Sunday, August 26, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part I)

Horror sequels are a tough subject to approach. I suppose the knee-jerk response would be: "ARRGH, FORGET SEQUELS." But I'm not so convinced. While it's true that the production of a sequel in the horror genre is almost always an unnecessary act, it's not as if every horror sequel has been a hunk of cinematic garbage. From my viewing experience, I'd separate the full range of horror sequels into two broad categories: those that more or less faithfully recreate or refine the pleasures of their predecessors (Friday the 13th Part II, Evil Dead 2, Paranormal Activity 2 & 3) and those that fly totally against the expectations established by earlier entries-- those "in-name-only" sequels (Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2). One approach isn't decidedly better than the other. (I'd rate all of those films listed above as being of roughly equivalent quality). With the former approach, the benefit is being able to improve upon a formula that may have been somewhat underdeveloped in the original film (in every aspect, Friday the 13th Part 2 is the superior film) or to simply discover new ways to relate that formula (tonally, Evil Dead 2 is a radically different film from its parent, though no less satisfying), but the risks are either creating an unabashed note-for-note retread or an uninspired failure. Those films that adhere to the latter approach, while generally containing the germ of mild originality, always run the risk of alienating fans of their series (who may simply desire more of the same) or creating some form of individual story that is hampered by its connection to the flagship title (through restrictions imposed in marketing or narrative).

I've enjoyed enough horror sequels to prevent me from condemning them outright. (Remakes and reboots, of course, are a totally different situation. Forget them). This noted, I haven't seen nearly as many of them as I'd like--especially those sequels of some of the flagship franchises of the '70s and '80s. In an attempt to rectify this regrettable chasm in my horror film experience, I viewed 18 sequels over three days. (This number actually bloomed to 19 films before all was said and done. Thanks, Ulli Lommel). It wasn't always a fun experience, but it helped produce probably the most intriguing and varied moviethon I've yet completed. So without too much more ado, here is the first installment of six recounting my cornea-scratching journey, featuring the talents of Fright Night Part II, The Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, and The Howling 3: The Marsupials.

Fright Night Part II (1988) dir. Tommy Lee Wallace

Director Tommy Lee Wallace is probably more well known in horror as the director of sequels than as the creator of original properties. To his name he has a few notables: Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Vampires: Los Muertos, the screenplay for Amityville II: The Possession (which I'll be covering in Part 6 of this Sequelthon), and this one, Fright Night Part II. (He's also the man behind the miniseries adaptation Stephen King's IT, which ruined the life of every child who was lucky enough to behold it in 1990). While arguably a more consistent film in his career of continuations, Fright Night Part II is also a lesser effort, though not one totally devoid of some small charm.

In place of advancing the story of Charlie Brewster and Peter Vincent-- perhaps featuring them as a comical pair of fearless vampire killers attempting to juggle their mundane lives with slaying (i.e. Buffy)-- Wallace and Co. choose to hit the reset button, beginning with Charlie in a psychiatrist's office being convinced that vampires don't exist. The events of Fright Night were just a shared delusion, of course, so why not repeat them all here? It'll be exactly like we're seeing them for the second time, but somehow fresher this go-around. This bummer of a storytelling decision sets us up for what ends up as a basic carbon copy of the first film, wherein both Charlie and Peter are forced to awaken to the vampire menace threatening the stability of their simple lives. (Perplexing: even though this Peter Vincent begins the film believing in vampires and obsessed with finding them, he still needs to be convinced when Charlie starts having his suspicions. It's as if the film is hesitant to step outside of the exact beats present in the first film, at the expense of logic). It's a shame that this is the case; an early scene featuring Peter attempting to connect with Charlie through reminiscing over their previous slaying experience hints at the fun directions this could have sprouted in.

So we're given more of the same and yet it all winds up turning out somewhat less than. The breezy, seductive, neighborly appeal of Chris Sarandon's Jerry Dandridge is replaced by a group of Lost Boys outcasts (including Jon Gries and Brian Thompson, the psychopath from Cobra) led by Julie Carmen, as Dandridge's vampiric lil' sis. They never present the same sort of easy, insurmountable menace that Dandrige did, but the way they roller-skate through their scenes and participate in bowling montages certainly casts them as endearing. I noted that one of their early kill scenes looked like a piece of vampire performance art, and when the film later informed me that they are, in fact, vampire performance artists, my brain exploded. The initial entry's light humor is recreated here (evident in a scene wherein a psychiatrist vampire talks his slayer through the guilt of slaying). Plus, the practical effects are quite impressive at times (the vamps all expire with delicious gratuity and Jon Gries' vamp makeup approximates Coppola's furry WolfDrac several years before that film). It's unobjectionable, and for a horror sequel that's not a sin, if not quite a virtue.

The Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985) dir. Philippe Mora

On the spectrum of horror sequels outlined above, The Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf would fall firmly in the latter category, those "in-name-only" sequels, primarily due to the fact that it is insane. The film does make a clumsy attempt to continue the narrative of its predecessor (the ludicrous subtitle relates at least in part to the fact that the great Reb Brown (Yor, the Hunter from the Future) is supposed to be Dee Wallace's brother), but this is precisely where similarities end. The Howling 2 ventures into the realms of the quasi-mystical and fantastic, often favoring the presence of Sybil Danning in glowy Kryptonian threads shooting lightning from he fingertips while mouthing "AHHHH-WOOOO," over, y'know, werewolves.

In fact, as the film traverses the varied landscapes of Los Angeles ("The City of the Angels," some on-screen text helpfully informs us) to the Carpathian mountain region, it would be easy enough to forget that you're watching a werewolf film, if not for the occasional fuzzy orgy. Top-billed is (astonishingly) Christopher Lee, lending some of his old world respectablility and gravitas to a role that requires him to don a leather jacket and thin white sunglasses inside a New Wave rock club. While Lee sleepwalks through his role in a state of abject embarrassment, my attention was drawn to the aforementioned Reb Brown, who makes a convincing argument for an alteration of the subtitle to "Your Brother is an Idiot" by spouting out lines like this: "Us country boys know that when the varmints start knocking off the chickens, we start knocking off the varmints." Typically, there is little consistency or logic here. Every time we see a new werewolf it looks radically different from every previous werewolf (I've tried, and one of them can only be described, rather indelicately, as a "mouth-violating werebat").

Despite its incessant string of lunacies, there is only the faintest whiff of self-awareness wafting off of this much-too earnest heap, and I suppose that works in its favor-- I'd honestly be frightened if I were to discover that this film knew what it was doing. As it stands, it's hard not to dig with unabashed fervor the theme song as belted out by the band in the New Wave club (they have a keytar!). The closing credits reduce the film to a summary music video of the preceding events, featuring a brief shot of Sybil Danning ripping off her top that is repeated (by my count) 14 times (!). Arguably, this Greatest Hits compilation is the most coherent format the events of the film could have been presented in. I hate this movie/I love this movie.

The Howling 3: The Marsupials (1987) dir. Philippe Mora

I am a fool. It seemed unlikely, but I was fairly certain that The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf was as nutty as things would get during this moviethon, and yet I was so quickly proven wrong. Why would I have expected the director of The Howling 2 to infuse into his sequel to that film, The Howling 3: The Marsupials, even a modicum of similarity between them? How could I have anticipated, even faintly, the slightest uptick in quality? Incredibly, The Marsupials is more off-putting and squirm-inducing than its counterpart. Philippe Mora obviously grew as a filmmaker in the two intervening years; unfortunately, that growth only extended to giving werewolves pouches for their young.

This film shirks the previous mysticism and old world folklore in favor of exploring the scientific community's underground interest in werewolf phenomena, the government's desire to eradicate all lycanthropes, and the Australian film industry's decision to make cheap werewolf films. (Yes, it's true, we do have some self-awareness and reflexivity this go-around. Bizarrely, the intentionally corny meta werewolf films-within-the-film are of exactly the same quality and tenor as the film itself. Chew on that one for awhile). The Marsupials also expands the mythology of the werewolf (in a manner that of course totally conflicts with both previous sequels) while highlighting a local variety (in this case, the Australian marsupial werewolf). In consequence, this film features a prolonged werewolf pup birthing scene involving saliva, excessive body hair, and pouches. I'll link you to this picture and say no more about it, as I wouldn't wish to profane the beauty of creation. (In addition, as werewolf pups (or would they be called "joeys"?) age, they begin to look like creepier versions of the Podlings from The Dark Crystal). Oh, there are also some werewolf nuns, who at one point spoil a costume wrap party and at another giggle riotously while watching the broadcast of the Australian Academy Awards. Sure, why not.

It's a funny film, and most of the time it knows it. (Some choice dialogue snippets, utterly free of meaningless context: "I don't like home because my stepfather tried to rape me and he's a werewolf"; "COMPACT DISC. RAAARGH.") The problem (let's just assume there's only one, for sanity's sake) is that it also devolves into a relentless, corny slog whenever it gets the chance. It earnestly attempts to garner our sympathies for the plight of the werewolves, and contains swatches of rhetoric supporting Marsupial Rights. (For real. It is dedicated to the memory of the extinct Thylacine, Australia's long-gone carnivorous marsupial). In a bit near the end, the film sort of turns into a cockeyed rendition of Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout, our young heroes traversing the Australian outback aided by a trusty aboriginal guide, with the major difference being that in this film they're carrying around a baby that looks like this while attempting to escape an oppressive U.S. government looking to murder them. Having seen both of Mora's Howling films in a row, I have no choice but to assume that he is a madman. I hope he never gets better.

For next time: It's Alive 2: It Lives Again (1978), It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987), and Night of the Demons 2 (1994).

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