Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, April 18, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1987)

The original “The Howling,” by most accounts, did fairly well in theaters. The first two sequels did receive theatrical releases but do not seem to have been that popular at the box office. However, the films probably did a lot better on video. We know this because five more sequels to Joe Dante's original werewolf classic would be released, foregoing theaters and being released straight-to-video. “Howling IV: The Original Nightmare” even seemed to have some actual talent behind the camera. Director John Hough previously made a number of good or at least interesting horror films. “The Legend of Hell House” is well regarded while “Twins of Evil,” “The Watchers in the Woods,” “The Incubus” and even “American Gothic” have their moments. (Outside the horror genre, Hough would also direct “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,” another movie I really like.) Yet there's probably a reason why “Howling IV” is not usually mentioned in the same brief as these films.

You also suspect that the overseers of the “Howling” franchise were starting to run out of ideas. Instead of sequelizing the original or telling a new story, “The Original Nightmare” purports to be a more faithful adaptation of Gary Brandner's original novel. This means it is practically a remake of the first film, retreading a lot of the same ground. In this variation, author Marie Adams is being haunted by images of a ghostly nun. Her husband, Richard, is instructed to take Marie on vacation. They end up in a cabin in the woods outside the rural village of Drago. Yet Marie can't rest here either, as she hears strange howls in the night and her husband grows more distant. Her new friend Janince agrees with Marie that something weird is going on. It's not long before things start to get hairy.

I haven't read Brandner's original novel but, just going by the Wikipedia synopsis, this film does seem to hew closer to the book than Dante's adaptation. Once again, we are given proof that fidelity to the source material does not immediately make a good film. “The Original Nightmare” is one of those tiresome horror films where the protagonist knows something is amiss immediately but nobody does anything about it. Everyone around Marie ignores her concerns, even as things start to get more serious. When her hallucinations continue, and even after a regular wolf seems to break into the cabin, Richard refuses to take her home. Instead of rising tension and making us question the protagonist's sanity, we just think the husband is an asshole. It is possible to make good horror movies around this premise but “Howling IV: The Original Nightmare” is not on the level of, say, “Rosemary's Baby.”

As a horror film, “The Original Nightmare” is slow-going. Not much happens for most of the film, the characters milling around town or the cabin. When there's an actual attempt to scare the audience, the results are underwhelming. Random appearances of a spooky nun, furniture overturning, or minor characters being chased through the woods by a point-of-view monster don't impress much. What's especially frustrating about this is that “The Original Nightmare” occasionally shows flashes of competence. There's some decent foggy atmosphere in the woods. A sudden werewolf attack is mildly shocking. A transformation scene, where the human flesh melts off and reforms into wolf-skin, is pretty damn cool. The monster mayhem and special effects in the last ten minutes are all satisfying. This suggest director Hough hadn't lost his talent but the budget forced the film to save this stuff for the end.

As decent as these bright spots are, it's still hard to forgive “Howling IV' for its crimes. Aside from its slow pace and dull story, the film also features some fairly ropy acting. Romy Windsor is never convincing as Marie, her fear coming off more like sleepiness. Michael T. Weiss, who would go on to greater success as a voice actor, is stiff and flat as the borderline abusive Richard. Lamya Derval, essentially playing the same role Elizabeth Brooks did in the original, glares with smoky eyes but does no actual acting. The film, like many straight-to-video productions of the time, was shot in South Africa. Several of the actors have trouble disguising their accents and a few appear to have been dubbed over.

While going back to the original novel might seem like an idea with merit, all “The Original Nightmare” mostly does is make you wish you were watching the first "Howling" again. Say what you will about the second and third entries in the series but at least they had flashes of insane brilliance. Really the only thing this one has in its favor is some pretty cool werewolf make-up and effects. You can probably find a compilation of the various special effects shots from the film on Youtube. I recommend you watch that and skip watching this usually dull sequel in its entirety. Believe me, you're not missing much. [4/10] 

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