When passengers on a train are attacked by a creature, they must band together in order to survive until morning.
October 16, 2015
Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler
Ed Speleers as Joe
Shauna MacDonald as Kate
Holly Weston as Ellen
Sam Gittins as Billy
I’m sure we’ve all heard those tall tales from (obviously) other dimensions and times – where the actual film that is represented by a mind-bending, excitement-inducing trailer turns out to be not-so-good.
I’ve personally never experienced such a phenomenon until this evening’s viewing of Howl. Okay, that’s a lie. We’ve all been disappointed by a trailer-hyped film and lived to tell about it.
So let me tell you a tall tale – a tale of a group of a mismatched and ill-fated passengers, stuck together when their train breaks down in a werewolf-infested forest in the middle of the UK. There’s no communication. There’s a storm. And to set foot outside the crippled train – means certain death.
I have a very deep affinity for siege films. I have an even deeper love for siege films with many different characters from varying backgrounds – forced to work together, or more often than not, bicker about how to handle their respective film’s central crisis. And this is why Howl was an immediate addition to my list of films to review. I staked claim to this picture with my editors and then got the go-ahead for a write-up. And now here we are – post screening.
I was pretty excited about this one. And since Howl is so fond of clichés, I’ll use one of my own. Pulling from my cabinet of favorite over-used phrases, I’ll re-use this quote from the Faye Dunaway classic, Mommie Dearest: “It’s not good.”
Something I did find intriguing about Howl, was how they took an obvious werewolf tale and infused it with the infection tropes of a 28 Days Later, or another zombie-ish type film. When one of the characters is bitten, they become infected and eventually go on the rampage. There’s the constant bickering of whether this person should be killed or bound, etc. And as usual, one of the characters has the right idea by wanting to be proactive, but he himself gets gagged for attempting to protect the group. The moments where this character is bound next to the infected person – could have been a fun homage to the “testing” scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing. But sadly, they didn’t go there.
And here’s the problem with Howl. It follows a very clear format for a film of this kind. There’s nothing new, nothing revolutionary. And I know we’re dealing with horror, but it’s been quite some time since I found myself actually angry with the character choices. Don’t the filmmakers know that to create genuine suspense, you should make the move to bring the characters into the most obvious and common sense direction – only to have that choice still be detrimental to their well-being? If we continually see the characters behave based on emotion (many of us would if we were in a similar real-life situation), we’ll not continue on their journey. All we will see and say is that “they’re stupid.”
There were no good characters to root for in Howl. The lead is Joe (played by Ed Speleers) and he has just been denied advancement in his career on the rails, but even that unfortunate slight doesn’t give us any reason to find him interesting. Once the train begins its journey, he proves over and over again that he’s (pardon the language) a pussy. By the time he does step up to the plate (eventually delivering an asinine motivational speech (a la Independence Day), it’s really of no concern to us. And the fact that all of this time he’s been pining for his co-worker Ellen (Holly Weston) and can’t get up the nerve to boldly pursue her – and then when things are dire, he finally grabs her and presses his lips to hers – well, it was cliché and definitely warranted one hell of an eye roll.
Among the expansive cast, you’ll find The Descent’s Shauna MacDonald (one of the big selling points for me, when first viewing that trailer). Shauna stands out because she’s familiar. And as in The Descent, she delivers a great performance. Everyone does. I’m afraid the fault lies at the feet of those in charge. You’ve got a great cast, but nothing good for them to say and plenty of insanely unbelievable choices for them to make.
You’d expect lots of “boo” moments in Howl, and you will find that necessary aspect coming up short. A few moments of mild suspense get the blood to (slightly) flow faster, but again – with no one to care about, I found myself hoping for gruesome deaths for practically all of the characters – even Joe. If you’re the filmmakers, that should be a great big “uh-oh!”
Of note on the positive side of things, the gore is ample and fun, and the creature effects are extremely unnerving and impressive. Up close the werewolf visages don’t work quite as well, but in the foggy areas just outside the train, their glowing eyes and frightening physiques make for good and spooky entertainment.
I’m not giving Howl the kiss of death. The acting is all well done (they just needed better situations and dialogue to help them along), and it’s a beautifully produced film. It’s not all bad, but as is usual from this reviewer – it’s gotta start on the page and we’ve gotta like (if not love) the people we’re spending an hour and a half following on that screen.
Just take this as a gentle reminder. Trailers are meant to bring you in and take your money. Doesn’t matter if the commercial is showing the best and brightest points of their film. Howl is a shining example of this timeless hustle. But life (as well as movie-watching) is a toss-up. So keep trying and sampling. Or read my reviews and avoid the bad stuff.
Howl is scheduled for DVD release on October 26th.