Director: Philippe Mora
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

I recall during the mid 1980s, reading in Fangoria magazine that a “Howling II” was about to be unleashed and would star genre icon Christopher Lee. Being a huge fan of Lee and knowing that the first “Howling” was such a success, I was so looking forward to going to a movie house to view it, hoping it would gain some attention and launch Lee back into the monster mania arena. Well, no such luck. The film never played theaters here in NY (and probably only had limited runs elsewhere) and just became a direct-to-video affair, but when finally seeing it, I couldn’t believe how dissimilar it was from the original. Now this infamous sequel (which has to be seen to be believed) arrives on Blu-ray from Scream Factory with a plethora of extras.

Trying desperately to tie this to Joe Dante’s 1981 hit, we are reacquainted with Karen White, the newswoman killed after she transformed into a werewolf during a broadcast. Originally played by Dee Wallace, the footage of that event is redone with a different actress and of course, inferior make-up. In a California suspiciously represented by a very European-looking church, and an even more European-looking nightclub, Karen’s funeral is held. It’s there that Stefan (Christopher Lee, THE WICKER MAN) warns Karen’s brother Ben (Reb Brown, YOR, HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE) that his sister is not dead, but still alive as a werewolf and must be staked with titanium to rest in peace. Ben thinks Stephan is mad, but his girlfriend and Karen’s co-worker Jenny (Annie McEnroe, BEETLEJUICE) tries to convince him otherwise. Soon they witness Karen’s body rising from her coffin as a werewolf, and Stefan destroys her soon after. Convinced that these hairy creatures do exist, Ben travels with Stefan and Jenny to Transylvania, where a sort of werewolf convention/orgy is to take place under the leadership of the centuries-old Stirba (cult siren Sybil Danning, sporting an outlandish array of cleavage-revealing “S&M” outfits), the queen of their monstrous kind, along with her gypsy werewolf lover Vlad (Judd Omen, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE).

THE HOWLING was a true horror classic and a clever homage to old werewolf movies with a witty sense of humor and innovative special make-up effects. On the other hand, HOWLING II comes off as awkward, inept and downright sleazy. Here, the special effects (including a dwarf whose eyes pop out, and a priest who has a flying bat puppet thing protrude from his mouth) are over the top and will likely satisfy gorehounds, but the wolf make-ups and transformations are inconsistent (anyone playing a beast ridiculously overacts and howls a lot), with a number of the fangy lycanthropes looking more simian than lobo. The sometimes punkish synth score is by Steve Parsons and there’s a fairly annoying new wave/punk tune (by the band Babel, seen on stage several times here) that’s played throughout. It was filmed almost entirely in Czechoslovakia (substituting for Transylvania) where the screenwriters – “Howling” novels scriber Gary Brandner and Robert Sarno – obviously mixed the werewolf legends with vampires. The locations are actually pretty atmospheric, and there’s a great genuine lair set made from dozens of skulls and human bones. Seeing the film in HD, we can now witness some handsome cinematography and decent camera set-ups, courtesy of Geoffrey Stephenson.

Director Philippe Mora also did THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE earlier with Lee, as well as the far better crafted creature-feature, THE BEAST WITHIN. His HOWLING II has often been labeled one of the worst horror sequels of all time, but you have to give Mora credit for churning out a lively film with a lot of monster action, humor (some unintentional) and a high quota of sex and blood, something which VHS renters in the 1980s were seeking (and some actually hold the film in higher regards than the original!). Mora uses every cinematic dissolve technique possible as well as flashback/flash-forward editing style that’s brought to ridiculous heights during the end credits, as shapely Danning’s sole topless scene (where she tears off the upper part of her attire) is repeated and juxtaposed against other unrelated shots and reactions from the film. Top-billed Lee is at least given a meaty lead role as a monster hunter – his uplifting dialog about the various ways of destroying werewolves is somewhat reminiscent of his glory Hammer days, and it’s fun to see him battling a bunch of actors in hairy suits who are slaughtered in a dark forest with the help of sloppily inserted gore close-ups. Marsha A. Hunt (who also appeared with Lee years earlier in DRACULA A.D. 1972 and a former girlfriend of Mick Jagger) is a sexy wolf woman who’s not afraid to disrobe, and horror legend Ferdy Mayne (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) is wasted as an older werewolf who gets knocked off early on.

Originally produced by Hemdale Film Corporation, MGM first released HOWLING II on DVD in 2005 as a barebones release (with the “open matte” version on the flip side) and now Scream Factory licenses it from them for a Blu-ray with more extras than any fans of the film could ever hope to expect. HOWLING II is presented here in 1080p HD in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the transfer is quite nice. Aside from some passing inferior-looking bits due mostly to cheesy optical effects, the image has a crisp, well-detailed appearance. Colors are strong with good saturation and natural fleshtones. Grain is light while maintaining a filmic appearance throughout, black levels are deep, and the numerous dark night-time scenes are clearly presented. The DTS-HD mono track has good fidelity on the whole; dialogue, music and sound effects are all balanced well. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.

Extras include a brand new audio commentary with director Mora, moderated by Michael Felsher. Mora starts off by stating that this is one of the first Hollywood movies made behind the Iron Curtain, with the KGB keeping a close eye on the production (not too many worries, since this was a “werewolf” movie rather than a political-themed effort). He jokes about making the movie because he needed to buy a new car, and that he enjoyed the experience since the producer asked him to do it “over the top”. On Lee, he says the actor wanted to do it since he never appeared in a werewolf movie, but that he didn’t really enjoy it (and that the cold weather didn’t help much). Mora shares some great behind-the-scenes stuff, such as crates arriving on the set that were supposed to be werewolf suits, but they actually ended up being ape suits left over from PLANET OF THE APES! He differentiates what was shot in Czechoslovakia and what was shot on in L.A., addresses the criticism of the nudity (as well as the critics’ general dislike of it) and he admits he never saw the original HOWLING before making it, opting to make a totally different movie. This is a terrific commentary, and Mora never runs out of interesting things to talk about regarding the film and its production. Felsher also moderates a commentary track with composer Steve Parsons and editor Charles Bornstein. These are two separate interviews which are not scene-specific to the movie, with Parsons stating that Babel was a band put together specifically for the movie, and he talks about his background in music, the development of the score, getting the HOWLING II gig and what his experiences on the film were like. Bornstein starts by calling HOWLING II “one of the worst movies ever made” and that he wanted it removed from his IMDb credits. He goes on to discuss his influences, learning his craft, being hired to “assemble” John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, and getting the editing job on HOWLING II after being out of work for a significant period of time. He also recalls editing the film on location during the shoot, how thrilled he was meeting and talking to Lee, and he basically sums up the production as a “big party”.

“Leading Man” (13:51) is an interview with actor Reb Brown, who admits to having a lot of fun making the movie, doing his own stunts and shooting werewolves and all, and he’s glad today that it’s a cult favorite. He discusses how he got into acting with SSSSSSS and getting the opportunity to be under contract at Universal, later doing two Captain America TV movies (one of which also stars Lee, and he reflects upon him with great admiration here). On HOWLING II, he thought the Czechoslovakian locations were beautiful, that the food was awful and that the people were obviously oppressed, but that meeting Mora was a great opportunity since it lead to his starring in Mora’s DEATH OF A SOLDIER. “Queen Of The Werewolves” (17:03) is an interview with actress Sybil Danning, who exclaims how she played her role of Stirba completely straight. She talks about getting the role in the movie, her acting association with Lee (who told her, “always stay true to your character”) and she has nothing but nice things to say about her director. Also touched upon are her body hair appliances during the werewolf “orgy” scene, her costumes including the “rip away” dress, and she seemed to have fun making the picture despite the subsequent bad reviews and the fact that she was initially upset that her brief nude scene was repeated 17 times during the end credits. “A Monkey Phase” (15:29) includes interviews with special make-up effects artists Steve Johnson and Scott Wheeler. Both gentlemen tell how they got hired for HOWLING II to do some of the outrageous gore effects, and they address the “ape-like” look of the monsters; both seemed most impressed with the make-up applied to Ferdy Mayne. Johnson tells a great story about how Lee entertained the crew, and Wheeler shares a funny bit about applying the werewolf hair to a naked Judd Omen.

Also included on the Blu-ray is a slightly alternate opening (10:34) and an alternate ending (9:35) which is different in the editing of the footage over the credits. There’s some behind the scenes footage (3:52), mastered in HD from the director’s archive that centers on a close-up of a werewolf attack, shots of full-suited beasts running through the woods, as well as the aftermath of a massacre, and Mora also makes an appearance, joking in front of the camera. The teaser theatrical trailer included here actually advertises the film as “Howling II: It’s Not Over Yet”, and there’s also a lengthy photo gallery (8:17) made up of tons of rare behind-the-scenes stills. (George R. Reis)