The ‘80s was a wonderful time for crazy sequels to horror movies, particularly Part 2s. In many ways these initial sequels were the best starting off points for a franchise, especially for people just getting into the genre. They were often a little more mainstream, with a lighter, quirkier tone than their stronger, more intimidating older brothers. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a masterpiece, but it can also be a grueling and emotionally exhausting experience. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2, on the other hand, is a carnival ride, fast paced, over the top, and with a clear—if deranged—sense of humor. It is the same with EVIL DEAD and EVIL DEAD 2. The best sequels had their own identity. Sometimes they would continue the story directly, and other times they would spin off in their own weird trajectories. Trajectories don’t come much weirder than Philippe Mora’s 1985 werewolf tale, HOWLING II.
Ben White (Reb Brown) is attending the funeral for his sister Karen, the main character from the first movie [spoiler for The Howling], when his is approached by Stefan (Christopher Lee), a paranormal investigator. Stefan informs him his sister is not truly dead, but is in fact a werewolf. Ben doesn’t buy it until he and his reporter girlfriend, Jenny (Annie McEnroe) follow Stefan to the cemetery and are jumped by a whole pack of werewolves. Drawn into the exciting new world of werewolf hunting, Ben and Jenny accompany Stefan to Transylvania, where the werewolf queen, Stilba (Sybil Danning) will celebrate her 10,000th birthday by causing the world’s werewolves to simultaneously revert into their monster form (which actually sounds like more of a hassle than a celebration for the werewolves). Unfortunately, the hunters choose to set up camp in a predominately wolf heavy village, so while Ben and Stefan are out looking for clues, Jenny gets kidnapped and taken to Stilba’s castle of freaky S&M werewolves. Can Ben’s rock stupid determination and Stefan’s unbelievably cool Christopher Lee-ness allow them to rescue Jenny, or will the hunters fall under Stilba’s frequently naked spell?
HOWLING II is a perfect example of mid ‘80s transitional horror. Slashers were petering out, being replaced by supernatural horror, and franchises were establishing themselves as reliable money makers. The rules had yet to be formalized; it was a bit of a free for all. As long as there was enough blood, boobs, and cheesy effects, you were in pretty good shape. HOWLING II took all those things in great abundance, shook them up together in a bag, and dumped it out all over Soviet era Prague. The plot is sketchy, the motivations are impenetrable, and nothing makes a lick of sense, but the movie is a crazy careening busload of fun.
Lee and Danning handle all the acting heavy lifting. Their scenes are all uniformly ridiculous and disconnected, but they absolutely give it their all. It is testament to Lee that he can maintain his impeachable aura of dignity throughout the film, even when wearing New Wave sunglasses to blend in at the local punk rock club. The movie starts with Lee reading passages from Revelations (I think), and anytime things get too hard to explain, the movie pulls out a Lee voice over reciting from the Book of Stilba. It’s all gibberish, but Lee delivers it with such gravitas that it doesn’t have to make sense. He elevates any scene he is in almost to the point of respectability.
Danning doesn’t have Lee’s hallowed presence, but she is a commanding figure in her own right. I can think of few actresses who could take such a phenomenally silly role as Stilba (or Stirba, as it is listed in the credits, but no one pronounces it that way) and thoroughly own it. One look at her in her crazy space dominatrix outfit and I totally bought that she was a 10,000 year old sorceress werewolf queen. She doesn’t get as much screen time as Lee, but she makes the most of it.
Though the sequel opens with a direct link to Karen White from the original film (Hana Ludvikova, who is most definitely not Dee Wallace), any connection abruptly ends after the hunters have re-killed her. In fact, the way it is edited, it is hard to tell whether Ben’s werewolf sister has really been put to rest, or if the hunters just ran off to Transylvania to get the rest of the story going, leaving her to suffer for eternity inside her sealed coffin. Either way, no one mentions her ever again. The subtitle for the movie should have been YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF, BUT MOVING ON…
Part 2 certainly ups the ante with the sheer number of werewolves. There are plenty of them running around California, but once the hunters arrive in the Transylvania there are more hell beasts in the village of Vklana than there are punks in DEATH WISH III. They should have been suspicious of a town that celebrates a huge, week-long Festival of the New Moon, which, if my math is correct, occurs every month. Those cats are a little too moon happy. The fact that everyone licks their lips while talking to Ben and Jenny should also have been a tip off.
The gimmick in the first Howling was that the werewolf pack lived in a flaky self-actualizing commune trying to balance their human and bestial sides through trust circles and sharing sticks. Part 2 drops all the pop psychology and casts the werewolves as randy S&M freaks that can barely keep from humping each other even in human form. Stilba’s castle is pretty much an all-night orgy pad filled with half nude and half transformed wolfies pawing and snarling over each other. It’s not as great as it sounds. Hairy naked people are gross, not even Sybil can pull that one off. There are also a bunch of old women wearing eye masks just watching and smiling, which is awkward.
They really go all out with the kinky castle atmosphere. Decorations include a bunch of sacrificial virgins chained to the wall (just for show, no one seems to notice them), shirtless guards in leather pants and huge, face covering helmets, and dead goats hanging from the ceiling. I didn’t see it, but I’m betting there has to be a waterbed filled with blood in there somewhere. It’s that kind of place.
The deaths are more exotic than your typical neck munching and belly shredding werewolf action. Stilba uses some deadly spoken word witchcraft to make a dwarf’s eyes explode after his protective earplugs fall out. His reanimated corpse later tries to kill Stefan, but Ben tosses him out a window onto some spikes. The movie does not take a progressive stance on the treatment of little people, in my opinion. The best death comes from Stilba’s desiccated bat monster, who pecks at a priest’s face while shoving its tail down his throat. It apparently backed all the way into his stomach, because it later pops out of his mouth, chestburster style. It is all done in a charmingly goofy practical effect.
The movie is more of a loose collection of vignettes about sexy werewolf parties, assorted maulings, and Christopher Lee monologues than it is a single cohesive story. The whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts, but those parts can be fantastic all by themselves. The most entertaining thing is the constant supply of incredibly bizarre statements or images that crop up and are never explained. At one point we learn that Stefan is actually Stilba’s brother (HOWLING II: HEY, MY SISTER IS ALSO A WEREWOLF, SMALL WORLD). This means that Stefan, who is not a werewolf, is somehow approximately 10,000 years old as well. No one finds this unusual enough to ask him about it, though, so we never find out what his deal is.
Stilba’s castle contains a load of hairy leather fetishists, but there are also some even weirder guests. In addition to the aforementioned masked old women, there is also a group of people dressed like 17th century French dukes, gadding about and laughing amidst the fornicating furballs. I seriously have no idea what the fuck they are supposed to be. Are they really 400 years old, or are they just a bunch of weirdos? Probably both. Stirba's court takes all kinds, I suppose.
Even the graphics are random and confusing. The movie opens with a location slate that reads “Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.” They follow it up a second later with “The City of Lost Angels” just in case you were still unclear. There are no location slates for any of the imaginary places in Transylvania, which actually would be helpful, but they do bring up one after a night scene that states “The following afternoon”, in case the audience does not understand how the passage of time works.
The greatest moment comes when Stefan is telling Ben about the weapons and defenses he has lined up for the big werewolf assault. He’s brought some consecrated oil, daggers made of pure titanium (effective against super werewolves), wax earplugs made from the sacred candle, the chalice that held the blood of Christ, a nice titanium ax, and lots of silver bullets. Wait, did he just say he had the Holy Fucking Grail? Dude, people have been looking for that—for a while now. You should probably let someone know. Especially since we don’t see him do anything with it or get an explanation of how it helps against werewolves. Maybe it’s just where he keeps his keys.
The best part is that Ben has absolutely no reaction when Stefan tells him about the Grail. He looks like he is trying to remember the words to a Loverboy song. To be fair, Reb Brown has exactly two expressions he uses for the movie. This one:
and this one:
and this one:
It’s no surprise to find the climax makes no sense at all, but the magic of this movie does not come from a cohesive plot. HOWLING II is a hallucinatory lazy river ride through pockets of creepy Eastern Europeans, crypts made of bone, bloody mayhem, and furry sex. Ben and Jenny are perfect stand-ins for the viewer, completely befuddled, speechless, and just going with the flow.