1981 was a good year for werewolves, with Joe Dante‘s The Howling in April and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London in August, both of which were box office and critical successes on account of their blending of hard edged horror with an atypical black humour and ground breaking prosthetic makeup effects which remain impressive thirty five years later.
Released four years later, Philippe Mora’s Howling II …Your Sister is a Werewolf is less well remembered, the first in a long line of sequels whose diminishing returns were signalled almost immediately by the shift to a less successful slapstick humour. Now remastered and available on Blu-ray for the first time from Arrow Films, this lycanthropic curiosity has undeniably never looked better, the original cinema release having been dogged by poor prints struck by the distributor, nor has its oddness ever been quite so apparent.
The original film having been substantially faithful to the outline and structure of Gary Brandner’s 1977 novel of the same name though different in detail and denouement, it was the unused prologue which inspired the second film, the historic tragedy of Dradja on the border between Greece and Bulgaria, burned to the ground and every man, woman and child slaughtered when they would not surrender the killer in their midst, the truth being that they could not for the entire cursed community was complicit.
With a script credited to Robert Sarno and Brandner, though bearing no relation to his own sequel novel Return of the Howling, it picks up only days after the events of the first film but swiftly moves the action to Eastern Europe to explore the background and mythology of the werewolves, with Czechoslovakia standing in for Transylvania, the film almost totally shot in and around Prague, even the scenes ostensibly set in Los Angeles, with only a few establishing shots, closeups and one reshoot actually filmed in Hollywood.
Gunned down on live television at the finale of the first film, it is at the funeral of his sister Karen White (originally played by Dee Wallace, now Hana Ludvikova when the camera focuses on the open coffin which is quite obviously empty in the long shots) that her brother Ben (former Captain America Reb Brown) and Karen’s fellow journalist Jenny Templeton (Beetlejuice‘s Annie McEnroe) are approached by the mysterious “Occult Investigator” Stefan Crosscoe (horror legend Christopher Lee).
Crosscoe informs Ben that his sister was shot because she was a werewolf, and that with the silver bullet having been removed during the autopsy she will rise again, and furthermore that at her funeral there were other werewolves in attendance preparing to retrieve her, one of them the exotic, hissing veiled Mariana (Marsha Hunt) a powerful species immune to silver who can only be killed by titanium bullets.
Persuading Ben and Jenny with a video recording of Karen’s death (apparently on Betamax!), supposedly lost, as if that was not sufficient within days it will be the Full Moon Festival at which time all werewolves the world over will reveal themselves unless they are able to destroy the ten thousand year old Stirba (Sybil Danning).
When first approached by producer Steven A Lane, director Mora consciously wanted to make Howling II completely different in style from the work of Dante, a film of his own rather than recreating something which had already been done. Released three years after his horror oddity The Beast Within it is no more conventional, and having tackled were-cicadas and werewolves he would return to shapeshifters for the self-scripted Howling III: The Marsupials.
Having worked with Mora on the dysfunctional alcoholic superhero musical comedy The Return of Captain Invincible, here Christopher Lee remains professional but it is apparent that every wretched line pains him, ad-libbing dialogue to explain why the werewolf costumes actually looked like fanged apemen having already been required to utter the words “fornication” and “harlots” in the opening monologue; Mora recalls his friend as “game for anything,” though Dante has stated that on joining the cast of Gremlins 2: The New Batch Lee apologised to him for his involvement with this.
As the grieving brother become denim clad action hero who polishes his gun in bed, Reb Brown gives a better performance than would be expected by anyone who has seen Space Mutiny though that’s not saying much, and those familiar with Mystery Science Theatre 3000‘s version of that science fiction bungle where he famously “roasts the cripple” will be delighted when in this film Brown bravely throws a possessed dwarf out a window, impaling him iron railings.
With the emotional range of boiled ham, strictly one expression per scene, at times it seems Brown has so little understanding of what acting entails that he seems entirely unaware that he’s not actually doing it, and equally the performances of many of the supporting cast are terrible, the unfortunate Jimmy Nail as wooden as the crate which is dropped on him mercifully early.
Principally cast for her physical attributes, the major selling point of the film was the statuesque presence of Austrian former model Sybil Danning as the immortal werewolf queen Stirba, her costumes (when she wears them) as outrageous of those she almost wore five years previously as Saint-Exmin of the Valkyrie on Battle Beyond the Stars, the Roger Corman produced “Magnificent Seven in outer space.”
Suffering from conjunctivitis during the filming of one key scene as a consequence of getting oil in her eye during a massage, Danning was forced to wear sunglasses during the incantation, an iconic image which became the film poster and which Mora feels influenced the representation of vampires and werewolves in the eighties and beyond.
Undeniably, the werewolf biker gang prefigures The Lost Boys and the style of the werewolf lair can also be seen in the collapsed hotel of that film, but crucially where it founders is that unlike that later film which favoured a rock soundtrack here composer Stephen W Parsons (who offers a commentary alongside editor Charles Bornstein) opts for new wave synth pop; as a result, where the punk club where Parsons and his band play aims for raw, primal and tribal, it misses.
Strangely, the same band seem to be playing both the LA club and the Transylvanian werewolf orgy, but undoubtedly the film improves hugely after the narrative moves to embrace the beautiful European locations and architecture, the city streets and the Full Moon Festival with its puppet show of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the historic churches and even an authentic bone crypt of the same type which influenced Rob Zombie in the set design of House of 1,000 Corpses.
Crucially the wolf costumes are overlit where shadow would better conceal any limitations, and where Joe Dante knew to save the transformation for one key scene, what Mora lacks in quality he makes up for in quantity, using the same footage over and over. Similarly problematic is the necessarily stylised “werewolf threesome” scene, where any actual contact Stirba and her mates Mariana and Vlad (Judd Omen) would result in them shedding their carefully applied artificial hair.
One of the first western films filmed “beyond the Iron Curtain” as it was, Mora recalls the “innocence and enthusiasm” of the local crew though also the difficulties resulting from their total lack of experience and the language barrier, particularly in their approach to practical effects, while Brown in his interview says it was “like going back in time.”
Coming across as genuine and kind, Brown confirms “the battle scenes are what I enjoy” and that he performed his own stunts. Having worked again with Mora on Death of a Soldier, it is for Christopher Lee he reserves the greatest praise: “He’s a great guy. What an intelligent man, and fun to be around.”
Perhaps surprisingly this was the fifth project on which Danning and Lee had worked together, and they had “a wonderful time,” enjoying each other’s company every night at their hotel while on location. The only interviewee who mentions the understandably terrible reviews the film received on original release, Danning nevertheless says she “would love to do another Howling.”