Friday 6 May 2016
UK 2015 Directed by Paul Hyett
Metrodome Blu Ray Zone B
This is one of those movies I bought a few months back on a cheap Blu Ray because someone had tweeted about it and the premise looked pretty good. I was going to get around to watching it soon anyway but recently, when I skyped my cousin in Australia, he told me he and his girlfriend had rented it from their local shop (yeah, that rental thing still happens in Australia... cool) and that it was a fantastic film. So I moved it up the list, past all the other backlogged movies.
Howl is one of those British made, low budget horror films that you really hope is going to succeed and overcome both the budgetary restraints and the working conditions caused by those limitations. More often than not, and this applies for all realms of art, the more limited you are, the more creative you become to compensate and find new ways around problems that having an unlimited palette would solve easier... but in a less interesting fashion.
Now, sometimes, that idea can go wrong with films because when money becomes one of those restraints, it can be hard to creatively solve certain issues when, for instance, you can’t pay the actors and you can’t lock down a location. However, it’s good to see that with Howl, that’s not an issue and, although it has its problems in places, I found I could forgive it a lot because of it’s basic idea, good performances, mostly shrewd structure and, ultimately, it’s really good to see something small but quietly ambitious pulled off really well.
The film follows the exploits of a train guard called Joe, played by Ed Speelers, on the final ‘red eye’ train out from Waterloo Station. He’s pulling a double shift and the only reason he’s been talked into it is because a woman he likes, Ellen (played by Holly Weston), is ‘doing the food trolley’ for the journey... it’s one of those long journeys where the trains have toilets and a person walks the length of the train selling food and drink to the customers. I used to have to get the train to Ipswich out of Liverpool Street a number of years ago and it was exactly this kind of train journey that I used to have to take... which is one of the appealing things to me about this movie... that it’s set relatively close to home.
As Ed does his round of checking the tickets of all the passengers, we start to meet the usual character types that make up these kinds of small, ensemble pieces... where personalities clash and people bond in the short time they know each other. This film is no different and has a great cast including some more famous and reliable character actors such as Shauna McDonald (so good in The Descent), Duncan Oreston and, in a relatively small role, Sean Pertwee. And, of course once we’re just getting to know the characters and how they start to relate to each other... the train comes to a crashing halt in the country, miles from anywhere because... werewolves on the line!
Yep. That’s the concept. We have a bunch of werewolves (I’ll get back to those properly a little later) who are preying on the passengers of this damaged train. So the guard and his sometimes hostile customers have to try and barricade themselves in and survive for as long as they can. And yeah, it’s mostly done pretty well and with the kind of atmosphere and great performances you’d expect from a low budget British movie. However, there are some problems too.
I think the main problem for me was the absolute sloppiness of the long term set up for one of the scares. It telegraphs itself a good 20 or more minutes before it actually happens because, when the director is introducing the various passengers in the early stages of the film. He deliberately hangs around with Joe and Ellen having a conversation in front of one of the passengers who is, himself, pretty memorable and unique to the film in terms of his physical type. The director and writers obviously want him to stick in your mind a bit and I think, possibly because of his looks, this whole sequence is a little overplayed. So then he just drops out of the narrative for a while and, after having made so sure we remember him, it’s obvious the director wants us to just overlook his absence. However, as soon as he’s not on screen, when the passengers decide to ‘walk the line’, you know he’s being held back as a character to be a ‘bluff scare’ at some point and this, unfortunately, is exactly how this character is used. He’s the basic equivalent of a cat in a horror movie (think ALIEN, among others). So the audience is supposed to be frightened by what we’re supposed to think is a werewolf in the toilet when it’s really this character in there instead. But, of course, because he’s been rendered so memorable, the scare isn’t there and you instead spend your time waiting for the passengers to wise up.
However, although this movie hits all the clichés you’d expect from a character led movie of this kind... the guy who everybody hates, the nice old lady who’s been infected and is a ticking time bomb, the teenage brat who needs to wise up and calm down and the older man with the high blood pressure who needs to get back home for his pills... I have to say that, for the most part, the director pulls off everything pretty well, actually.
One of the tricks he starts off with to maintain a sense of credibility is the tried and true method of obscuring your monsters in the dark and only showing bits of them. Compounded with the old chestnut of using a ‘first person point of view’ from the monster’s eyes whenever they are near, voyeuristically scoping out their human prey. This method is used quite well a lot of the time and... I kinda wished he’d left things like this. Later on, when we get to see more of the ‘werewolves’, things become a bit questionable and I could understand if, for some people, the illusion of reality is stretched beyond the point they’d want it to go. The werewolves themselves are, in fact, pretty hairless apart from the main parts of a human body where you would expect hair to be growing from, like the top of the head. And because they’re less covered, the man in suit (or at least man with many prosthetics and make-up enhancements) nature of the practical effects is maybe highlighted a little more than it should be. Personally, I had no problem with the make-up effects and, to me, the creatures here more closely resembled the Morlocks as they were depicted in the 1960 Rod Taylor version of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine... which I always found kinda scary anyway.
And, frankly, I guess there’s no written law or consistent myth that shapeshifters such as werewolves (a relatively new creation in the history of monsters, from what I recall) have to necessarily be covered in hair... so it’s really not an issue. They are never specifically named as such and the howling they make during the full moon implies the nature of the creatures, rather than spells it out, I think. So, yeah, even though I liked the monsters here... I still think it may have been better to keep them fairly obscured during the full running time of the movie. Things such as the quick flash of a claw or the full on homage in the first third of the movie to the opening sequence of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (reviewed here), only done with a person being dragged up and down a set of train doors instead of the gate and cage set up, are more than enough, I suspect, to give the full illusion and add in a significant amount of approaching menace to the proceedings.
But, other than that, I can only recommend Howl as being one of those great little British B-movies that we seem to have refound our footing with in recent years. It’s no The Descent, for sure, but it is significantly better than a lot of other low budget fair coming out of this country lately and, if you’re a horror movie fan, then this is probably something you can add to your list of ‘movies where they got it right’. Looking forward to seeing more from this director in the future but, in the meantime, take a look at this one next time you’ve got a hankering for watching a claustrophobic ensemble piece with just the right mix of goriness and suspense. Not one to ignore, for sure.