Successful author Marie Adams (Romy Windsor) is in the middle of working on a new book when she starts seeing bizarre visions of a mysterious nun (Megan Kruskal). During a meeting with her agent Tom Billings (Antony Hamilton), a vision of a Werewolf sends Marie into hysterics. Dr. Heinemann (Dale Cutts) believes Marie's visions to be the result of stress and advises her to leave Los Angeles for a few weeks.
Howling IV: The Original Nightmare is an odd entry in the series; though it claims to be the fourth installment, this is actually a quasi-remake. Like Joe Dante's The Howling, this film is an adaptation of Gary Brandner's 1977 novel The Howling. For that alone, I was actually curious to see this film. It helps that Philippe Mora of Howling II and Howling III infamy is long gone and that director John Hough and screenwriters Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe eschew the camp humor of Mora's films in favor of straightforward horror. Believe me, I wasn't expecting anything great but at the very least I was intrigued to see someone try to make a scary, atmospheric Howling film.
From what I've heard, Howling IV is more faithful to Brandner's novel than the original, leading me to believe Gary Brandner is a terrible writer (he wrote Howling II for christ sakes), or this movie's been royally fucked over by Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe. Personally, I'm thinking it's the latter, because while I haven't read The Howling, I do know that Karyn Beatty's nervous breakdown is the result of her being raped and suffering a miscarriage; having Marie Adams snap due to hallucinations brought on by writer's block isn't exactly an appropriate change. Watching this only makes me appreciate John Sayles' writing more and more, because Turner and Rowe have no sense of building tension or fleshed out characters. What's even more terrifying to me is that Turner wrote Howling V and wrote, starred, produced, and directed Howling VII: New Moon Rising. No wonder this series went direct to video once Turner got involved.
Watching Howling IV also makes me realize how much I miss that wonderful cast Dante pulled together. If only this cast had an ounce of their presence. Whereas Dee Wallace Stone's traumatized Karen White feels real and genuine, Romy Windsor just looks continually perplexed and stoned. Michael T. Weiss is well-known as Jarod on TV's The Pretender in the late '90s; it's hard to believe anyone hired him after a performance this stale. Antony Hamilton doesn't even try to hide his Australian accent, let alone act. When Susanne Severeid pops up, I honestly thought she had a speech impediment; her line readings were that awkward. Everyone else onscreen is equally bad, including Clive Turner in a bit part as a tow truck driver.
That leads me to what really hurts Howling IV; the piss-poor execution. Let's face it, remakes aren't exactly a rarity in the film industry and as much as I despise them, I'm willing to accept someone rehashing a classic if they manage to do it well. Let's just say John Hough doesn't and move on. No? Okay, here we go. I've never seen any of his other films, but I do recognize two films on his resume: Escape to Witch Mountain, which was remade recently as Race To Witch Mountain, and The Legend of Hell House, a well-respected cult classic from the '70s. I've got to believe he was a much better director then, because he does nothing here to make me think he ever made one reportedly good movie, let alone two.
To be fair to Hough, he didn't exactly have much of a chance here. Clive Turner started out as director, but lost funding and brought in cult producer Harry Alan Towers, who replaced him with Hough. By the time Hough started filming, the budget was non-existent and it shows. The South Africa locations don't look anything like California (though the city scenes were filmed in L.A.). What's even more off-putting is the bad dubbing; the budget was so low most of the scenes were shot WITHOUT SOUND. Really? That's how you save pennies, by not recording the actor's dialogue and having them come in to dub their lines over? No wonder there's so many scenes of people saying nothing or talking offscreen. I'm not trying to apologize for John Hough; he directed most of this movie and certainly deserves condemnation for making such a drab-looking movie. I'm merely stating that Hough's directing is the least of this film's problems.
As I said before, I was ready to see a scary Howling after the campy, unwatchable humor of Philippe Mora's films. While I'll never want to go back there, it would've been nice to see some levity here, because Howling IV really suffers from being stark and depressing. The colors are toned down, there's absolutely no attempts at humor and everything is delivered way too seriously; this is clearly meant to be a chilling film and I certainly appreciate the notion, but these filmmakers fail to create anything resembling tension and suspense, unless they think visions of a bug-eyed nun and old people are creepy.
One of the best things going for The Howling were the spectacular Werewolf effects, which took a steep fall in quality in Howling II and were inexcusably amateurish in Howling III. How does Howling IV stack up? It's hard to say, because for a Werewolf movie there's shocking little Werewolf action going on. For most of the film, they're reduced to howling in the background; there's no real Werewolf action until the finale, in which most of them look like third-rate knockoffs of Henry Hull from Werewolf of London; nothing wrong with that film, but '30s era Wolf People sporting bad hairdos and fangs aren't exactly frightening anymore.
It doesn't help that the filmmakers can't seem to decide what kind of Werewolves they want; other than the bad Wolf People, there's a lot of actual wolves and dogs running around with glowing red eyes, meaning that I'm supposed to believe these Werewolves can pick between Wolf People and Wolves. That's not to say there's no true Werewolves walking around; we do get two of them, but they don't get much to do. The first Werewolf, blackish-gray with glowing yellow eyes, only pops up for a second of screentime. The second Werewolf, shown below, looks like a bat-dog hybrid; to be fair, I actually like the look of these Werewolves, but they're so darkly lit and underused that you almost wonder what the point was.
As for the transformation scenes, Howling IV gets brownie points for actually being inventive; in the two transformation scenes we see, the Werewolves' human skin falls off in a disgusting, putrid manner before the actual transformation can occur. It's a genuinely icky moment when a character's skin begins to melt away and his skinless body changes. All in all, I can honestly say that for the first time since The Howling, I'm relatively satisfied with the effects. That being said, decent special effects don't make a good movie and this film is certainly proof of that.
Deep down, I do believe Howling IV had the potential to be good; the basic story is simple enough and I'm quite happy to see somebody try to inject some atmosphere and suspense back into the series. It's hard to know who to blame; John Hough for doing nothing to keep the plot moving or the visual interesting, Clive Turner and Freddie Rowe for showcasing some truly dreadful writing abilities or this cast for giving performances even soap-opera actors would be embarrassed by. There's no question the finished film is an improvement over Philippe Mora's films, but that's faint praise that in no way defends yet another abysmal Howling sequel. 1 out of 5 Stars.
Next Up: October 27th: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)