Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING is one of the most-watched horror films of the 1980s, and certainly counts as one of the best of all werewolf movies — a subgenre that remains surprisingly trim. THE HOWLING, starring Dee Wallace and Robert Picardo, is largely a criticism/satire of the touchy-feely wave of share-your-emotions therapy camps that had become so vogue in the late ’70 and early ’80s. It’s well-made, features some great effects and performances, and certainly deserves its reputation.
The film’s first sequel, HOWLING II: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF (a.k.a. HOWLING II: STIRBA — WEREWOLF BITCH) is also a hoot, even if it drastically alters the tone and events of the first film. HOWLING II is more of a stylish sex romp and Gothic romance than it is a hot-house urban horror film like the first. It features Christopher Lee and an over-credits reel wherein Sybil Danning whips out her breasts 14 times in a row. It’s not great, but it’s great.
HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS might be where the series loses you entirely. Only rated PG-13, the movie is about a rare breed of Australian wolf people who are descended from a rare Aussie wolf (now extinct) that is indeed a marsupial. It’s also about a werewolf woman named Jerboa who becomes involved in the production of a werewolf film. And other bonkers things I can barely recall.
One would think that was the end of the HOWLING series, but attentive horror fans will note that there were actually five additional HOWLING movies after this one. Yes, friend, there are eight of these fuckers. And I, your dutiful critic and withstander of all terrible sequels, have sat through every last one of them. And while some are worthy of note, and others are totally forgettable, there in one on the series that stands out as one of the strangest sequels in the history of sequels. I refer, of course, to the seventh film in the series, 1995’s THE HOWLING: NEW MOON RISING.
NEW MOON RISING is the brainchild (and only directorial effort) of Clive Turner — a writer and producer for the HOWLING series on parts 4 and 5. In HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE, Turner also played a barely glimpsed tow-truck driver (credited as simply “tow truck driver”), and in HOWLING V: REBIRTH, he played a lost Australian man named Ray Price. In both instances, he was clearly included only as a goof, a cameo to amuse the filmmakers. Turner was no actor.
That didn’t stop him from casting himself as the lead in NEW MOON RISING, however, which was an attempt to tie the famously weird series together (by part 6, we start dealing with vampires) in some sort of cogent fashion. Only it wasn’t at all cogent, or even sane.
NEW MOON RISING takes place in a small town outside of Barstow, CA where the inhabitants are all good-natured country music fans in their 50s. Turner plays a friendly Aussie man named Ted who falls in with this crowd, and who happily drinks beer with them at the local (real) pub/music venue, called Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. You can tell right away, through a strange lingering sense of ecstatic cinematic verisimilitude, that Turner is making a movie with his actual friends, and that they are all playing themselves. Indeed, the characters are all named after the actors playing them. In a weird way, this is a down-homey documentary about the people who live in this little town. Only it’s a HOWLING sequel.
Given the amount of casual bar conversation, you’d think it was a Richard Linklater film — only without the sense of pacing, the wit, the actual conversation, or the interesting characters. There is a scene in NEW MOON RISING wherein a bar bet is enacted, in its entirety, with no bearing on the plot or the characters. The bulk of the film feels like Turner shooting for fun. Werewolves are clearly a distant concern. My theory is that Turner came to this small town, convinced the locals to be in a movie, and they simply made it up as he went along.
The more baffling facets of the film come from its unbelievably arch attempts to tie it into the original mythology of THE HOWLING. The story, such as it is, involves a great deal of worry about a werewolf who is stalking the locals. The werewolf could be literally anyone, and the werewolf in this movie is actually the unseen (and unfilmed) ghost of a dead werewolf empress of some sort (?), who may or may not be taking possession of people. Whoever the ghost possesses becomes a werewolf. At least I think that was the gist of the story; it’s really hard to tell.
Meanwhile, all the backstory is established in a conversation between a cop and a priest, and through stock footage from previous HOWLING movies. Turner connects all the movies — tenuously — by declaring that he has been playing the same character this whole time. Another minor actor from parts 4 through 6, one Elisabeth Shé, is also exploited as connective tissue. These characters had no bearing on the plots or mythologies from the previous movies, but they serve as anchors here.
Oh yes, and Romy Windsor, the lead actress from HOWLING IV, also returns for a cameo. I’d call these cameos shameless, if the movie had any sort of narrative thrust or purpose. It’s so loose and difficult to follow, these characters and incidents merely accumulate. Oh yes, and Turner was an investigative reporter this whole time. Oh yes, and the werewolf is eventually revealed in what can only be the worst werewolf effect you will ever see in a film.
The HOWLING series is even worse than the FRIDAY THE 13th movies at establishing any sort of concrete canon — with each sequel it seems to be starting fresh. So one may be able to appreciate what NEW MOON RISING at least attempted to do: bring it all together. Indeed, NEW MOON RISING introduces a conceit that may tie all the movies together in an unexpected way: If a werewolf is not a virus, but an evil spirit that possesses you, then all of the unexpected werewolves throughout the series could, conceivably, be the same evil werewolf spirit. Indeed, it could very well be Stirba, the topless werewolf goddess played by Sybil Danning in HOWLING II. She was insidious enough to sneak around the world possessing people, right?
It’s a stretch, but THE HOWLING: NEW MOON RISING doesn’t make sense any other way.