Thursday, October 13, 2016

Baying at the Moon

Howl (2015)

Howl (2015, directed by Paul Hyett) is another iteration of the Night of the Living Dead/Rio Bravo siege film, in which a train full of diverse characters is stranded in the darkest part of the forest and waylaid by werewolves. It should not be confused with the film of the same name that tells the story of Allen Ginsberg. Indeed, there's no poetry at all to be found in this film. It's cinematic pulp fiction through and through. Not that there's anything wrong with pulp fiction so long as you keep your expectations reasonable.

The story here follows train guard/conductor Joe, who is working a second straight shift after being passed over for promotion. He's a bit surly when he's taking the passengers' tickets. Also on the train is an assortment of character types: the indifferent millennial who is tuned out to the world, the obese nerd, the amoral stock broker, the elderly retired couple, the engineering student, etc. The Night of the Living Dead scenario is the horror genre's version of Stagecoach, after all, or Grand Hotel: throw a bunch of disparate people into a microcosm under threat and watch what percolates. Character traits will rise to the fore. In any event, the train is stranded and something is picking off our characters one by one. That something turns out to be werewolves. After killing one werewolf--no silver bullet required, but a fire extinguisher to the face and head works a trick--our heroes barricade themselves inside the train and try to work out a plan for survival. This is complicated by the elderly woman who has been bitten and by the fact that the werewolves have done a good job sabotaging the train. That's where Billy, the engineering student comes in. He ventures outside to fix the leaking hydraulic and fuel lines, defended by mild-mannered Matthew who doesn't know from where his capacity for violence comes. Matthew, unfortunately, allows himself to be lured into the woods as Billy works, and even though Billy gets the train running again, it's only a mixed blessing. The werewolves, it seems, are upon them...

This is an efficient thriller that goes about its business without too much arty fuss. It makes the most of its mostly singular setting without feeling stagebound. The characters are mostly types, of course, and the performances are adequate to that task even if they don't transcend it into actual introspection or inwardness. Since this is a British film, the accents will sound like class to an American audience. The film doesn't require introspection or inwardness or even competence, though. The film requires meat for the grinder and that these characters duly provide. That the coding of the characters ultimately makes no real difference toward who survives is laudable, I guess, though the film does save an E. C. Comics-style comeuppance for its most loathsome corporate douchebag. It might have been subversive had he been the one to survive--the idea that monsters observe some kind of professional courtesy appeals to me--but the film opts for a class war in microcosm instead.

This film is disappointing in one other respect: it continues the collapse of the horror tarot into a singular massmonster. Yeah, this has werewolves, but in the full scope of its ideas, they're really just another variant of the zombie. Werewolves already have the inborn fear of contagion, after all, so it's not surprising that this film conflates being bitten by a werewolf with being bitten by a zombie. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies bleed into each other more and more with each passing year as their distinctiveness wears away with overuse. Alas. One of the appeals of the werewolf variant of the massmonster is that it gives the filmmakers the chance to design actual monsters and transformations. This film makes unusual choices along these lines, given that the werewolves are more human than wolf-like, even though their hind legs are bent like a wolves. There's at least one shot of some werewolves out in the woods that's singularly effective in eliding apocalyptic horror, but you wouldn't take it for werewolves per se were it in another movie. Howl mostly discards werewolf mythology, too, and loses more than it gains. The werewolf myth has always been a looking glass--the Narcissus myth is closely tied to the werewolf myth--but this film will have none of that. Mind you, the film isn't bad, but I do wonder why they bothered with werewolves in the first place if they weren't going to let them be, y'know, werewolves. The crisis in monster design among contemporary horror movies continues unabated.

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