova), who turns into a werewolf during a rehearsal performance he attends with his colleague Prof. Sharp (Ralph Cotterill). Taken into custody, Olga escapes and is psychically drawn to Flow to mate with Thylos. Beckmeyer and Sharp travel to Flow, meet up with Jerboa, Donny, their baby, and shapeshifting aboriginal tracker Kendi (Burnham Burnham in the requisite David Gulpilil role), and soon come to sympathize with Thylo's pack, who just want to be left alone (with Beckmeyer even improbably falling in love with Olga), but government agents and hired hunters are in pursuit, determined to wipe them out.

Tonally, HOWLING III is all over place. It's never quite sure whether it wants to be a horror movie, a satire, or a straight-up comedy. The transformation scenes aren't exactly on par with the work in Dante's film or even HOWLING II, but the marsupial angle is at least an original and unpredictable approach. It plays slightly better now than it did then, when the few people who saw this in a theater might've gone in expecting the franchise to get back on track only to be bitterly disappointed once more, especially when Donny takes Jerboa to a movie called IT CAME FROM URANUS. The character motivations and behaviors don't make much sense, starting with Donny and Beckmeyer's apparent nonchalance about getting it on with werewolves or Thylo suddenly being a sympathetic figure. And the digs at the movie industry seem to come out of nowhere, whether it's Thring's hammy performance as Citron, Donny eventually going by the name "Sully Spellinberg," or beloved Australian comedian Barry Humphries turning up in full Dame Edna garb to host a climactic movie awards ceremony where Jerboa is the front-runner.

Like HOWLING II, enough time has passed that it's easier to accept HOWLING III on its own terms and try to forget it's a "sequel." It's got a great cast of veteran Australian character actors, there's a few legitimately funny moments, and the 1905 footage of the natives killing the werewolf has an undeniably creepy vibe to it. HOWLING III has found a minor cult following over the years and it would have some historical value today had Jerboa been played by 20-year-old Nicole Kidman, who auditioned but lost the role to Annesley. The last HOWLING film to get a theatrical release and the last to be helmed by Mora (his next film was the 1989 Christopher Walken alien abduction chiller COMMUNION), HOWLING III was followed in 1988 by John Hough's dull, South Africa-shot HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE, a reboot of sorts that was a more faithful adaptation of Brandner's original novel. 1989 saw the release of HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH, an Agatha Christie-like scenario filmed in Budapest and notable mainly for its lack of werewolves and the presence of frequent Mike Leigh star Philip Davis. 1991's HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS is probably the most well-received of the largely unconnected sequels, and unlike HOWLING III, is a somewhat faithful adaptation Brandner's novel The Howling III, if that makes sense. 1995's HOWLING: NEW MOON RISING is universally regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, effectively killing the franchise until 2011's ill-advised, one-and-done DTV reboot THE HOWLING REBORN.

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