When someone with a resume like Christopher Lee is able to single out one of his films as being among the worst, you know you’ve got to take a look. Such is the case with 1985’s The Howling II, out from Scream Factory on Blu-ray.
After reporter Karen White turns into a werewolf on live television, her brother Ben (Brown) and coworker Jenny (Annie McEnroe) are contacted by Crosscoe (Lee), a sort of werewolf Van Helsing, who tells them that Karen’s transformation has cosmic implications: It signals the reawakening of Stirba (Danning), queen of the werewolves, whose resurrection heralds the apocalypse. Together, the trio head to Transylvania to put an end to Stirba and her coven of Satanic, bisexual werewolf spawn.
The Howling II is the stuff of legends, for multiple reasons. During an era when Soviet-US relations were at an all-time low, the filmmakers were able to wrangle a deal with the Kremlin that gave them (albeit limited) access behind the iron curtain to give the film’s Eastern European sequences an authentic look and feel. Director Philippe Mora took the resultant challenge like a champ, even as Soviet authorities became ever more convinced that his shoot was a front for a US spy operation and began surveying him. At least some of the confusion, apparently, sprang from the USSR’s growingly inaccurate picture of popular culture: When Mora asked for punks to play extras during a nightclub sequence, the powers-that-be were confounded by what exactly a punk was, only for droves of the real-deal to turn up the next day when word of an open casting call went out. Without realizing it, Mora had inadvertently discovered a clandestine subculture of young Soviet punks who were only too happy to contribute to Western pop culture and give the middle finger to the Kremlin. Unfortunately, the authorities’ failure to understand who these people were and what exactly was happening resulted in a military blockade of the shoot. Mora found himself face-to-face with a Soviet general who, after learning that the punks weren’t really an assembly of youths conspiring to bring down the USSR, gladly informed Mora that no one would have to pay the ultimate price if they all disbursed in a timely manner.
Considering the circumstances, it’s a wonder that the film was even made. Some of the good graces bestowed onto cast and crew were probably the result of Lee’s presence: The consummate gentleman, Lee didn’t inform Mora of his special connections to Prague until the men were greeted by a military convoy on the tarmac. As Lee finally explained as the red carpet was literally being rolled out, he’d helped train Prague partisans during WWII, playing a key role in the assassination of Reinhardt Heinrich. These manners and decorum shine through in Lee’s performance, and it’s here that some of the bad-fun of the film comes through. Lee’s on record as saying that he only chose to do the movie because he was friends with Mora and because he wanted to add “werewolves” to the list of monsters he’d killed onscreen. The film is literally the cinematic equivalent of a notch in Lee’s bedpost. However, several people who knew Lee are also on record as saying that Lee quickly found himself regretting his choice, and spent much of his time on set “acting as though he were trying to wish himself away.” More damningly, Joe Dante recalled that, when he met Lee during pre-production on Gremlins II, Lee went out of his way to apologize for the film and asked Dante not to hold it against him. This strange mixture of adventurousness and regret is what shows up on screen, as Lee is visibly engaged in an internal struggle between wanting to put his best foot forward and barely hiding his regret.
It isn’t hard to see why, either. Beyond the beautiful locations, look at Czech punk and New Wave culture, and the always charismatic Sybil Danning, the film is simply a hilarious mess, ready for and worthy of a MST3K riffing. Despite the heavy New Wave influence, the soundtrack consists almost entirely of a single song (Babel’s “The Howling”) repeated over and over; the script consistently confuses the mythologies of vampires, demons, and werewolves (the biggest kicker: werewolves are the Whore of Babylon from the Book of Revelation); and do to a shipping error, the werewolves in several scenes aren’t werewolves at all, but actors wearing left over costumes from Planet of the Apes. (Lee himself, in the spirit of keeping calm and carrying on, suggested to Mora that they cover the gaffe by filming a sequence in which he’d explain that, before a man can transform into a werewolf, he first has to evolutionarily regress into an ape). Most damning, though, is the film’s wanton decision to betray its’ own marketing campaign. Sybil Danning has legitimate acting chops—she may never win an Oscar, but in a medium that often blatantly ignored talent, she stood head-and-shoulders above most of the other career exploitation actresses. That gentlemanly digression out of the way, Danning was (and remains) a gorgeous woman, and she was in peak physical condition when The Howling II was made. The promise of seeing Danning in an erotic performance, traipsing around a mountain castle completely naked and seducing everyone in sight, was a core part of the film’s ad campaign. Viewers coming into the film for the first time will think themselves ready to receive a great reward for their patience, as roughly the first third of the film is one long, tedious buildup to a hinted-at three-way between Danning, her right-hand- woman, and a musclebound Mads Mikkelson doppelganger. They’ll even think that the wait was worth it as the promised three-way actually begins (set, of course, to Babel’s “The Howling.”) Then, just as Danning completely disrobes, the film commits perhaps the greatest bait-and-switch in cinematic history, abruptly jump-cutting to a brooding, defeated-looking Lee slumped over the back of a sedan. The expression on his face—doleful, disappointed, almost apologetic—seems to be beseeching the audience not to hold their collective frustration against him, wishing—just wishing—that he could somehow make the film deliver on what it promised. (In what appears to be a hilariously over-the-top apology on Mora’s behalf, the quick clip of Danning taking her top off repeats ad nausuem over the end credits.)
It may not make for the sexy night in that it promised, but, if your goal is to see something that’s almost too insane to be believed—and which visibly fights against itself to not be too sexy—The Howling is a fantastic way to spend a Friday night with friends. Thankfully, both Mora and Scream Factory have realized the film’s dichotomous appeal. In addition to providing a commentary, Mora was instrumental in compiling the Blu-ray’s special features, which include behind-the-scenes footage and alternate scenes culled directly from his own archives. In addition to a commentary with composer Steve Parsons and editor Charles Bornstein, interviews with Brown and Danning, and an SFX featurette, this is the ultimate look at a very bad, very fun movie.