DVD Review: ‘The Howling Reborn’

"The Howling Reborn is trying to catch into the ‘90s revival by making another self-reflexive slasher flick that is populated by hip-talking teens..."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

By the way, the fifth film in the Howling series was called The Howling V: Rebirth (1989). The seventh was called New Moon Rising. Now it’s Reborn. How many times can a franchise reboot?

Joel Nimziki’s film, which is ostensibly the eighth film in the strangely ongoing Howling series, is out on DVD and Blu-Ray October 18th, and is clearly less driven by a need to continue the mythology from the previous seven films, and less still by a need to reboot the franchise. Indeed, The Howling as a franchise has long since been consigned to the straight-to-video ghetto where only mad completists dwell. As of this writing, I have only seen the first, second and eighth of the Howling movies, but the rest are patiently waiting on my coffee table. Very soon I will crack open a bottle of ginger beer, invite some friends over (who will summarily refuse to join me) and take in the rest. Perhaps then, I’ll be able to come up with a more meaningful context for this film.

Sadly, this eighth film is clearly driven by a need to bank in on the current trend of sexualized teenage monsters that became so hip with the inception of Twilight. In this film, the werewolves are all either shirtless douchebag thugs (complete with eyebrow piercings and killer abs) or growling supermodel types who prowl like cats but turn into gigantic wolf people at a moment’s notice. They spring about like cougars, and are never tripped up by simple things like bullets and broken glass. In this universe, it is acknowledged that the moon still has something to do with the wolfy transformation, but the werewolves all seem capable of popping back and forth from wolf monster to human at a moment’s notice. A werewolf film, I declare, lives or dies by the power of their first transformation scene (The Wolf Man, An American Werewolf in London, and the original The Howling all stand apart in this regard). If that’s our standard, The Howling Reborn is limp and dull, as the people are never seen transforming, and we don’t see any monsters until late in the film.

The rest of the film is, sometimes fortunately and sometimes unfortunately, devoted to the complex emotional relationship between its teenage protagonist Will (Landon Liboirn, featured in one of the Degrassi spinoffs) and his would-be girlfriend Eliana (Lindsey Shaw). They talk a lot about how they’re on the cusp of something really meaningful, but neither is brave enough to start in earnest. One, because she’s skittish about meaningful relationships, and two, because he’s a werewolf. Had the film focused on the honest sexual politics of teenagers (like the vastly superior 2000 werewolf film Ginger Snaps), perhaps The Howling Reborn would have flown and stood apart. Sadly, the screenwriters seem stuck on “snappy” one-liners and “hip” contemporary references, so what starts as an earnest look at teen romance soon dissolves into disposable, angsty CW-inspired soap opera dynamics. People begin saying this like “You’re just afraid to love me!” or “You’re just afraid to love anyone!” I understand that the screenwriters (Nimziki and James Robert Johnston) were going for a playful and classical Hollywood banter, but it’s not nearly witty or sparkling enough.

The story is as follows: Will has just turned 18, and looks forward to his high school graduation. He claims to be an outsider, and indeed, his only friend seems to be the obnoxious AV-club kid (who will indeed be the dork who can provide movie-inspired advice on how to deal with werewolves). But Will is too hip and good looking to sell the “outsider” thing. He lusts after Eliana, but Eliana seems to be a haughty bitch who prefers football studs over dweebs like Will. Despite this declaration, Eliana soon becomes a sexual aggressor, and just as suddenly a sweet-hearted and vulnerable girl. She shifts character often. By the end of the film, when Will and Eliana have decided to have rough sex in a nighttime classroom while a pack of werewolves is close on their tail, I gave up on trying to peg her. “Let your animal instincts go, Will!” The constant teasing of the werewolf boy, and his teasing back makes for one of the most intense, and definitely the strangest scene in the film.

Kevin Williamson should sue. If you look around the current pop culture climate, you may find that the ‘90s are coming back in small ways. Bands like Cage the Elephant are doing their best to revive grunge, and the Lisa Loeb teenage girl dress aesthetic is most definitely back in vogue. Heck, Scream 4 came out this year. The Howling Reborn, it could be said, is trying to catch into the ‘90s revival by making another self-reflexive slasher flick that is populated by hip-talking teens, and tries to deconstruct (in whatever small ways it can) the established conventions. Indeed, were it not for a few cellular telephones and a reference to Wikipedia, this film could have easily taken place in 1997.

Anyway, Will finds, through a series of discoveries, that he is a werewolf. He can heal, and he seems to be developing a taste for human flesh. His father doesn’t know about all this. But his mother does. His mother (Ivana Milicevic) is a Michelle Pfeiffer-type who is secretly the head of the local werewolf pack, and who has secret plans to, um… actually her plans are never made clear. She does need Will for them to work out, though, as well as a basement of hapless chained victims to turn into werewolves at the next blue moon. Will thought his mother was dead. From there, it’s a moral tug-of-war between the world of his hot new girlfriend, and his hot werewolf mom. What will the Teen Wolf choose?

The film is certainly more thoughtful than any given straight-to-video horror flick, and certainly has more on its mind than any eighth film in a series ought to. Despite my complaints about the quality of the angst, I do want to clarify that I appreciated this approach more than I would have a lame excuse to retell the same werewolf story all over again. Good werewolf movies are few and far between, so I glean that they must be difficult to make. This one, while a bit too chewy for its own good, still has the good sense to be ambitious. Of course a lot of the emotional heft of the film is undone by a credits-only film roll explaining that a werewolf apocalypse is at hand. It’s kind of rushed, that detail. I guess we know where The Howling IX will go.

Over those credits, to look for an explanation, I turned on the DVD's commentary track (yes, it has one, with the director and with Shaw). Sadly, what I heard what a relatively usual affair, with the actor and the director talking less about what was happening in the film, and more about what it was like to film that particular special effect, and that they were sure to use the f-word only once to maintain their PG-13 rating. Which is baffling, as the film is rated “R.” I was hoping for some sort of grand philosophy behind the movie. No such luck. The DVD also has a brief “making of” documentary, and a storyboard gallery. In terms of extra treats, these extras seem pretty usual these days.