The Howling (1981)

I had an old friend crashing on my couch for the night so we decided to watch something horrific. After complaining about the paucity of decent werewolf features, we came upon The Howling, and the poor slob confessed to never having seen it.

Well, that settles that.

Plucky Los Angeles TV anchorwoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) has caught the eye of local serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who phones her to arrange a classy tryst at a local porn theater.

Of course, the police have Karen wired so they can capture the maniac. Sadly, surveillance technology is still in its infancy and the cops lose contact with the nervous reporter.

Eddie is gunned down but Karen can’t remember anything about their deadly encounter at the dirty movie house.

In order to dredge up every lurid detail of her trauma, renowned psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee) recommends Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) take a restful vay-kay at his coastal retreat, The Colony.

There they meet Slim Pickens, John Carradine, James Murtaugh, and Elisabeth Brooks, all of whom are probably werewolves.

“Join us Karen! It feels wonderful!”

The Howling is a fantastic werewolf movie, maybe the best one. The only problem is, it came out the same year as An American Werewolf in London, which is generally acknowledged as the apex of the lycanthrope genre.

Granted, AAWiL is a more modern film, and special effects wizard Rick Baker’s transformation makeup hasn’t been equalled in over 40 years. Baker was also an effects consultant on The Howling, but the heavy lifting was done by Rob Bottin (The Thing, Total Recall, Fight Club), a man with a resume nearly as impressive as Baker’s.

In other words, prosthetics on both wolf and victim in The Howling totally shred.

Director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles bring a keen combination of wit and irreverence to the shaggy subject matter, mainly in the person of occult bookstore owner Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), who, when asked if he believes in the supernatural, replies, “What am I? An idiot? I’m trying to make a buck here.”

Cameos by Roger Corman, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Sayles himself should keep the film school nerds energized, and everyone else will be sated by premium werewolf carnage.

Note: There are a bunch of Howling sequels and I might revisit a few, to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

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Freeze (2022)

Well, let’s see you make a tale of Arctic terror on a microscopic budget!

Written and directed by Charlie Steeds (Winterskin, Death Ranch), a MetFilm grad with an abiding love of bygone horror tropes, Freeze is a Lovecrafty pastiche of Victorian Era exploration that bravely demands your attention, despite being financed by old soda bottles.

Captain Roland Mortimer (Rory Wilton) charts his warship the HMS Innsmouth (hint) to the North Pole in search of his best friend, William Streiner (Tim Cartwright), a fellow sea captain who disappeared two years before in search of a passage through the ice.

It doesn’t take long for the Innsmouth to get frozen in the ice and set upon by Deep Ones, so Mortimer and his intrepid crew of a half-dozen men abandon ship and try their luck on the frozen tundra.

The Arctic region isn’t very large, so Mortimer and company soon discover a massive cave containing a few stiffs from Streiner’s earlier voyage. After that, they discover Streiner himself, who has gone native and joined forces with the so-called “Icthyoids” in a vague scheme of world domination.

All he needs to lead his baggy suited fishmen to victory is his copy of The Necronomicon, which Mortimer thoughtfully provides.

Freeze is old, old-time entertainment that would have worked just as well as a radio play accompanied by scary sound effects and a wheezy organ. Of course, then we’d miss grotty details like Streiner biting his best friend’s fingers off, and admittedly, that’s a fun scene.

Steeds cheerfully peppers the proceedings with DIY practical effects that any Dr. Who fan would endorse, particularly the pesky Icthyoids, who resemble a Sleestack dance company when appearing en masse.

So what can we really say about Freeze? Campy enthusiasm and resourceful story telling can still save the day, if you agree to meet them halfway.

The Cursed (2021)

Lovely to look at but largely bereft of beast, The Cursed, written and directed by Sean Ellis, can’t decide if it’s a werewolf movie or a period piece homage to The Thing.

In true egalitarian fashion, we get a smattering of each, leaving both camps less than satisfied.

Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) is a 19th-century French landowner with a passel of problems. While slaughtering a band of gypsies who’ve taken up residence on his property, Laurent gets a horrible hex placed on him by a dying witch, who doesn’t appreciate being buried alive.

The local children immediately start having bad dreams about an evil mouth of silver teeth, supposedly constructed from the 30 pieces of silver that Judas was paid to betray Jesus.

Kids being kids, they find the enchanted teeth, start horsing around with them, and Edward (Max Mackintosh), Laurent’s son, gets bitten. Soon after, mutilated bodies begin turning up, and a visiting pathologist (Boyd Holbrook) is called in to investigate.

The Cursed is sturdily constructed and painterly pretty, but Ellis uses such a muted color palette, his framing dexterity often gets overlooked. Each set is either engulfed in fog or we get buckets of brown mud and green turf, so as to appear especially dreary. Visual monotony ensues.

And then there’s his cavalier attitude toward lycanthropy. Surviving victims of Edward’s rampage transform with tendrils emerging from their backside. Tendrils? Where did they come from? Is this Lon Chaney or Lovecraft?

Furthermore, the werewolf CGI isn’t anything special when it finally appears. Rick Baker’s seven Oscars are not in danger of being eclipsed by this bunch.

Even so, The Cursed isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s slow, overly talky, and there are way too many scenes of people waking up from nightmares. Turns out the dreams are the scariest part, unfortunately.

Editor’s Note: This is the second disappointing werewolf movie I’ve seen with this title. The 2004 Wes Craven-Kevin Williamson feature with Christina Ricci is also a dud.

Brides of Dracula (1960)

“Count Dracula, monarch of all vampires, is dead, but his disciples live on, to spread the cult and corrupt the world.”

Like the gloomy narrator indicates in his ominous introduction to Brides of Dracula, the marquee bloodsucker, played by Christopher Lee, managed to get himself skewered in a previous Hammer Films production, so this time around we get Baron Meinster (the dashing David Peel), certainly one of the first examples of vampire as pop star.

When Meinster materializes at the Transylvania Academy of Proper Young Ladies to visit Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), the pretty new French teacher, the gathered gals go gaga over the dapper blonde Baron.

Check out the image above used to promote the film. It looks Heathcliff and Catherine off to a make-out sesh on the moors.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By this point in the movie, Marianne has already freed Meinster from captivity by his daffy dowager mother the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who for years has kept vigil over her evil offspring, aided by Greta (Freda Jackson), her equally loony servant.

Earlier, the Baroness discovers Marianne stuck at the local pub, abandoned by her cowardly coachman (Michael Ripper). Lonely for educated company, the increasingly unstable noblewoman invites Marianne up to her castle, to sleep in one of her many guest bedrooms.

From her window, Marianne spies the young Baron wandering on his own balcony below. Throwing common sense to the wind, she instantly believes the beautiful man has been wrongfully incarcerated and helps him to escape.

Nice going, Marianne!

The newly liberated nosferatu is soon feasting on the hottest peasant woman in the village (Marie Deveraux), as well as Marianne’s jealous roommate Gina (Andree Melly).

Greta, once his captor, has decided to help out Meinster by digging up the dead girls and making them more presentable for their master.

Now that’s what I call Goth!

True, there is no Dracula on hand, but we do get Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) the Hall of Fame vampire slayer, operating at the top of his game. Cushing is typically excellent and erudite as the dedicated undead destroyer, who has a couple gnarly brawls with the new count on the block.

After getting a bite from Meinster, Van Helsing demonstrates uncanny resourcefulness, by treating his unholy hickey with a hot branding iron and some H20 blessed by the local priest.

Despite the absence of the iconic Christopher Lee, Brides of Dracula gallops along at a brisk clip, with impending danger reliably signaled by Malcolm Williamson’s anxious orchestration, that during moments of high drama seems on the verge of complete nervous collapse.

The veteran supporting cast is spot on. Freda Jackson is a howling mad domestic that nonetheless adapts to new duties with surprising confidence. And the enchanting Andree Melly glowingly epitomizes the movie’s tagline: “He turned innocent beauty into unspeakable horror!”

Even minor characters, like Dr. Tobler (Miles Malleson), the dipsomaniac local sawbones, are given sufficient space by director Terence Fisher to have small comic interludes that prove successful more often than not.

Speaking of comic interludes, there is some lame-ass bat puppetry happening here that wshould also inspire a few laughs. That should not deter anyone in the slightest.

Brides of Dracula is Hammer horror at its hottest, featuring a plethora of glaring bloodshot eyes, heaving bosoms, and a fair amount of fang action.

Required viewing in my estimation. See what all the fuss is about.

Deadstream (2022)

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

As if to put an exclamation point on my earlier observation that internet adventurers are the new Red Shirts, along comes Deadstream, the Apocalypse Now of found footage horror.

Sean Ruddy (Joseph Winter) is an internet personality who stages dangerous stunts that also manage to be offensive, such as getting smuggled across the Mexican border in the trunk of a car.

After his latest spectacle goes horribly wrong, Ruddy hopes to apologize and move on, but his fans are deserting him in droves, peppering his inbox with destructive criticism.

Comments pop up throughout the movie acting as a sort of Greek chorus to the action, which is plentiful. Even as Sean battles all manner of paranormal entity, the comment string keeps up a barrage of fan posts that are funny, annoying, and even surprisingly useful.

Among my favorite comments: “Glad I’m not you,” “Better start praying,” and “Please sign this petition at Move.org so Sean will stop being be such a pussy.”

In order to atone for a bad call, Ruddy comes clean to his public about the one fear he’s never tackled—ghosts.

So, strapped with all the latest gear thanks to a sponsorship from an energy drink company, the repentant daredevil vows to spend a night in the most haunted house in America—that he can successfully break into without getting arrested.

The lion’s share of Deadstream originates from one of Sean’s cameras that are spread throughout Death House, the site of his viral vigil, or mounted on his person.

Admittedly, this is a long time to be looking up Sean’s nose, but writer-directors Joseph and Vanessa Winter reward our patience by throwing everything but the yeti at our fearful protagonist.

Sean spends an enchanted evening fending off angry spirits, misshapen freaks, and a hot girl named Chrissy (Melanie Stone) who wanders into the chaos.

Like the legendary Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mister Chicken, Joseph Winter delivers an unhinged scaredy-cat performance, that comes garnished with the best girlie shriek of man-terror I’ve heard in a minute.

As Sean Ruddy, a man who will do anything to please the ever-present and increasingly fickle comment string, Winter willfully throws himself into a thankless part, that of sacrificial lamb to his voracious followers.

Ruddy makes himself vulnerable to the dark forces of the house and to his followers. Will the truth set him free?

His unwavering commitment to see the project through drives Deadstream to thoughtful new frontiers that bear examining. For instance, shouldn’t everyone come equipped with a Stupid Things To Do spin board?

Simply in terms of pound-for-pound raw energy, and entertainment bang for the buck, Deadstream is a hot ticket.

I was a wee bit disappointed that the Winters decided to pay homage to Sam Raimi about three-fourths of the way through the film, precisely because they had managed to avoid doing so up to that point.

The Deadites must have a strong union.

Men (2022)

These days, it’s almost impossible for anyone suffering a traumatic loss to be allowed the time and space to heal properly.

Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) has just lost her husband to suicide, so she drives off into the timeless wonder of the English countryside to recharge her emotional batteries.

Unfortunately, her rural B&B is situated smack-dab in the middle of a metaphoric battlefield where she must face down unwanted masculine attention, principally in the form of Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) her temporary landlord.

All of the men in the nearby village are hostile to Harper, including a priest who asks her if she’s figured out what sin she committed to cause her husband to kill himself.

And then there’s a naked wild man that lives in an abandoned train tunnel who awakens at the sound of Harper singing and begins to pursue her relentlessly, enchanted by her “siren” song.

Writer and director Alex Garland (Annihilation) continually jabs the audience with a stick, asking us to consider uncomfortable ideas, such as, “Should both partners in a bad relationship go down with the ship?”

Men is a typically prickly A24 Production, depicting a society inhabited by a single man (demon?) who comes in many different shapes, and sits in judgment of Harper, a modern woman that ought to be ashamed that her husband James (Papaa Essiedue) jumped out a window.

That suicidal act appears to function as a blood sacrifice, summoning the Avenging Man Spirit (Kinnear, who is brilliant) to punish his wife’s transgressions—namely wanting her own life apart from a dangerously unstable partner.

The finale of Men is a queasily edited body horror freak out that will probably freak you out. After that, you can start unpacking all the subtext. Take your time: there’s plenty of meat on this bone, and I highly recommend savoring each bite.

Day Shift (2022)

“This is like the third movie we’ve seen where vampires are also realtors,” Kaja observes.

“It’s an easy metaphor,” I admit.

Day Shift is set in sunny Los Angeles, as hard-working vampire hunter Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) tries to earn a living snuffing out the undead and selling their teeth to oily pawnshop owner Troy (Peter Stormare).

There is a vampire hunter union, and Bud could make more money if he was a member. Alas, he’s been kicked out for not following the rules.

And wouldn’t you know it? He’s got a week to put together $10,000 for his daughter’s school tuition and braces, and his soon-to-be ex-wife wants to sell their house.

This situation provides the comic fulcrum and prompts Bud’s return to the union, where he is assigned a by-the-book partner named Seth, played by Dave Franco as a Rick Moranis-style retro nerd.

The villain in Day Shift is Audrey San Fernando (Karla Souza), an ambitious land baron who’s trying to buy up the valley she’s named after. She’s got a score to settle with Bud, who recently beheaded Audrey’s daughter during a house call.

Heck, let’s throw in Snoop Dogg dressed in full-on cowboy gear as Big John Elliott, a legendary slayer with a Clint Eastwood vibe.

Day Shift, directed by J.J. Perry and written by Tyler Tice and Shane Hatten, provides zippy spectacle with state-of-the-art vampire slaying methods (garlic grenades, silver beheading wire, wooden bullets), and the action is tightly choreographed and brutally executed.

The scene in which Bud teams up with the Nazarian Brothers, a pair of Eastern European tough boys, to clean out a nest of vampires is a real adrenaline popper. Martial arts, flying body parts, and tech toys make for successful stimulation.

Unfortunately, when the rumbles subside, we’re not left with much to occupy our attention.

It’s a minor complaint, but Bud’s family is about as one-dimensional as it gets. The sassy daughter (Zion Broadnax) and endlessly complaining wife (Meagan Goode) are standard plug and play characters.

There are loose ends left dangling all over the place, including a sunscreen that allows vampires to run around in the daylight for a short time. A significant discovery in Nosferatu society, but here it barely rates a mention.

And what’s up with Jamie Foxx’s name? When was the last time you met an African-American dude named Bud Jablonski?

If you’re inclined to forgive a few half-assed details, Day Shift delivers decent bang for the buck, but you’re not missing anything special.

Umma (2022)

I swore I’d never be like my mother!”

It’s easy enough to say, and you can substitute “father” if you want. Mostly they’re just words, and they don’t help.

The central point of terror in Umma (Korean word for “Mama”) is the idea of inherited sin, and how kids are rotten fruit from a poison tree.

As conceived by Iris K. Shim, Umma is a ghost story about being haunted by your own family. Unlike the trend toward pitch-black horizons these days, Shim’s feature maintains its grace despite grim subject matter, and even offers a glimmer of hope.

Amanda (Sandra Oh), an agoraphobic beekeeper, raises her daughter Chris (Fivel Stewart) on a lovely, spacious farm, where electricity (phones, TVs, you name it) is forbidden.

Like all the other threads in the movie, it traces back to Amanda’s tortured childhood and the abuse she suffered at the hand of a mean, unstable mother (MeeWha Alana Lee).

Their idyllic existence gets upended by the arrival of a suitcase containing her mother’s remains, which coincides with the manifestation of her angry ghost, who proceeds to torment Amanda from the grave.

As if life weren’t stressful enough, she also discovers that Chris wants to leave the analog farm and go to college! The pressure to maintain her equilibrium overpowers Amanda, and that’s how the ghost gets in.

Filmmaker Shim isn’t afraid to tackle touchy subjects, and Amanda’s plight is pretty much universal, trying to shelter her own daughter from the worst family traits—even as she gains insight by subletting her soul to a mother’s rage.

In Umma, it isn’t curses or cannibalism that’s passed on, but fear and resentment. You know, real shit.

Pro Tip: Acceptance is your best option when confronted with an angry ghost.

Hellbender (2021)

If you recall the lavish amount of praise I heaped upon The Deeper You Dig, then you might have a clue of how stoked I was for Hellbender, the follow-up effort from the shockingly talented filmmaking Adams Family.

In a possible star-making turn, Zelda Adams absolutely smashes glass as Izzy, a mysterious teen who leads an isolated existence with her mother (Toby Poser) in the woods.

Izzy is not unhappy. Life with Mom rocks, in a modest way. The two create raw punk music together in a drums-bass duo called Hellbender. Mom is wise in the ways of the forest and teaches her daughter all about the forces of nature.

However, contact with the outside world is verboten. Mom tells Izzy she’s too sick to be around other people. Can this be true, or is there a more compelling reason for homeschooling such a bright pupil?

Written and directed by Adams, Poser, and John Adams, Hellbender is a bold, original movie told with fearless artistic flair. After a lightning strike moment, Izzy must adjust to severe growing pains when she accidentally meets a distant neighbor (Lulu Adams) who awakens all kinds of new, dangerous feelings.

It’s such a confident blend of folk horror and coming-of-age drama/trauma, that when Izzy begins to change, we truly see the world through her eyes, and it’s an unsettling trip. Her caterpillar stage has ended, and something more powerful is emerging, heralded by Izzy’s switch from a vegetarian diet to fresh, bloody meat.

It’s also quite a change for Mom, who recognizes that a new administration will soon be taking charge, and that it’s just the start of a new season.

Highly recommended. The collective vision, brains, and arboreal soul displayed by the Adams Clan in Hellbender is never less than spellbinding, and watching their unique ascension in the horror film landscape leaves me giddy with anticipation of future treasures.

I only hope they can maintain some measure of artistic control as the budgets get bigger and they ponder leaving the creepy bucolic comforts of their upstate New York headquarters. The energy this team brings to each project is somewhat feral, and perhaps shouldn’t be tamed by Big Business.

In any case, I’ll be there in the dark with eyes wide open.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)

It’s definitely an immersive experience and most definitely a horror film.

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun has found a fresh fear angle in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, forging sinister and frightening links in a story told largely online.

Casey (Anna Cobb) is the personification of teen restlessness. With establishing shots revealing a dreary anonymous urban nowhere, little wonder that she seeks stimulation and community on the web.

And so the web snares another fly as bored blogger Casey creates laptop videos of herself charting her progress through a horror-themed Online Role Playing Game called The World’s Fair.

To enter the game, a player must bleed. Not sure what kind of port you use for upload.

It’s a plot that cooks over a slow fire, but WAGttWF hums with a steadily climbing anxiety level. Our concern for Casey’s welfare deepens as we realize she’s not the only one playing, and the tone of her video posts get darker.

Casey mentions her father’s rifle. She knows where it is.

All kinds of red flags and warning bells go off, but Casey proves capable of mastering her game emotions, even if her opponent (Michael J. Rogers) does not.

Rogers portrays one of those super creepy concern troll that lurks under every virtual bridge. Switching to his perspective, Schoenbrum daringly gives us a nervous glimpse into his painfully shameful world—and that’s more than enough.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a minefield of a movie about a very real war between the sexes. You read about it every day: A lonely wretch goes bananas and kills people because they are psychologically incapable of real-life interaction.

These are the ones I’m warning you about. They are a cause for concern.